Interview with Civilian Reader


My guest today is Stefan, aka Civilian Reader. He has been blogging and reviewing for over seven years. He sometimes works in publishing, journalism and research. He has also lived all over the world, and apparently can’t stop relocating. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook. One day, he hopes to own All The Books.

SCy-Fy: Stefan, you’ve been on the blogging scene a long time. What has been the biggest change in that period?

CR: When I started, there weren’t that many SFF bloggers, so I remember when it was relatively easy to get noticed. There has been an explosion in the number of SFF bloggers. So many voices, clamouring to be heard. I don’t think it’s reached saturation levels, yet, and I’m not sure that there necessarily is a specific point when there are too many blogs. It’s all good, in my opinion: one big, noisy conversation about books that people feel passionately about, one way or another.

SCy-Fy: What changes do you think there will be in the community going forward?

CR: I sometimes wonder if there might be greater consolidation: more group-blogs like the superb Fantasy Faction and SF Signal, rather than single-writer blogs like CR or the sadly-missed Staffer’s Musings/Book Review. There seem to be new podcasts popping up quite frequently – not something I’ve ever tried, but it does look and sound like fun.

SCy-Fy: Any tips for bloggers?

CR: Truth be told, I don’t really think that much about blogging itself. I don’t read many other blogs, either – in fact, I rarely read other blogs. Not because I don’t respect other bloggers’ work, or have no interest in doing so: I just only have so much time, and would rather spend it reading the books.

SCy-Fy: So, no advice for them?

CR: Just write what you want, how you want. Don’t try to be anyone else; don’t try to Write Criticism unless you have a facility for it. After all, it’s your blog. I’ve read a lot of reviews that are trying to write what the blogger thinks is “literary criticism”. Mostly, these reviews come across like they have been mugged by a thesaurus.

SCy-Fy: I’ve just binned mine…

CR: Simply put: if you don’t know what the word means, don’t use it! There are some bloggers who do have the skills and vocabulary to write “proper” criticism, but they are fewer and further between than we are led to believe. Yes, there is an infinite number of ways one could write a review or construct a blog. But readers can spot a fake or clumsy attempt to be something you’re not. Be yourself. I’m over-egging this point, I know, but it drives me up the wall the way people don’t seem to understand the difference between “intelligent” and “intellectual”, and assume you can only be the former if you sound the latter.

The more you do, the more you write, the better you’ll become, the more likely you are to develop your own style and voice. That’s what will attract readers – just think of your favourite authors: they will come at their material from completely different perspectives, and can have the same impact.

To be fair, I have no doubt committed all of the possible blogger/reviewer sins along the way…

SCy-Fy: Do tell.

CR: I was very impressionable and performance-anxious when I first started out: I wanted publishers to take me seriously. I remember being so apologetic about not liking a book, and trying so very desperately to review everything I received, regardless of if I actually liked it or not. Thankfully, I’ve got over that, and now just read and review what I feel like writing about. There was an odd feeling of obligation, even for unsolicited review copies.

Ultimately if you produce good/interesting content, people will find and like your website. It’s much easier to spot issues and mistakes in other people’s work than it is in our own. In fact, I recently read a journal article that claimed it was entirely natural for detail-oriented, intelligent people to miss errors in their own writing – it had something to do with the mind auto-correcting in a subject it is over-familiar with. Or something like that. And, as this interview probably proves, I can waffle on at great length about things… I am a man of Opinions.

SCy-Fy: Anything else to say to other bloggers?

CR: Don’t plagiarise. Don’t post other people’s content without asking – there seem to be a number of new sites who think this is OK… So, also, keep an eye out for scrapers.

Don’t take it too seriously. Certainly don’t take yourself too seriously. Stay calm, and don’t bug people. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches, either. Don’t be too eager to contribute to every discussion and comment on every scandal.

Oh, and please don’t use the construction “I could say X, but I won’t…” It’s annoying and extremely bad writing.

SCy-Fy: I could ask – ah, you nearly caught me there! What about reviewers?

CR: If all you’re doing is reviewing the titles most others are, and not making an effort to seek out lesser-known or less-publicised authors and novels, then you’re probably not contributing as much as you think you are. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read and review or feature what you think looks interesting. But… vary it a bit. If you are doing this to make a mark, or have other ambitions related to publishing, you’ll need to show imagination and initiative. Reviewing only the books that receive the greatest publicity investment won’t suffice.

Also, if you don’t like a book that seemingly everyone else loves, don’t lie about it. You didn’t like it – say why, and leave it at that. The SFF community draws from all tastes, types, countries, etc. There’s space for any and all (respectful) opinions.

