me and a bunch of other sensible pedestrians

A few days ago I was having a chat over lunch with one of those charming Englishmen that provide the rest of us with our reputation (I mean this in a positive, entirely non-ironic way – he is charming) when he happened to mention a book-writers website of dubious renown. The things he said – you’d blush, were you a member.

For example, said this charming man, because the central purpose of… that site …is for wannabe writers to rise to the top of a virtual slush pile and grab the fleeting attention of a particular big name publisher, the tendency is for participants to aggressively game the system. No-one ever gives “harsh” feedback, he assured me, because no-one wants to be labelled as an enemy and have their precious word baby attacked in return, while the associated forum is nothing but a seething hotbed of bitching and flaming and – well, you get the idea.

Naturally, he assured me, no-one ever made good off it. Sounds like the worst kind of internet hell hole, really. We had a good old laugh about the whole subject, then doffed our titfers to the proprietor of the tea house and took a hackney to the nearest Jack Tar for a Khyber Pass of Mother’s Ruin.

As we English do.

Coincidentally, later that very evening I finished reading a book on my Kindle only to discover that this very same website was mentioned in the after pages. Contrary to my deceitful friend’s opinion, it seems that at least one person who had associated with… them …has come through the experience unscathed. The book in question, Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City, is a roughly contemporary urban fantasy set in Johannesburg, and it’s not at all bad. Sufficiently so that it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2011.

It tells the story of Zinzi December, a one-time pop-culture journalist and drug addict (I make no judgement of correlation) who reluctantly turns her writing talent to creating email scams for a criminal organisation to pay off the enormous debts her former life loaded her with. Her fall into hard times is embodied in the form of a sloth – yes, literally, by a slow-moving arboreal quadruped which she is compelled to carry around like the proverbial monkey on her back (and a grateful nod to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy makes a necessary appearance). This is a world in which a person’s guilt can become manifest as an animal familiar, separation from which means crippling nausea for the extremely guilty party; its untimely death, on the other hand, has considerably more unsettling and permanent side-effects.

Social ramifications are also significant. The South Africa that Beukes sketches for us is effectively post-Apartheid in that, since they first began to emerge, “animalled” individuals have been considered the lowest of the low. This is regardless of a person’s status before their downfall; carrying a familiar is historically a one-way ticket to suspicion and persecution, by the authorities and ordinary decent citizens alike. Race and nationality have become relatively insignificant by comparison, if not totally forgotten, but this is a global phenomenon and reactions vary from culture to culture. Only now, decades after the first confirmed appearance of animal familiars, are such people beginning to be tentatively recognised, and even then just as oddities for the delictation of tabloids and other provocative media.

In Johannesburg most of this new underclass congregate in a few inner-city slums, either by choice or circumstance – Zoo City is the nickname of a complex of decaying apartment blocks that Zinzi now calls home. The deal comes with one advantage, though: each host gains a supernatural ability alongside their furry new companion; here traditional magic is an accepted aspect of modern life, and when someone becomes animalled – such as when responsible for a human death – their new skill is tested and recorded by the government. In Zinzi’s case she has a facility for finding objects lost by their owners, something that can come in financially useful; but, while en route to return a mislaid ring to her current client, the trail abruptly goes dead – a sure sign that the client has too.

In the aftermath, quizzed by police eager to pin responsibility on a handy scapegoat (whether accompanied by a goat or not), Zinzi’s unique skills attract the attention of a music industry mogul who offers her enough money to pay off all her debts in exchange for the kind of service she tries to avoid: finding lost people. If this all sounds vaguely familiar – low-key, semi-legal investigator is abruptly side-tracked out of their depth onto a high-risk, big-money job – then you’re right. Beukes isn’t Dashiell Hammett and her protagonist isn’t Sam Spade, but we are definitely in noir-ish territory and the resulting fantasy is an intriguing variation on classic hardboiled themes. It also reminded me of William Gibson’s Neuromancer – pretty high genre praise there, and I don’t mean to say the two are genuinely on a par, but there was a general atmospheric similarity in the way both books explore a semi-familiar but exotic new world, encompassing a mystery that is integrally connected to the nature of that environment.

