Book review: Bulwark, by Brit Lunden
I’m still getting my head around the freshly sprouted rootlets of Radish, the new portable device, short format fiction, publishing platform for commuters and other swifty nifty urban modern people on the go, attention spans pitched in the mid-range between humans and troubled spoonfish. Still, the audience is, I sense, comprised of people who would not be reading books otherwise, so this new service has got to be a good thing for developing a reading habit and adding an income stream for hard-pressed independent authors, therefore roll on, roll off, the scrolling, pixelated text of modern life. Just don’t use accessibility as an excuse to scrap my beloved hardbacks please Messer’s Methuen, Unwin, Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Doubleday, Faber, Faber, Faber, Faber & Faber or you’ll risk me in your office and an imprint you’ll never forget.
This is the first novella I’ve read on Radish and, to be fair to the author, I can’t directly compare it with the rating system for a novel, which would have a lot more space in which to develop characters, sub-plots and build up to scenes and situations. In short, the short format requires short; and no repetition. Radish anticipates readers who can manage a ten or fifteen minute burst, a reading fix to take their mind off the wasted, soulless drifting vacuum of their pointless commute, perhaps three chapters in a row if they are stuck on a tube train, so there’s no point writing long chapters (2,000–3,000 words is about right) and the total length of most books on the site seems to be 30,000 words or so, a third of a traditional novel. Do you get your money’s worth? Well, that depends on quality of engagement. Writers who are decent enough wordsmiths can probably judge how to pace their stories and if they can’t there’s always editing.
Traditional novelists might struggle with Radish because they have up until now been disciplined to write at least 80,000 words and some aim for 120,000. To shoe-horn a book into this format, they might feel they are being asked to behave like Ruskin at Brantwood, who found his books were too tall for the shelves and solved the problem by sawing the top third off whole rows of them. It doesn’t have to be that bad, but a second opinion on what to cut out might be handy. The other thing you need to do, as a writer, is use lots of cliff hangers at the end of chapters to keep the reader keen to click through the next pay gate. This incentive will presumably affect the story as it requires “what happens next?” thirst to be created. If the plot isn’t like that, it won’t be as addictive and easily distracted readers might not come back. I think the Curse of Radish will play merry hell with traditional storytelling but will suit writers with experience of creating television episodes. Script experience will also help as the reader’s eye runs faster down the page and they’ll feel that the end is in sight before they have to have to close the tiny screen and elbow their way off the train in three minutes.
Typical books on Radish, including Bulwark, have an introductory spread of chapters for free and then you have to load up with Radish coins (bought with real money, but you get some for free when you join) to pay the turnstiles to unlock each subsequent chapter. This is still pretty cheap, but the advantage is that if you don’t get into a book or it isn’t what you supposed it was, your butterfly attention can flit elsewhere and that misjudgement costs you nothing. There are some completely free books of course but good ones like Bulwark will draw you in, so you will want to find out what happens next, then the system relieves you of a little of your pocket money. There’s even a little heart shaped voting icon so you can see how many readers before you gave it the thumbs up (with no option for thumbs down). That’s quite a radical new — and consumer led — publishing model. No payment up front and you only buy if you like the product. In this case, I liked the story, the author had mastered the art of pacing it for portable devices and I got value for my veggie coins. I just had to come to terms with the fact that the author had aimed to deliver what Radish told them I probably wanted, i.e. short chapters, which is not what I’m used to seeing.
It’s about time I started this review as I’ve said enough about format, so I found Bulwark a little different, a little wonderful and hard to definitively fix into a rigid genre. It’s in the paranormal section as a catch-all classification for stories which include anything which can’t be described by science, fair enough, but it’s also the first adult-directed tale written by someone who made their name as an award winning children’s author. It has elements of police procedural, American gothic, medieval European gingerbread folklore, popular monsters and beastly frights, missing kids, a metaphor for being raised in an unvisited house with a dysfunctional parent, loss and remembrance, shape shifting — oh, the list goes on. Commendably, it all seems to fit together and gel into one coherent story, when with that many cooks involved in the broth it could have been a mess. That surprised me and also proved, to me at least, that genres are artificial and there’s no law you have to stay within them for your story to be valid.
The characters in Bulwark are fairly strong and, like any good theatre play, the sub-characters are fascinatingly grotesque personalities themselves (see Much Ado About Nothing, by that bloke from somewhere near Bristol who didn’t know, how, to use, commas). There’s a great line in Bulwark that made me laugh, where two redneck characters on a country road are challenged by the Sheriff to explain what they have in their sack. One says snakes and the other says rabbits. The policeman then correctly concludes that they’ve put snakes and rabbits in the same bag. Countryside entertainment at its timeless best.
In conclusion, this is a good example of a mediumly-dark (follow-up nightmares are unlikely), light entertainment story set in a format that’s deliberately bite-sized and attuned to the modern reader. If it were a book made of paper, I would have given it four stars and been disappointed by the brevity, but making an appropriate allowance for the way in which a story must necessarily be morphed and reduced to be published and successful on the Radish platform, I have to admit that it is a fine example of its type — the standard by which all reviewers should award their ratings. It isn’t Dostoyevsky but I would have advised dear old Fyodor that he should expect to fail on Radish because it’s simply not his format and the urbane C&P would not be a fine example of what the fast, urban fiction market is slow-clapping for.
I can almost see inside that reader’s skull as I write this, the frown, the living from pay-packet to pay-packet, lacking the opportunity to concentrate on ponderous, heavier writing in a distracting, moving, public environment and probably thinking a traditional brick book or newspaper would be an encumbrance that might be jostled out of their hands. Bulwark does exactly what a Radish reader wants, which is to provide a fantastical doughnut fix of imaginative colour to a young urban professional on their way to a forty year office job that’s depressing and grey. Before Radish, they read only utility bills. We all need story tellers to brighten our lives, particularly if we lead a stop/start urban existence, and I think Brit Lunden has got her story for rushed readers just about right. With expectations suitably re-calibrated, I will be comparing future tales written for the Radish format against the benchmark set by Bulwark. If they are all like this, the format has a future.