Race relations are difficult, sometimes agonizing

Race relations are difficult, sometimes agonizing. The harmony for which the country yearns is not at hand, and may never be achieved. Because whites are generally blamed for making race into such an enduring problem, white racism has become not just a moral failing but the worst moral failing. Our society forgives sexual misconduct, abuse of office, dishonesty, and incompetence far more readily than it does any action by whites that could be described as “racism.”
At the same time, promoting diversity is a way for whites to demonstrate virtue. Diversity policies benefit non-whites by encouraging their immigration, employment, promotion, or admission to university, and to support diversity is the most readily recognizable way of demonstrating opposition to racism. For whites, diversity therefore has moral rather than practical goals, and this is why it does not require justification in ordinary terms. Americans attribute unrealistic, exaggerated benefits to diversity because they support it for emotional rather than rational reasons. They call it “America’s greatest strength” not because they have weighed all of America’s strengths and come to a rational conclusion about which is greatest. They are expressing an emotional commitment to something they feel they must support in order to prove they are not racists.

Jared Taylor

Nicola Barker is Our Great Post-Punk Novelist

From The Literary Hub:

“I feel like, at some level, we are all outsiders,” Nicola Barker says of the vast array of oddballs and originals who populate her bafflingly innovative thirteen novels. “Society is fluid. But you need to stand outside of a situation, a dilemma, an experience, to truly understand it. That’s what my characters often do. They are inquisitive. They can’t be satisfied by the time or circumstances they are living in.”

It is January in this deadly winter of COVID-19, and we are exchanging emails across the Atlantic—me in Richmond, Virginia, and my literary hero in the town of Faversham, formerly the home of the explosives industry in the UK. Both of us are home-bound, like most everyone else, trying to feel like writers even if we’re spending a lot of our time staring at walls. When I asked her what she’s been up to recently—during Britain’s Tier 5 lockdown—she says she’s done little but “walking and thinking,” though she spends a good deal of time talking by phone to family scattered across the globe.

Our correspondence has been a small miracle for me, as my discovery of Barker’s work a decade ago completely changed the way I write and think about writing. Often, after sending an email, I’ll spend a tortured day thinking of what I could have said that will finally prove that I am a fool (why did I insist on making that corny Bowie joke?), but I find again and again that she responds with effusive grace and a rich supply of advice on writing and life.

Hailed as an “unclassifiable genius” by the Guardian, Barker is a well-known literary figure in Britain. But if she is familiar at all to readers in America, it is often for her 2007 novel Darkmans, a wild and paranoiac book that is both about history and very much about twenty-first century life—and a strong candidate for the eight hundred funniest pages in literature. I ran into the book back in the last recession, during a phase in my life when I was hopping from job to job, rudderless, trying to hold on to some idea that I could be a writer. It challenged everything I’d learned thus far about fiction and pointed me in a new direction, one centered on character and voice and trust in one’s aesthetic obsessions and particularities, on the inner play of consciousness, on the lightning-quick moves of our real lived experience.

. . . .

Maybe I needed a change. Maybe I needed to spend a couple of years trying to write like someone else—someone who takes risks without a net—in order to discover an authentic voice of my own. Darkmans made the short list for the Booker Prize, and she made the long list for the Booker for two other novels, Clear and The Yips. One could call Barker an avant-garde writer, but she looks at her style as something more like play: “I need to feel free. I won’t be constrained. Especially not by the expectations of others or even my own expectations. I am guided by a sense of mischief. I don’t ever sit down to write and think: I’ll use this tone, this accent, this layout…”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Kaaps Writings From South Africa

From Publishing Perspectives:

While many in South Africa have felt understandably penalized by travel restrictions resulting from the initial report and detection of the variant, Stephanie Nolan at The New York Times has a fine feature on the state-of-the-art KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban and the accompanying door-to-door campaign being deployed to reach the population. The speed with which KRISP reported out its findings has contributed to the timeliness of today’s coordinated, cooperative international research effort on the variant.

. . . .

Words Without Borders, before moving to its December edition, has featured in November guest editor Olivia M. Coetzee’s look at Kaaps writing from South Africa, and we want to bring this to your attention, not least because it’s an example of Words Without Borders’ work in bringing to light some of the niche linguistic contexts.

In her introduction to Kaaps, Coetzee–who is originally from Namibia and was raised near Cape Town–points out the question “What is Kaaps” produces more than one answer. “Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called ‘Coloreds’ living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans,” she writes.

In notes provided by Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris notes, “Kaaps was created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s, and took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English people. Late-19th-century Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps and eliminated the indigenous elements in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans.”

Coetzee points to the fact that Kaaps has been considered slang, and thus “Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy.

“While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the ‘White man’s language,’ Afrikaans.

“And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people,” she writes, “with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.”

What Coetzee is experiencing, it turns out, is the rise of Kaaps as a bonding agent between those who speak it. It begins to function as an element of identity, as she writes. “Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency,” even with its image still in need of an upgrade.

“A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement,” she writes, “but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Prof. Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first-of-its-kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.”

The writers whose work she brings to the edition, she says, “not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Some virtues

Some virtues, when they become fashions, also become exaggerated. Just because nobody likes a judgmental attitude does not mean that there isn’t a sort of spoiled, self-righteous hypocrisy when one man obsessively commands other men not to judge without knowing the circumstances without himself, too, knowing their circumstances behind their judgments.

Criss Jami

When—and Whether—to Hire a Developmental Editor

From Jane Friedman:

Working with a professional editor can be an excellent investment in your manuscript, your writing career, and your craft knowledge as a writer.

