Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 30 June 2013

The Lost Boys

Some of you will remember a blog I wrote, a little while ago, talking about whether or not I hold back.

Today I have decided not to hold back. Today I plan to reveal a secret that will change the World for geeks and nerds, everywhere, and, perhaps even more importantly, for girls and women, too.

Bear with me... It’s coming.

Today, even though it’s Sunday, and I shouldn’t, I’m going to get snarky, and I’m going to get snarky with, of all things, my local branch of Waterstones. In fact, I’m going to guess that what is true of my local branch is probably universally true at Waterstones and get snarky with the whole damned company.
My local Waterstones

So... listen up Waterstones!

We used to have two Waterstones shops in our local town. The original was in a tall, old, rather lovely building, and the usurper arrived in the form of a unit in the brand new shopping development, and, no, not actually a mall. The two shops have coexisted for several years, serving different demographics, and I regularly used both.

Recently, the original shop closed and the usurper had an extensive refit in order to accommodate, I suppose, the extra weight of traffic it might expect. I was in the shop for the first time yesterday. I’m not hugely keen on the refit, if I’m honest, but I did think it would be a good idea to familiarise myself with the new layout, so that’s what I did.

And that’s where the snark comes in, because something occurred to me for the first time, even though I believe it might have been a policy at Waterstones going back into the dim and distant past.

The ground floor of the shop appears to be broadly dedicated to fiction. That’s what you’d expect, isn’t it? It’s a bookshop, after all, and it’s a good idea to have books front and centre. There are other things there, too, including children’s books, poetry, study aids, cards and gift wrapping, stationery and electronic books. So far so good.

There are more books upstairs, including reference and hobby stuff, just as you’d expect.

Here’s what made me cross, though, and this is the thrust of my snark: Fiction was shelved downstairs, except for SFF and Horror.

Can anyone explain to me, including the good people at Waterstones, how SFF and Horror do not constitute fiction? Can anyone explain to me how cards and gift wrapping or stationery have more in common with all other kinds of fiction than do SFF and Horror novels?

No, I didn’t think so.

Can anyone explain to me, including the good people at Waterstones, how SFF and Horror have more in common with, say, cooking and sewing than they do with all other forms of fiction?

No, thought not.

As parents and teachers and caring adults involved in kids’ lives, we encourage them to read Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, His Dark Materials and all and anything by J K Rowling, not to mention Roald Dahl, the grand master of gothic horror for children. The children’s section, on the ground floor was positively heaving with SFF and Horror, and rightly so.

There’s snobbery too about how long a book’s been in print or how many copies it’s sold. The Harry Potter novels, in their smart, for-adult jackets were displayed in the general fiction section, naturally, and Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, Wilkie Collins, John Wyndham and Jules Verne were all shelved on the ground floor in classic fiction. Who doesn’t recognise Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights as spiritual forbears of many a gothic horror novel?

So, kids can read SFF and Horror and so can adults, just so long as they’re... what? Discerning?

You know what that means, don’t you?

That means that someone, somewhere doesn’t want young people, who might appear to be a tad unconventional, and might wear black and have a tattoo or a piercing, and, heaven help us, doesn’t everyone now, and don’t I? Someone somewhere doesn’t want those sort of young people standing next to people who buy ‘real’ books, cluttering up the fiction section of Waterstones.

Segregation is bad, and not only is it bad, but it’s always bad, and it’s particularly unpleasant when it’s about culture and when it’s based in misplaced snobbery, because now we’re getting back to the example of those Lost Boys in the title of this blog.

SF is probably as full of ideas as any writing being done in any genre.

Take Chick-Lit for example. I don’t read a great deal of it, but I don’t read a whole lot of SFF or Horror, either. I do think that Marian Keyes is about as likely to make me laugh as Charles Stross is to make me think, though, and that’s probably fair enough, isn’t it?

I doubt very much whether women writers like Marian Keyes, Sophia Kinsella or even, say, Grace Dent would object at all to having SFF and Horror on the ground floor, cheek by jowl with their novels, because these are women that I suspect know the same thing that I know, and if they don’t they ought to, and, if they don’t, they, like you, are about to find out.

Here we go.

Girls always think they want to date cool boys, because girls are foolish, and, come to think of it, so are cool boys. 

Women, when they come to their senses, and I came to my senses tragically early, want to date the cleverest boys.

There are things you can’t tell about a man, but you can tell how smart he is, and it’s simple. The smartest dudes are the ones who take an interest in things. If a boy takes an interest in something, pretty much anything, it’s a sure sign that a) he’s got a brain, and b) he’s going to take an interest in you. If a boy takes something seriously, and pretty much anything will do, it’s a sure sign that i) he’s got a brain, and ii) he’s going to take you seriously.

Here’s the real kicker, so listen up. Cool boys don’t take an interest in much because they’re busy getting cool and maintaining the cool, and cool boys only take the cool seriously. None of that is going to get a girl very far with that kind of boy for very long.

Boys that take an interest in things and boys that take things seriously are, invariably, geeks and nerds, and they’re the same people who read, and they’re the same kids who want to read SFF and Horror, because that shit’s full of ideas. We know it is because we want our children to read it, for crying out loud!

So, Waterstones, perhaps you’d like to reconsider your policy of separating geeks and nerds from the general population. We all have a lot to learn from each other, and a great read is still a great read... I know you know that, because I’ve seen what’s shelved in your kids’ section and in your classics section.

Fiction is fiction, and all this labeling isn’t helping anyone, and geeks and nerds aren’t just people, too, they’re clever, serious, interested people, and those are the sort of people who read.

Come to think of it... Aren’t you in the business of selling books?


  1. I can see your point; however, you are missing the upsides.

    With that layout the people who just popped in to buy wrapping paper or the latest Richard & Oprah recommendation to have on their table as an accessory do not funnel, laden with their unbookish attitudes, through the space of those who are there to drink of the well of words.

    By placing speculative fiction on the top floor, they cause the reader to raise their eyes, to undergo a physical ascension that aligns their body with the forthcoming mental and spiritual ascension.

    Of course Waterstones are almost certainly not building a massive ritual sigil to create a purer, smarter post-human race from the most avid readers.

  2. My Waterstones recently merged SF and Fantasy, and replaced what had been the SF shelf with an entire bookshelf of "Paranormal Romance" - basically, Twilight with the "sexy vampire" replaced with "sexy mythical beast of your choice".

    Is there really more demand for I Loved a teenage Pharoah than Spaceships? It's a dark age we live in.

    1. And, as depressing as that is, Will, I'd still rather the stuff was shelved with all other fiction. Perhaps, that way, the kids buying that drivel would look along the shelves and find something better to read... In fact, I'm almost certain they would. They'd probably also get talking to some of those clever young men, who could point them in the direction of the good stuff. Smiles.

  3. Ours is probably not typical, but the Waterstones here on the Isle of Man has a dedicated section on the ground floor for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult horror, and graphic novels (it also has special shelves for the Warhammer and Dr Who fiction, and they separate Sci-Fi from Fantasy, which i appreciate). It IS located in a corner, so it can get a bit cramped if a lot of nerds and/or geeks come in at once, but it also has the nicest comfy chairs.

    I suspect this arrangement came about because the stop had the good grace to appoint a big nerd as store manager. :)