Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview: Rob from Val's Random Comments

I am very happy to say that over the coming weeks Speculiction will feature a handful of interviews I've had with people from around the review world.  I have done my best to avoid the usual drivel (‘What’s your favorite book?’, ‘Who is your favorite author?’ etc, etc.) and tried to focus on asking about what makes these people's perspectives unique, aspirations for their sites, and ultimately the reasons why I might be a regular visitor to their corner of the spec-fic community.

First up is Rob from Val’s Random Comments - a site I really admire for its mix of sub-genres, gender, and international writers.  I hope you enjoy his not-so-random comments on reading challenges, self-awareness, what’s happening in the Netherlands in sci-fi and fantasy (including a link to a novelette translated into English), where science fiction might be headed, and reading in one’s mother tongue vs. a secondary language.  I did.

On your blog there is a short history of what brought Val's Random Comments into being, particularly your breaking away from a previous site.  How would you compare working on a multi-contributor site to one that you are the sole owner/provider of content, and, has the change been positive? 

Yes and no I guess. What I was afraid of when I left the site I reviewed for is that I wouldn't be able to create enough content to really keep the blog alive. I guess I have done well enough with more than 300 reviews since I started it but ideally I would have liked more content. Right now I am writing one review a week, usually on Sunday. I've found that that is all I can manage over the long haul if I want to keep it from becoming a chore. I'm thinking of doing something about that in the near future but no definite plans yet.

I'm also painfully aware that my texts contain a lot of errors. A spell check can only take you so far and I am one of those unfortunate people who doesn't see errors in his own texts until at least a year after I wrote them.

On the positive site I can do exactly what I want with the blog and that was liberating in a way. I don't like blogs with too much filler for instance. Press releases, lists of books to be published, new cover art. It's very easy to drown your own content in those. It was one of the things on which I disagreed with the owners of the site I used to review for. Very occasionally I run something like that but usually I can't be bothered to keep track of it.
Another thing I like about it is that I can review pretty much whatever I like, decide if I want to accept review copies and whether or not to review a book once I've read it. In practice I nearly always do but once in a while it is nice to be able to skip one and read it just to read the book. I review a lot of older books, stuff I reread, things that just interest me. If you want to draw attention to yourself it is probably a safer bet to review the new releases. As a result a lot of older works are ignored by review blogs and in my opinion that is a shame. Same goes for Dutch language works. I occasionally review them although it is challenging to read in one language and review in another. Most larger sites would probably not be interested in reviews of books only a fraction of their readership can actually read and will most likely never get translated.
In short, having complete control is very nice if you have enough time to invest in a blog.

When did you start reading sf&f, and, what is your perspective on how the field has evolved since?  Similarly, how do you think the field will change in the next 10-20 years?

I've been reading books for as long as I've been able to. I used to read a lot as a child. Anything from Roald Dahl to Annie M.G. Schmidt and from Paulus de Boskabouter to the brothers Lionheart. I picked up my father's appreciation for Westerns too. Everyone should read Dee Brown's Creek Mary. When you think about it, it is amazing how many books for young readers are some form of genre fiction.

Then came the moment when I had to start reading for Dutch and English literature. The way they taught it back then was a disgrace plain and simple. I read my Hella S. Haasse, Harry Mulisch and Willem Frederik Hermans of course, but it did turn me away from reading for a while.

In college I picked it up again, when I needed something to distract me from studying. Back then, translations of Raymond E. Feist's novels started appearing. In hindsight, those books are mediocre at best but they did get me, and a lot of other people, reading again. Robin Hobb followed, I tried Tolkien in English for the first time and got hooked on Herbert's Dune books. I think that when I first read Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars that i was truly lost.

How the field will change... I expect it to become even more diverse. With more genre fiction being adapted to television and film than ever before, there certainly is a lot of potential. Self-publishing is another factor in that. Until a few years ago, if a publisher didn't think there was a market for it, it didn't get published. Now you just throw it on Amazon. Getting published is not the hurdle anymore. Getting people to pay attention to your work is, and for people writing in another language than English, getting translated. What that will do for people who actually try to make a living by writing is anyone's guess. Right now e-books are very much underpriced if you look at the cost of production (of a properly edited and formatted e-book). On the other hand, as a product e-books have a lot of shortcomings. I have lots of e-books but most of them are freebies or review copies. If I want a book I get it on paper still.

Thematically, I'm not really sure either. Zombies are hot now. It may be selkies or unicorns next year. Who knows? Somebody once said that science fiction is about the time it is written in. Maybe post apocalyptic fiction will take another direction if the current stalemate in American politics drags the world into another financial crisis. Maybe the BRIC nations will overshadow the western economies and we'll get books set in New Dehli, Bejing or Sao Paolo. That would certainly make for in interesting change. Ian McDonald will become an inspiration to many. Today's world is very unpredictable and with it the course of science fiction.

