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.
As emdashes recently pointed out, last week’s New Yorker cover was the second Bush/Cheney “gay joke” in recent memory. I gave a chuckle when I saw it, but, honestly, I expect New Yorker covers to be a little more, I don’t know, subtle than that. So I was sad to see what had been originally slated for last week’s cover – before Dick Cheney shot somebody – an elegy for New Orleans as Mardi Gras approaches. (via Jenny)
The current issue of New York Magazine offers a typically glib handicapping of this summer’s debut novels and hot young fabulists, as well as surveys of overlooked books and of writers likely to stand the test of time. I’m least sympathetic to this American Idol style of journalism when it covers well-trod territory; New York’s a speculative “future canon” offers few surprises (Gary Lutz and Helena Maria Viramontes among them). But the lengthy “underrated” list does offer readers an introduction to new writers… as do the excerpts from works in progress by “tomorrow’s literary stars” (including my friend Maaza Mengiste.)It’s refreshing to read fiction in New York; perhaps they should do this more often. Anyway, if the endless brouhaha surrounding the Times’ attention-grabbing “Best Books of the Last 25 Years” failed to tire you out, click on over to New York and check out the offerings.
At first I couldn’t tell if Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey’s style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, “one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Ouch.At the Vroman’s blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, “Voice is the amalgamation of books read,” and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum: “Make it new.” It’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey’s latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?
In the summer of 2004, in what seemed like a simpler time when the Millions was barely a year old, and I was still a couple of months away from adding my two-cents worth (Canadian) to it, Max introduced me to the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski. While reading Shah of Shahs, and marveling at the reportage and at the powerful, witty and humane voice jumping off of the page, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a translation, and that not only were Kapuscinski’s magnificent words and images being translated, but William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand had managed to capture the subtleties of his literary voice.Delivering those translated words so that the reader gets the full experience – all the nuances hidden in the shadows of the language – seems to me to be a monumental task. Think, then, what is involved in translating something which is entirely image. Where the flashes of color, and the music of the words, the rhythms and the tones, must all be conveyed to the innocent reader. Think what must be involved when translating poetry.A recent Globe and Mail article, “An Athlete in the extreme sport of poetry,” profiles Erin Moure, who, along with Robert Majzels, has translated Nicole Brossard’s Cahier de roses et de civilisation (Notebook of Roses and Civilization).On the seemingly daunting task of translating Brossard’s poetry, Moure says: “There are challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain. Plus, Brossard does things in French that are syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”The article also discusses the collaborative method that Moure and her co-translator used. Moure would “do three pages in a row, then Bob’ll translate three pages in a row, the next three pages, and so on.”As an interesting aside, Moure also wishes that there were other translations of Brossard’s book: “You can only start to see the texture of the original language really, really when there’s more than one translation.”
Aspiring writers might want to consider moving to Japan and focusing on thumbing text messages instead of developing intricate story lines or characters. At least, that is what this front page story from the Sunday New York Times seems to be saying.In 2007, five of the top 10 best-selling novels in Japan were written by teenagers, or early 20-somethings, on cell phones. These novels were published in installments on various specialized Web sites. Although the phenomenon emerged in 2000, according to the NYT, it really took off two or three years ago; one of the Web sites hit the one million “cellphone novels” mark last month. Publishers soon recognized the trend and began republishing popular, finished novels, churning out one best seller after another.”The sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable,” one of the authors is quoted as saying. Yet, apparently demand for these “tear-jerkers” is on the rise, and, already, there is talk of creating and naming a genre for it. (Yes, the “cellphone novel.”) With direct flights from New York to Tokyo at just under $1,000 and new cell phone plans in Japan providing unlimited data transfers, i.e., text messages and Web-posting capability, this might be the best deal available to witty writers who don’t care much for style, and, well, errr, the story.Update: Ben translates an excerpt of one of these best-selling cell phone novels and puts the phenomenon in context.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.