Should Writers Care What Critics Think? [Article]

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Writing fiction is tough, teaching about writing is straight-forward, but critiquing about writing is as simple as one’s willing to make it. Despite that last bit of inflammatory bait, I often do find critics to be a very important, if not a mysterious aspect of the writing ecosystem. Even though writers put a great amount of effort being readers themselves, book critics are one of the few groups of people out there who are actually willing to obsessively read anything any writer or author puts out anymore. They’re the only ones parsing and dissecting a piece of fiction or non-fiction for any biases, literary meanings, or political leanings that the author might be projecting in their paper bound tombstone of textual art. This level of attention to detail can’t be sanely justified without the person being given an opportunity to talk about what they thought about the book to somebody. Whether it’s done via one-on-one with a friend, a starred rating on Good Reads, or as a book review columnist for the New York Times is none of my business. However, as a hopeful writer and author, myself, I often contemplate the evolution of the critic and how that eye for critique is often trained at novels from the past as much as novels being produced in the present.

Maddie Crum’s “12 Classic Books That Got Horrible Reviews When The First Came Out” is a great analysis and a compelling piece of insight into how critics often get it wrong when guessing what books ought to be worthy of our time and praise. Most of the books mentioned on the list are, as of this date, firmly a part of major literary canon as well as being taught in several schools and universities across the Western World. However, there’s also the flip side to that coin as presented in John Glionna’s LA Times Article “Mark Twain: Inexcusable Racist or Man of His Time?” This article presented as a counterpoint and a piece of reinterpretation of a 19th century pro-abolitionist, and anti-slavery activist whose controversial, but ultimately acclaimed novel Huckleberry Finn is still read and presented as a piece of anti-racist literature.

I’m not here to debate the merits of the critics stated above me, but simply provide a perspective using the two examples.

These sets of critiques (or “opinions,” if you’re inclined to feel technically correct while being truthfully dismissive) often reveal a source of perceived inconsistency. That inconsistency which often –rightfully–  frustrates the particular kind of author and reader that’s looking for a definitive “yes or no” in terms of whether such a book is worthy of anyone’s time.

The truth of the matter is that critics are human; and like the writers who bring in their own baggage of personal history and experiences into account when producing their fiction, critics, too, suffer from historical biases of their own. Most critics worth their salt, come into the fold with an academic background, or at the very least a knowledgeable backlog of past novels and writers. That academic and historical background has its own baggage to unpack. Critics have no choice in the matter when having to compare a book to not only the current zeitgeist, but also history, culture, and previous books already written. It’s the only way they can measure themselves in the face of backlash and scrutiny. This analysis also applies when revisiting older pieces of work or authors decades or centuries after their books and lives have long since been recorded. Literary figures have experienced falls from grace as well as being lifted up as misunderstood paragons. Conversely, current authors experience the same level of ups and downs in the critic sphere of publishing.

These roller coaster interpretations in the literary world and the critics who run them shouldn’t be seen as a possibility, but simply an inevitability. As an author or writer, once you put something out there and the critics get a hold of it, how they interpret the work and its intentions is simply out of your hands. And much like history is in the business of interpreting and re-interpreting past events, so too will critics recast and reclassify authors and books in a different light well after the author and their original readership is long dead.

However, this shouldn’t be thought of as something at all negative. Critics can bring a newfound understanding of an author that provides context, and historical perspective not yet considered, as well as help in bringing in new fans into the fold after an authors death. It can also help in bringing exposure to a current author whose work remains obscure.

The Critic is neither good nor evil, but simply serves as a function in the literary sphere to interpret stories and give a simple “yea or nay” on whether the book is worth picking up. A single critic and its audience is a microcosm of a particular kind of reader. A fantasy critic and their audience would never give a five star review to a slice of life novel, much less be inclined to read such a thing. Nor is a feminist critic going to have anything good to say about the James Bond novels. And while we’re at it, no male-supremacist is going to like The Handmaid’s Tale, either. In the end, authors should instead view critics with a certain level of respect, but with a hefty dose of ambivalence. Easier said than done. However, when facing the possibility of any author having to face down a brigade of anonymous one star reviews on the internet, or a twitter-led hate campaign, having thick skin appears to be a must.

