It’s the kind of niggling question that drives a writer mad: is it best to edit a piece after you finish a draft, or is it better to edit while you write? At Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel argues for the latter, on the grounds that it lets writers fix endemic problems before it’s too late. You could also read Lincoln’s 2010 Millions review of the movie Avatar.
Writers of facial stage direction, beware: it is not actually the epitome of irony that smiling and crying can seem so oddly similar. At Aeon, Princeton professor Michael Graziono argues that the seemingly opposite gestures may just share evolutionary origins. (Pair with: Darwinist theories about "the evolution of the novel.")
My good and old friend Emre wrote in with this question. He just finished Hunter S. Thompson's classic Hell's Angels, and is pining to read a certain new book that I've been mentioning quite a bit lately:when's the paperback for [Edith] Grossman's Don Quixote coming out?Book pricing is a classic example of what we used to call price discrimination in my economics classes. The way the book publishers see it, there is a certain percentage of the population out there for whom getting a book as soon as it comes out is worth the premium of ten bucks or so. These people are willing to buy the book at this higher price, so the publishers take advantage of it. Once the demand for the higher priced edition has dried up, they put out a lower priced edition and then they can sell the same book to a second group of people for whom owning the book is worth less. It's good business, actually, because the publishers can cash in on the pent-up demand for each title. Other businesses rarely have this luxury because products are usually not as individualized as books are. So, how long does it take for that first level of demand to dry up? When customers ask me, I usually say it can take anywhere from six to eighteen months, and that it varies from title to tile with the only real hard and fast rule being that the really, really big sellers in hardcover tend not to come out in paperback for quite a while, for obvious reasons. I suspected, however, that Emre was looking for a more specific answer. So, I tracked down the phone number for Ecco Press, the division of Random House that is putting out both the hardcover and paperback editions of this book, and rung them up. The gentleman that I reached there looked through his records and told me that they have set a tentative release date of October 2004 for the paperback. So there you have it Emre, either you can sit tight til next October or you can go ahead and pony up the cash. It all depends on how you quantify your pent-up demand.
“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to? Nik is a rockstar, but only a handful of fans — his sister Denise, her daughter Ada, and a small collection of ex-girlfriends and former band-mates — know it. Over the years, Nik has released dozens of LPs to Denise and his few loyal followers, and he’s kept a meticulous record of his career in what he calls the Chronicles, a thirty-volume scrapbook filled with letters, reviews, and other “willful esoteria,” all of his own creation. The rock ’n roll posture gives Nik’s creativity a framework — one that provides cover for his self-destructive habits, but also spurs him to keep producing music long after his early, promising bands fail to make it. For Nik, celebrity is a state of mind. Nik’s story drives the book’s plot, but it’s Denise who provides Stone Arabia’s narrative lens — and her slow, shapeless days of sorting through bills and checking in on her declining mother couldn’t be further from rock ’n roll. Spiotta writes that the hills of Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles suburb where Denise lives, are “tired” but it seems it is simply Denise who is tired. When Denise begins compiling her own Counterchronicles, her fragmented writings reveal the extent of her mental displacement from her own life. Denise is not an unreliable narrator, but she is clearly an unstable one; there are entire days she can’t account for. She sobs in front of the television while watching the news, and spends hours tunneling through search engine results for more details on the most sensational stories. The ceaseless onslaught of headlines depletes her emotional resources. “It is the feeling that your life has just left the room,” Denise says, broodingly. In the age of the Internet, when we have an instant portal into the lives (real or imagined) of others through our computers, televisions, and smart-phones, it is a feeling many readers will surely relate to in some form, and this is the novel’s key strength. Stone Arabia’s pull largely lies in its ability to recreate the feeling of media saturation that permeates modern life. Take Denise’s birthday for example: Ada called me in the morning from New York. She made me promise to look at her blog. She had posted a photo of us and it said, “happy birthday to my mom,” just like that, no caps or anything. Not “happy birthday mom” but “to my mom” because it was really reportage to some audience beyond me. It wasn’t a personal message to me, but a public announcement about me. Denise stares at her screen for a while; she knows her daughter wants her to post a comment, but she just can’t bring herself to. “I just couldn’t say something spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity,” she thinks. “Those are opposite pulls — eternity and pithy — and if I thought at all about what to say it was even worse.” It’s a familiar dilemma, rendered strangely lyrical through Denise’s eyes. Moments like these repeatedly animate the novel. Again and again, Spiotta perfectly captures the static sound of our televisions and Ethernet cables numbly pumping in more information than we need (or can respond to). And she elegantly depicts the ambivalence this unending electronic stream inspires. In her debut novel, Lightning Field, Spiotta depicted Los Angeles at its most brutally superficial — and female friendship at its most intimate. This was followed by Eat the Document, a mesmerizing story about a fugitive who reinvents herself in hiding, based on the true story of a real-life 1960s activist and her lover. Stone Arabia is also set in Los Angeles, and is also based on a true story. In the Author’s Note, Spiotta writes that though Nik Worth is a character of her imagination, he’s based