I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
This is why I love the New Yorker. Right when I'm about to go on vacation, they put out the debut fiction issue, perfect for the beach. In fact, I still vividly recall reading an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated in a debut fiction issue while at the beach a few summers ago. This year's stories look interesting. There's "An Ex-Mas Feast" (read it here) by Uwem Alpan, "a Jesuit Priest from Nigeria." There's "The Laser Age" by Justin Tussing, an Iowa Writer's Workshop grad, whose first novel, The Best People in the World, comes out nest year. And there's "Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell (read it here.)I don't know why, but I always feel faint stirrings of jealousy when the debut fiction issue comes out. I'm not exactly an aspiring novelist, but I think it riles people up to see unknowns on such a big stage, the biggest in short fiction. I just have to remind myself that there are much more deserving things to decry in the literary world than the debut fiction issue. That way I can enjoy the stories with my emotions unclouded.Update: I read the stories and here's what I thought.
A lengthy article in the Financial Times takes on America's squeamishness with that most perplexing of punctuations, the semi-colon. Personally, I'm a big semi-colon fan (if one can be said to be a fan of a particular piece of punctuation), but Michael Kinsley, for example, is more cautious:"I use semicolons and I never really enforced a hard-and-fast rule," Kinsley responded recently by e-mail from the West Coast, where he has been running The Los Angeles Times' opinion pages for the past year."But if abuse is going to be common," he continued, "it's simpler and safer to have a flat-out rule. It's like drug regulation. Drugs are banned sometimes because a minority of users will have negative side effects, or because taking them correctly is complicated, although many people could get it right and would find them helpful. Actually, I'm opposed to that kind of thinking re drugs, but I am OK with it regarding punctuation. Punctuation can't save your life."
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don't have a precise working definition of "lyrical realism" it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers - Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky - and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the "brute materiality of the external world."As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity - who exactly is the "I" telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away - including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator's identity - what remains is the "brute materiality" of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, "it's not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry."But poetry, as Auden famously put it, "makes nothing happen," and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its "pure facticity." The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
1. That yowl of pain you heard coming from the nation’s capital on Monday afternoon was the death cry of the print newspaper business as it was cut to the heart by the buyout of the Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Just forty years ago, during the Watergate scandal, the Post was an economic and cultural force potent enough to help take down a sitting president, and now it has itself been taken down by a guy who less than twenty years ago was working out of his garage selling books on the Internet. The surprise $250 million deal has coup de grâce written all over it, and in newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors – those who still have jobs – will be grousing over the rich symbolism of one of the crown jewels of American journalism being snapped up by a mogul made rich by the very technology that killed the print business model. But once the grumbling dies down, those of us who care about journalism and culture may have to concede two obvious points. First, we damn well better hope Bezos succeeds where others have failed in figuring out how to produce professional-quality content in the digital age, not just for the sake of the Washington Post or even of the news business, but for the sake of cultural and artistic production in general. Second, of all the billionaires with the means to buy a major cultural institution like the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos might just be the one who can reinvent it for the 21st century. The details of the Post deal are curious – and telling. For one thing, the newspaper’s parent company, which owns a diverse group of media and educational businesses including the Kaplan test prep company, is selling only its newspapers and holding onto its other businesses. For another, Bezos is buying the Post on his own, and won’t merge it into Amazon, the online retailing behemoth he still runs. Finally, Bezos has said he doesn’t intend to lay off employees and will keep Katherine Weymouth, granddaughter of legendary Post publisher and Washington powerbroker Katherine Graham, on as the newspaper’s publisher. In other words, the Washington Post Company sees its signature property as a money-loser, and Bezos appears to be stepping in as a white knight to save a cultural institution from falling into disrepair. The history of these sorts of deals is mixed at best. After all, just three years ago the Post Company sold once-mighty Newsweek for a dollar to yet another billionaire, 92-year-old Sidney Harman, who brought in former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, with a plan to merge the aging print weekly with the website The Daily Beast. Harman, however, promptly died, and with the magazine hemorrhaging readers, Brown just last week severed ties between the website and the print magazine, selling Newsweek to start-up International Business Times. As its purchase price suggests, the Washington Post is in far better shape than Newsweek was, but the paper’s core business of covering inside the Beltway news is under threat from websites like Politico. More importantly, the paper faces the same problem all legacy news organizations face, which is how to scale back its news operation to a level that is economically sustainable in a post-print era without doing fatal damage to the news gathering itself. To do that, though, requires a nuanced understanding of why the old business model failed in the first place. 