At the Freakonomics Blog, Steven Levitt explains how the publishing industry is putting out more bullshit than ever these days.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: "Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America's latest elite--a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos--covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure."Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
Update: Read our review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, his "finest work," according to our reviewer. One of the fall's most hotly anticpated novels (on this continent, at least) is Haruki Murakami's massive new book 1Q84. The book's release was a publishing event in Japan in June 2009, selling over 100,000 copies there in its first week. Now, after over two years, the three-volume novel (released here in one volume and in the UK in two volumes, with parts one and two translated by Jay Rubin and part three by Philip Gabriel) will hit shelves. Because of the very long lead time and because Murakami has an engaged and sometimes bilingual fan base, anything you might want to know about the book is available just a Google search away -- and fans have tried their hands at translating snippets and sections as well -- but until now we haven't gotten a glimpse of how the novel will open, with Murakami's prose rendered in Rubin's translation. As is often the case with Murakami's work, music figures prominently in the opening paragraph of 1Q84, specifically mentioning Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček a Czech composer of the late 19th and early 20th century. Here it is, the opening paragraph of 1Q84: The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.
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I've never been shy about my love for long form journalism - my love for the New Yorker is based on it - so I was intrigued to hear about a pair of books that collect some recent stand-out examples of the work from two other venerable magazines: New York and Harper's. The former is represented in New York Stories and the latter in Submersion Journalism Both were reviewed a few weeks back in the LA Times. I was particularly intrigued by Submersion Journalism which includes work by Wells Tower, an excellent but not terribly well-known journalist who contributes to Harper's, The Believer, Washington Post Magazine and others. We wrote about him a while back in an "Ask a Book Question" post. Unfortunately, a bunch of comments from readers listing several of Tower's pieces were lost in the Great Comments Purge of 2006, but the post nonetheless provides some background.Tower is best known for the remarkable Harper's piece "Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote," for which he, as the LA Times puts it "embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy." The article is, unfortunately, not available online for free, but it is included in Submersion Journalism. I've read it, and I think it rates up there with Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a piece of tragicomic political journalism.Stepping back, it's always exciting to see collections like these come out, if only for the fact that they highlight some of the best, most entertaining journalism ever written. I concur with reviewer Marc Weingarten in the LA Times who writes, "The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us."See Also: The New New Journalists
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When Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem's own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we're getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother's death appeared in last week's New Yorker (but it's not available online). I'm beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
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In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. "What is wrong with this book," I think to myself, "that the publisher didn't want to release it as a hardcover?" At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: "riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on." Miller wonders if the industry's rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell's popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.
WHEREAS… It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to discourage a writer’s use of cliché; and It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to say that clichés are too familiar and therefore ineffective; and The first time we heard this cliché against clichés it was a revelation, but with each successive repetition the cliché against clichés became increasingly faded and opaque, i.e., clichéd: a comforting logical fabric (“I’ll say the thing about clichés!”) to throw over a gap where uncertainty lay; a stand-in for new and difficult thinking because you’d have to remember all the way back to the first time you heard this cliché against clichés to actually see, once again, that clichés are ineffective because they prevent you from seeing; but also an efficient shorthand, one soothing for its familiarity, and in its familiarity suggestive of rightness, and in its rightness suggestive of belonging: to the community of those who’ve been through writing workshops and so have been inducted into the Army Against Clichés, which is also an Army Against Genre Fiction and Commercial Fiction and Popular Nonfiction, all of which are what they are (beloved, commercially viable, popular) because they return dependably to clichés of storytelling invented and real; and which may itself be an Army Against the Teeming Masses, who buy mass-produced books for the soothingly familiar stories inside; and which is therefore an Army of Elitism, reproducing clichés of class; but which may also be an Army Against Itself; and WHEREAS… Every word of our language is a cliché, so familiar as to be efficiently, effortlessly understood; and We cling to these clichés (of language, of description, of workshop) for their ease and also for their familiarity, which suggests rightness, which suggests belonging; and Cliché, here, may refer to a bevy of workshop clichés, including: clichés of praise (this is effective, is working, is strong, great, fantastic, amazing, well done), which stand in for consideration of what these terms mean; clichés of condescension (this isn’t working, is ineffective, weak, less well-done), which cover over uncertainty about what these terms mean; clichés of response and suggestion (too heavy-handed, sentimental, familiar; more subtle, restrained, fresh), which assume there is a single aesthetic community to which we all belong; and other such meaningless pandering and avoidance of considerate thought, tics that are contagious because we reach for agreement because we reach for belonging because the truth that there is no rightness is so damn maddening; THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED… That we will use the cliché against clichés against itself, at once ratifying and refusing its meaning: abstaining, in our conversations about new writing, from using workshop shorthand, i.e., from not thinking; abstaining from agreeing with each other too much, i.e., from group-think; granting that, in the process, we will create new clichés; and trusting that we will question and thereby destabilize these clichés along the way. Image Credit: Flickr/Tom Newby Photography.