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Top five posts — end of 2013 report

Well another year older and deeper in debt — actually that’s not quite right because I’ve been paying down the mortgage so I’m less indebted than I was twelve months ago. There are now 1,175 reviews or opinion pieces, and we move even further past one-million words in content. I’ve kept to my New Year’s Resolution of making at least one post every day with 375 new posts in the last twelve months. Thinking about books continues to grow but, thanks to Lionsgate, traffic numbers are still down. In January, I was getting 1,245 hits a day. When the DMCA notices hit, I dropped down to 571 hits per day. At the end of six months, I was slowly recovering, having reached a six-month average of 775 hits per day. This was the “good” news: Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated. I hoped the traffic numbers would continue to build and I could get back up to where I was at the beginning of this year. Sadly that has not happened. I can look back to January to see 4,322 views in one day. Since then, my overall daily average has dropped to 729 with only 266,000 page views in total. It seems the damage to the site actually continues even though the DMCA notices have all been dismissed.

The Dong Yi pages continue to dominate, being eight of the ten most read pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia with visitors from 210 countries as counted by WordPress. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 16,951 hits per page (up from 13,462). In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:

Gone Baby Gone (2)
Hellsing or Herushingu (1)
Sucker Punch (3)
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (4)
Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi (5)

These five pages have an average of 7,039 hits per page (up from 5,921). Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only three of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, the top five has been unchanged for twelve months:

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

It’s good to report the average for the top five books is now edging higher into four figures at 1,319 hits per page (up from 1,207 hits per page). It’s still depressingly low but there has been slow upward movement. If you divide the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site by the number of pages, you produce an average of 612 hits per page (up by 12 since the last report). In a cautious voice, I’m going to say that’s not bad since I’m very passive about promoting the site. At my peak as the year ended, Technorati ranked the site in the top 100 for books. As of today, I see I’m ranked in the also-rans although I did feature in the Top 100 for television sites for a month or so. Not quite the market I was aiming for when I started a book site.

Anyway, I announce a temporary change of direction. Those who have read the About page will know I ran a small press in the past. A friend of the family has written a book and my services have been volunteered to edit and publish it. This is going to take up some of my time over the next two months or so. Hence you will not see daily posts until I get on top of the work. Perhaps I might get the bug again. If there are any agents who would be interested in submitting a work from an established author, let me know. I might be tempted into a three or four title schedule a year.

Top five posts — July 2013

Top five posts — end of 2012 report

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion

What, if anything, is wrong with young adult fiction?

October 11, 2013 4 comments

I’ve decided to write this opinion piece because I’ve recently been exchanging emails with several authors and publicity departments about some of my reviews. It seems I’ve become somewhat notorious for dismantling both books intended for young adult readers and books with a gender bias for female readers. In fact, I’m destructive about any book, film or television episode I think poor. Although I seem to have been particularly vehement when it comes to the YA market and paranormal romance, I find the majority of books, films and television episodes average at best and more usually below average. It does no good pointing to the About page where I assert the right to say when I think a book is bad. So here goes with a more specific opinion piece, primarily thinking about YA fiction.

What is YA fiction?

I’m not at all sure when the concept of the young adult emerged nor precisely what it means in terms of age. You see some books fairly obviously targeted at the genuinely young, whereas others seem to be aimed at fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. If I was simply going to be cynical, I could suggest this is a catch-all category for all the books not good enough to sell to the adult market. Put another way, with reading ages as defined for educational purposes not mapping directly on to physical age, the wider the alleged age range for YA books, the less meaningful it is. For the record, the American Library Association defines the classification as books for those aged between twelve and eighteen. I suppose that means books aimed at a broadly intermediate group whose sensibilities have matured to such a point they can no longer be considered children, but have yet to grow more interested in books with adult sensibilities. In this, let’s remember one of the virtues of youth should be curiosity about the adult world.

Why do I tend not to like YA books?

