Sunday, September 5, 2010

[Reviewer Time] Paul C. Smith from Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream

Blog: Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream [oh-so-vague, but oh-so-beautiful]
Founder: Paul C Smith
First Post: February 18th 2010 [You can still catch a whiff of that new-blog-smell; FYI it smells like ozone.]
Average Number of Posts per Month: 17 [based on 2010 so far; up until September]

Genres: Paul loves books and can rarely be found without one on him somewhere. He has eclectic tastes and reads in a wide range of areas from mainstream literature to genre, poetry, dramatics, philosophy, and non-fiction.

From the Dude Himself: Born and raised in the Northwest of England, encouraged from an early age to read by his mother, Paul spent many a Saturday afternoon in the local town library while she was shopping. He carried this love of reading with him through school to university where he studied in philosophy. Choosing to continue his studies, he is now doing a part time postgraduate degree in philosophy on the narrative as a model for ethics that will be completed next year, while working full time at the dreaded day job. As none of his friends are really that interested in books, after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife, he decided to start a blog in order to talk about the books that he likes.

Highlights: Everything… [Bastard; bringing quality material with every post. I need a hit man]

Why do I bother?: Oh you know, keep friends close, but keep enemies closer. I prefer to have them strapped down to chairs in my basement, but first you gotta be friendly. Creepy serial killer notions aside, Paul is erudite and his reviews target books that are never on my radar, since I don’t know of their existence. He strikes me as ultra-sophisticated [just read the interview] and ultra-friendly on Twitter.


Harry Markov: Hello, Paul. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Pleasure to have you here. As part of the hallowed traditions of this feature, let’s start with a bit about you. Who is Paul C Smith?

Paul Smith:
My first inclination upon reading this question was to compare the various notions about the self from Plato and Aristotle through Descartes and Hume and the criticism raised on ideas of the self by Nietzsche, so I suppose Paul C Smith is a student of philosophy. He is also an avid reader of all sorts of books, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama, a part time amateur critic, and a novice at the noble art of writing prose. He also seems to enjoy talking about himself in the third person a little too much.

HM: What lured you into literature? Of course, I also include the genres you read in.

My mother instilled the important of reading into me at a young age, and most of my Saturday afternoons were spent in the library while she was shopping in town, so I suppose I have her to thank for it. As a child, I read of lot of fantasy, so I suspect that is why it has stayed with me into adulthood. I just seemed to have stumbled into other genres, through my interest in philosophy, recommendations from friends or writers I admire, et cetera and realized that I enjoy all different sorts of books.

HM: Something, which is feverishly encouraged. But what are the benefits from reading and venturing outside our comfort zones?

There are so many great books out there; I just cannot see the point of limiting yourself to certain genres. It just seems to me like you are cutting yourself off from the potential of great books based on assumptions that may not be true. There are also education benefits, in the general sense and the writing sense. Michael Moorcock has always said that if you want to be a writer, then you should read a lot of books outside of the kind that you want to write, and I agree.

HM: You are one of the many review blogs [I sense overpopulation], but even though we are many and our content overlaps, everyone has a distinct reason to start blogging and a story tied to their blog. What is your origin story?

It is not anything particularly interesting. Like many other people who maintain blogs I would like to be a writer one day. I started it as a way to meet people and network with others, as suggested in Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful book on managing and publicizing your work, Booklife. It seemed like a natural fit, as I am a pretty opinionated person who loves to read and often has a lot to say.

HM: Aha, so I have discovered another writer amidst our reviewing ilk. What is the type of stories you want to write and have you started your debut?

I don’t really like to put a label on it as I prefer to say that I write fiction, but I suppose in terms of influences there’s the symbolists and the decadents, weird tales, dark fantasy, philosophical horror, existentialism and New Weird. I’m not interested in longer forms at the moment, so I have mostly been working on short stories.

HM: I am usually past the point, where I ask bloggers about their blogs’ title, but “Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream” has a bewitching quality, which makes me want to know what this phrase means to you and why you chose it.

It is a wonderful line isn’t it? It is taken from one of my favourite poems by W.B. Yeats, (arguably the most important poet of the twentieth century), called The Hosting of the Sidhe. As the host passes by lead by Caoilte and Niahm, who becomes for Yeats a sort of figure similar to Viviane in the work of Tennyson as a seductress to mortals. In the poem, the line represents this idea of leaving your mortal life and all its worries behind to join the fey folk. I chose it for the site because I think it embodies this idea that we have all become a little too cynical and hard hearted and we could all do to open ourselves up to something more otherworldly and wondrous.

HM: I can understand this in two ways. Opening to the wondrous by reading speculative fiction or by reading only for pleasure without trying to dissect a novel for its meaning? Of course this can be much more innocent as in simply being more positive.

Mostly the former, as I don’t see a distinction between reading for pleasure and looking for meaning, although I do admit I am the kind of person who finds books that aren’t trying to say something quite unfulfilling.

HM: You are the non-conformist from us [sorry to label], always reaching for the odd, unknown titles. Do you not fancy the mainstream SFF or do you consciously present the books that do not see much limelight?

A think it is a little bit of both. Mainstream science fiction and fantasy for the most part doesn’t interest means it tends to consist of epic fantasy and space opera, but I did make a conscious choice to try and showcase the work of lesser-known non-mainstream authors. There are a number of good reasons why I chose to do this, but the ones that are probably the most compelling are that there is less of this kind of content online which makes the blog a bit more unique, and I think those authors benefit more from the coverage than those who are already big names.

HM: Who tops the list of the underappreciated and why should he/she be read?

Michael Cisco. I wrote a whole essay on the subject, but to put it succinctly he is an amazing stylist, his prose his beautiful and his work is thoroughly original. His novel, The Traitor, is one of the best of the last decade.

