Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reviewer Time: Ben from "Speculative Fiction Junkie"

Another Sunday has come and gone and I’m posting in between time zone the latest Reviewer Time feature with this week’s reviewer Ben from “Speculative Fiction Junkie”. I am not quite sure how much I will be able to cover in the commentary since Ben is a busy guy in the realm of offline affairs, thus making him a more in the shades kind of blogger, who slips under the radar too often.

It’s actually inspiring to see such a dedication to the passion of reading and reviewing, despite maintaining an impossible schedule, which results in sporadic posts in between ten days and even longer periods of time. It’s a given that due to the low activity on his blog readers might lose patience, leave and possibly not return, because readers like to be entertained all the time and are lead by whims and needs that often morph 24/7. And yet this is the reality that some if not all of us face on a steady basis; life butting in on our fun to the point where we would have to set priorities straight and make the needed sacrifices. To have persistence and proceed with the time-consuming and laborious commitment to run a book blog is invaluable to have in your character and Ben has that, which shows just how dedicated he is despite problems in the activity department.

Being done with the psychological profile of the blogger [if I dare label the above paragraph as such] let’s proceed to the blog itself. “Speculative Fiction Junkie” is based on the principle what you see is what you get in sense that Ben is a junkie in love with spec fic and the sole material covered on his blog is book reviews. His reviews are damn good: long, structured, clever and well phrased with personal revelations as well as excerpts to illustrate his points. But there is nothing beside that, which I am not completely sure it is negative since review blogs should have an emphasis on the reviews and by dictionary definition all is well, but then again book review blogs function beyond and construct over reviews. The filler material, be it essays, polls, interviews, in-the-mail box posts, giveaways, news from the web gives each blog the individual vibe that separates one blog from the other. In Ben’s case it is a decision based on time issues and personal choice to neglect the other tools used by book bloggers [probably being his own personal signature that makes him recognizable], but it certainly has me thinking about it.

So to summarize Ben is a friendly overworked guy, who produces attention worthy material and usually is fast enough to respond to any commenter, which for me is always a plus, since I like striking dialogue whenever possible with people with same interests as me. And on the bright side, if your Google Reader is overpopulated like mine the slow paced posting schedule here will work for you benefit.

HM: I bet you have kept up with this feature so you know that the first few questions are always personal, so let’s get straight to work. Who is Ben, when he is not in charge of the awesome “Speculative Fiction Junkie”? ?

Ben: I'm not that interesting really. I'm a twenty-nine year old living in the Southeastern United States who works in State government. A lawyer by training, I write state laws for a living. I am engaged to a wonderful and mercifully patient woman and am the father of two cats. In addition to reading I also love hockey, music, and Linux.

HM: I am a big fan of lists, so I want you to list me three fun facts that your readers probably would never ever guess about you.

(1) I used to blog for a magazine devoted to mobile computing and mobile phones.

(2) One of our cats is named "Bean" and the other is named "Fluffer" on account of her fluffiness. Unfortunately, after we named Fluffer, we learned that a "fluffer" is a member of the crew on porno film sets who performs services that are rather too embarrassing to write about (those of you who are interested can look it up on Wikipedia if you're interested).

(3) If I could visit one place in the world that place would be Iceland. If you think that sounds odd, do a Google image search for pictures of the place. It looks absolutely beautiful. Plus, any country that produced the world's first parliamentary democracy and the band Sigur Rós must be worth seeing.

HM: When and how was your passion for reading sparked and what was your path to discovering the pretty rad world that is speculative fiction?

My love for reading is a part of my earliest memories. My parents used to read to me every night when I was a child and I always had my own bookshelf stocked full with books. Even when money was tight, my mother somehow always managed to find enough for me to buy a book. There was also a beautiful Carnegie library in my neighborhood. Additionally, when I was young my family used to attend church regularly, which firmly convinced me of the power and magic of the written word. While I no longer go to church and am not religious, church was very formative with respect to my love for both books and music. My passion for reading, in other words, has always been a part of who I am.

Similarly, I've always loved speculative fiction even when I didn't know what it was called. The most salient memory I have of a moment in which I consciously realized that I liked this sort of fiction a lot more than I liked other fiction came after I purchased a copy of Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" from a grocery store when I was twelve. While grocery store fiction is often appropriately the subject of jokes, in this case it came through for me.

HM: What was the inspiration behind the conception of “Speculative Fiction Junkie” and how did you decide on this form of blogging in the first place?

For me, blogging is a means of extending my hobbies and interests. With one exception, no one around me reads speculative fiction. Creating Speculative Fiction Junkie allowed me to engage in conversations with people who share this interest wherever they are in the world. This was the reason I created Speculative Fiction Junkie.