I grow somewhat frustrated if I feel an author is patronising the readership. By this I mean the author is peddling mindless escapism or that the book suggests there’s always an easy solution to problems. In the poorer books, we see anodyne descriptions of criminal or dangerous activities. Situations containing more explicit challenges to health and safety tend to be avoided. Obviously this does not disguise the fact there are many books unsuitable for children. But thanks to the growth of the internet, one of the features of the modern world is the speed with which children mature. Whereas my generation remained relatively naive until teenage years, modern children are remarkably knowing. This sophistication, often denied by adults, does not mean I think books on YA shelves should be full of darkness and existential despair. The fact the youth of today face the probability of unemployment and possible dangers from climate change does not mean we should deny them the occasional happy book.

So here goes with a simple proposition

In all forms of fiction, authors should show life as it is with credible characters behaving as we would expect given the context. Obviously this includes the possibility of dealing with the “big” issues of parental separation and divorce, abuse of alcohol and dugs, the death of family members or friends, and so on. When we move into fantasy and start talking about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beasties, we should understand these beings survive by eating humans. Having them as cute love interests rather belies their essential nature. Taking a different tack, setting characters in a dystopian context gives them a chance to challenge existing political systems and become beacons of hope for the downtrodden of their mundane reality. Such books are not inherently dark. They can be inspirational.

In other words, there’s no reason in principle why there cannot be a balance of elements in fiction intended for young adults to read. It may be legitimate to make concessions in terms of vocabulary selection and sentence structures. Reducing the barriers to comprehension encourages more to read. Encouraging the reading habit is a social good. But when it comes to the choice of subject matter and the plot, I’m completely opposed to sanitising or dumbing down the world for consumption by those deemed young. In this I categorically deny an automatic linkage between physical age and the need for protection. Indeed, I think publishers do an active disservice to the young by “censoring” the content made available for reading. This does not mean, as a generalisation, I’m going to dismiss all YA books as superficial and stand on a soapbox to proclaim all publishers should focus on depth and avoid relentless optimism and sunshine. I try to be fair and judge each book on its merits. This means looking at the characters and judging their credibility.

Going back a moment, it was probably wrong of me to use the word “censorship” in this context. Parents and other authority figures have an interest in controlling the nature of the fiction or other media content consumed by “children” in their custody. I respect the right of parents to deny the young access to information that may help prepare them for the rigours of the world. I may think it foolish, but that’s what parenting is all about. I shall, of course, continue voicing my opinion. Hopefully, over time, publishers will more consistently produce books that challenge the prejudices and preconceptions of the young, and parents will be more flexible about what they allow their children to read. It’s a case of less trivia and more realism, but avoiding anything pornographic. Although pornography is freely available on the internet, publishers can at least use their marketing to signal some degree of “safety” to parents.

My own age as a factor

At this point, I should remind readers that I’m a senior citizen and therefore far removed from the current experience of the “young”. People who disagree with me often criticise my views because I’m applying adult sensibilities to books intended to be read by people culturally different to me. They assert the best people to judge the worth of YA fiction are the young who buy and read it. Publishers point to the millions of profit they rake in each year and legitimately suggest they must be doing something right. The fact the books sell in such numbers is itself a confirmation of their fitness for purpose. Put another way, one of the primary justifications for consuming any fictional content is to derive entertainment. If our lives are full of pain and misery, it’s potentially good therapy to escape into a fictional world where people have better lives. It reminds us that, if we can overcome our own problems, we too can have happiness.

So a potentially legitimate complaint about my reviews of YA fiction and, to some extent, romantic fiction is that, as an elderly male, I’m not the target audience and so have little meaningful to contribute to the discourse on the merits of either form of fiction. This would be a somewhat ironic way of dealing with my opinions. The adults who run the publishing industry are predominantly male, and they decide what’s fit to print and market to the YA and romance niches of the market. Parents feel competent to judge what their children should read. Teachers and librarians assume the right to judge which books should be made available to younger readers. And, of course, the majority of individuals who write YA fiction are themselves adults. Denying the right of older readers to review is not terribly rational. As applied to adult women, they can make up their own minds what they want to read without taking any notice of my views.

A conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not against YA fiction or paranormal romance because of the genre labels imposed on them by marketing departments. But I am against all books peddling plots that make no sense, involving characters with no credibility, and written in prose that shows a lack of writing craft. That my experience to date tends to find the majority of YA and paranormal romance books suffer these faults is just an accident of fate. Every now and then, I do find good books in the most unlikely of genres or subgenres. Serendipity is what keeps me reading. However, here come a few closing thoughts. I think there are too many books published each year. The vast majority are poor. If commissioning editors were more discriminating and the editorial staff actually worked with authors to maintain a higher standard, all readers would benefit regardless of age. So I would throw away all genre labels. I’m for good books offering interest and/or excitement when I read them. If readers want the dull and boring stuff, they can dip into the self-published pool where, sad to say, most of the books fail to achieve professional standards.

Top five posts — July 2013

July 1, 2013 2 comments

Well this marks the end of a tumultuous six months. There are now 990 reviews or opinion pieces (add one to the total for this post), and more than one-million words in content. As a physical site, Thinking about books continues to grow but, thanks to Lionsgate, traffic numbers are still down. In January, I was getting 1,245 hits a day. When the DMCA notices hit, I dropped down to 571 hits per day. At the end of six months, I’m slowly recovering, having reached a six-month average of 775 hits per day. This was the “good” news: Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated. Hopefully, the traffic numbers will continue to build and I can get back up to where I was at the beginning of this year.

The Dong Yi pages continue to dominate, being eight of the ten most read pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 13,462 hits per page (up from 9,250). In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:

Hellsing or Herushingu (1)
Gone Baby Gone
Sucker Punch (2)
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (3)
Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi (4)

These five pages have an average of 5,921 hits per page (up from 4,695). Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only three of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, the top five is unchanged from last time:

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

It’s good to report the average for the top five books is now edging higher into four figures at 1,207 hits per page (up from 1,049 hits per page). It’s still depressingly low but there has been slow upward movement. If you divide the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site by the number of pages, you produce an average of 600 hits per page. In a cautious voice, I’m going to say that’s not bad since I’m very passive about promoting the site. At my peak as the year ended, Technorati ranked the site in the top 100 for books. As of today, I see I’m ranked at 345. Since there are 17,905 sites with the “books” tag, I suppose that’s not bad given all the trouble with Lionsgate. As the year progresses, hopefully my ranking will rise.

Top five posts — end of 2012 report

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion

Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

Today brings the long-awaited notice from Google confirming that the only outstanding URL in dispute has now been reinstated. All the malicious complaints of DMCA infringement made by Lionsgate and its agent(s) have been thrown out. This has been four months of frustration with daily page hits reduced by half. Hopefully, the popularity of the site will now be restored. As I wait, I must also decide whether to take it further. It’s tempting to let sleeping dogs (or lions) lie and go back to life as it was. Albeit slowly, I have prevailed so I could call this a draw and walk away. Or I could remain active and seek a more general review of Lionsgate’s behaviour and its agent(s). It requires careful thought.

Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices
Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage
Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices

Categories: Opinion Tags: ,

Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices

January 22, 2013 3 comments

Following on from my last report of Lionsgate’s continuing harassment on the 18th January (click here to read it) Google has sent me a new notice dated the 21st January. Lionsgate continues to demand the takedown of pages without any right or interest at stake. This time, the company has picked on the page reviewing Joint Security Area, a film made in South Korea in 2000. To keep everyone up to date, this is my response to Google:

“Re: Your notice dated 21st January and citing http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=765396.

On its face, this notice is submitted for and on behalf of Lionsgate. It purports to show that the page in question is facilitating piracy of Liongate’s work. Such an assertion is not only ludicrous but also malicious. What possible right or interest does Lionsgate have in the film Joint Security Area? According to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260991/companycredits, Lionsgate is neither one of the production companies nor is it a distributor. The suggestion that I am facilitating the piracy of Lionsgate’s work would therefore seem to be a lie on its face. For the record there is no need to remove content from the page because none of the content infringes Lionsgate’s rights as alleged or at all.

