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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

 

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I’m a Lazy Shit

Some of you may have gathered that I’m a lazy shit.  From the number of post series even with their own index page that never finished or even came to fruition.  I do in fact intend to get all of those up eventually, but I’m a lazy shit.  And some of them require serious research and planning and maybe even citation of sources, all of which I hate but the last of which I really hate.  Just ask my former Academic Advisor.  I’m more an off the cuff sort of person.  If you imagined this presents some major challenges to the goal of me ever having a story/book published, congrats.  You’re pretty sharp.

Anyway, for that reason, I will be trying to post on here more frequently, but in smaller bites to work my way up to having a stronger habit of consistency, which I hope will be beneficial to my fiction and also to those more ambitious series of posts sitting around the Chimney unfinished.

First up–today in fact!:

A world-building post on the challenges and answering techniques for creating a new and unique world not based on a set of previously existing Earth cultures.  Many of which are probably exocitized and stereotyped in your conception, particularly if you are a (white) Western European, or really any identity that isn’t a part of those cultures in general.  Fantasy versions of real-world cultures are fraught with risk, not just from cultural appropriation or downright racism, but from genre stereotypes, from lazy writing and characterization, from plain old old-hatted-ness.  But more on that in the post later today!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Uncategorized

 

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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).

 

But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.

 

A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.

 

A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?

 

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The “Next Big Thing” Generation

So, a common topic in many of the writing communities I used to frequent was “the next big thing”.  Generally, what genre of book was going to be the next Twilight vampire romance or Hunger Games dystopia.  I had a lot of fun with those discussions, but only recently have I really stopped to consider how damaging the “next big thing” mindset is.  Not only to literature, but to any field and to our characters as people.

First, it’s damaging to the quality and diversity of books coming out.  If everyone is chasing the next “popular” genre, they aren’t writing, reading, or accepting for publication many good books who just happen to not be the next big thing or who are part of the last big thing.  Even though 90% of the books in the genre of the last big thing were crap, and 7% of the rest were mediocre.

Which ties into my next issue: This attitude creates a hunger for similar books, despite quality or whether the reader would like to try something else because it creates a comfort zone for the reader.  They know they like dystopia because they liked Hunger Games, so they’re more willing to take a chance on another dystopia than a high fantasy or Mundane SF.  (Mundane SF itself having once been the next big thing, thus the proper noun moniker.)

But this is a false comfort zone for many reasons.  The reader may not actually like dystopia, but just that one book.  They may like dystopia but ignore other things they would also really enjoy to keep from having to stray outside their comfort zone.  They may gorge on so many dystopias that they learn to see the flaws in the genre finally,  and therefore ignore a wonderful dystopia down the line, because they’ve moved onto their next big thing.

Or, if they’re jumping on the bandwagon, they may perceive all of YA, say, as mediocre dystopias or obsessed with love triangles.  Perhaps they think all epic fantasy is ASOIAF, which they disliked, and so they don’t take the chance on other works.  For example, maybe they watched the TV show, and aren’t fans of gratuitous sexposition, and so they don’t read the books or similar books because they don’t want to get buried in another avalanche of incest and prostitutes.

Many authors have stories of agents or publishers telling them they have a great book, but they missed the window, or it doesn’t fit with whatever the next big thing is, and so they can’t sell it.  Or they already have ten of these, and even though 8 of them are sub-par, they can’t cancel the contract and pick up this new book.

Or perhaps they like the book, but everyone acquiring fantasy stories right now wants ASOIAF, not comedic contemporary fantasies, or low-key urban fantasies in the original mode without kick-ass leather-wearing, tattoo-bearing heroines with troubled backstories and seriously poor taste in lovers.

And the same can be said for things besides commercial fiction.  Google+ was going to be the next big thing in social media.  Then it was Ello.  Tinder was the next big thing in online dating, and it spawned dozens of clones.  Social media itself is something of a successful next big thing in human interaction and the Internet.  Object-Oriented programming was the next big thing in software design, and yet now the backlash has been going on for years.

Sometimes a next big thing is a great thing.  But the mentality of always hunting for the next big thing is not.  And despite the pressure from our capitalist economy, it might be better in the long term to look for alternatives.  And it is capitalism that is a major driver of this obsession, because history shows even mediocre products can ride the wave of a predecessor to make big money.  Following a successful formula is a bit of a dream situation for many producers of entertainment or products.  That’s why Walmart and most other chains have their own brand version of most popular products, from medicine to housewares to groceries.  The next big thing trend might make some people a decent amount of money in the short-term, but it has long-term effects that have created a sort of creativity pit that we’ll have a hard time climbing out of any time in the near future.  And in the short term, the people who don’t manage to catch the wave, as wonderful as their contributions to literature or software or society may be, are left choking on the dust.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2017 in atsiko, Uncategorized

 

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Hiatus: Again

So, as I hate my life and happiness and am currently in the process of working on a video game project, including the coding and a narrative arc that could probably be comfortably condensed into 47 fantasy trilogies, schedule posting on the Chimney will be on indefinite hiatus.  That does not mean I won’t be posting.  I probably will.  But it will be sporadic and all post series are on hiatus.

I’m having a hell of a fun time, so though I am a bit sad that I won’t be ramping back up my posting schedule, I’m not too sad.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2016 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! 😉
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent: A Review of Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones.  Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews.  Maybe a couple 4-stars.  (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.)  That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc.  Sure, some low-star reviews are like that.  But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between.   And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it.  Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway.  I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls.  I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about.  I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA.  There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them.  I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs.  The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.

As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent.  By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story.  And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader.  I won’t debate the issue of validity here.  It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.

So, instead, let’s begin with my review.  The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did.  She hated her.  So did I.  But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point.  I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent.  To an extent, it doesn’t matter.  half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity.  I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers.  That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews.  Ruby is not a nice person.  She’s not a mean person either.  She’s more just amoral.  What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong.  And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster.  When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted.  Ruby holds the whole town under her spell.  Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.

And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is.  Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story.  It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable.  London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element.  But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks?  That’s one interpretation.  Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power.  There’s enough wiggle room to take either route.  Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina.  The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility.  This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.

Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well.  And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby.  Totally believable, to me.  All fiction requires suspension of disbelief.  Even the real world does.  And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes.  When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider:  perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play.  Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks.  But they still love to see the master work.  Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud.  It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality.  You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time.  The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance.  The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.

But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people.  They understand manipulation.  They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder.  And they learned those things for a reason.  We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect.  Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about.  But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done.  It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling.  The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone.  (Or is she?!)  It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.

 

Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws.  Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer.  And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters.  And it’s hard to ask more from a book.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Books, Reviews

 

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