There are great books. There are bad books. But then there’s those weird, obscure, strange, trashy-yet-intriguing novels we’ve all seen over the years. That cover that stuck in our heads as it was weird, that strange thing we think we read once.
Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value picks up these strange books, reads them, and analyzes them. However he’s not looking for stuff to make fun of or mock, he’s diving into these little unpolished gems and weird findings with an open mind and an inquisitive approach. Yes, in many cases he finds utter dreck that he’s glad to document, but he also finds half-masterpieces and hidden gems, and even some bad ideas that can be salvaged.
He documents this all at his website, exploring his findings in detail and discussing the adventures that came about in finding them. Each is a little, personal tale of his encounter with a book. This is Applied Geek, so of course I’m interviewing him!
1) OK, Thomas, with so much good stuff, what made you choose to dive into the odder, forgotten genre fiction?
Before I started reading cheap pulps and that sort of thing I found myself reading works that, on the main, were by masters of the craft. It was probably around my tenth time reading something like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land that I realized that I wasn’t learning anything new about writing. I’d hoped that I could write some fiction of my own someday and realized that maybe it would be a good idea to read some real trash to find out what not to do. The blog developed out of that, mainly as a way of seeing if I could create a project from scratch and stick with it. You know Jonathan Coulton’s “Thing a Week?” I basically stole his idea.
2) How do people react to your hobby and your site?
My roommate is as enthusiastic as I am about it and chews me out if I’m late getting a post up or if he catches me not reading when I should be. Another friend of mine is convinced I’m a masochist and wonders when I’ll move on to some other kind of self-torture. My mom is proud but confused at her son’s choice of hobby, as is often the way motherhood seems to go. Other people, especially when I first tell them about the books I review, seem to react generally positively. Occasionally somebody catches me on the bus or in the breakroom at work with a particularly juicy piece of trash. That has led to some good conversations.
3) Has anyone who wrote one of these books ever contacted you, and how did they react?
Not yet, and that’s something I both hope for and dread. I figure if any author ever finds me and responds, it’s probably because I reamed them for being a hack when, in their mind, the book was their baby. Since I tend toward books from the fifties through the seventies, though, it turns out that quite a few of the authors are dead by this point. There are plenty of exceptions, but I guess they either don’t have a Google alert tied to their names or they just figure I’m not worth it. One author I fantasize about meeting and having a beer with is Chet Cunningham, one of the authors of the Penetrator novels.
4) It seems you find, frankly, some terrible stuff. What is the most common lessons writers can learn from your worst findings?
One thing that tends to get me really riled up is when an author throws in a random sex scene that has no point and, worse yet, is completely juvenile and clueless. It happens a lot. Sometimes it’s horrifying.
The other thing that I complain about a lot is when the protagonist of a book has absolutely no agency. Things just happen to him or her. They get bounced around from scene to scene like that psychology experiment where you don’t see the guy in the gorilla suit. Sometimes that’s okay. I understand that sometimes all you need is little more than a viewpoint character. But when the narrator or the other characters in the book go on and on about how skilled and smart and awesome this person is…then it begins to enter the realm of the awful.
5) You also find some things that have great ideas, if flawed issues. What are some of the best ideas you’ve seen in these odd books?
A recent one that stands out comes from Behold the Stars by Kenneth Bulmer (review). It featured a long-range matter transmitter that was used to colonize the galaxy, although the transmitter needed a receiving station so they still had to send out spaceships. Pity the book was so boring. House of Zeor (review) and its sequels by Jacqueline Lichtenberg feature a future humanity that has become split in a way rather akin to the sexes. It was more complicated than that and often pretty squicky, but it stuck with me. And then there’s one of my favorites, S.T.A.R. Flight by E.C. Tubb (review), which features a world dominated by what everybody thinks are aliens but, in fact, turn out just to be humans from a parallel universe. That book was fantastic.
6) If there was one book you reviewed that you think deserves wider attention what would it be?
That honor would probably go to a book with the unlikely name of Black in Time. It’s by John Jakes, the guy who wrote the North and South trilogy. It’s just some genuinely good time travel fiction that takes on issues like bigotry, fundamentalist Christianity, and revenge with a solid lesson of “Hate is not the answer.” It also had some good history in it. I was genuinely surprised by that book when I read it and I think that John Jakes needs to be re-recognized as a science fiction author as well as a writer of sprawling historical romances.
7) As a dedicated reader, what lessons do you want to share with writers?
When I’m reading a book, the thing that catches me and keeps me wanting to read whether the book is great or awful is the author’s individual voice. I’ve only just started thinking about this in detail, so hopefully I can make it make sense. All too often a book just has no soul, and that’s because the narration and the dialogue and the characters are all flat and listless. Some of the worst books I’ve read were also enjoyable on some level because the author injected some personality into the writing. Sure, sometimes it’s just awful, like somebody trying to write a par-boiled science fiction story in the style of Raymond Chandler and just doesn’t have Chandler’s eloquence, but at least they tried. So my advice to writers is to make your work an extension of your personality (or an extension of a fictional personality! That works too!). Don’t just tell me what happens, try to make me feel what happens.
8) How long are you going to go on with Shlock Value? How far are you going to take it?
When I first started in January 2013 the plan was to go a book a week for a year. It was my grand experiment in seeing if I could actually do anything besides play video games and work my crappy grocery store job. When 2014 rolled around I noticed two things: I had a big stack of books I hadn’t gotten to yet, and that I was having a lot of fun. So that said, I don’t really have any end in sight. Maybe one day I’ll get bored or too busy to continue, but I sure hope not.
9) OK, as a man with his own special reviewing focus, what do you want to see in review sites?
One thing that gets me in a review site is when they try to be the end-all-be-all of some very broad category. They’ll review comics, movies, books, shows, music, toys, lolcats, and things they heard at the bus stop this morning. The problem with this is that the site doesn’t make much of a name for itself because it doesn’t have any content that you can’t just find anywhere else. Nobody can cover it all, and they shouldn’t try.
On the flip side, there are the sites that get into a niche they like and stay there. I guess I fall into that category. The thing I try to do with Schlock Value is to share the joy of finding things out with people. I really don’t want to turn into some kind of hipster-type who excludes people for not having my interests. It’s an easy trap to fall into, resorting to in-jokes and references that leave new visitors alienated. Don’t do that.
Thanks Thomas, keep up your brave adventure!
- Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.