Blogger Query – The Speculative Scotsman

One of the very first blogs I started following way back when in 2010 when I discovered the book blogging community, was The Speculative Scotsman and he quickly became one of my favourite bloggers out there. I love Niall’s writing voice and his take on reviewing. He has a distinctive style and though his prose sometimes runs away with him, he’s always engaging and entertaining. In addition, he’s a teacher of English language and literature, something near and dear to my heart. Also he’s a Scot and I have a soft spot for anything Scottish, so how could I not love him! So Niall was a prime candidate for a Blogger Query. Here’s what he had to say:

Let’s start with the basics. Who is Niall Alexander?

Well now… there’s a question!

I guess Niall Alexander is as Niall Alexander does, so this explanation should suffice: I’m a 28 year old Scottish sod with a real love of language, or more specifically stories of all shapes and sizes. I keep a genre-oriented blog over at The Speculative Scotsman, but my work also appears on and Strange Horizons, as well as in Starburst Magazine and The SF Foundation’s quarterly journal.

Some of the sites and mags aforementioned pay a small sum per article published, but it doesn’t amount to a great deal, really. Last year, in fact, the penny finally dropped that I was still a way away from the dream of making enough from my words to keep me and mine in comfort, so I ditched the decidedly dodgy jobs I’d been taking to date and did the only other thing I could think to do with my degree.

So these days, to make ends meet, I teach.

What got you into blogging?

Long story short: Guy Gavriel Kay did. I read Tigana – ironically on the advice of a blogger whose blog I can hardly tolerate these days (we’ll not name names) – and I found myself turning it over and over in my mind so much that I had to work out my opinion on paper, if only so I could move on with my life.

I quite liked the look of the resulting review, so I started The Speculative Scotsman, I suppose, almost solely to share it, in my mind with a few like-minded folks at most. Little did I know that the response to it would be so positive, and so overwhelmingly rewarding, that three years and a thousand-odd posts later – including approximately 250 reviews – I’d be blogging almost every day.

Why The Speculative Scotsman?

Of late, I’ve been wondering that same thing myself, and – here’s something I haven’t crowed about before [Ed. note: Oh, a scoop!] – in retrospect I kinda wish I’d went with something else. I enjoyed the alliteration, I guess? And of course there’s The Scotsman, the newspaper, which you’ll see a tip of the hat to on the site’s shiny new logo.

That was the initial impetus, though these days, if I were to make a similar decision, I wouldn’t put myself quite so front and centre. It’s my blog, obviously, but it’s about the readers at least as much as is some bloody Scotsman.

What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?

Meanness, maybe? I’m pretty damned hard to impress. [Ed. note: Well, it was your review of Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God that first landed me on your blog, so you might be right.]

What are your goals for your blog?

Hard to say, today. I’ve been a part of the great conversation (as I think of it) since launching The Speculative Scotsman, and if to begin with I wanted anything out of the experience besides a space to sing the praises of Guy Gavriel Kay, it was that. Now that I’m teaching more and more, it’s gotten harder and harder to sustain the pace, so I’m in something of a state of flux at this particular second.

Ask me again in a year and we’ll see! :)

One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

You know, I used to be militant about this. I was of the mind that a number, no matter how many or how few of them you had to choose from, was an awfully simplistic way to talk about anything.

The argument has always been the most important thing to me, and it still is: I’d much rather read about how a book reviewer formed an opinion than look at a number and be done with it. And that’s one of the risks, isn’t it? That you see a 5 or 6 or a 7 – not that there are terribly many of those (though that’s a whole other discussion) – and think… well why bother?

Ratings used to really rub me the wrong way, but I guess I’m getting mellow in my old age, because I’ve learned to live with them. As a sort of shorthand, sure… though I’m still of the opinion that book reviews shouldn’t be written in shorthand.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

Oh, yay. Absolutely! There aren’t very many things I find more fascinating than a negative perspective – so long as it’s reasoned and reasonably well written – on some new hotness that everyone seems to adore.