Though there are some 'big name' genre authors on your blog (Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, Alastair Reynolds, etc.), there is also considerable attention paid to women (Kaaron Warren, Catherynne M. Valente, Cherie Priest, etc.), non-white (Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, David Anthony Durham, etc.), and non-Anglophile writers (Lavie Tidhar, Chan Koonchung, al-Ayad Djibril, etc.).  What’s the reasoning behind this, and, do you think intentionally seeking out such writers affects only reading choices, or your personal life as well?

I stated out striving for a bit of diversity on the blog. In 2009 I made it something of a policy not to have the same name twice on the frontpage (which shows the ten most recent articles). I also wanted to mix science fiction and fantasy a bit, mixing up various sub-genres as much as possible. Some time after that one of the rounds in the frequently returning discussion on diversity in science fiction hit and I realized that my reading was not nearly as varied as I had assumed it was. I predominantly read novels by male authors from English speaking parts of the world.

After that I started keeping an eye out for titles from various underrepresented groups. I also made it a point of reading Dutch language titles although a lack of interesting works is still a major problem with that project. I don't want to read books just because they were written by a woman or a person of colour but there is a wealth of material out there once you start looking. It would of course be a bit easier if the big publishers directed some of their advertising budget in that direction.

I've always found that picking up books by one author automatically leads you to find others. Influences, collaborators, etc. Anthologies are a great way to be exposed to new writers as well. That being said, my reading is still very much centered on the anglophone sphere and I haven't reached parity when it comes to the male female ratio either. I guess old habits are hard to break.

I'm not sure how much it has changed in my personal life. I was already very much aware of the fact that literature didn't end with books written in English. I guess it has made me more aware of certain issues relating to discrimination, sexism and the way cultures interact. Being male and a member of the dominant ethnic group in the Netherlands these are things I have very little personal experience with.

Overall, what do you think makes science fiction and fantasy worth pursuing as your main reading material?

Ah... that is a tough one. Part of it is escapism for sure. I never liked to read books with contemporary Dutch settings. I have a fairly good understanding of how things work in this place and how people think. It is not surprising in any way, the challenge of following a character's way of thinking is not as present. When I had to read for Dutch literature I also developed an aversion of books set in the Second World War and the Dutch East Indies, or books featuring anti-heroes. If you look at the Dutch literary canon and remove all books with those elements the list that remains is very short indeed. The step to Fantasy is a small one if you take that into account.

Science fiction on the other hand is a different matter and there is a bit of a contradiction here. What I like in science fiction is that is explores developments in whole societies rather than look at things on a smaller scale. I haven't been able to make a career out of it but my education has been in environmental science. As a result I like books that explore the implications of climate change or developments in our food production for instance. Kim Stanley Robinson and Paolo Bacigalupi write stuff that is simply irresistible to me. That is just one example. Science fiction explores political developments or examines humanity in the light of new technological developments. It offers opportunities to explore what it means to be human in the widest sense imaginable.

So I am standing with one foot in fantasy land while the other is planted firmly in the political and environmental reality of this world. I guess as a reader I have a bit of a split personality.

Gun-to-your-head choice: science fiction or fantasy?

Science fiction. Ask me again in 10 years and I may give you another answer.

English is your second language (being from the Netherlands, it might even be your third, fourth, or fifth), yet you write very well.  Is there a particular reason for using English rather than Dutch or any other language in your blog?

Second very accurate. I speak a bit of German and understand it fairly well but reading a book in that language would be a challenge. I'm also trying to pick up some Norwegian but this is proving to be a formidable challenge. Despite it being a Germanic language it's not easy to pick up. Most of it still makes very little sense to me.

Before I offered my services to the reviewsite mentioned above I wrote short comments on books I read on my Livejournal. My friends over there are from all over the world and our common language is English. By that time I also read mostly English language books so writing about them in English made sense. The reviewsite was of course English language and when I switched to my own blog I never seriously considered switching to Dutch. I've written a few reviews in Dutch but only of books I have actually read in that language.

I also read a lot of material that isn't particularly popular in the Netherlands. Most science fiction I read will most likely never be translated. Even if I were to review them on sites oriented on the Dutch market, it would only be for people who could read them in English anyway.

Sticking with the subject, I'm curious to know whether you think an individual language can play a role in strengthening or weakening fiction?  For example, does the Dutch language have some advantage over English in story form, or vice versa?  

Languages are such complex creatures. I can say things in Dutch or English that I have no accurate translation for in the other language. Translation is an art, I admire people who can do it well.