If you're asking where I came up with the name for the site, there really isn't too much to it. when I was first toying with the idea of creating a blog about fiction I knew that the sort of fiction that interested me most could be broadly referred to as speculative fiction. Knowing this, I just asked myself what one would call a person who enjoys this sort of writing and immediately came up with the term "speculative fiction junkie."

HM: What’s the part of review blogging that liberates you from the mundane troubles and makes it worth the time and effort and what part frustrates you the most?

As alluded to in my answer to the previous question, the best and most liberating part about running Speculative Fiction Junkie is that it allows me to talk with others who are as interested in speculative fiction as I am. I have forged some great friendships with other bloggers, authors, and publishers through the site. As far as my fellow bloggers go, I'm thinking in particular of guys like Colin from Highlander's Book Reviews and Mihai from Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews.

HM: Have you ever felt like abandoning it whole, because the world pressed you on reading and blogging time?

Definitely. Every few months I think about abandoning the whole endeavor. Several things lead me to toy with this idea periodically but the main one is the self-imposed time pressure. I try to post a review every ten days. Most of the time, this is no problem but the workload at my job is subject to extreme fluctuations that can require me to work nights and weekends which sometimes make this schedule unrealistic. During these moments I remember fondly what it was like to read without time pressures and consider whether or not it's truly worthwhile to continue with the blog. At the end of the day, however, the reality is that I just love talking about books too much to seriously consider such a move.

Another thing that can make blogging burdensome is the time pressure that comes along with accepting review copies. Some bloggers receive so many review copies that the publisher of a given book simply hopes that the blogger will select that book from among the dozen or so other books that the blogger likely received that week. I am not one of these. In roughly 80% of the cases in which I receive a review copy I've corresponded directly with the publisher, publicist, or author about the book and have created an impression that I will likely read and review the book within a reasonable period of time. While I always reserve the right to decline to review a book, in most cases I do my best to read review copies in a timely fashion, which can create an additional layer of unwelcome time pressure. In fact, I've recently been considering ceasing the practice of accepting review copies altogether. For this very reason.

HM: This is a fairly new question I plan on keeping in the general template for awhile so here goes. As a reviewer do you go through all lengths to finish a novel or do you drop it after it feels too much to read?

I do my best to finish every book I start reading but I'm not dogmatic about it. If the book is just unbearable or if there are other more worthy tomes I'm itching to read then I will reluctantly put a book down without finishing it. Some people have a rule that if the author hasn't won them over by page 100, then they stop reading the book. I don't have such a rule and just stop reading when my gut tells me the book isn't working for me. When I do so, however, I try to provide a brief reason for my failure to finish in the section of SFJ labeled "couldn't finish."

HM: I am hooked on these cover art battles and am totally a believer that the cover is essential for the novel as the story, since it can spark the initial chemistry between a reader and a novel. And I basically enjoy novels harder, when their cover art is not to my liking. It’s prejudiced and I am trying to overcome it, but what about you?

Cover art is not as important to me as it is to some. I think it's most important in the sense that a good cover can prompt me to pick up a book that I might have otherwise passed by. In other words, a good cover is important to me only insofar as it helps me discover good books. Beyond this, a nice cover is nice, but that's about it. A bad cover on the other hand can be very annoying.

HM: Have you ever wished to be one of the authors reviewed on blogs and have a long career with novel after novel?

When I was five years old, Garrison Keillor visited the neighborhood library to promote his book "Lake Wobegon Days." My parents bought me a copy so that I could get it signed and when it was my turn in line I proudly told him that I was a writer too. As a result, my copy of the book now bears the inscription: "To Ben, who is a writer too." Despite this, while I like the idea of being a writer I have never taken serious steps towards becoming one and don't think I would be very good at it.

HM: What’s the story archetype or trope that will always keep you entertained no matter how many times it is done and on the polar end what is the one trope or story that will bug you out no matter how many twists are presented?

Honestly, there isn't any archetypal story or trope that I especially love or hate. A good writer can bring something new and worthwhile to even the most overused tropes. I do, however, have preferences just like anyone else. For example, while I enjoy post-apocalyptic tales and weird fiction, I do not share or understand the current love of vampire fiction.

HM: As social networks grow, countless new sites that measure ranks pop up and more of us show at the blogging party have you officially entered the web hits war? I know there is one, even if it is silent, since we all want to be taken seriously and counted as reliable sources for information and critique and numbers prove that. Where do you stand on this subject matter?

I have not entered the web hits war and have no plans to do so. The reason for this is that my goals don't have much to do with popularity as measured by numbers. Of course, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want people to read SFJ but I'm confident that those with similar tastes who are looking for reviews of works we're both interested in will eventually find the site, and if they don't, it's because they found what they were looking for elsewhere.

