There was lots of discussion late last week about Ed Wyatt’s NY Times article talking about publishers “offering books by lesser-known authors only as ‘paperback originals,’ forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.” I’m all for this development as are many other folks. Sarah at GalleyCat commented, as did Miss Snark, who led me to Levi Asher making some very good points at LitKicks. I’m not a big fan of hardcovers, either. Personally, I prefer pocket paperbacks when I can get them.
Ian Frazier’s piece in last week’s New Yorker is one of the oddest, funniest essays I’ve read in a long time. I laughed to myself as I read it the other day while sitting on the steps of the Art Institute in downtown Chicago (following an edifying meetup with fellow book bloggers Deep and Sam). The essay, “Pensees D’Automne,” is about a grown man’s passion for stomping acorns in the fall, and it contains many asides about things like health insurance and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Frazier, who has long written odd and funny things like this, has a new book out this week called Gone to New York: Adventures in the City. The book collects thirty years of Frazier’s journalism about New York. From a review in the Sun-Times:The non-linear way Frazier’s mind works is a delight to follow on the page. And don’t let the emphasis on New York City fool you. Frazier is one of us. In the introduction to Gone to New York, Jamaica Kincaid gets it right when she calls her pal “the authentic American,” whose work “is meant to form an arc, an arc that has not yet begun its curve.”Kincaid and Frazier are also involved in another recently released book, this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing. Kincaid is the editor this year and Frazier is joined as a contributor by luminaries like John McPhee, William T. Vollmann, and William Least-Heat Moon.
For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I’ve been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I’m at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, “This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen…” The ugly truth, however, is that I’ve never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness… I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn – a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn – landed a recurring role as Blair’s mother’s boyfriend. “The life of an actor can be very enviable,” Shawn told the New York Times this week. “If the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads… I think that’s fantastic.”That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl’s centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker’s role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW’s role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I’m tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.
How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.
You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.
How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.
Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.
Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.
Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.
The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.
If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”
That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.
Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.
Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.
I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.
Some weeks my New Yorker shows up on Tuesday; other weeks it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. This week it showed up late, and that’s why I’m writing about it even as it’s being removed from news stands to make way for next week’s issue. But I was glad to finally get to it, especially after noting that it was the summer fiction issue. But it’s not the typical summer fiction issue and certainly doesn’t fit the accepted idea of “Summer Reading.” This issue is about war, and I’m glad that the New Yorker decided to put together an issue like this, since it is shockingly easy – three years after we invaded Iraq – to forget that this country is at war right now. It’s also fitting since we’ve been discussing war quite a bit at The Millions lately. Last month I reviewed An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, which led readers to help me compile lists of World War 2 fiction and nonfiction. Vasily Grossman appeared on both lists, and his story “In Kislovodsk” (not available online) is in this New Yorker. Also contributing is Uwem Akpan with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Akpan was in last year’s debut fiction issue.But more broadly, the issue is a nice reminder that as life goes on here in the States, war rages on in Iraq. The New Yorker has done this most vividly by providing “Soldiers’ Stories: Letters, e-mails, and journals from the Gulf.” The magazine has also created an audio slide show for the online version of the piece:This week, The New Yorker publishes a selection of letters, journal entries, and personal essays by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served in the current war in Iraq. The writings are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall by Random House. Here, in an Audio Slide Show produced by Matt Dellinger, five of the servicemen read from their work, accompanied by their photographs.
Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, on the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech”:Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime.Link
When you go to journalism school (or start out at most traditional journalism jobs), you are issued a style guide as a soldier might be issued a weapon. Quite a few places have their own in-house style guides, reflecting the vernacular peculiarities of the publication or its region. For all others, the default tends to be the AP Stylebook, a utilitarian volume compiled by the AP and meant to keep all of its reporters’ language consistent. Its influence, of course, has spread far wider.As an avid AP Stylebook owner, I read with interest last month, Editor & Publisher’s account of the changes in the latest edition of the Stylebook. In a way, the AP’s regular shuffling in and out of new words and disused ones is not unlike the exercise played to great PR effect by dictionaries every year. The sometimes silly neologisms added to dictionaries make for easy news bites. Seeing “e-mail” or “LOL” printed on those thin pages seems to inspire amusement, dread, and maybe a little bit of pride. But ultimately it feels inconsequential as we watch our vocabulary race ahead of dictionaries, and dictionaries seem to have minimal influence on how we actually communicate.An adjustment to the AP Stylebook, on the other hand, is a writ-in-stone change to what millions of people will read in publications around the world, and it will further influence the style guides at publications that use their own style guides. Certainly the AP is forced to, as the dictionaries do, catch up to trends in the spoken and written word – according to E&P, “‘WMD,’ ‘iPhone’ and ‘anti-virus’ are in, while ‘barmaid,’ ‘blue blood’ and ‘malarkey’ are out.” – but the authority of the Stylebook would seem to bury the words that are being removed and give birth to those that are added.
Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting “regular inspections of your library;” following “the ‘one in, one out’ rule;” spending “more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;” using the library more, and “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I’m dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we’re moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we’re finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we’ll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.
If con artists were smarter, they’d let people forget previous deeds first. Little more than two years after the James Frey debacle, the literature world is once again awash in breaking news stories of fabricated memoirs.The New York Times reported Monday that Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years is complete bogus. This must be cardinal sin considering that, according to the AP, Defonseca is not even Jewish – real name: Monique De Wael. So, never mind that the “memoir” was translated to 18 languages and made into a feature film, exploiting people’s shock and disgust for a handsome profit. The defense? “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality,” says Defonseca.Today, the NYT reports that Margaret Seltzer’s gang memoir, published under the name Margaret B. Jones Love and Consequences – where the author purports to be a half-Native American, half-white girl dealing drugs for the Bloods in Los Angeles – is also, ahem, a fake.Add to it the revelations about self-knighted chef Robert Irvine of the Food Network – author of Mission: Cook! – who beefed up his resume to include fictional positions as White House Chef and personal friend of Prince Charles (who picks Charles as a mate anyway?) and you might think non-fiction these days is only as real as Frank Abagnale’s Harvard Law degree (Remember Catch Me If You Can?).What is most shocking in Seltzer and Irvine’s cases is the lack of fact-checking. If it were not for Seltzer’s sister – who alerted the publisher, Riverhead Books, after reading a profile of Seltzer in the NYT – Love and Consequences could have enjoyed some success. Look at Irvine, he even had a TV show.Finding out if the Queen knighted someone should be fairly simple. Finding out the heritage of a person, where they attended school, how many siblings they have and so forth is extremely easy. One would think that after Frey, publishers would take a closer look to the facts in memoirs and make sure that readers don’t end up paging through imaginary non-fiction.On the plus side, Seltzer must be quite a writer and actress – after all, she managed to keep up the guise of truth for three years while working on her, err, novel.