Dutch is a poor language in a way. It has a vocabulary that includes an awful lot of loanwords. Most of the recent ones from English although there are a lot from French too. On the other hand Dutch is very flexible in regard to compounds, making the number of words potentially infinite. It is very easy to make up new words. Writers and comedians Kees van Kooten en Wim de Bie well known for introducing words like 'doemdenken' and 'regelneef' to the Dutch language. Both compounds and both difficult to translate. Dutch is a bit like German in this respect. A word like 'rioolwaterzuiveringsinstallatie' simply couldn't exist in English (I doubt you'll need it in fiction anyway). You'd think that would be an advantage in Fantasy in particular but in practice it often sounds forced. Translations of Robert Jordan's work in Dutch are unreadable because of the dreadful translation of terms like Forsaken, warder etc.

I would guess you have addressed this question at some point in your blogging, so apologies for being lazy and not doing the research, but are there any Dutch writers translated or writing in English that are doing something unique in sf&f?  In parallel, is there anything in particular about the writing of Evanby, Mastenbroek, and Stone that makes their websites worth noting on your blog?

In terms of keeping my readers informed or pointing out interesting work to them I guess it is pointless. I mostly review Dutch language works because I like to read one once in a while.

For a Dutch writer to get translated into English is neigh on impossible. The English language world produces such an incredibly amount of fiction that it can easily satisfy the demand. Publishers rarely see reason to shoulder the additional cost of having a work translated. And these costs are high indeed. Translation is an art and takes a lot of time. A poorly translated novel is a pain to read. If you look at the number of translated novels appearing in English, it is a shockingly low percentage. I know of only a handful of genre fiction writers who have managed to get anything published in English. It is much easier to sell work to other European markets, the German one in particular, where readers and publishers are more open to translations.

The Dutch fantasy (and almost nonexistent science fiction) market on the other hand is flooded with translations. Mostly from English but other languages are represented too. It has gotten to the point where authors adopt English sounding pseudonyms because of the public perception that no good Fantasy is being written in Dutch. Hence names like Adrian Stone and Paul Evanby.

I know Evanby has a couple of short stories out in English. I'm not entirely sure if he wrote them in English originally but I do know he is very proficient in that language. Thomas Olde Heuvelt recently made the Hugo ballot with a translated novelette. He paid for the translation himself but managed to get it published in a PS Publishing anthology. There is a translation of his novel Harten Sara in the works. I read it in Dutch and I can't wait to see what the English language world will make of that one. W.J. Maryson published a full novel in English,which he had translated himself. It is the first in a trilogy. Unfortunately he passed away not too long after it was released so I very much doubt the translations of the trilogy will be completed. I think Stone is looking into having his work translated too but I don't know how far along that project is. The only author I can think of who writes in English (except maybe Evanby) is Jetse de Vries. 

In the past I spent quite some time on a Dutch language forum where a lot of writers and readers hang out. In terms of real quality writing there isn't that much being produced and there is no real platform for what is written to be published. The only magazine that published short fiction went under some time ago for instance. I don't really expect many people to make it big internationally. I do still pick one up because I like to have some idea what is going on in the Dutch language fantasy community.

There is a (quasi) caveat in your profile to the effect "I am reading and reviewing science fiction and fantasy for the time being".  Do you see yourself branching out from the field in the future to review other areas of literature, or is sf&f in your blood?

I don't think I'll ever stop reading in those genres completely but the emphasis may shift. I've occasionally posted reviews of historical fiction and horror as well. I do from time to time read books that could be considered main stream fiction too. There was a period when I predominantly read fantasy. Then it shifted to science fiction. I don't see that changing any time soon as there are still lots of books I want to read, but I don't rule out the possibility that other genres will pop up on Random Comments. There may be some articles on movies too in the near future but I'm not writing those myself.

Perhaps you are no longer, but I think in the past you were participating in online reading challenges, yes?  What are your thoughts about such events?

I'm taking part in the World Without End Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge this year. The goal is to read twelve novels by twelve women you haven't read anything of before. One of them has to be a random author. It's the second time I'm taking part in one of their reading challenges. What I like about their approach is that they are not too ambitious in their target. It's a good way to be exposed to new writers and it fits well with my effort to read more books written by women but the number of books I need to read is not so large it completely takes over my reading time. I'll meet the target easily this year despite a late start.

I don't think you should approach these challenges as a way to boast of what you have read or to prove something to other readers. They can be used as a way to broaden your horizon and venture outside your comfort zone however. My experiences with the two challenges I've taken part in are mostly positive. Once in a while I pick up a book I don't like. For reviewing purposes those are probably more interesting than the ones you think are brilliant. I also think that you should read your share of mediocre work just to be able to recognize what is really good. Reading widely shapes your tastes, if a reading challenge helps you to do that, I'm all for it.

Does the current state of your blog meet expectations, or do you plan changes?

It exceeded my expectations in the sense that I never expected it to last more than a year or two. I'm always considering changing things however. I have hinted at a few things in earlier questions. On top of that I'm also considering moving away from blogger and move to Wordpress. I'm something of a computer illiterate though, it may be a while before I work up the courage to attempt that.

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