Dan Wickett is putting together the first (that I know of) blog-hosted short story contest. Dan will collect the entries and pass on the finalists to guest judge Charles D’Ambrosio. The winner will be published on Dan’s blog and in the Spring 2007 issue of Frostproof Review. What are you waiting for? Send something in.
After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”Update: Vonnegut talks about the new book on NPR.Later: Vonnegut’s late in life success
The other night I saw a commercial for Polident denture cream. There’s a guy in a lab coat, a pretend dentist, who’s saying that a lot of people treat dentures like teeth even though dentures are much softer and more porous than teeth. Dentures, the guy tells us, are different to teeth. But why should I listen to him? Why should I even be able to stand him? Different to? This makes me nuts. Okay, so in England — the British Isles — it is acceptable to pair these words together, but we’re not in England. We spell realize with a z and not an s. We don’t have a monarchy. We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British. We might even be different than the British. But we are certainly not different to the British. What we are, I fear, is dumber than the British. Or getting dumb thanks to media that institutionalizes bad grammar. Ever seen that commercial for Burger King’s new line of fries? Forget what gross measures BK has taken to modulate its fry-frying technique, and focus on the message: Forty percent less fat, thirty percent less calories. If you want to get into it, there’s reason to argue that less in some contexts can be applied to countable plural nouns. Just not this one. Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy, and not as indifferent to proper grammar, which is fast becoming a hallmark — even a badge of honor — for people trying to woo each other. Want to sell me something? Great, just be sure to put on your idiot face, first.
I have read a lot of dating profiles. A lot. Infer from this what you will while I make the following observation: no one equates proper grammar with sex appeal. On the contrary, the worse your punctuation, the more confident you seem that strangers will want to have sex with you. Does anyone on these websites know the difference between you’re and your? There and their? I teach creative writing to undergraduates and am frequently — daily — appalled by how bad their command is of basic language skills. Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing. Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, “a prick”. Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement. Here’s one I like: I’m “well educated”. It’s gotten so bad that one guy, in the “what are you looking for” section, writes: “A woman who knows the difference between its and it’s.” To me that’s like saying I want to date a person who knows the alphabet. When did the bar drop so low? And, really, why do I care? On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them?
Yes. Yes it is.
For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera — elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s all about perception. And if you say less fat, fewer calories, maybe people get the idea you are pretentious, and if pretentious, unpalatable. This is why so many of us don’t use capital letters when we email — because it looks stuffy. Which would all be fine were it not the case that bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. When’s the last you heard a politician who made you think? All you heard were the same hackneyed phrases and idioms that say, in essence, go to sleep now, the machine’s well-oiled. As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay “On Defamiliarization,” the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything.
Orwell was not actually all that big on grammar, though his grammar was impeccable. His bugbear was the debasement of the language thanks to dead metaphors, familiar phrases, euphemism, and vagueness. But I think bad grammar is equally dangerous. A commercial for Hill’s Ideal Balance dog food fear-mongers by telling me that my dog’s diet has too little vitamins. Gah, mini vitamins in my lab’s bowl! Guess I should run to the pet store right now. Similarly, next time a hurricane rolls into town and the government fails to provide adequate remuneration for people whose lives have been destroyed, I will be well pacified by the language coming out of Capitol Hill. Why worry? We’re stronger to the storm.
With the announcement of a title and street date (July 21st) for the seventh and final Harry Potter book, the final chapter of a publishing industry fairy tale has begun.I witnessed the phenomenon of the boy wizard firsthand when I worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Even on the decidedly not family friendly Sunset Strip (we were a few doors down from the Hustler flagship store), we sold more copies of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, than all of our other books combined in the first few days it was out, and our book buyer had to make emergency runs to Costco (where he could get the book wholesale) to keep it in stock. (You can see my thoughts at the time in this post.)Book six, of course, was even bigger, and judging by the numbers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the biggest of all. According to an Amazon press release, in just the first seven hours of availability, the online bookseller sold “over 200% more books than it did the entire first day of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the sixth book in the series. In fact, sales on Amazon.com in the first seven hours today have eclipsed total sales for the entire first two days of the sixth book.” Once all the first-day numbers were tallied, Amazon put out another release saying that orders for Deathly Hallows “were 547% higher than first-day pre-orders for Half-Blood Prince” and that the seventh and final book sold more copies on the first day than in the first two weeks of the pre-order period for book six.Amazon isn’t alone of course, Barnes & Noble reported selling Half-Blood Prince at a rate of 105 copies a second when that book came out, and I’m guessing the numbers will be even more astonishing for book seven. The books are such outliers that overall sales for the chain spike in years when Harry Potter books come out, creating lumpy year over year sales comparisons that the company’s management must explain to Wall Street.Of course, nowhere else is the series a bigger deal than Scholastic, the publisher behind the books, and the company can only hope that dozens of other projects in the pipeline will make up for the revenue lost once Harry Potter is history. At the same time, I’d imagine that the series will be repackaged again and again to entice die-hard fans and newcomers to shell out cash for the books years after book seven comes out. Already there are multiple editions of the Harry Potter books, and the “deluxe” version of book seven – retailing for $65 – is #2 at Amazon right now.While it’s unclear if the book industry will ever experience a phenomenon quite like Harry Potter again – the first six books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 languages, dwarfing even The Da Vinci Code’s 60+ million copies in print – we can be sure that the press will spill many gallons of ink on the end of the series over the next six months or so. And to be honest, it’s probably deserved. There’s never been anything else quite like it.
