Interview with Fantasy Literature

Today I will be talking with the team at Fantasy Literature, which consists of 17 reviewers. They have a rigorous application process for joining the site – and a very lengthy one for potential interviewers, as I have discovered – and all the reviewers work together to produce the site’s content. They’ve been blogging together daily for eight years.

SCy-Fy: Team, I am very pleased to have got this chance to speak to all of you. Firstly, tell me about a typical blogging day.

Kat Hooper: My blogging day starts at about 7:45 am, when I’m overseeing my kids getting off to school and before I get ready for work. As the managing editor, I usually make the decisions about which reviews to post each day. I usually post two or three reviews each weekday. They’ve been edited in advance by Jana Nyman, Ryan Skardal, or Kelly Lasiter.

Other FanLit folks do most of the feature columns that we run at noon (EST) most days. These are:

After posting the day’s reviews, I do my real job – I teach neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses at the University of North Florida. My commute is at least 40 min, so I read by audio during that time. After my classes, I usually check in on the blog a few times to see what’s going on. Later, I do my own reading and review writing and whatever kind of maintenance/oversight the blog needs. There’s a lot of planning and talking with authors and publicists, etc that goes on, but we all do that kind of stuff together. I spend only a very small amount of time on social media.

Terry: My typical day has me trying to get through my actual, paying work (as an attorney specializing in commercial litigation) before I let myself be distracted by what my colleagues at FanLit have written about; distracted by internet book sites; distracted by the thousands of books and magazines I live with, both tangible and in-; and then, around 10:00 p.m. or so, writing a review. A friend came up with a good word for what I do: procrasti-surfing. I read any time I can grab a minute, though I do most of my reading in the late evening and into the wee hours of the morning.

Jana: A typical day for me starts with checking my e-mail, taking a look at the FanLit site (to see what reviews went up and if I want to comment on anything), and scrolling through Twitter. If I don’t get these things out of the way before I sit down with a book, I’m likely to stop after twenty minutes because I’m focusing on what I might have missed.

As much as I want to, I don’t get a lot of reading done during the day – I tend to read a lot more, and more productively, at night. I sit down with the book in question, my note-taking tools (paper, pens, highlighters), and a cup of tea; in a good sitting, I can generally get through one or two hundred pages.

I also help with copy-editing reviews in advance of publishing them on the site, so in the evenings, I check to see if anything new has been uploaded by our contributors. I try to get any recently-uploaded documents edited and ready to go so that Kat can get the next day’s posts queued up either that evening or early the following morning.

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

Kate: I’ve just started a new essay column where authors, editors, readers, etc., can weigh in on different SF/F issues and ideas.

Terry: We have such a great group of reviewers that it seems like a new idea is always percolating somewhere. We’ve just begun reviewing other media such as film and we will probably be reviewing some SFF television programs soon.

SCy-Fy: Looking forward 3-5 years, what do you think will be the major challenges for SFF blogging?

Terry: For us, it will be the breakdown in traditional publishing. We’ll wind up reading more and more books that we don’t particularly like, just to get through the bulk of what’s published out there and be of service to our readers. It’s already a problem, but it’s becoming more so.

Jana: I agree with Terry – the sheer number of titles which are coming out of traditional publishing houses, combined with the self-publishing industry, can be overwhelming and exhausting. It’s difficult for me to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to either camp. I’ve read bad books – both in terms of content and presentation – from both, so I can’t make a sweeping judgement with regards to the superiority of established publishers over individual effort.

I’m also challenged by the need to anticipate what books our readers will want to see reviewed, while still taking on books which spark my interest; if I’m just reading titles to suit every reader but me, reviewing will become a chore rather than a rewarding hobby.

Marion: I don’t know if it will be a “challenge”, but it’s fun to speculate where the technology will lead us. Maybe our “live action avatars” will pop up on our subscribers’ smart watches as we live-blog every sentence of every book we read… Seriously, blogging is already changing. Between that and the “wild west” aspect of publishing (and entertainment in general; how does anybody really know who watched a given TV episode anymore?) I think it’s hard to predict where we’ll be in five years.

Ryan: I was sad when Google stopped offering Reader. If you’re an independent blogger, you probably had to rethink your strategy for spreading content to readers. (Though there are other RSS feeders, I haven’t found one I like as much as I liked Reader.) It seems like a lot of the conversation has moved away from blogs to Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit. (And probably a few dozen places I am not hip enough to understand, too.) Having said that, I tend to think of FanLit as a resource as much as I think of it as a blog.

SCy-Fy: Tips for reviewers? For writers? Bloggers?

Kate: I always enjoy reviews that go a little deeper, entering into conversation with some of the ideas of the book, rather than just a list of good points and bad points (although I fall prey to that impulse myself when I’m under the gun, or just haven’t found the book very interesting!) It’s not always about rating a book, although we do that, as much as it is telling a story about the experience of reading a book. Good books change you; they give you things to think about. And I know I’ve written a good review when I’ve had to wrestle new ideas to the ground to put them into words.