2. There are two versions of the story of why print newspapers bit the dust, one a tech-geek fantasy, the other a more prosaic business tale. In the tech-geek fantasy version, spread by the likes of digivangelist Clay Shirky in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, newspapers were beaten at their own game by bloggers and regular citizens armed with iPhones and laptops who were able to deliver news faster and more cheaply than the old print warhorses. Ironically, Shirky and others who advance this theory are laboring under the same misconception that has plagued news executives for the last twenty years – namely, the assumption that the principal business of a newspaper is gathering news. Newspapers don’t sell news. Rather, they give news away for free in order to maintain a distribution system for business information, most of which takes the form of paid ads. Newspapers remained as lucrative as they were for as long as they did because until the introduction of the web browser in 1994, nothing else offered cheap access to the millions of ordinary consumers who picked up the paper that landed on their front curb every morning. Understanding this distinction helps explain why television hurt but did not kill newspapers. Television long ago entered more homes than newspapers ever did, and in many ways TV, which includes moving pictures and sound, is a better delivery device for news. But again, news isn’t the product for sale; advertising is, and by its nature, television can only effectively sell broad conceptual ideas that can be communicated visually in thirty seconds. You can use television to convince millions of Americans to shop at Safeway, but you can’t very well use TV to tell Americans about everything that's on sale that week at their neighborhood Safeway. And if you are trying to find a roommate or selling some old furniture, you can’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to run even a fifteen-second spot on a local station. For those kinds of tasks, you called up your local paper and bought a classified ad – until, that is, Craigslist and eBay came along and let people post those ads essentially for free. To repeat: newspapers aren't dying because they're getting beat on news reporting. Newspapers are dying because the Internet separated the news content from the advertising revenue stream. For generations news executives thought they were selling news, while in fact they were selling a pipeline to consumers that companies and individuals paid to use. Now, the Internet itself is that pipeline, and we’re watching a wild scramble to see who will control it and the rafts of dollars flowing down its many tributaries. So far, tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and, yes, Amazon, are winning that battle hands down. This same battle, meanwhile, has been playing out across all forms of cultural and artistic expression. Twenty years ago, if a rock band wanted to find a wide audience for its music, it signed with a record label, which then recorded the band’s music and distributed it to stores across the country. Now, thanks to the ease of digital distribution, young musicians can bypass record labels and post their songs online for free. But if they want to make any real money from their work, they will almost certainly have to turn to Apple’s iTunes site and its direct pipeline to America’s ears. A similar story has played out in the movie business, which only a few years ago could depend on DVDs rentals to make up revenue lost at the box office. Now, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, DVD rental fees have dried up and movie studios are madly turning out special-effects-laden comic-book serials in the hopes of winning over American teenagers and Chinese moviegoers, the last groups still consistently willing to pay to watch a movie in a theater (as long as it’s loud, violent, and not overly dependent on the subtleties of spoken English). Books have been somewhat insulated from these disruptions because, so far, most readers still prefer physical books over e-books, but the terms of the battle are the same. Publishing firms, which have for generations paid writers to produce and editors to curate books are fighting tech giants Apple and Amazon, which view books primarily as loss leaders they can use to attract customers to their e-readers. So long as most readers continue to prefer printed books, publishing will limp along in its wounded state, rather like the news business after television but before the Internet. But there is a tipping point at which e-readers, and the recommendation engines controlled by the tech giants, could take over the curating role now played by publishing houses, thereby killing the publishing industry as we know it. 3. All of which brings us back to Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. Over the last twenty years, much of the money and power once held by content producers – newspapers, record labels, movie studios, publishing houses, etc. – has transferred to the tech giants that now control the digital pipelines to consumers. This means that it’s much easier for any individual artist or journalist to reach an audience, which is a great and good thing, but it also means that the tech giants controlling the pipelines are taking ever increasing shares of profits. For the past decade or so, we have been enjoying a strange hangover period of the pre-digital age. A generation of journalists and artists trained in the dead-tree era, who have few other marketable skills, have continued producing art and journalism even though they are getting paid far less for their work than they used to. But every year more of these content producers are retiring or moving on, and we are entering a new period dominated by the first truly digital generation of bloggers and artists who are faced with the task of rebuilding the culture industries out of the ashes of the tech explosion. I and many others have argued that, so far at least, this generation has relied too heavily on memes and information derived from the legacy content producers. In journalism, this has meant hordes of bloggers feasting on an ever-shrinking supply of reported news from print-based news organizations. In film, this has meant kajillions of kids with camera phones riffing on existing story worlds, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and uploading the results onto YouTube. As Jaron Lanier, a digital pioneer recently turned Internet skeptic, puts it in his 2011 book You Are Not a Gadget, we are a culture in danger of “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Obviously, this cannot go on forever, but thus far the most powerful technological disrupters have shown little interest in investing in the content carried along their digital pipelines. Apple, with its market-making iPhone and iPad devices, sparked a creative revolution in the world of apps, but when it