Tag Archives: Literature

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.

I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?

Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.

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IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

Following an exchange of thoughts on a worst reads of 2020 post on Re-enchantment Of The World, I’ve decided to write a bit about writing negative reviews, and the abundance of positive reviews one encounters.


I’m sure some of the more critical readers of this blog are at times baffled by all the positive reviews they see for – let’s be frank here – generic, uninspired produce. That is very noticeable on Goodreads, where new titles often harvest +4 scores quickly, and also in the blogosphere negative reviews are fairly rare.

That most books published today are generic needs no proof. Still, let me refer you to this brilliant piece on Speculiction, that looks at book titles of Fantasy published around 2018. The proliferation of accessible word-processing, cheap laptop computers and ever better and cheaper printing methods have flooded the market.

Everybody with a creative inclination and enough spare time can write a book nowadays. Our culture seems to laud free expression and believing in your own, unique self, and that seems to trick lots of people into thinking they are artists too. The dedication of Herbert and Tolkien to write their big books by hand or on a typewriter simply isn’t necessary anymore today. Editing has never been more easy.

But while Joseph Beuys claimed that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler in the 60ies, his beef was with the fact that not everybody could study at an art academy in Germany at the time. So rather than a call for everybody to start writing books, Beuys’ ostensibly democratic dictum should rather be read as a call to learn how to write books first.

Pulp and generic writing have always existed, but whereas the pulp around 1960 was published in short books of about 140 pages, today it seems growth is an inescapable law for books too – new titles averaging 450 pages instead, often as a part of a series. While they have a cultural veneer, big publishers are in the sales business first and foremost: selling more volume = more profit.

I could add e-readers, self-publishing and free blogging as factors, but the gist is clear: the speculative fiction reader is overwhelmed by new titles this day and age.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, by the way. I have followed the metal scene actively since the early 90ies, and also in metal there is an exponential proliferation of bands, albums, releases. For fringe genres like black or death metal there were only a handful of labels, and one could more or less keep up with everything released if one was so inclined and had the money or enough tapes to trade. But with success comes a bandwagon, and somewhere between 1995 and 2000 things mushroomed.

Similar causes are easily pointed at here as well, and technology is a big part of it: everybody can make a very decent home studio with just a laptop and one mic. Top notch recording & mixing software like Audacity and Bandcamp are free. Designing a decent album cover similarly isn’t that hard anymore as it was in the early days of MS Paint or xeroxed fanzines. On top of all that, Bandcamp and others have solved the problem of distribution. 

That leaves marketing as the sole problem – both for the aspiring metal band, as the big publisher of speculative fiction. And as technology, the internet and free time steadily become more available in developing countries too, the pool of creative humans becomes bigger and bigger with each passing day. 

Enter negative reviews. Continue reading

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD – Olga Tokarczuk (2009)

Drive your plow over the bones of the deadThis book came to my attention a year ago, when Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature – which was awarded in 2019, simultaneously with that of Peter Handke. One of four books of Tokarczuk available in English, the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published in 2018.

I was instantly intrigued by its title – I guess I still am a teenage metalhead first and foremost, and it’s hard to think of another title that captures the awe and worldview expressed in extreme metal more than this partial quote of English Romantic poet William Blake. His Proverbs from Hell – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – start with these lines:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

I’ll tell you a bit more on the excess & the wisdom in the novel after the jump.

This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.

While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Continue reading

HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

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