Faced with a stark choice – where to buy books in New York congressional district 8 – I have decided to endorse my new employer, the Housing Works Used Bookstore & Cafe. As any American who’s attended a reading or browsed the shelves at HWUBC’s SoHo location knows, the store is a home away from home for bibliophiles. Better still, all of the store’s profits go to Housing Works, a nonprofit that supports homeless New Yorkers living with HIV. Recently, Housing Works has entered the online book business. So this election season, if you want a candidate who will protect your pocketbook while working for social change, look no further than the Housing Works page at half.com. I’m Garth Risk Hallberg, and I approved this message.
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
If you have a teenager in your house, or if you just spend a lot of time around one, you may have found yourself patiently explaining that while the word “like” can mean many things, it isn’t a synonym for “said.” In fact, if you are under 40, you may have had this conversation with yourself. No element of modern speech, with the possible exception of all those business types using “impact” as a verb, comes in for as much abuse as what might be called “the Valley-Girl like.”
Meet Alexandra D’Arcy, who wants to destigmatize the contemporary use of “like.” In academic publications dating back to 2005, D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in Canada, has argued that the rise of “like” as a form of quotation has opened up new ways for people to narrate their inner thoughts in concrete, active terms in daily speech. Her work on the subject is detailed in her forthcoming book, Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context, due out in 2015.
“In writing, there’s a huge range of verbs that you can use and each of those evoke a different mood,” D’Arcy explains. “You can say: ‘she whispered,’ ‘she yelled,’ ‘she murmured.’ In speech, when you look at what people have been doing historically, really all you quoted was speech — ‘she said’ — and every once in a while you got a ‘think.’ What’s happened over the past 150 years is that we can quote so much more now. We can quote thought, or something that looks more like attitude. We can quote writing. We can quote sound. We can quote gesture. There’s a huge panoply of things we can quote and incorporate into our storytelling.”
There used to be a time when my story might have been: ‘I saw her enter the room and I was terrified that she would recognize me and so I crouched down.’ Which is actually sort of boring. But now you can tell that as: ‘I saw her, and I was like, oh my god! I was like, what if she sees me? I was like, oh my god, I’ve gotta hide. I was like, what am I supposed to say to her?’ And it can go on. I’ve seen it where you have eight quotes in a row of strictly first-person internal monologue where that monologue becomes action. That’s new.
D’Arcy traces the expanded use of “like” to speakers born in the 1960s, but says the language feature came into its own with speakers born in the 1970s, “so that by the time you get to speakers born in the 1980s, you get these entire sequences of quotations that recreate an internal thought process.” This accords with the pop cultural history of the usage, which first became famous when Moon Unit Zappa (born 1967) accompanied her father Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit song “Valley Girl,” with an improvised monologue taken from slang she’d overheard at parties and at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The same year, Sean Penn starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, partly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and the rest is, like, history.
Where some traditionalists see the use of “like” as a dialog tag as portent of cultural End Times, D’Arcy views it as an important tool for self-expression, allowing speakers to narrate their interior thought processes in dramatic and easily accessible ways. Some commentators, she concedes, view the new use of “like” as a window onto “the lionization of self” among the post-baby-boom generation. But whatever the verbal tic reveals about its speakers, D’Arcy sees its advent as a net positive for the language. “It’s a very creative resource for us,” she says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility in the way we tell stories and recreate action.”
Subscribers to the literary magazine One Story receive, you guessed it, one story in the mail about every three weeks. The magazine isn’t as chic as it could be (the choice of title font, for instance, sometimes makes me cringe), but the issues are lightweight and easy to stuff in your purse or back pocket. The stories vary in style and content, and I’ve been impressed with quite a few. And plus, they’re fun to receive in the mail, and even more fun to give away once you’ve finished them.The magazine recently unveiled a prettier website, which still includes the features I’ve always liked. You can check out the first lines of every story published by the magazine, as well as short interviews with each writer about his or her story and the process of creating it. It’s interesting to see how different everyone’s process is: one writer wrote his story in three nights, while another worked on hers for over a year. In these interviews, One Story always asks the writer to share the best writing advice ever received. Some people quote secondhand advice, while others share nuggets of wisdom from a past instructor. On a few occasions, I’ve written this stuff down, either for myself or for my students (or both).
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.