It’s not perfect. When a recurring detail, interesting but incidental, abruptly takes centre stage and redirects the story towards a big reveal, the convenience of having magic in the world seemed to allow all but the most superficial explanation of its origin to be avoided; as the story moves into the final third there was an unexpected and, for me, unnecessary blurt of exposition from Zinzi’s love interest that just seemed to be handled clumsily; and there is a definite ramping up of violence towards the finale that, maybe, left the novel feeling a little unbalanced. However, as should be clear from the previous paragraph, my overall impression was positive. Zoo City kept me coming back in my free time until it was finished. I bought it as part of a Humble eBook Bundle and, this being just the first of the titles in the collection that I’ve read, I’ve no regrets doing so.

At the end of the book there were also three short stories, not by Beukes but by three members of… well, if you’re the type to scan the tags of your average online reading material then you already know the name of the website I was dancing around earlier: authonomy. Although Zoo City wasn’t one of the thousands of novels seeking the approval of the crowd, her first novel, Moxyland, was, and these stories were winners of a brief competition she organised with the site as a kind of thank you (although neither book was actually published by the parent organisation, HarperCollins).

Well, I thought. I have rather enjoyed this book, yet I have also been led to believe that the author’s nurturing environment is a worthless cesspool. How can I reconcile this contradiction? What a quandary. Well, not really, but I thought it might make a nice hook for this review to suggest I was in one. So, a day less than a few days ago I signed up at authonomy and posted enough chapters of my own work in progress to see what the result would be.

Within an hour of going live I had received several messages from users which, I have to say, seemed to back up the opinions of my gentleman caller, and many more have followed since. Skipping over the technicalities of how one does so, they were invitations of varying sophistication to engage in tit-for-tat support of each other’s projects – generally with the expectation that I spend my time reading their work first, to be rewarded (presumably) with kindly reciprocation later. My limited understanding of game theory is that, in the unforgiving natural world, that take on a winning strategy may tend to die out after a few generations; here, however, it appears to flourish.

The next stage, more encouraging, was the arrival of comments on my actual text; and though the universal tendency is for the posters to invite me to read their work in return, now it seems more justified and I have done so. Having said this, some of the comments were little more than gushing expressions of admiration and certainty regarding my future success – plus a “now read me”. A little digging through the site’s forums suggests that, firstly, this is not uncommon, and that in some cases users are spamming multiple books with the same cut-and-pasted message to gain as many return reads as possible; and, secondly, the rumours of forum bitchiness are not totally unjustified.

It is only early days of course, but, given the primary purpose of the site is to “win” the chance of having your work put in front of one of HarperCollins’ decision-makers, the general quality of work that I have encountered is not high. Not high at all, and the accusation that, for many participants, the thoughts of others are only the means to an end many be sadly true. Perhaps the only opinion that really matters in authonomy is that of the mythical pro-reader, he or she with the power to make our dreams come true, should we be the lucky five at the top of the pile come the end of any given month.

However, in the process of forum scanning I also came across more moderate voices, in some cases recklessly proposing behaviour more in keeping with writers genuinely seeking to improve their craft. Checking their books (and those they were choosing to support), I’ve found some that may actually be ready for submission, though whether they ever manage to flourish in authonomy’s chaotic genepool is another question entirely. There are also participants who are only there to offer feedback, not (or no longer) submitting their own material for consideration; unfettered by concern over revenge from the disgruntled, they should be free to cut to the heart of a writer’s problems; when I asked one such person for their thoughts what I received was concise, reasonable, and usefully pointed.

There are aspects of authonomy that could aid the aspiring writer-in-the-wings, but it is telling that Lauren Beukes achieved the ultimate goal elsewhere – having had a career as a journalist and screenwriter too – and there are sites where feedback from a multitude of one’s writing peers can be had without the attached demands for polite reciprocity. Submitting manuscripts to the faceless readers of the industry takes time and effort, and may result in nothing but rejection time after time; but the gaming strategies of authonomy seem to demand at least an equal effort just to be – in effect – allowed to submit. You don’t need permission from the crowd anywhere else.

I don’t know. I’ll give it to the end of the month. Who knows, if no-one reads all this maybe I’ll still get picked.

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