This sequence of notices arises out of Lionsgate’s objection to the review of Arbitrage. Since its posting, Lionsgate has submitted a sequence of complaints on completely unrelated matters. The law is very clear. It is a precondition of using the DMCA process that the allegations of infringement are made in good faith. I have in these responses put Google on express notice that these allegations are being made in bad faith.

What then is Google’s role? If I submit requests for restoration of the URL, which I have in each case, Google must engage in a review process to ensure that the DMCA notice was properly issued and restore the URL if there is no material infringing the complainer’s rights. This is a quasi judicial function and, as such, requires due process. If Google fails to take any or any proper action to respond to these notices, it is by implication colluding with Lionsgate to chill the exercise of free speech. I suggest this is unlawful conduct on Google’s part and formally give notice that if Google fails to respond constructively and restore the URLs. it must be joined as a party in any action involving Lionsgate to defend its failure to protect my rights.”

So far, the only good thing I can say is that the flow of notices is slowing.

You may also be interested in reading:
Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage
Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices
Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , ,

Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage

January 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Following on from my first report at https://opionator.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/lionsgate-and-the-use-of-dmca-notices/, I’ve received another DMCA Notice from Google dated 16th January. It refers me to http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=758349 which repeats the complaint about the Arbitrage review even though it no longer shows an image of any kind and drags in another review when it has no right or interest in the copyright material. This is a copy of the text appearing on the Restore URL Notice I filed.

“This latest complaint shows the continuing lack of good faith by Lionsgate. It has no right or interest at stake in the images displayed on the page which reviews Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008). All it seeks to do is create trouble for me as a reviewer. Randomly identifying pages on which I display images is not a good faith use of the power to complain under the DMCA. Whether the images as displayed are or are not a fair use is, at this stage, a matter of opinion given the non-commercial status of the site and its function as a review site. If the copyright holder has not objected, what locus standi does Lionsgate have?

As from the 10th January, https://opionator.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/arbitrage-2012-3/ has been text only. No images of any kind are displayed and the page has an explanatory notice in bold explaining why no images are displayed.

I suggest that Google owes me a duty of care to investigate my allegation of bad faith. If it is seen not to interfere, I will have to conclude that Google colludes with Lionsgate by omission to exclude non-infringing text-only content from public display. Google can, of course, avoid being joined as a third party in any subsequent proceedings by being seen to take this application to restore seriously.”

If this continues, I may feel more like invoking my right to litigate this abuse of the DMCA procedure. As you can see, I’m preparing the ground to join Google if it is not seen to respond constructively to my request for restoration of the URLs.

You may also be interested in reading:
Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices
Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices
Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , ,

Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices

January 12, 2013 4 comments

As the best way to start off the 2013, Google sent me a Notice of DMCA removal on the 3rd January (http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=740729). It seemed that within minutes of my publishing the review of Arbitrage, Lionsgate had asserted an infringement of copyright at https://opionator.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/arbitrage-2012/ (a page address that has now been removed from the cache). I was surprised because, in my view, the display of the poster and three stills from the film was a fair use of digital images under US law but, because I prefer the line of least resistance, I copied the low-resolution image of the poster used on Wikipedia and put that up at a new address. Naturally, I asked Google to remove the old page from its cache and to reinstate the page after review.

On the 8th January, Google sent me a second notice (http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=745715). It seems Lionsgate had specifically taken issue with https://opionator.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/alphabetical-listing-of-books-k-to-z/. As you will understand, this was even more surprising than the first notice. There are no images used on this page. This signalled a loss of good faith. If the take-down process was being used properly, it would allege that a page with an image was used in breach of copyright. To allege a page to be an infringement, there must be an image copyrighted by a third party or there must be some other clear breach of IP protected work. Insofar as titles can be copyrighted, I compile a continuous listing of the reviews on this site. So this page is my work and labour. Consequently, I own the copyright in the list. Again, I filed a notice with Google, alleging an “error” by Lionsgate. For the record, there are more than 800 reviews and considerably more than one million words on this site.