Bill Capossere: For writers: More maps! I’d also like to see more authors push their style a bit farther and experiment more with structure and setting.

For reviewers: More context as to where a work fits into the genre in general and into the author’s work in terms of quality and material (this is a reminder to myself as well).

For bloggers: Have an identity, a voice.

SCy-Fy: Just between us – your secret list of useful resources?

Terry: My favorite sites include, SFSignal, My Bookish Ways, John Scalzi’s Whatever, File 770 and Locus Online. For books more generally, I like BookRiot, The Millions, Omnivoracious, and The Guardian. It would be easy to spend all one’s time reading ABOUT books, instead of reading books.

Ryan: I really like to use the lists pages on Goodreads to find new books to read. And, this might sound old-school, but I still love Wikipedia, especially for established authors. However, the best resource any reader could ask for is a well- funded public library.

Jana: I use a lot, both to keep an eye on the way people are talking about SF/F and for the excellent selection of short stories and novellas which they make available through the site. Bibliotropic has a great perspective, and reviews titles which consistently end up on my to-read list. For books in general, I like NPR Books, The Book Smugglers, and Between the Covers. I use Goodreads to organize my horrifically large to-read lists, and there’s nothing better than my public library for unexpected finds.

SCy-Fy: Hard-to-spot pitfalls in SFF blogging that are difficult to avoid?

Marion: One hard-to-spot pitfall in some ways is the dreaded “spoiler.” One person’s spoiler is another person’s clever detail. Also, in a world where things are recapped instantly, and people are on Twitter commenting on TV and movies as they happen, it’s hard to judge quite what the “shelf life” for a spoiler is. Is it a month after publication? Six months? Never? It’s a challenge to strike the balance between giving enough information, and giving away the farm.

Kat: One thing I’d warn bloggers about is those seductive review copies. Everyone loves free books, but if you only review the books that publicists are currently hyping, you’ll end up with three problems.

  1. Your blog will look just like everyone else’s, because you’ll all be reviewing the same books at the same time.
  2. After a year or two, you’ll find that you’ve got one or two books reviewed for a few dozen current authors – you’ll have breadth, but no depth.
  3. You’ll be in the middle of so many series that you can’t possibly keep all of their storylines in your head and you won’t be able to do a good job reviewing subsequent novels. As hard as it is, learn to say “NO” to some of those free review copies.

Bill: Two pitfalls: 1) Assuming that your audience shares your knowledge – they may in fact not be as well read in the genre or sub-genre, or may not be of an age to have read those authors you may assume “everyone” has read.

2) Lack of diversity/blindness to other world-views.

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

Kate: Reading an amazing book will always jump-start my interest in blogging and reviewing. Sometimes, like Terry mentioned, it’s a slog to find one. We get dozens of review requests from publishers big and small; after a while, book descriptions start sounding the same. But a book that reaches out and grabs you? It’s worth all the other stuff.

Jana: Sometimes I’ll read a lot of things in one week, and the details can blur together in my mind. Talking over the phone or in person with someone in my circle of readers always helps maintain my interest in both reading and blogging, because actually hearing another person’s excitement or disappointment reinforces my own reactions and perspective. I love communicating through the written word, but there’s nothing like hearing someone else’s voice while they’re describing “The best part, oh wait, no, THIS was the best part” of a novel.

Kat: I know what you’re asking here. Many bloggers eventually quit, or at least they take long breaks. Blogging is a luxury, a hobby, and when you’re going through tough times, blogging and book reviewing is sometimes the last thing you want to be doing.

That’s one of the reasons I love being part of a group blog. When one or two of us gets too busy, or needs to deal with a difficult life situation, or is just going through a slow time, we can slack off and let the others fill in for a while. Over the years we’ve had a few people retire, usually due to increased workloads at their jobs. We hate to see them go, but the blog still goes on (and most of them still occasionally contribute to our site). I love knowing that Fantasy Literature doesn’t depend on my presence. If something happens to me, it will still be there.

Bill: Good rum.

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

Ryan: Usually our readers are pretty patient, even if we speak critically about their favorite authors. Having said that, I did get some pushback when I reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. Steelheart‘s protagonist hides himself from society and then carries out his plan to shoot the villains (all bullies) that wronged him and his society. Given the number of school shootings that happen in the USA, I couldn’t figure out why Sanderson and his publishers had gone out of their way to market this Sanderson novel to teens.

Terry: I gave a poor review to one novella a little while ago. The author and her friends were, um, let’s just say, very upset with me. I had to work pretty hard not to respond in kind. It was a good reminder that anyone who puts herself out there, be she a writer or a reviewer (or both!), has to have a tough skin.

