A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
Exiled Kenyan Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in San Francisco promoting his novel Wizard of the Crow and staying at the Hotel Vitale. According to a report in a Kenyan paper, the author was sitting in a common area of the hotel and was confronted by a hotel employee who said, “This place is for guests of the hotel. You must leave.”The worker would hear none of the professor’s explanation that he was a guest. He insisted that he must leave immediately.After it was established that indeed Ngugi was a distinguished guest of the hotel, the management apologised by offering some complimentary whisky.The incident is being talked about in other corners of the Web but has yet to be picked up by any US papers. The hotel is already trying to cover its tracks by saying that it was the action of an individual who “under review, as is the hotel’s diversity training program,” according to an email reprinted at this hotel review site (scroll down).At the blog Black Looks, where another email from hotel management has been reprinted (scroll down to the comments), demands are being made for a public apology in “to be placed in a Bay Area newspaper, no later than the end of this month.”It seems likely that this was indeed the isolated stupidity of one person at the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is now in serious backpedaling mode. It just goes to show that even in what is considered one of the more “enlightened” cities in the world, we haven’t made as much progress as we think.
For some reason, the CBC never made their interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski available online after it originally aired. Luckily, Millions contributor Andrew Saikali listened to the show live and sent me a quick recap:- It was a half-hour interview which actually was recorded by the CBC at his home in Warsaw.- he’s a very thoughtful, eloquent man- Much of it was devoted to growing up during the war, in Pinsk in the Poland/Belarus border area – I gather it sort of pingponged back and forth between the two jurisdictions throughout history- childhood poor – the war hit on what would have been his first day of school. – grew up with War being the norm. Peace, when it came, felt transitional, tentative- Pinsk was multi-ethnic then – Poles, Belarussians, Jews, Ukrainians maybe, and probably others that I forget. – Pre-war it was functional, the various ethnicities mixed and worked together in order to get by.- his parents were both teachers- hunger during the war caused him and others to ask the Russian soldiers for food, but all they could get were cigarettes.- often went barefoot (as children, during the war) – because shoes were in short supply – still sees people in their fancy shoes and flashes back to when he thought of them as “luxuries”- as a young reporter he was sent to both China and India (on two separate occasions) – and in each case the following happened: he was so overwhelmed by the culture, and got so immersed, that he felt as if he could spend the rest of his life reporting from there and writing about there – and so he asked to be transferred from there quickly – because as absorbed and fascinated as he was by it, he knew that first and foremost he was a man of the world and wanted so see and experience everything, everywhere – which, I think, shows remarkable self-awareness, especially in a young reporter, to know that one’s worldly-tendencies were in danger of being trumped by a specific-regional fascination – to know enough about your own strengths and weaknesses to leave, and follow your “true path” before getting (permanently) drawn in to something specific (no matter how great it may be)
Recently, the innovative literary magazine One-Story launched a campaign to “Save the Short Story.” As the essay below suggests, we at The Millions found this effort admirable, and also puzzling. Is “the short story” even a single thing? And, if so, does it need saving? On both questions, the evidence seems mixed. We can agree, however, that short stories seem to have lost some of their prominence in the popular imagination. Mainstream book coverage tends to track the agendas of the publishing industry; those agendas, in turn, tend to be driven by coverage. With our “Short Story Week,” we aim to subvert the cycle. Between now and Friday, we hopeto revisit the work of living masters,to celebrate the writers who paved their way,to talk a bit about teaching the short story, and writing it,to link to interesting short-story sites and periodicalsto provide a selective bibliography of our favorite story collections,and, as always, to hear from you.In short: we hope you enjoy it. We’ll be linking to the week’s installments below.Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?On BrevityExpat Laureate: Paul Bowles’s Too Far From HomeThe Elusive Thread of Memory: The Displaced World of Mavis GallantAdventures in Consciousness: A Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Under the 82nd AirborneSome Recommended Short FictionAnthologies EvolvedAnd May We Also RecommendShort Story Week LinksOn Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections
A perfect post to leave you with as we head into the long weekend. Perhaps, like many people, you’ve been wondering what Art Garfunkel’s been reading for… oh… the last 39 years, give or take. Luckily, he’s been keeping track.As a result, perusing through the nearly 1,000 books he’s read in that time, I now know that:When I was born, Art Garfunkel was reading Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur.When I graduated high school, he was reading “Our Crowd” by Stephen Birmingham.When I graduated college, he was reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.And when I got married, he was reading Love, Groucho, the letters of Groucho Marx.What was Art Garfunkel reading on the important dates in your life? (Thanks to John for sending that brilliant link my way)
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.