SCy-Fy: I think I accidentally binned my list of questions along with the thesaurus… So – umm – tell me about a typical blogging day.

CR: A typical blogging day for me takes one of two forms. If I have something to review, then I’ll focus on that. It usually takes me between 10-30mins to write a review. Once I’ve finished with a review, if I have one that needs doing – or, as is more often the case, if I feel like writing one of the ones that have started to stack up – I might browse some publisher catalogues or take a look back through my Twitter feed for any new and/or upcoming titles that might have caught my eye. Other than that, I don’t think there’s anything particular or special I do when I’m working on the blog.

SCy-Fy: In general, what have been the most popular types of posts?

CR: I’ve found that my “Upcoming” and cover art posts are more popular than reviews, interviews, etc.

SCy-Fy: What are your future initiatives for the blog?

CR: Uhm… I don’t really have any. I don’t like to plan things too far ahead with the blog – I never intended to switch over to WordPress, for example, until I got a new computer and discovered that my old blogging programme (Live Writer, which is excellent and simple to use) doesn’t work on Macs.

I’ve sometimes tried to initiate a series of guest posts around a shared theme, but that rarely works out. So, I’ll just keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them for the past seven years: day-by-day, posting whatever I happen to feel like writing at the time.

Or, I might one day just shut the whole thing down if I no longer feel like writing.

SCy-Fy: I hope not. Your secret list of useful resources?

CR: I… don’t really have any. I search publishers’ catalogues as and when they come out. Although, I do work part-time for a literary agent, and have a couple of friends who are agents and editors, so I sometimes get early tips and looks at things. But, they’re almost always embargoed until they’re officially announced or in the catalogues, so not that much of a head-start. Being friendly with publicists also helps – there are so many great publicists working at the moment, in the US and UK, and they’re very forthcoming and helpful. If you keep your ears and eyes open, it’s not difficult to spot upcoming releases, etc. Amazon’s very handy for cover artwork, too, because they request it ages before release.

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?

CR: Good books. I’ve had quite a few over the last 3-4 years, and when something goes wrong, or circumstances trips me up, I can usually make myself feel better if I have a book by a favourite author, or a great debut find. Or I’ll watch West Wing and Friends. Or listen to lots of rock and metal.

SCy-Fy: Posts of yours that have had the most impact or controversy?

CR: I try to avoid controversy. I don’t think one needs to court it in order to be noticed. Maybe I’m too reserved online? There are certainly times when I see things that aggravate me, or examples of rank hypocrisy that can get me a little annoyed. But, ultimately, life’s too short. I am a man of many opinions, but I have thus far managed to exercise self-control.

SCy-Fy: There must have been one or two, though.

CR: Well, not many people liked my disappointed review of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice – it attracted the usual “you’re wrong!” and poorly-executed, sophomoric snark. I thought the novel started off very well (wonderful opening chapter, actually), then I just got bored. Maybe I’ll try it again in the near future.

SCy-Fy: Any others?

CR: My review of Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes didn’t go down well with someone who was obviously connected with either the original publisher or the author.

Otherwise, I have no idea if anything I’ve written has had a particular impact – you’d have to ask others. I don’t really think about that side of things.

SCy-Fy: Let’s finish with the best books of 2014.

CR: Hmm. That’s tricky – 2014 was a very good year for SFF. In no particular order (and sticking with fiction), probably the following: Sarah Lotz’s The Three, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, Marcus Sedgwick’s A Love Like Blood, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m bound to have missed someone. And, of course, I wasn’t able to read all of the 2014 releases I had wanted to…

SCy-Fy: Which upcoming releases are you most looking forward to reading?

CR: That’s a huge list. But, again off the top of my head: Daniel Polansky’s Those Above, Alex Marshall’s A Crown For Cold Silver, Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, Sarah Lotz’s Day Four, Ian Tregillis’s The Mechanical, Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands, Peter V. Brett’s The Skull Throne, Stina Leicht’s Cold Iron, Col Buchanan’s The Black Dream, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn, Brian McClellan’s The Autumn Republic, Austin Grossman’s Crooked, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, Ian McDonald’s Luna, Matthew Glass’s Fishbowl… .

SCy-Fy: You’ll be well on the way to achieving your ambition of owning All the Books.

CR: Thankfully, I already have a few of these… I’m also looking forward to anything new from Claire North, Robert Galbraith, John Sandford, Teresa Frohock, Edward Cox, and the new Kyle Mills novel (he’s taking over the Mitch Rapp series started by Vince Flynn, who passed away). I’m bound to have missed someone off. Please don’t be offended if I have.

SCy-Fy: Thank you, Stefan.

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