Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
The Using Books blog points to a Kansas City childrens’ book store, Reading Reptile, that is taking HarperCollins to task for allegedly doctoring the photo of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the childrens’ classic Goodnight Moon, on a recent edition of the book. It seems that Hurd was once pictured holding a barely visable cigarette and now the cigarette has disappeared. The Reading Reptile folks have put together Goodnight Reality, a Web site to protest the “censorship.” Though the comparisons to Stalin may be a bit over the top, I suppose you have to fight for what you believe in.And lest I be accused of taking things too seriously, the Reading Reptile folks are probably being a little tongue in cheek about this. Judging from their “About Us” page, they’ve got a sense of humor.Update: The New York Times looks at the Goodnight Moon cigarette controversy. HarperCollins plans to find a completely different photo of Clement Hurd for future printings of the book, so that no doctoring will be required.
Anybody who read William Langewiesche’s book The Outlaw Sea or is simply interested in the modern day high seas should take a look at Brendan Corr’s photo essay from Foreign Policy magazine. It chronicles ship breaking in Bangladesh, the process by which the world’s tankers and freighters, ready to be retired but unwanted by any developed nation, are dismantled by hand for scrap metal. It’s remarkable and post-apocolyptic and when I heard it in Langewiesche’s book (I listened to it on audio) I couldn’t quite visualize it because it seemed so outlandish, but these pictures tell the story.
There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.
Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)
The Rake is underwhelmed by a Lily Tuck reading, but nonetheless manages to put together a characteristically amusing recap of the event. Now that’s dedication.Ed visits used bookstore run by the cranky and paranoid and lives to tell the tale.CAAF on good vs. bad protagonists.McSweeney’s fans: I couldn’t help but notice that Amazon is shilling issue #14 for the low, low price of 6 bucks. Get ’em while they’re hot.