[Novel] Spymancer: Chapter 1, Part 1 [Excerpt]

Once again, I found myself in the familiar position of being at least a kilometer underground This time, however, I was the buyer and not the product being sold inside this angel-controlled outpost of maximum security and imprisonment of my fellow mages. The spell that I had cast on myself was working so far. I had come in disguised as a well-dressed businessman. A respectable incubus looking to buy one of the several half-demon bred magi girls whose sole purpose or punishment was to have their essence drained. This ritual would be conducted through an act of sexual conquest that would provide a lifespan two-to-three times that compared to any normal human that fell victim to this routine act of life extension.

“Sir?”

I looked away from my corner of the elevator and towards the white-haired angel who stared back at me with unblinking, golden eyes. He had a face so pale that I almost thought he might be an underfed vampire. As an almost fitting bit of contrast to my black, three-piece suit, he wore a white blazer and tie, along with white leather shoes. In fact, it’d be easier to describe him as being white from head-to-toe, as if accentuating the purity of his supernatural lineage. He was holding a tablet in front of me with a stylus, the screen fixed on a set of digital paper work that needed to be co-signed. I smiled, hoping the horns on my head looked real enough to pass as an ancient looking demon who often made these sorts of transactions on a regular basis.

“Yes, of course,” I said, taking the stylus and signing the name of the old demon baron that I was impersonating before handing it back to him, “you didn’t expect to see me so soon, I suppose?”

“No,” said the angel, who sounded polite, but with a twinge of annoyance, “you’re back again much earlier than we had anticipated.”

I smiled apologetically and shrugged in an attempt at dispersing the cloud of suspicion that was beginning to form around me, but I could see that he was already trying to look into my mind. However, the additional spell that I had cast upon myself was just going to give him a series of memories that I had crafted based on ones I had pulled from the incubus in question. Most angels wouldn’t doubt my identity after doing this kind of cursory view of my mind, but this was no ordinary facility, and I wasn’t the first magus to try to break into such a place.

“Now the secondary audit,” droned the angel, as he glanced back at his tablet.

“Yes, let’s finish this,” I said, with perhaps too much eagerness.

“Your name?”

“Agather,”

“Your wife?”

“Genevieve”

“Your sister’s name?”

“Trick question: no siblings,”

“Private herd count and mistresses?”

“Three herd members, one mistress,”

“Their classifications?”

“Herd is human stock, the mistress is another succubus,”

“Genevieve would be a very sorry demoness if she knew your extramarital appetites,”

“False: she knows and accepts these lifestyle choices,”

“Your date of birth and place of birth?”

“Dis, 1648”

“Name three emotions from your childhood,”

“Fear, desire, and…” I paused for a moment, as did Agather from the countless video logs I managed to procure of these conversations in order to analyze his speech patterns, “…happiness.”

I waited as the angel finished whatever notes he was taking before he looking back up at me and handed the tablet back for another signature.

“Very good,” he said, “once again you passed, but then again I wouldn’t dream of some magus crazy enough at trying to disguise themselves as you anyway.”

“That would be a bit full hearty of them, wouldn’t it?” I answered back, as I concentrated on making Agather’s signature look as authentic as possible.

“What brings you back, Baron Agather?”

“Well,” I said, handing the tablet and stylus back to the angel, “a recent scare has prompted me to make another request for your services. I know this is one of the busier times of the year for people like yourself.”

“Yes,” the angel answered somberly as he looked down at the tablet, the lids of his eyes drooping a fraction, “you also requested a specific half-breed magus to source from, a Ms. Cassidy Wells?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“A little old, don’t you agree, Mr. Agather?”

“My proclivities are none of your business, angel,”

“True, but there are plenty of eighteen-year-olds you can harvest from if it’s simply life-extension you’re seeking. You do understand that there is a rate of diminishing returns as these magi get older.”

