A Dense Stew of Ideas – Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories

Last May, everwalker, aka fellow writer and blogger AC Macklin, lent me her copy of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories. Since then, both our lives have taken some big twists and turns, and that feels like the appropriate context for reading this book. Because this week I finally started reading Bookman, and blimey, this one is a wild, weird ride.

A Huge Serving of Ideas

I’m only a hundred pages into Tidhar’s collected Bookman novels, so I can’t evaluate these stories as a whole. But there’s enough going on that it made me want to talk about it, and that’s usually a good sign.

The Bookman setting is a strange melange of steampunk, literary playfulness and a dash of fantasy. Set in a Victorian England ruled by lizards, in which the elite are driven through the streets in steam cars and Professor Moriarty is Prime Minister, from the outset it’s overflowing with ideas. There are secret societies, strange conspiracies, whales singing in the Thames. An ancient hero of Asian mythology is living as a tramp under a bridge – or possibly he’s just a really well read tramp. Political philosopher Karl Marx plots with household management legend Mrs Beaton while they watch lizards fight in the back room of a seedy pub.

For the sheer mass of concepts and juxtaposition alone, this book is worth reading.

Doubling Up On the Difficulty

That said, this is far from an easy read. The prose flows nicely, but it’s so densely packed with concepts that you have to work to untangle what’s going on. In fact, there’s two layers to that work, and so two ways in which the book could deter a casual reader.

Firstly, this is clearly written by and for the genre savvy. As I’ve discussed before, world building that seems subtle and sophisticated to a science fiction and fantasy fan can be bewildering to a casual reader. At the extreme, a novel like The Bookman takes effort to untangle for even the most dedicated steampunk fan, with its density of concepts and the implications hidden behind each offbeat revelation. It’s effort I consider worthwhile, but it means that it’s not casual reading to relax to late at night. You earn the rewards.

Secondly, there are a lot of literary references . The whole setting is built around them, and together with the use of books as bombs, they make clear that this is a story about stories, not just about its own contents. That’s no bad thing – art can achieve a lot by turning and reflecting on itself. It creates a tone that’s very similar to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a fabulous mixture of familiar characters and hidden depths that makes a fantastically rich setting.

But just like the League, it also has its problems. You don’t need to get the literary references to follow the story. But their frequency means that, if you don’t get them, the story seems to be taking irrelevant detours, the narrative stalling in its flow to add little meaningless details. Later volumes of the League have been more about this than about character or story, putting me off a comic series whose early volumes I love. Similarly, Bookman is at risk of losing my attention if it becomes too mired in its clever games.

Are You the Audience?

I’m writing this now, rather than waiting to finish this book, because I think it’s worth taking the time to think about how books and audiences match up. Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories has a perfect audience that is both genre savvy and well read in Victorian and classical literature. A wider audience of science fiction, fantasy and steampunk fans will enjoy it if they enjoy books that reward reflection and analysis with a deeper understanding. But I’d be surprised if casual readers, or those looking for an adventure in a world far from our own, would get much out of this.

Me, I’m really glad I’m reading it. I think it’s going to take a while to get through, but it’s worth it for the concepts even though I don’t get all the references. Whether it’s worth your time really depends upon what sort of reader you are. And that might be how any review of a book should end.

Writing for your audience

Unless you’re just writing for yourself, thinking about your audience is an important part of writing. It’s something I’ve been trained to do, and that I thought I was good at. But a couple of recent discussions have made me realise that I could do much better.

Thinking about my audience was a big part of my last job. They were labelled ‘customers’ not ‘audience’, but it came down to the same thing. After all, as a writer your audience are the customers for your work. While I was in that job I wrote and edited a lot of documents, and I was always thinking about the readers. How good was their grasp of written English? What things did we take for granted that they wouldn’t? Were we actually telling them what we thought we were telling them? How would font and format affect the reading experience?

When I’m writing fiction, thinking about audience is different. I write short stories to fit the requirements of particular markets, in terms of word count, genres, tone and content. If I come up with an idea that inspires me I think about what genre it fits into and what those readers expect.

Then there’s writing against expectations. I try not to fall into gender stereotypes in my stories, but that creates challenges. As I recently discovered when presenting a story to my writing group, readers picture a character the minute they’re mentioned. If that character doesn’t fit their default expectations – for example a soldier who’s female – then you need to make that clear quickly, or the reading experience will be disrupted later.

But a comment from glenatron on my post about editing made me realise my limitations. When I’m editing I don’t usually consider my audience, I just look for passages that don’t feel right to me. And I have a default picture of my readers, someone with a similar background and understanding of the world to me. But considering my response to a post by Liza of Classy Cat Books made me rethink this. There I was considering the extreme example of small children, but there are other assumptions we make about our default reader, beyond being an adult. If I want to reach anyone beyond middle class white British blokes like myself then I need to think about who else my audience could be, and how I write for them.

This is about thinking beyond yourself, putting your reader at the centre of your writing. It’s not a simple thing, or something anyone can perfect. It has as many facets as there are readers in the world. But it seems to me that it’s worth exploring more.

So, what do you think about this? If you write, how and when do you think about your audience? If you read (and these are written words, so I know you do) do you notice whether a book seems written for you, or perhaps more obviously when it really isn’t? What other thoughts do you have on the subject? Let me know in the comments – I’m only just starting to think about this, and am interested to get some other points of view.