HM: You also post a weekly character expose, where you shed light on characters you love and explain why people should read about them. How did this idea form? What prompted you to start?

There is not an exciting story behind it I’m afraid, I was just trying to think of what to post on a Sunday afternoon, and that is what I came up with. I had not really seen many articles that focus mostly on doing a study of a character rather than the books he or she had been in, so it seemed like a good idea at the time, and people seem to like it. It has been on hiatus for a while as I have been quite busy with other things, but it may make a return sometime in the future.

HM: To jump back at the unusual titles [older books and such] you review, I assume you do not keep close ties with the publicists. Have you not been tempted to jump on the ARC/review copy train?

I don’t have any ties with publicists at all and I don’t have any real plans to forge any. I enjoy the freedom that not having to do any advance reviews gives me, and I wouldn’t know what to do if boxes of random books started showing up on the doorstep every fortnight. A lot of people are doing the ARC and doing a good job, but it just isn’t for me. I like the fact that the only obligations I have are to myself, and if I had a pile of books I felt obligated to review it would start to feel more like a job. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to get the odd advance copy of something by an author I like, but for me it just isn’t worth everything else that comes with it.

HM: There have been discussions that reviewers tend to be influenced by publishers and publicists with new releases and that review copies shape their reading. Now I am not going into absolute statements or hyperboles, but going for the average. What’s your take on the matter?

It is a very difficult question because essentially it pertains to people’s intentions, which are always difficult to gauge. I would like to think the aim of any reviewer is to be both impartial and honest, but it would be very naive to believe that there aren’t some people more interested in getting free books. I think there is a bit of a dichotomy between those who only review new releases and those who also review older books, as was seen by the discussions not so long ago regarding the question of whether older books are being forgotten. That being said, I do think there are enough blogs currently doing both so I don’t think it is a major problem just yet. Personally, I do feel those limiting themselves to only new releases are doing themselves a disservice though.

HM: Should reviewers know their genre history prior to tackling the reviewer gig? Yes, the web gives us all voice, but who equips it to the best is what I want to know.

I definitely think it is helpful, if only to know when something is original and something is a cliché. It helps to be able to place something within a context, but I do not think a detailed knowledge of genre history is essential. It is helpful though and as readers it is something that we usually build up over time anyway if we avoid reading only new releases.

HM: You are a long review writer in an era in which people want bite size information. There is no time to read long reviews. Does this mean that the long review no longer has a place on the Internet?

I do not really believe that, and to be honest I find capsule reviews to be ineffectual even when done well. If a novel is good then it is impossible to describe the reasons why adequately in one paragraph. I often find myself wondering when reading reviews why points made are not fully realized or supported with evidence. I think the main quantifier is the same now as it has always been, and that is quality. If you write a long form article that is intelligent and insightful then there will always be people who want to read it, I have certainly found that that is the case in my own experience. If anything, I think the Internet needs more long reviews and book discussions.

HM: What do you think of reviews done in parts as a distant relative of the long review?

I think they are fine as long as they are well structured, by which I mean each part discusses a specific point or points within the novel so that the part review can stand alone. Otherwise, if it just discusses what happens in a few chapters and then ends abruptly, it would feel a bit disjointed. I think it is also a good idea to try and ensure that there isn’t too much of a gap between the posts either, so that the onus isn’t on the reader to have to try and remember something posted a while before.

HM: Also when is longer a bit too long? How much can a reviewer write about a novel before it becomes pointless?

I am probably the wrong person to ask this question because I wrote five thousand words about John Gardner’s Grendel recently and could have easily written more, but I don’t think it is so much a length issue as it is a content one. Too long for me isn’t related to a word count, it is when the author starts to repeat himself. As long as you have valid and salient points to make, I think you are fine writing as much as you like.

HM: What is your approach to writing reviews?

I believe that the essential quality of the act of reading is a dialogue with the text; therefore every good review involves a form of argument. For me, I tend to think like a philosopher and reviewing a book consists of discerning the book’s main hypothesis, what it is trying to convey, and then evaluating how well the point is made through the use of characters, pace, stylistics, et cetera. The important thing is the central idea, and the other elements are the hook. The effectiveness of the book at convincing me of its hypothesis is the measure of how good the book is overall. The best stories are the ones that speak to us on a very human level through the ideas that they convey regardless of genres, whether it is William Faulkner or Zoran Zivkovic.

HM: And have you read a novel, which accomplishes this task, but which doesn’t appeal to your taste at all for different reasons?

James Joyce is an author who I both appreciate and admit the fact that he is a great writer, but he just doesn’t do anything for me. Personal taste does play a part, but as reviewers we have to strive to differentiate between fact and opinion. All reviews are subjective to an extent, but there are certainly objective facts to be made about good writing, whether we like it or not.

HM: What makes a good review?

Engagement with the text. I read a lot of reviews in which the reviewer tends to skirt around the edges, they tell us what happens, and what they like about the novel, but they don’t really tell us anything about the book. John Clute has said how sometimes it is necessary to pummel a work with your own firsts to make a Golem of it and I’d like to see more reviewers doing that. Be brave, interpret the text and tell us what you think the author is doing even if in doing so you misunderstand or misinterpret them. In the afterword to The Third Bear, Jeff VanderMeer talks about how when all is said and done there are only interpretations; that is what we need, more interpretations. I think most authors would appreciate that, even if you got it wrong.

HM: Thank you for your time and your most insightful answers. Are there any last words you would like to share with us?

Thank you for having me. Last words? I’m not dying, am I? I hope it isn’t syphilis; all the men I admire seem to catch it. Manet, Gaugain, Baudelaire, Heine, Nietzsche… I think I shall leave it at that.

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