I bit my lower lip and wondered how this conversation would go if he knew who he was really talking to, or that I was packing — optically and magically camouflaged — “angel killer” equipped grenades and pistols inside my suit. I changed tactics in order the steer the conversation away from the current subject, but looking back, I realized then that this slight loose in composure would mark the beginning of a series of fatal blunders.

“My good friend Carmilla wants this one gone as quickly as possible,” I said, “this Cassidy did a lot of damage to my friend’s assets in Europe and in turn my own. I know she sold Cassidy to your organization, but this is also a personal favor from me to an old friend of mine. I get my allotment early and help tie up some loose ends.”

The additional name dropping of the infamous succubus, Camilla, added the weight I needed to expedite this process.

“Very well,” said the angel, reverting back to the dull professionalism he displayed earlier, “we’ll take you to her.”

When the elevator stopped, we were met by a small entourage of three other angels waiting to escort us down the dark, neon-blue lit cell block. One of these angels, a woman, greeted me with a slight bow.

“Mr. Agather,” she said, “so good to see you again!”

“And you as well, Abby,” I said, recalling her name and face in a dossier I looked over prior to coming here, “still purifying the wicked?”

“Only the ones that transgress the natural order,” she said with reverence.

“And what about me?” I asked, gesturing at myself with a half-cocked smile.

“Your kind were once angels too, you know,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “You exist because God allows it.”

“Hence why we’re all here today,” I mocked, as I clasped my hands and rubbed them together, “so, let’s see Ms. Wells, shall we?”

As we started our walk towards our destination, I continued to make conversation.

“I’ve noticed that the prices in magi essence and blood has spiked recently in the past month or so,” I continued, “I take it the commodities market has been favoring your recent change in live stock?”

“Oh yes,” said Abby, excited, “our investors are very happy. These magus farms of ours have seen an increase in business over the last year. Even vampires are ordering from us now.”

We rounded a corner and down another hallway.

“So I take it you get complaints from the Warlock Human Rights Organization everyday then?” I asked with a laugh.

“Those half-breed, spawns of whores at the W.H.R.O can send as many petitions as they want,” seethed Abby as we continued our stroll down the hall, “as long as they all stay in Geneva and Stockholm where they belong, it won’t hurt our bottom line.”

Our pace began to slow as we approached what I assumed to be Cassidy’s cell; a black cement rectangle of a door with no windows and a blue-neon keypad that kept it locked.

“Sometimes I wonder if a member of my herd birthed something like one of those mages, but didn’t tell me,” I mused, “it’s a scary thought.”

“Your kind still executes incubi who procreate with humans, don’t they?” asked Abby, as she started to punch in the code to unlock the cell.

“The laws are changing what with the business community lobbying to build more magus farms,” I answered, pulling the facts from reading business quarterly I remembered reading a month or so back, “but yes, that’s still a common practice.”

“That’s too bad,” said Abby somberly, as the cell doors slid open and a fog of cool mist greeted us from inside, “we’d make a killing with the profits that would bring.”

A shiver went down my spine as she said this to me and I became reacquainted with the fear I thought I’d left behind in a place like this.

Cassidy was strapped into a leather chair that protruded from the ceiling wrapped up with cords, and hooked into a virtual reality headset. The chair that Cassidy was sitting on looked like it had sprouted from the ceiling like a post-modern fungus of furniture and wires. Her clothes were basic, white inmate fatigues that had long since been yellowed and dirtied by years of neglect. Her hair was a blond mess that fell over her shoulders and chest as she remained slumped forward, tuned into whatever program the VR simulation was running. She appeared to be in a vegetative state as she drooled all over herself, lost in her world of forced media coma. I felt myself clearing my throat, trying to stifle the urge end this quickly and risk getting sloppy for just a few moments longer.

“Tell me something,” I asked the four angels in the room with me, “how long has she been in this state?”

The angels looked at each other confused.

“How is this relevant to…” one of them started to say, but I interrupted them.

“Indulge me,” I insisted, holding up a hand to counter their protests.

“Almost a year,” one of them finally answered, “we feed them well, of course, and keep them on a steady media diet so that they remain docile.”