With a few exceptions, SFJ contains only reviews. No giveaways, no news items, no book trailers, no release announcements, etc. (although I am considering doing some interviews). It's not that I mind these things and I sometimes read them on other peoples' sites but the truth is that most of the time I just skip over them because these things aren't what I'm looking for when I read book blogs. I find myself gravitating towards those blogs whose content mostly consists of reviews and as a consequence that's what I try to make SFJ. I know for a fact that it costs me hits but I'm completely okay with that.

That's how I choose to run SFJ but it definitely doesn't mean that others have to do the same thing. I think the variety of focus and content on speculative fiction blogs is one of the things that makes the scene so vibrant. I do, however, completely disagree with the notion that numbers prove how seriously one is taken or how reliable a source of information one is, anymore than, say, bestseller lists prove what good books are.

HM: Publishing is evolving and changing. Conventional publication makes a few inches space for new forms to arise and one of them is self-publishing. Do you estimate that it will evolve into a reputable form with well regarded titles in the future and what is your opinion of it now?

Self-publishing is a tricky subject. While there's nothing that prevents self-published works from attaining the highest quality, the fact remains that they rarely do so, or at least don't do so as often as their more conventionally published counterparts. While the conventional route to getting published undoubtedly has flaws, there is a lot to be said for the fact that works that are produced in this manner have to meet certain minimum quality standards in the form of approval by various individuals. There is no similar guarantee of quality assurance for self-published work and this will, I think, continue to mean that self-publishing leads to a lot of bad books. For this reason, despite the occasional outlier, I suspect that the reputation of self-publishing will not improve in the years to come. My current opinion of self-publishing reflects this view. I approach such works skeptically. But the fact that a book is self-published, standing alone, would never lead me to decline to review a book.

HM: And as technology creeps in and the physical book is fought for dominance by the electronic copies, what do you think of the new e-book phenomenon?

It sounds tacky to say, but I believe that getting people to read is the paramount issue and that it doesn't really matter if they're reading eBooks, traditional books, or scratchings in the dirt.

As a matter of personal preference I will always prefer a traditional book over any other form of reading medium. This is partially because that's just what I'm used to and partially because I'm a book collector. Fortunately, I think there are a lot of people all over the world who feel the same way about physical books as I do. As such, I absolutely do not fear that the eBook will lead to the demise of the traditional book as some do. Furthermore, even if the traditional book were to fall out of favor with the general reading public somewhat, I believe that countless small presses would proliferate to counteract fill the void, something we've already seen a bit of recently and a development that I hardily welcome.

HM: Still connected with the shift in the publishing landscape, I have a question regarding the books from publishing houses. Big houses bet on the money and what sells and at a certain point some titles in some genres begin to echo each other, while small houses have published some uncharacteristic titles that don’t draw too much attention, but to me offer a bit of refreshing air. Are you sated with big houses or are you willing to stick with what you know?

In terms of quality, I think that the big publishers do a decent job of making sure that what they publish is of sufficiently high quality, writing wise. While a lot of what they publish may not be to my own liking, that doesn't mean that they aren't doing a decent job in this respect.

The main problem I have with the big publishers is that they don't do a very good job of maintaining variety within genres. For example, go into a bookstore and look in the horror section. You're likely to find a shelf full of Stephen King and not much else. Some of the best branches of the genre, like supernatural horror and weird fiction, are seldom represented to any meaningful degree. For this reason, I could not live without the output of the many smaller presses who do publish in these neglected subgenres.

Similarly, while the big publishers seldom publish the work of authors who can't write, they do sometimes decline to publish the work of able authors who deserve to be published. The example that immediately comes to mind is the work of Michael J. Sullivan. It blows my mind that a major publisher hasn't picked him up yet and without the existence of small presses, I wouldn't have had access to his work at all. So, to answer your question, I need the output of both the big publishers and the small presses in order to satisfy my tastes.

HM: Also I have been drowning in genres that keeping sprouting everywhere and all definitions cause my brain to melt down. Truth is that to me the lines between genres are blurring into obscurity. Could this mean a possible post-genre future?

I agree with you that the lines between genres are increasingly blurred, but I don't think this necessarily reflects any major substantive changes to the sort of books people are writing. I don't think we're looking at a post-genre future. People will always use genre labels.

HM: Please finish with your own words.

I'm proud to be a member of the speculative fiction blogging community but I do think there is one thing we need to work on as a community. Periodically, when disagreements break out among us, a few of us become very nasty, very quickly. I'm not really sure why this is the case but I think it's really destructive and needs to stop. There's nothing wrong with different opinions but when these disagreements digress into name calling and mockery things have gone too far.

Lastly, I really want to thank you Harry for this opportunity. I love reading your Reviewer Time interviews and I know that a lot of others do as well. Keep up the great work!


C.G.Leslie said...

Great interview as always Harry and thanks for the namecheck Ben. People should be aware that although SFJ may be updated less frequently than other blogs Ben has a remarkable ability to find new and exciting authors and books so it's definitely quality over quantity.

Ben said...

Thanks Colin :)

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