On the 9th January, Google writes again (http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=748810). Not concerned with legal niceties like a probable fair use defence, Lionsgate has gone generic in objecting to
https://opionator.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/arbitrage-2012/arbitrage/, i.e. despite clearly identifying the source of the poster image used on the page and claiming justification, Lionsgate preferred the page to disappear — it’s a review unfavourable to its film Arbitrage. I therefore removed the poster image.

On the 10th January, Google writes again — it was getting into a nice daily rhythm (http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=751478). This time, Lionsgate thought the photographs of the stars of Arbitrage were improperly used. https://opionator.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/arbitrage-2012/photography-by-myles-aronowitz/ Again, all the photographs on the page had been copied from Wikipedia and were used within the fair use boundaries. However, to keep the peace, I removed all the images from the page. I now hold the exclusive copyright to the textual content published on the page.

On the 11th January, Google writes again (http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=752414). This time, Lionsgate had objected to the page https://opionator.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/great-north-road-by-peter-f-hamilton/. To avoid doubt, I have used the low-resolution version of the image from Wikipedia and clearly state the legal justification as the description of the image. Again, I have sent a notice to Google. The comment section to the Great North review drew my attention to http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/01/buffy-vs-edward-remix-is-back-online-but-no-fallout-for-lionsgate/. It seems Lionsgate is notorious for attempting to stifle free speech.

Life is never dull.

You may also be interested in reading:
Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices
Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage
Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

Top five posts — end of 2012 report

Well, it’s that time of year again and here comes another six-month snapshot of this site’s performance. This year I maintained a more regular posting schedule — indeed going above and beyond the call of duty with more than one post a day. To be honest, I still don’t understand how the ranking system correlates with the number of hits, nor whether the improvement in the regularity of my postings is the reason for the improvement in traffic numbers over 2011. All I can say is that, over 2012 as a whole, I averaged 945 hits per day (down from 976 hits per day at the 6 month mark) with the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site now more than 453,000. I still have no real sense of whether this is good or bad for a review site. The only consolation is that, after a slump which I think was caused by Google tweaking its algorithms, traffic numbers have been picking up strongly over the last four months.

As I reported before, the Dong Yi pages dominate, being eight of the ten most popular pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines and Indonesia although that’s dropping off as the final episodes are being broadcast. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 9,250 hits per page (up from 7,573). In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:

Hellsing or Herushingu (1)
Sucker Punch
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (2)
Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi (5)
Conan (2011) (3)

These five pages have an average of 4,695 hits per page (up from 2,911 and an improvement as we’re now more than half the number of hits for the top five Dong Yi pages). Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only two of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, here’s the current top five:

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (1)
Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss
Troika by Alastair Reynolds (2)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (3)

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

It’s good to report the average for the top five books is now four figures at 1,049 hits per page (up from 753 hits per page). I still find this rather depressing and continue with the speculation that the number of sites offering ebook and other digital versions are swamping out the reviews. Why the same things doesn’t happen to the film and television reviews is one of life’s great unknowns. WordPress is now providing me with a geographical breakdown of where the visitors are coming from. Remarkably, people have come from 202 countries — remarkably since I thought there were less than 200 countries in the world. Obviously, WordPress has a different list. Given the first half of the report, it should come as no surprise that only about 20% of the visitors come from the US. Indeed, only three of the top ten source countries are Western. This presumably explains why my Technorati ranking is so low. I’m not sufficiently US-centric to get its approval. I’m going to work on Burundi, Comoros and Tajikistan. So far, only one visitor from each country. This is not good enough. I’m thinking of a promotional tour to drum up support. And, speaking of visitors, my thanks to those of you brave enough to follow the blog. My very best wishes to you, one and all, for the New Year.

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion

The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

August 23, 2012 4 comments

Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).

The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.

As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.

So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.

Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.

In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.

Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart

Introduction

In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.

Definition

The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.

How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork

I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.

So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.

This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.

When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.

An analysis of the jacket design

Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.

What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”

In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.

So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.

Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:

Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.

My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.

I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.

As a final thought from me:

Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.

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