“What kind of media diet are we talking about?” I asked. I could feel my jaw tightening as I struggled to maintain composure.

“Nothing that would violate any current treaties, I assure you,” answered Abby, her sales pitch straddling the border between offering a clean conscience and client happiness, “we can pull images from their mind. Previous lovers or crushes can be used to implant fantasies into them while they sleep. On the rare occasion that they are woken up, they often choose to go back into VR, but the fantasies themselves use digital actors. Approximations of their ideal man or woman that are tailored to their preferences.”

As she stated this, Abby got a better look at my face and paused mid lecture.

“I have to say, you of look like one of the men Cassidy fantasies about the most,” she said.

While Abby’s comment proved that my face and memory enchantment had worked further in disguising myself from her, I still felt the unconscious need to glance up at Cassidy in an attempt to avoid eye contact.

“And you’ll collect her soul…after I’m done with her?”

“After it’s husked, yes,” answered Abby, “tainted or not, it’s still a useful byproduct and can be refined later for us to use in our ongoing quest for eternal life.”

All this so a few can live forever, I thought.

    I could feel myself starting to sweat despite the chill within the dark chamber while the other angels watched me. My heart was pounding as the pressure began to mount. I remembered how this other mover sight proved to be another fatal error, but at the time I was too nervous knowing that my window of opportunity was starting to close.

“Do I hear….” it was the first male angel that I had met in the elevator, “your heart beating?”

I turned to him and smiled. The bastard had asked this knowing that Cassidy’s should be the only beating heart human in the room right now.

“Perhaps its my aura giving off palpitations of excitement?” I said hopefully.

“No, an incubus does not have a beating heart,” said the angel, his voice becoming more threatening.

I turned away from the angels and looked up a Cassidy. Worse case scenario I can at least say I made it this far. I took a breath and allowed myself to succumb to the anger festering within me.

“I know,” I responded softly, “but it’s not for lack of trying.”

Silence filled the room before the first one responded.

“Shit…”

As soon as the first angel swore, I was already crouching towards the floor to avoid the longinus shrapnel grenade that I had activated. The grenade’s cylindrical chassis popped up from the floor and fired a series of demonic-tipped knives that fired an even circle towards all targets. When I activated the grenade I made sure that I was low enough and Cassidy was high enough to avoid the blast arc as each pincer found their mark and turned the angels into combustible, blue embers of ash.

I snapped my fingers, which deactivated all of my enchantments that maintained my incubus disguise, and scrambled up the platform that Cassidy was hanging from. From here on out, I knew I was going to need every ounce of my energy if I was going to use magic to get her and myself out of here alive. I removed the wires wrapped around Cassidy and pulled the VR headset off of her. The pupils of her eyes looked like square, white cataracts of digital haze from hours of media bombardment as she slumped into my arms. I patted her cheek softly, trying to break her from her trance. I could already hear the alarm going off.

“Hey,” I whispered, “hey, hey! It’s James. Remember? I promised you. I’m getting you out.”

Cassidy’s eyes fluttered as she looked at me. “I don’t,” she moaned, “I can’t feel my legs.”

“I’ll help you, but we have to leave now.”

Catherine and the Wasteland is now in an Anthology! [Announcement]

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(I remember on Thursday saying that I’d have something to post on Friday and it’s Sunday night. Hopefully, I won’t make the same mistake again. Haha!)

What was once an excerpt is now a full blown short story! I posted this teaser last fall after completing it and began shopping this particular piece around to get published. I’m excited to announce that it finally found a home! You can now read the full story of Catherine and the Wasteland here on the #redditwriters anthology TL;DR. Myself and thirty other talented new writers are featured here in this awesome bundle of eclectic short stories spanning several genres!

All proceeds of the anthology will be going to Doctors Without Borders, so it’s more than just your typical books promotion. Special thanks goes to Callum Colback, the editor; C. Scott Frank, for formatting; and Joe Butler, the publisher!

Thanks readers for your clicks, your likes, your comments, and I hope you enjoy this anthology! Amazon link below.