Kat: One of our most popular controversial posts was this 2013 interview with Patrick Rothfuss about his Pin-Up Calendar. The interview was Pat’s idea and at first we were reluctant to do it because we weren’t crazy about promoting a Pin-Up calendar. But it was for his Worldbuilders charity and I couldn’t resist giving Pat some flak for the calendar, which he said was exactly what he wanted. We had a great discussion and Pat said it was one of the best interviews he’d done in a while, but some of my more critical comments were taken out of context and posted elsewhere on the internet. I ended up getting some flak, too, but most of the response was very positive.

The most popular page on our website, though, is a page that most of our readers don’t even know about. This Fantasy Title Generator gets dozens of hits every day. There is almost always someone on it. I’m not sure where they’re all coming from or what they’re doing there, but it’s been our most popular page for years.

SCy-Fy: Let’s finish with the bottom line. What are the best books you have read recently?

Terry: I’m reading Dan Wells’s The Devil’s Only Friend right now, not just for enjoyment and to review it, but also to interview the author – something that being part of the blog allows me to do and that I really enjoy. I’ll be doing the same with Nick Cutter’s The Acolyte just as soon as I’ve finished up with Wells. And The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, is so far really compelling and different, and I’m eager to see where the author is going with it. Not much I’ve read so far this year has knocked my socks off the way this book is.

I’ve also been reading lots of short fiction, primarily because I write the Magazine Monday feature. It’s a great way to find new writers before their first novels come out. And I always enjoy reading the short fiction that’s been nominated for the various awards, especially if I can link to the stories, novelettes and novellas for our readers.

Jana: Thus far this year I’ve loved Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, The Very Best of Kate Elliott by (of course) Kate Elliott, Lois Lane: Fallout, by Gwenda Bond, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Bones & All, by Camille DeAngelis. These are the kinds of books that I would recommend to strangers if I overheard them looking for something new to read in a bookstore. They’re the books that, when I was done, I called my favorite book-buddy and said, “You have to read this RIGHT NOW, I don’t care what you’re reading, it can wait.”

Ryan: I’m usually the last to the party, but, for what it’s worth, my favorite books these last few years have been Grossman’s Magicians novels, particularly The Magician King. I have recently read and loved Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities, too.

Bill: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is by far the best book I’ve read in a long time thanks to its structure, characterization, and humanity. Followed by Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy for its wonderfully crafted atmosphere, style, and general weirdness. And The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre by Liam Burke, an excellent examination I highly recommend. George O’Connor’s Olympians series of graphic stories. Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell for its narrative voice. The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley for its complexity and uncertainty and strong characterization.

Marion: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor are high on my list. I thoroughly enjoyed Charles E Gannon’s Military SF novel Trial by Fire, and The Fold by Peter Clines. I really enjoyed The Devil’s Detective by Kurt Unsworth, something different in the horror line.

Kate: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel were my favorite books of 2014. I have already read two 2015 releases that blew me away: Dennis Mahoney’s Bell Weather, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.

Kevin: Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (out 9/2015) is the best thing I’ve read since Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, which is one of my all-time favorites. Not only do the characters have impressive depth, but the prose is near-perfect as well. There are still a few rough edges, but I expect Dickinson to have polished and edited the novel by publication date. That said, Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things was one of the most amazing novellas I’ve seen in a long time; I really appreciated how Rothfuss was able to weave a narrative full of inanimate objects that somehow managed to be alive. I also loved Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner and The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve gotten a lot pickier about prose and style recently, so I’d recommend checking out Guy Gavriel Kay (and the Dickinson) if you like novels with those strong suits.

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

Terry: I’m looking forward to reading Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings; The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh; Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves; Peter Straub’s Perdido; Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburne – this list could go on for a long time, because there’s lots of good stuff coming our way, but these especially intrigue me. Lots of first novels are on my list, along with new novels from older favorites. But one of the real joys of doing this work is stumbling across something that might not otherwise catch my notice.

Ryan: I’m looking forward to Stephenson’s next novel, Seveneves.

Jana: I’m definitely looking forward to reading Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, Kate Elliott’s upcoming novels Court of Fives and Black Wolves, Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone, Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, and N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I could go on and on and on, with at least two or three upcoming titles in every month of this year, but those are the ones that give me grabby-hands.

Bill: Fall of Light by Steven Erikson, Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey, The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham, Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson, Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb.

Marion: I’m looking forward to Mary Robinette Kowal’s new book, The Ghost Talkers, which is set during World War I, and features new characters and a new magical system.

Kevin: Joe Abercrombie’s Half a War, Daniel Abraham’s Shadow of Self, and Django Wexler’s The Shadow Throne.

SCy-Fy: Thanks very much to all of you.

Kat: Thanks, Stuart! It was fun to talk to you and introduce ourselves to your readers. Happy reading, everyone!

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