Tag Archives: reading

Listening is a bardic art

With bardcraft, there’s an obvious inclination to focus on output. Here I am, writing a blogpost… But, to have the output be good, we need to spend as much time as we can listening to and reading other people. Our own perspectives are inevitably limited, and the more time we spend finding out how things look from other perspectives, the better. 

Listening and reading protects us from using cliches and stereotypes. It is easier to get away from tired pop-culture habits if we know more about a greater array of people. By listening and reading we can hopefully spot our own prejudices and assumptions and learn to do better.

Social media is brilliant for this. You can follow people with first hand experience of pretty much anything, and learn from them without creating any kind of burden. Learning when not to comment, when to stay silent and read/listen is a powerful skill, too. Finding the limits of what we know, and the points at which we aren’t qualified to say anything is valuable self knowledge.

All too often, creators write fantasies about other people’s lived realities. This is enabled by hiding behind the idea that imagination is everything. All too often, the people who get the high profile creative jobs are white, male, cis, straight, affluent, able bodied and comfortable. Popular culture has far more representation of what this demographic thinks other people are like than it does authentic representation of people. Most of the world is not middle class cis straight white men.

I’m entirely in favour of imagination and making stuff up. However, the more we know, the better a job we can do of that. Imaginations are not harmed or limited by exposure to facts and other perspectives. Feeding your brain information will stimulate your imagination, not hurt it. To imagine from a place of insight and understanding is far better than to just recycle whatever dubious ideas you have unconsciously absorbed from whatever is around you. The person who does not undertake research in a deliberate way is more likely to unconsciously repeat cliches and prejudices.

There is honour in being well informed and creating good representation of everyone who isn’t you.

Learning how to read

Most of us are taught early on how to extract basic meaning from these little symbols on the page. We learn the fundamental mechanics of reading. Studying literature, we’ll likely also learn a few things about how language gets things done – tone and mood and characterisation and whatnot. If you also study history as a young human  you’ll learn something about biases, and assessing sources for reliability. That’s as much as most of us get.

Many, perhaps most adults don’t read that widely, focusing on a genre or two, an area of interest, or maybe just a few authors. Moving between genres, authors, styles and subjects can actually be hard to the point of off-putting, and not everyone picks up on their own how to approach that.

I’ve always ranged widely with the fiction. Thanks to the kind of work I do, I’ve ended up reading all kinds of things alongside that. Technical content, legal content, political content… it all has its own forms, language and assumptions and engaging with anything unfamiliar also requires you to learn how it works. The first few encounters with anything unknown can be confusing and off-putting. A great deal of writing is intentionally or unconsciously manipulative and seeing how that works depends on understanding how a community uses language in the first place. The differences between persuasive writing from scientists and persuasive writing from pseudo-scientists are considerable, for example.

Much as I love literature, I wish I’d had a lot more time at school being shown how to read more diverse kinds of writing. How to read a newspaper article and pick out what’s opinion and what is hard fact. How to read a house of commons white paper, a legal contract, a scientific paper and so forth. In my experience what makes this even harder is that often the biggest issue is what’s missing, and you need to know quite a lot to have any clue what to be looking for on that score.

Reading, like so many things we do, is considered basic and widely available. The actual skills required are many, and complicated and we’re not actually taught them. If you haven’t done science beyond A level the odds are you’ve never read a scientific paper. If you’ve not tried to work in politics, you’ve probably never read the kinds of documents that are created when policies are being developed. These are barriers to participation and understanding.

You can be incredibly skilled and informed reading in one area and have no idea how to approach another kind of writing. 

These last few years have really shown us how problematic it is when people don’t know how to scrutinise different kinds of writing and how well we need to be able to read if we are to effectively inform ourselves.

Reading resolutions

I don’t track how many books I read in a year. Often my reading is pretty random, and informed by who wants a review from me. Sometimes I just go to the library and pick up random stuff I know nothing about. However, this last year I’ve been being a little more organised and as a result have come up with some reading goals.

I’m working my way through Jane Austin’s books. So far I’ve read Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. I’m aiming to get Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park in the coming year. There’s an unfinished novel that I probably won’t explore.

I’m also working my way through the Brontes. I’ve already read Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I have The Professor to go.

I’m planning to work my way through EM Forster’s novels. So far I’ve read A Room With A View and A Passage to India, leaving me Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, Howards End, and Maurice.

Last year I read the first part of the Japanese epic-classic – The Tale of Genji – I aim to read the rest of it, although I’m not expecting to manage that next year.

Otherwise my intention is to broaden my reading and pick up more classics in translation. Particularly with an eye to reading more classics that aren’t European in origin.

What stories should we tell?

A good writer can tell any story they like. However, one of the hallmarks of the crappy author is the inability to spot the stories they aren’t qualified to tell. All the male authors who write their women boobing boobily down the stairs being an obvious case in point. This is how we get the dominance of stories in which the only gay people are having unhappy coming out experiences and dealing with abuse. It’s how we get miracle cure disabled stories, and all kinds of fantasy disability. It gives us bad takes on history, and the thoughtless repetition of racial stereotypes.