Sincerely,

Philip N.R Hauser

Infoquake: An Infodump of Epically Crap-tastic Cyberpunk [Hard Drive Archive].

Author’s note: I wrote this book review way back in 2012 on a website that — thankfully — no longer exists because it sucked, but a few articles (like this one) seemed worth preserving. I was pretty harsh when I wrote about this debut novel and it didn’t help that there was a small wave of reviewers that agreed with me. However, the sequels are actually really good and make up for this first novel. Definitely worth a read if you’re into cyberpunk.

Dystopia and Cyberpunk are a bit of a favorite of mine. If you looked at my favorite authors list, a good seventy percent of them have at the very least dabbled, successfully I might add, in either one of each genre. I’ll even go so far as to say that even those who can even be considered, post-cyberpunk writers, like Richard K. Morgan, have done a pretty good job of maintaining and keeping this small niche of a sci-fi sub-genre relevant. The Aughts (2000s) especially had something of a boom period in cyberpunk novels (though in terms of film and television, it’s been practically a desert), which is still continuing today. Though that’s not to say that all were really that good.

Infoquake, part of the Jump 225 trilogy, was published in 2006 and written by then, new author and former dot-com entrepreneur, David Louis Edelman. This book was certainly pimped out on most of the major sci-fi blogs at the time, like io9 and amazon.com as being the new gold standard in post-cyberpunk science fiction. So, of course, like a cocaine addict, who desperately needed his new fix, I snatched it up in the hopes that it’d give me that sweet Neuromancer high I’d been looking for. I’d been jipped however, since the hit was laced with sixty percent Splenda.

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Infoquake: awesome cover, mediocre novel.

Infoquake, which takes place 300 years after a devastating post-singularity war between man and machines, the world as we know it, has turned into a series of corporate fiefdoms vying for control. In this anarcho-capitalist future these companies also participate in the manufacturing and selling of nanotech and biological enhancement applications known as “biosoft” or “bio/logic” that is used to help people with a number of mental and physical tasks in an individual’s day-to-day. Also, not only is most of the population wired up to their eyeballs in nanotech and bio enhancements, but it’s also operating on a wireless network known as the “data sea” that can be accessed anywhere, over multiple channels, as well as other planets within the solar system.

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Yeah, I don’t see how this could end badly, either.

Now, before I even get into the main story-line, I have to personally take issue with how this nanotechnology is introduced in the novel. Firstly, after Edelman establishes that humanity almost went extinct at the hands of killer machines, why would the population even agree to wanting to go back to letting machines regulating their lives, again. Granted 300 years is a long time, but not long enough I’d imagine for people to decide that injecting themselves with tiny machines that can regulate their bodies is A-okay, now. Especially since there’s the potential for somebody to hack these devices and make them stop your heart from beating, or control your mind, or turn you into a nano-infested rage-zombie. Shit, America is less than 300 years old and we’re still arguing about whether we even need a federal government or not, after being ruled over by a very centralized England, at the time. And if that weren’t enough, none of this nanotech is being regulated at all, by any agency, with any clout whatsoever. Because Edelman seems to think, with his libertarian worldview, that the world is in no need of any government oversight. I’d like to see the survivors of a grey-goo or terminator-like future agree with him when they’re the ones hiding in abandoned subway tunnels, eating rats and avoiding harvester drones, patrolling a blackened sky.

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I’m David Louis Edelman: and I’d prefer that the Invisible Hand determine the viability of our species’ survivability.

Our hero is Natch, a handsome, ambitious, biosoft entrepreneur. A man who seems to suffer from severe bi-polar disorder since he operates on three settings: angry, really angry and manic-depressive. He’s a twenty-something future yuppie, who wanders around his spacious office condo, barking orders at his assistants Horvil and Jara, while basking in his own greatness, trying to claw his way to the top of the biosoft market. His favorite thing to complain about is how small his luxurious office condo is as he sits and sulks, as Jara tells him that his place is actually much better than most flats in the city. But, oh no, Natch will have nothing of that. “It can always be better, bigger” he states as he goes off on another speech that they need to be working harder and that Jara and Horvil aren’t trying hard enough to get their nanotech products up and running. Did I mention that this little shit’s small business is being bankrolled by his dad? Oh yes, when you first read the two discussing the matter of Natch’s business, you’ll wonder why his father didn’t just leave Natch to die on some rock in the middle of nowhere.

