In the name of science – and also, perhaps, in the name of giving the lie to such criticisms of Lady Critics as Norman Mailer’s (“The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”), I am about to embark on a little experiment, inspired in part by your spirited objections to my approach to literary taste: I am going to read a burly man author all the way through. The book I have chosen, at Max’s suggestion, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.I hypothesize, as the readers of our last Millions Quiz already know, that I will be disappointed: that I will not be taken in by either style or substance. My slight (and, as some thought, insufficient) acquaintance with the virile titans of the last century of literature has led me to believe this. But – I am willing to concede – perhaps these are just fellows who give a lady a bad first impression (like the character of Al Swerengen on HBO’s Deadwood), fellows whom a girl might grow begrudgingly (or is it self-hatingly?) fond of upon better acquaintance?I shall see! And you shall see too, when I am done.
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A few weeks back, Reuters reported on a new website called Daily Lit, which blasts short clips of classic literature to subscribers’ email addresses every day. Readers can take in Anna Karenina via Blackberry, in five-minute chunks disbursed over fourteen months. “Our audience includes people like us, who spend hours each day on e-mail but can’t find the time to read a book,” Albert Wenger, a founder of DailyLit, told the press.Now, far be it from me to denigrate any effort to make literature more accessible. I used to be a regular reader of the Samuel Pepys blog, and probably made more of a dent in the digital Diary than I would have in the hard copy. But Daily Lit seems to represent the unexamined costs of the information age’s promises of convenience. Is yet another daily email really the solution to too much email? What does it mean to click from Paris of Troy to Paris Hilton. (OMG, Achilles is sooo hot.) Does one find time, or does one make it?Already 50,000 people have enrolled in Daily Lit, which currently offers 370 titles from the public domain, free of charge. Soon the site will expand to charge for daily excerpts of newer work. No doubt certain texts – Lydia Davis stories, poems by Basho – might lend themselves to the DailyLit treatment, providing a short liberation from the drudgeries of the day. But big novels aren’t meant to be noshed on like an energy bar, wedged in between breakfast and dinner. At their best, they open up vistas of freedom beyond our daily habits and obligations. Opt for the bite-sized version if you like. But God forbid I come to look forward to Tolstoy with the same dread with which I approach my inbox.And so, book in hand, to bed.
A small but satisfyingly eclectic batch of blurbs from the pen of Zadie Smith. Prior to today, I don’t think I’d ever seen the phrase “the mutt’s nuts” printed on the back of a book.On Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – “This is an excellent comic book, that deserves a place with Joe Sacco and even Art Spiegelman. In her bold black and white panels, Satrapi eloquently reasserts the moral bankruptcy of all political dogma and religious conformity; how it bullies, how it murders, and how it may always be ridiculed by individual rebellions of the spirit and the intellect”On Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill – “It’s great, and great fun… a sparkling, erudite and amusing remedy for our collective historical amnesia”On Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford – “Arthur Bradford’s stories are quite simply the mutt’s nuts: One of the funniest, smartest, tallest writers working in America today.”On The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman “Ms. Fusselman’s book, brief as it is, affected me deeply. Not only that, the talent displayed therein was somewhat unnerving.”On Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer – “The kind of brilliance for narrative that should make her peers envious and her readers very, very grateful.”See Also: The Collected Blurbs of Jonathan Safran Foer, The Collected Blurbs of David Mitchell
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.
Just out is The Bones, the debut novel of playwright and screenwriter Seth Greenland. The title of the novel refers to washed-up shock comic Frank Bones who tries to resurrect his career by calling on a now-successful sitcom writer acquaintance of his from years ago. The reviews are starting to come in on this one, and the sound pretty good. The Bones is described as “savagely funny” in the San Francisco Chronicle, which goes on to say that “Greenland elegantly avoids the usual Hollywood novel trap — he doesn’t dumb down or patronize his characters, and he provides them with pitch-perfect dialogue, the clipped, faux-avuncular patois of the tribe.” Greenland also merits a profile by David Ulin in the LA Times. And to top it off Greenland has a guest column up at TEV today. Check it out.Amy Hempel has a new collection of short stories out called The Dog of the Marriage, which was well-reviewed in the LA Times. To whit: “Short on dramatic incident, the stories risk running out of steam. Mostly they don’t, propelled by Hempel’s wit, language and love of fur. Moving through the collection, the reader grows increasingly intimate with Hempel’s sensibility. The women she speaks through feel mortality penetrating aliveness at all times, but rather than being shocked, they find that inevitable and funny.” “Beach Town” one of the shorter stories in the collection can be found here.The number one Booksense pick for April is Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, Gods in Alabama. Jackson has a truly endearing blog called Faster Than Kudzu in which she publicly works through her first-time-author anxiety and excitement. (aside: I have to say that I love the recent trend of authors doing these sorts of blogs. It really does make me more likely to want to read their books.) Gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene Fleet, who has fled Possett, Alabama, and made a deal with God to stay on the straight and narrow so long as He makes sure “the body is never found.” As I look around the Web, the buzz on this book is nearly deafening, and there seem to be expectations of this one being a big seller.A.L. Kennedy’s fifth novel, Paradise is getting some unabashedly good reviews. Publishers Weekly says “jaw-droppingly good,” and I love this take on Kennedy from Richard Wallace in the Seattle Times: “In my household, when you review a book by A.L. Kennedy, you better keep a close watch on the merchandise. For when the time comes for double-checking the quotes you’ve chosen to include in your review, you can’t find the book. That’s how readable she is.” The review goes on to describe the book as “a stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic.” If you must make up your own mind, an ample excerpt is available here.
The search for the person who will fill what is perhaps academia’s most prestigious creative writing job, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is in its final stages. Four finalists have been announced, Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Ben Marcus and Jim Shepard. Each will have an audition of sorts, which includes a reading, a mock workshop, and a talk on craft. Some friends in Iowa have been filling me in on this last part of the selection process, which got underway with Bausch’s visit to campus on February 10.I’m told that the process, itself, is somewhat odd, since it’s more of a performance than a way to discern teaching ability. During the mock-workshop, Bausch zipped through three stories in and hour and a half, faster than the typical workshop pace, and he digressed from the stories at hand to tell some stories of his own. He quoted some of his favorite works and seemed genuinely passionate about books and the writing life. He said he teaches patience, not writing, and said there are two rules to fiction: you have to use words and you have to be interesting. Though his commentary was somewhat liberal, Bausch’s critiques of the stories at hand were traditional, with specific recommendations about tone and pacing. For the public reading later in the evening, Bausch read a recently completed, as yet unpublished story, and during his “talk about craft,” he talked about memory and dispensed his 10 Commandments of writing, which included – to paraphrase – doing the work is the only thing that matters. Not if it’s good or bad, but that it gets done, everyday.Stay tuned for the next dispatch in a couple of weeks.