her real-life stepfather, “Richard Frasca, a.k.a Jon Denmar. Richard Frasca is not Nik Worth but Richard’s devotion to his own music and Richard’s self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star gave me the idea for Nik.” Most novelists invariably incorporate characters and experiences from their lives into their fiction, but there’s something particularly sly about publishing a work of fiction built off someone else’s semi-ironic, private fiction — particularly when that person is the author’s family member. It’s a fittingly post-modern back-story for a novel which finds each of its main characters trying to make sense of their world through art/music, memoir, and film. Stone Arabia’s tangled layers not-so-subtly mimic the tangled layers of media we all live in. Obsessed with its obsessions (“Even the most pointless obsession can yield a certain kind of depth if it is pursued unfailingly,” Denise thinks), and enchanted by the tension between private and public personas as well as the blurry boundaries between self-documentation and self-creation, Stone Arabia is a truly contemporary novel. Do our stories bring us closer to ourselves, or do they simply hide and splinter our real identity? Stone Arabia assembles an impressive collage of questions about aging, identity, art and its audience, fame and its construction, privacy, knowing and being known, and how we define who we are. But as the novel slips from third to first person, from Ada’s video transcripts to Nik’s fake-archives, from blog posts to voicemails to movie rentals to search engine results, its narrative coherence meanders. Surely these are deliberate structural choices, but flattened into prose, the onslaught of technology fractures Spiotta’s story-telling. Spiotta is a writer of keen observation and careful craftsmanship, but — though it summons Lightning Field’s cool disaffection and Eat the Document’s enchantment with secret lives and self-invention — Stone Arabia lacks the grace and fluidity of her previous novels. Denise’s recollections from her childhood and early adulthood with Nik are evocative, but they are strung together only tangentially, and none of the book’s secondary characters stick around long enough to matter much. By the end of Stone Arabia, Nik has concluded The Chronicles, Ada has finished Garageland, and Denise has completed her Counterchronicles, but these works offer no real answer or argument to the questions — both stated and understood — that fill their lives. Ultimately, the interruptions of many forms of media — precisely the kinds of interruptions most novels insulate their readers from — give the book a jagged immediacy that raises more questions than it’s capable of answering.
In general, we think of translators as people whose job, briefly summarized, is to create elegant texts out of works in foreign languages. But J.R.R. Tolkien, in his translation of Beowulf, set out to do something different. The Lord of the Rings author published a translation that he kept intentionally clunky. Why? In his telling, he did it to better imitate Old English.
“A coroner’s pronouncement of suicide (felo da se) resulted in forfeiture of the deceased’s goods and property to the state, often leaving any surviving relatives destitute. So the increasingly common verdict of temporary insanity (non compos mentis) may suggest a change in how people understood the act of self-destruction: no longer construed as a demonic temptation, it came instead to be viewed as a symptom of lunacy.” On the prevalence of suicide in eighteenth-century English literature.
I decided to put together a list of the "most anticipated" books coming out this year (as I did last year, in a somewhat different form). I had no idea that there would be so many big name authors. Pretty exciting. If there's anything you think I missed, please leave it for us in the comments. Happy reading in 2006!Coming Soon or Already Here:Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (NY Times review)Arthur and George by Julian Barnes (Booker shortlisted, NY Times review)Company by Max Barry (author blog)Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith's husband, Kakutani's review)The Accidental by Ali Smith (Booker shortlisted)Correcting the Landscape by Marjorie Cole (Thanks Laurie)February:Intuition by Allegra Goodman (PW Review)A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy (excerpt)The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (thanks Gwenda)The Best People in the World by Justin Tussing (thanks Dan)March:Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead (A "Face to Watch")River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Thanks Laurie)The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (thanks CAAF)Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout (thanks Cliff)April:The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio (EWN interview)This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes (#2 on Stephen King's list)Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (interview)Seeing by Jose Saramago (Nobel Laureate)Adverbs by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket (interview)The World Made Straight by Ron Rash (thanks Dan)May:Theft by Peter Carey (Carey is a two-time Booker winner)The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (Guardian review)Everyman by Philip Roth (Guardian interview)Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (interview)The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld (synopsis)Ludmila's Broken English by DBC PierrejPod by Douglas Coupland (sequel to Microserfs, an evening with Coupland)June:Terrorist by John Updike (Reuters preview)Alentejo Blue by Monica AliIn Persuasion Nation by George Saunders (interview)The End of California by Steve Yarbrough (Thanks Dan)July:Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane (New Yorker interview)Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle (Boyle's blog)August:Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (list of stories)Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Thanks Dan)Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (thanks Stephan)October:One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (sequel to Case Histories)A small sampling of other 2006 previews: Boston Globe, Portland Phoenix, The Australian, Guardian.Addenda: Books suggested in the comments are being added above.