I am back. My long hiatus was partially due to grad school applications, heavy workload, holiday binge drinking and just sheer laziness. I have been meaning write about all the books I read, some of which definitely stand out, as (I hope) you will see. The first book I want to mention is Crash by J.G. Ballard. I rarely stop reading books that I begin, even if I strongly dislike them. The only book/memoir I stopped reading in the recent years is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire, which I found pompous, belittling and badly written. Nevertheless, that is not why I stopped reading Crash. I intend to finish Crash one of these days. That is, if I can overcome the absurdity of the main character Vaughan’s obsession with car crashes and reconstruction of scenes for erotic purposes, which did not resonate too well with me. I am an avid fan of weird and disturbing situations (e.g. Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris), but Ballard’s dry, calm style and heavy language adds another layer of complicity to an already shocking storyline. I have by no means given up on Crash, though I find it difficult to return to the read. Good luck to any and all that pick up this novel. FYI: I have not seen the movie, but I heard that it is quite weird and disturbing.Around the period that I was reading Crash, I was also studying for the GREs and took a week off from work to visit my aunt in Madison, WI to study and get away from NYC. I figured that Crash was not the best book to read while trying to study for the GREs and turned to Harry Potter for a dose of happiness, as well as to clear my mind. I had not read The Order of the Phoenix and borrowed it from my roommate Uzay. I started on the plane and by the time I landed in Madison I was, as with the previous four novels, hooked. So much for studying for the GREs. I read straight through The Order of the Phoenix and was pleasantly surprised to find that J.K. Rowling decided to reveal a darker side of Harry Potter. I was curious to see if Rowling would ever cast Potter as the not-so-perfect adolescent, which she successfully did in this installment. I enjoyed the clash between Dumbledore and the Ministry, the background stories that came with the introduction of the Order, the blackmailing campaigns that attempt to undermine evidence of Voldemort’s return and the developing relationship between Sirius Black and Potter. After a long sleepless night and not studying for the GREs, I headed straight to Borders and picked up The Half Blood Prince, which had been published very recently.The Half Blood Prince was an entertaining transition to the approaching grand finale. There were the cutesy parts of love stories and jealousies between Hermione and Ron, and Potter and Ginny Weasley, as well as the development of a closer camaraderie between Dumbledore and Potter, which I had long anticipated. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Half Blood Prince is well crafted and kept me guessing until the very end. Potter’s rival at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy has, in the meanwhile, been recruited by Voldemort to carry on mysterious activities at the school. As Dumbledore is showing Potter Voldemort’s past and preparing him for the looming battle (one book away, I dare say) Malfoy is brewing his own plans. The Half Blood Prince is a good staging book, with clever twists and turns, that left me hungry for the last novel. I am a big Harry Potter fan for a number of reasons (they’re easy to read, fun, thrilling and I feel like I’m on Prozac when I read them) but the series’ foremost quality is its continuity and how, at the end of each book, it gets me waiting for the next one. I hope it is soon.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5See Also: Emre’s previous reading journal
Laurel writes to tell us about a fiction contest that she’s involved with at Verb. Stories up to 5,000 words are eligible and the winner receives $1,000 and publication in an issue of Verb. The judge for the contest is Thisbe Nissen who wrote Osprey Island and once helped my friends find an apartment in Iowa City. Verb isn’t your typical literary magazine, by the way. Laurel says: “Verb is the first audioquarterly, which means that you’ll be recording your story for distribution through audible.com, and to subscribers on a CD! If you would prefer, an actor may record in your stead. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Peter Case, Julianna Baggott, Ha Jin, and many others.”
My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.