Whenever you set out to tell a story, it’s worth asking why you want to tell this particular story in the first place. Also ask what qualifies you to tell it. If the answers involve current writing fashions, or some superficial awareness of the subject that should make it obvious that you are not, at this stage, qualified to tell the story. Good writing involves research, and if you don’t have a rich body of experience to draw on, you can tackle that by dedicating time to finding stuff out.

This is also an issue we can consider as readers. Whose stories do we buy and consume? The creative industries tend to favour white middle class men. Often the depictions we see and read of anyone outside that narrow category, are created from the outside. That increases the risk of prejudice and assumption, or of treating the characters as exotic and other. I don’t want to read stories written by men in which the inside of female heads are dominated by an obsession with their own breasts. I don’t want to read weird middle class fantasies about what poverty might actually be like. 

A weak author tends to assume that everyone is basically like them. Thus they don’t do any work exploring the differences between people. They don’t actually imagine other ways of being in the world, or how experiences different from their own might shape a person, but project bits of themselves and their assumptions into a variety of bodies. This is how we get disabled characters who are only tragic or heroic and women who have emotional melt-downs over broken nails. 

Often, when people are allowed to tell their own stories, what emerges is strikingly different. Queer authors don’t tend to write stories about how hard it is being queer. What you get instead are characters who are queer, who have queer friends and queer relationships and a main story that is about them doing some stuff. Also, happy endings, because people usually want to see people like them wining and that’s sadly lacking when stories are written about ‘the other’. People from the global majority don’t tell stories centered around how hard it is not being white – why would they? 

A good author isn’t simply someone who could tell any story, but is someone who will know what stories they can tell to best effect. A good author writes what they know – and will undertake to make sure they know before they start writing. As a reader, you deserve the work of people who know what they’re talking about, not the misleading fantasies of the empathy-impared.

“Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”

And you might want to read this much more details and far better referenced article on the limits of how we imagine each other – http://lcfi.ac.uk/news/2018/sep/7/can-we-understand-other-minds-novels-and-stories-s/

Revenge Fiction

This year I was picked for the third time as a finalist in the Stroud Short Stories competition. As we’re in lockdown, it was entirely done online, so there is a video of me reading my story. It would be fair to say that the camera angle and lighting conspire to be less than flattering, but my voice is good, so I recommend just listening.

All the key details in this story happened, or came out of conversations with various men. Most of those conversations were personal, one was an interview with an actor. It may all seem a bit far fetched, but sadly it isn’t. The scenario is fictional, and so is the female character. I wish I was better in person at taking down this kind of thing, but I’m not. In some of these situations, I panicked, or went quiet, or didn’t know what to do.  I lived with the man who told me frequently how much he suffered for being so much cleverer than everyone else and who told me he felt lonely as a consequence.  It’s only in the last year that I’ve really questioned whether that was a fair thing to have been told…

Reading nature

The idea of reading nature for signs is problematic in many ways. It can be a way of adding to the sense of separation of us, from nature, where nature is seen as one homogenous thing. ‘Nature’ as a word is a shorthand for many complex existences and interactions and we should be wary of reducing it to symbols and then reading it for insight into our personal lives. It’s not all about us.

However, there are ways in which we can meaningfully read the world around us. This takes a lot more work over the long term and is not as human-centric.

We can read the health of a place. Top level predators are a good indicator of the overall health of a system. Diversity is a good indicator as well. If a place lacks for diversity and there are no predators, help is required. We can also read the health of a place in terms of litter and obvious human damage. Again this should be read as a call for help.

We can read the seasons. There are natural shifts in how the seasons manifest from year to year, so just keeping up with that is an act of engagement. With climate change impacting on everything, it is a good idea to read those shifts for information about what’s working and what isn’t.

You can read for your own impact. Are there insects in your garden? If you don’t have a garden, what can you do to support insect populations? I managed to establish a pot garden, and it attracts and feeds bees, so I can watch it for a while and read it in this way, and think about how to develop it. You can read the birds who come to your garden for what they tell you about the wildlife you are supporting. If you have regular insect eaters, you are doing well for insects.

There are times when an understanding of wild things will mean you can read what’s coming. The way creatures get off a beach when there’s a tsunami on the way is a good case in point. Understanding how the living things around you respond to stuff you can’t detect can be a lifesaver in some contexts.

It is better to read nature for the things nature might be able to tell us about its many selves, than to read the wild world for what it can tell us about our own immediate concerns. And if you’re looking for contact with the numinous, for spiritual guidance, and for guides this is still the better place to start. The knowledge you build by reading this way will make you better able to see something out of the ordinary that may be more to do with spirit and less other living things getting on with their lives. Learning to read what’s around you for its own sake is a gesture of respect, which is a good opening move in a spiritual endeavour.

If there is one message that humans need to hear from nature right now, it is that we are not the only things that matter, it is not all about us, and we have to stop acting like it is.