comes to cultural content like books, movies, and news, all the tech companies have done is made it cheaper and easier to get what you want, cutting deeply into the profit margins for the content producers in the process. Amazon, which now controls a quarter of the book business, has of course played a huge role in this devaluing of cultural content, but in recent years Amazon has also quietly begun investing in content of its own. Since 2009, Amazon has launched imprints focusing on romance (Montlake Romance), thrillers (Thomas & Mercer), and sci-fi (47North), and now even general adult titles (New Harvest) and literary fiction (Little A). Compared with Amazon itself, these ventures are tiny, and they have run into trouble with rival booksellers like Barnes & Noble, which have refused to stock their titles. But whether these imprints succeed or fail, they demonstrate that Bezos has begun to wrap his mind around what it would mean if his company squeezed so much value out of the book business that publishing became in effect one long amateur hour. So, is the Washington Post purchase a step in the same direction, an effort on Bezos's part to invest directly in the content that fuels his billion-dollar pipelines? The short answer is nobody knows. By all accounts the deal came together quickly, and it may well be that Bezos himself is unsure just what he wants to do with the Post. For a man worth $25.2 billion, as Bezos is, a $250 million newspaper truly can qualify as an impulse buy. Perhaps this is simply the billionaire’s answer to collecting old-fashioned typewriters. Let’s hope that’s not the case because whatever you may think of Bezos and others who broke the pre-Internet business model, the fact is it's broken – and who better to fix it than the man who helped break it in the first place? Bezos, who has never worked in the news business, may be less attached to the dying print model than most print-news lifers and thus more willing to embrace digital-only innovations. As a man who has made his living tapping the powers of the interwebs, he may be better able to see that strict paywalls, which limit linking and bring in few dollars, are a dead end for most news organizations. As a CEO who recently bought out the reader hub GoodReads, he may be more open to recasting the newspaper as a community gathering spot, a sort of localized wiki combining conversation, community news, and event listings with ad revenues supporting a small, professional news staff. Most important, as a manager who has excelled at the long game, spending years investing in infrastructure for Amazon rather than diverting profits to shareholders, Bezos might be more willing to lose some money while figuring out how to marry news quality with profitability. Or maybe not. Maybe the guy just wants a $250 million toy. But let’s hope not, because if that’s the case we stand to lose a lot more than a grand old newspaper that once helped take down a president.
Don't let the lame title fool you - James Ryerson's Times Magazine essay on David Foster Wallace's early philosophical writings is a valuable step toward understanding both the novelist and the intellectual situation in which he found himself. Most substantially, Ryerson's reading of Wallace's senior thesis reveals a writer concerned not with language qua language, but with the ostensibly discredited field of metaphysics - or rather, with the space between the two.Wallace was the kind of writer who could do anything with language, but seemed to see native gifts, including his own, as pitfalls rather than accomplishments. (Spare a thought for poor Orin Incandenza, trapped under glass.) His pyrotechnic prose style made it easy for some critics to miss, but even as an undergrad, Wallace was aiming higher than mere felicity.Characteristically (for anyone who made it through Everything and More), Wallace's thesis defends the possibility of metaphysics through a kind of reductio proof. He shows the insufficiency of other philosophical premises, including those of the philosophy of language, for addressing the basic experience of being in the world. This phenomenological move seems to me be about as far as anyone has gotten in the modernist project of clearing the field of philosophy; it echoes the struggles of Wittgenstein, which in turn echo through Wallace's two long novels. And it explains the sense of aesthetic aporia that hangs over discussions of contemporary fiction.At the same time, Wallace's ostensible shift from philosophy to fiction points toward an exit. Most of what philosophers have achieved since the modernist moment has come in some genre other than the propositional argument: manifesto, koan, literary criticism... and, yes, literary fiction. And so the end point of Wallace's thesis seems to mark the beginning of his career as a philosopher - a career he pursued by writing fiction. In literature, he found a "conceptual tool with which [to pursue] life's most desperate questions" that shortened the "distance from the connections he struggled to make." It will be the work of future critics to elucidate those connections, without neglecting or negating the singularity of their expression.
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New York's NPR affiliate, WNYC, has posted downloadable audio of last weekend's 75th Birthday celebration for Philip Roth. Featured speakers include Jonathan Lethem, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Hermione Lee. Alvin Pepler, unfortunately, had a prior engagement...
This story brought me back to my bookselling days.A consumer alert for the millions who have seen the Sex and the City movie: There is no such book as Love Letters of Great Men, which Carrie Bradshaw reads while in bed with Mr. Big.The closest text in the real world apparently is Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, first released in the 1920s and reissued last year by Kessinger Publishing, which specializes in bringing back old works.Rarely a day went by at the bookstore without a strange request: books long out of print or requests for misremembered titles were common. I can imagine beleaguered booksellers across the country taking pains to untangle the confusion wrought by Carrie Bradshaw et al. Meanwhile, Sex and the City fans who have purchased Love Letters of Great Men and Women - the book has achieved an astonishing #123 sales rank at Amazon - are becoming acquainted with the likes of Victor Hugo, Goethe, and Alexander Pope, according to the bits of the book and table of contents available at Google Books. Sometimes it is a strange world we live in.(Via my mom, who made a good point when she directed me to this story: "sounds like an opportunity for a fast writer.")