In fact the very idea that anyone would say nay to the notion of negative reviews – excepting authors, given their intimate involvement – the very idea offends me no end. What could possibly be the problem with someone having an opinion that isn’t identical to every other opinion? That’s the sort of thing the world needs more of, not less.

When you’re not being Speculative, you’re fighting the good fight educating the next generation on the wonders of the English language and literature. Do you manage to introduce them to the wonderful world of SFF as well?

On a number of occasions, I’ve taken pains to!

As a rule, kids aren’t interested in education, but then, the education kids get in this day and age is so simplified and standardised that it’d put almost anyone off. So inasmuch as it’s been in my power to, certainly, yes: I’ve tried to make things more interesting with some speculative fiction.

It hasn’t always gone excellently. But when an exercise I’ve spent an age on hits home with even a single student, the thought that I might just have made a difference keeps me keen enough to keep trying. I’ve had a lot of success with Neil Gaiman lately. Everyone adores Coraline, of course – it helps that most of my pupils have seen the movie – but the short story “Chivalry” also went down well. As did The Hunger Games, a Patrick Ness excerpt, and “Blood” by Roddy Doyle.

Whenever I’ve tried to push the boundaries out a bit, however, it’s been hit or miss. China Miéville, for instance, went down like a lead balloon. As have any number of other authors. Who, I wonder, would the ambassador of SF&F to today’s young people be? [Ed. note: That’s an interesting question and a hard one to answer!]

How important are blogs to your reading choices?

I would have said very if you’d asked me before I started blogging, but in all honesty, a wave of good reviews isn’t as important to me as it used to be. In some small part, perhaps, because I’ve been burned by popular opinion often enough, but largely because the longer I’ve been doing this thing, the better a sense I’ve gotten of what I’m likely to like. And there’s enough of that that I don’t really have room for many new recommendations.

That said, there are a fair few bloggers whose perspectives I hold in such high regard that they can still steer me towards books I’ve overlooked in my far-from-infinite wisdom. Again, I won’t name names, but my blogroll is an excellent indicator of the opinion-makers I most admire.

How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?

Now I don’t want to be too much of a misery guts here, but truth be told, I think blogs are becoming less and less relevant to the book business, rather than more, which I assume is the typical position. As Axl Rose asserts, there was a time… but for various reasons, I dare say it’s in decline.

(I should really blog about this properly at a later date.) [Ed. note: I’m looking forward to that.]

As to what’s next – what, in short, the next logical extension of book blogging will be – I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest. But there’s sure to be something. And for our sake, if you ask me – and you did! – the sooner the penny drops, the better. As is, we’re in real danger of stagnating.

What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?

At the moment I’m reading The City’s Son by Tom Pollock, and it’s been fun. Actually, it’s been effing awesome, but I don’t want to speak too soon… it could still go horribly wrong. [Ed. Note: Can I just say I’m jealous? I really want to read that one!]

Next up on my agenda? Probably one of my two most eagerly awaited books of 2012: Sharps by K. J. Parker. That is unless the mailman surprises me with a review copy of the other one – The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – before I’ve finished with The City’s Son. Then I’ll have a delightfully hard decision on my hands.

Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?

Time is ever in short supply to indulge my other obsessions, but to be sure, there are several other somethings. I watch a good few movies; I play a silly number of video games; I read a bunch of comic books. Not only, but also, I’ve been gardening an awful lot of late.

Then again, I don’t know if that counts as obsession so much as a necessary evil. Damn you, nature!

Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?

What system could be more ingenious than shelving books alphabetically by author, then by their date of publication? :)

And that’s that. Thanks for firing these fine questions my way, Mieneke. As ever, it’s been a bona fide pleasure. Here’s hoping my answers aren’t altogether too idiotic!

Not to worry, Niall, they definitely weren’t! Thanks so much for answering my questions.

If you weren’t already reading The Speculative Scotsman &8211; though I expect most of you are – hie yourselves over there and rectify this situation! While you’re there, don’t forget to read my guest review I did over there last March. You can also follow Niall on Twitter.


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