Reading for pleasure

As someone who works with books, and reviews books, I can end up doing a lot of reading in a workish sort of way. I’m also in the habit of reading as research and sometimes as market research. It’s hard for me to read a book and not analyse it, not think about what makes it work and why, not contemplate the marketing side. This is unfortunate because in many ways I got into writing because I loved reading.

I don’t think it’s a book specific issue. If you are motivated to work with that which you love most, then that which you love most becomes work and your relationship with it changes. A person can easily lose their way when the things that initially motivated them are no longer in the mix.

I think it’s important to take stock regularly, to check in and see what’s happening in life, what’s working and what isn’t. For me this often means reminding myself to make the time to read things for the sheer pleasure of it and for no other purpose. Which is why this post is not a review of Gail Carriger’s Soulless. Which was funny, knowing and delightful to read and just the kind of brain candy I needed in the mix. It’s why I didn’t review Jeannete Winterson’s The Gap of Time or Dr Geof’s The Utterly Un-Relaxing Colouring Book of Cats with their Tanks. They were also fab.

If everything becomes public facing, if every new experience has to become a blog post or a social media update, that doesn’t work for me. Having there be things that are mine and mine alone is really important so that I do not lose myself in what I am doing, and do not lose my relationship with what I am doing.

Stroud Short Stories, revisited

Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten stories to be read at an evening event. Participation is usually limited to Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2014, I was picked to read. In the spring of 2015 I edited an anthology of all previously selected stories. Last autumn I was invited to help with the judging, and I’ve been asked to do that again this spring.

Judging literature is a very subjective process. A small percentage of the submissions don’t work – they don’t make sense in some way, are too unoriginal, or express prejudices that aren’t acceptable. Those are the easy ones to weed out, although I have to admit it’s possible that amongst them are high art, super clever serious literature that I’m not smart enough to get. The flip side of this is that I know the audience who come to hear the stories, and they tend to be more like me, and are not cutting edge literary academics either.

The quest for the best ten is not an easy one. It helps that there’s the ‘reading out’ aspect, because this rules out a percentage of the stories. We judge without knowing the author, so I’m less likely to pick a story that depends on fantastic, theatrical delivery. Most authors are shy, wary of the microphone and many come to the events not having read much (or ever) in public before. The story has to work regardless of delivery. I’ve learned to be wary of vast stretches of dialogue, because not every author can produce two or more clear voices on a stage.

As a reader, first and foremost I want to be surprised. This is true of anything I get my nose into. I want not to know where it was going. I want to encounter thoughts that would never have crossed my mind. I am susceptible to beautiful language, but it has to be in service to the story, and I do not like things that sound clever and poetic but lack for meaning.

In the autumn we were picking to a theme, and having the Eerie Evening (see poster!) to work with, was a useful focus for selection. There’s no theme this spring, and I have no idea how that’s going to go. The competition is now open for submissions, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reading, and pondering perhaps something in the region of a hundred short stories, looking for the ten. I hope I can do the process justice.

It helps greatly that I’m not doing this alone. John Holland also judges, and he’s done far more of this than I have. While there’s a fair overlap in our tastes, we think in different ways, and in finding stories that we both think work, we’ve got a good shot (I think) at getting the best ten, at least on paper. How they’ll translate on the night is an unknown quantity. Some stories come alive in whole new ways when read aloud, others don’t have the punch you expected. Nothing is certain, and that’s part of the allure.

If you’re in Gloucestershire and want to give it a go (but don’t tell me!) the details are here – http://www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/

New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!




The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.




The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.


Too many writers?

As you’re reading this, please start off with a moment of well earned smugness, because you are reading, and reading is a much needed thing just now.

Here on the internet, everyone is writing (there is no escaping a certain amount of awkward irony in this post.) On twitter there are a lot of authors all shouting at once about their blogs and books. Who is reading them? My guess is that for the vast majority, the answer is, almost no-one. We all want to be heard, but no one who is busy shouting wants to listen.

I talked to an aspiring author the other day who said he didn’t want to read other authors for fear of being influenced. As though a book should be something you write in total isolation with no reference to anyone else. As though being influenced is a bad thing. How are we to learn, if not from each other? How are we to understand writing, if not by reading?

Some of it is about speed, about putting out words at ever greater tempo in the hopes that acceleration will somehow magically lead to something. Churning frantically in the hopes of hitting on a magic formula. The author as word machine, pumping them out at breakneck speed. All too often what follows is writing devoid of ideas, lacking depth, or interest. All those ‘ten ways to be an even better blogger’ posts that I don’t click through and read because they’re so tedious.

I’m going to be giving more of this blog to talking about reading. The book market is tough, and there are many fabulous and deserving books that get overlooked because no one even knows they are there. I’m going to put more energy into promoting other people’s books. If you aren’t a regular reviewer and find a book you really want to rave about, and don’t have a platform to use for that, this is an open invitation. I take guest blogs. Drop me a line.

I’m going to rebalance my life a bit, so that I spend more of my time being a reader, and less of it being a writer. Partly this is for my own enjoyment – I’m happy when I’m reading. Partly it’s to slow down. I want to stop and properly engage with things. Partly because there’s this frantic competition for attention going on out there, and I want a different relationship with it.