Though it’s funny that I mention that because that is almost what happens to Natch, as his origin story is linked to being the sole survivor of a terrible biological attack as a baby, on a lunar colony. Natch later suffers the oh so painful life of a boarding school student as most of the children pick on him for being small…or something. Anyway, according to Edelman, Natch may or may not have set some kid’s face on fire out of anger, on a camping trip, but whatever, it’s supposed to be character development, I guess.

However, that’s of the major flaws that this novel has, especially when it comes to its characters. Edelman seems to try to give Natch some tragic backstory about being a survivor of a terrorist attack and getting picked on in school, but it comes off as the author trying way too hard to get the reader to sympathize with Natch and unintentionally making him out to be more of an ungrateful asshole. Patrick Bateman and Hanibal Lector do not need backstories for us to sympathize with. They’re evil and so is Natch, and Edelman should’ve just owned up to that and ran with it. Not that it would of helped much, but it would’ve made Natch a little more interesting. Sometimes having that mystery makes a character all the more compelling, instead of unearthing every possible piece of a character’s past. That’s how Lucas ruined Darth Vader, for most Star Wars fans. The other characters, Horvil and Jara, don’t seem to be written any better. Horvil is depicted as a very likable, but docile programmer, who seems to roll over at every command that Natch gives him. While Jara tends to spend most of the novel wallowing in her own depression while having fantasies of giving Natch a rim job (I guess it’s true, that neurotics tend to gravitate towards one another, though this sounds more like Stockholm Syndrome to me). There is also the government official who is head of the Center for Wellness, who despite his dickishness, actually has some good intentions of trying to regulate the biosoft market, because of its obvious potential of being abused. But, of course, Edelman depicts this government man as a villain who wants to secretly steal everyone’s freedoms and Natch’s ability and social license to be a sociopathic asshole in the business world.

After a few stunts performed by Natch, that would’ve gotten any normal person a twenty-year jail sentence or a billion-dollar bonus as a Goldman Sachs CEO. He is called in by Margaret Surina, a sort of more cuntish (if you’ll excuse the phrase) version of Natch, to improve and launch a new product by her company, while fighting off several corporate fiefdoms that will kill for a chance to steal this new technology for themselves.

From this point on it’s an Ayn Rand, neo-liberalism, wank-fest. Full of pompous speeches by Natch and several backroom business dealings, as Edelman tries to sell the idea that the Surinas and Natch’s of the world are the real masters of the universe, while the government is some form of pure evil that eats babies on the weekends (all this, despite the fact that Natch — a free-market true believer — is clearly the real asshole of the story).

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“Hey kids! I’m here to teach you guys the coolness of EXTREME FUTURE FREE-MARKET ECONOMIES!!”

Of course this new technology has far reaching, unintended consequences and it’s use of the inter-galactic wireless network makes this new biosoft all the more dangerous to humanity if put into the wrong hands. This leads the author to tack on some lesson at the end of the novel, that technology isn’t bad, people are, but they don’t need policing (what?) speech, but by then I was pretty much just trying to get myself to the finish line and not even bothering in understanding this oddly self-contradictory logic.

Though I have to give Edelman some slack, since this was his first book, I can’t believe he dropped the ball on this one. To his credit, he did have some interesting tech ideas and concepts, as well some interesting depictions on how a post-singularity, post-geographical society might work. However, the man got too bogged down trying to make us like his hopelessly unlikable main character, didn’t bother to develop his other characters and tried to make this book his personal soap box about how his ideas on economics and zero-government are great if only somebody will listen to me rant. This book could’ve used a lot more subtly and whole lot less preachiness and exposition. I hear that the sequels to Infoquake are much better, but the first book might have just turned me off from them for good. 2006’s Neuromancer this is not.