But doing so before you’re ready can keep you from getting the most out of what can often be an expensive proposition. A good, thorough developmental edit on a full-length manuscript often costs thousands of dollars.

How can you determine when and if you need the help of an experienced editor?

When not to hire an editor

This time of year, fresh off of NaNo when many authors have just exuberantly typed “The End” after completing their manuscript, editors like me often get a wave of emails from writers eager to hire a pro to help them hone and polish their story.

But fresh off a first draft isn’t the most effective time to work with an editor.

If the story is still in rough-draft shape, then much of their time and effort will focus on the big, obvious issues—issues that you may have been able to effectively address on your own through revision, and perhaps with the help of critique partners or beta readers.

It’s like seeking out a symphony conductor while you’re still learning a new piece of music. You’ll get much more out of an expert’s knowledge and guidance if you lay the proper groundwork and push yourself to the limits of your capabilities on your own before paying for someone to help you elevate it to the next level.

Once you’ve taken it as far as you can, ideally a good developmental editor will hold a mirror up to what’s actually on the page and how well it reflects your vision, and they can help you mine even more gold from it—deepening, developing, tightening, and helping you buff it to its brightest shine.

A professional editor doesn’t replace an author’s own editing and revision. Until you have a completed draft that’s as good as you’re able to make it (which may in fact wind up being your second or third or tenth draft), paying for a developmental edit may not be the best use of your money, time, or energy.

How to know when (or whether) you should hire an editor

I’m going to debunk a myth that grows more widespread as more and more people hang out their shingles as editors: Not every author needs to hire a professional editor for every manuscript.

Editing and revising (meaning assessing what you have on the page and knowing how to address any areas that could be stronger) are not functions to be automatically outsourced, separate from the craft of writing. They are an intrinsic part of it—in fact a major part. Writing truly is rewriting; the books you love and admire have almost certainly been extensively developed and polished by their authors. These are skills foundational to being a writer.

But as authors we’re constantly filling in the blanks of the rich vision in our heads, rather than seeing what’s actually on the page. It’s often hard get the objective 30,000-foot view that tells you how effectively you’ve conveyed your intentions to a reader.

This is one of the great values editors offer, as well as fresh perspective on ways you might strengthen your story based on their craft knowledge and experience.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Imagine a young Isaac Newton

Imagine a young Isaac Newton time-travelling from 1670s England to teach Harvard undergrads in 2017. After the time-jump, Newton still has an obsessive, paranoid personality, with Asperger’s syndrome, a bad stutter, unstable moods, and episodes of psychotic mania and depression. But now he’s subject to Harvard’s speech codes that prohibit any “disrespect for the dignity of others”; any violations will get him in trouble with Harvard’s Inquisition (the ‘Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’). Newton also wants to publish Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, to explain the laws of motion governing the universe. But his literary agent explains that he can’t get a decent book deal until Newton builds his ‘author platform’ to include at least 20k Twitter followers – without provoking any backlash for airing his eccentric views on ancient Greek alchemy, Biblical cryptography, fiat currency, Jewish mysticism, or how to predict the exact date of the Apocalypse.

Newton wouldn’t last long as a ‘public intellectual’ in modern American culture. Sooner or later, he would say ‘offensive’ things that get reported to Harvard and that get picked up by mainstream media as moral-outrage clickbait. His eccentric, ornery awkwardness would lead to swift expulsion from academia, social media, and publishing. Result? On the upside, he’d drive some traffic through Huffpost, Buzzfeed, and Jezebel, and people would have a fresh controversy to virtue-signal about on Facebook. On the downside, we wouldn’t have Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Geoffrey Miller

Is YA Leading Diversity in Publishing?

From Book Riot:

Conversations about diversity in publishing and literature have dominated publishing news for several years now, internationally and across all genres and age groups. Many articles have explored the sad fact that, even well into the 21st century, publishing is still overwhelmingly white-centric, with authors of color less likely to be picked up or paid equivalent amounts to their white counterparts, and BIPOC publishing professionals being underrepresented in the industry at all levels.

In the New York Times article ‘Just How White is the Book Industry?’, Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek explore the revelations of the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, started by YA author L.L. McKinney, where authors of colour and white authors compared the amounts they had been paid for advances. It revealed that BIPOC authors were often paid drastically less for the same kinds of work. So and Wezerek dug deeper into the imbalance in the publishing industry, noting that only 11% of books published in 2018 were written by authors of colour, and speculating that this may be linked to the lack of diversity in publishing itself: ‘The heads of the “big five” publishing houses (soon, perhaps, to become the “big four”) are white. So are 85% of the people who acquire and edit books, according to a 2019 survey.

This trend is not exclusive to the U.S.; UK publishing has come under similar criticism, as discussed by Arifa Akbar in her Guardian article ‘Diversity in publishing – still hideously middle-class and white?’. Akbar explores ‘how intransigently white, middle-class (and further up the ladder, male) [the publishing industry] remained, from literary festivals and prizes to publications and personnel’, before looking into recent attempts to rectify this lack of diversity that, to many POC authors and publishing professionals, seem distressingly reminiscent of earlier attempts that stopped short of bringing about any significant structural change.

. . . .

Looking at YA publications of recent years, it certainly seems that there is greater diversity, both amongst characters and authors – and these books are enjoying success that counters the argument that “diversity doesn’t sell.” Books like LL McKinney’s The Nightmare-Verse Trilogy, Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys, and Tanya Byrne’s Afterlove feature protagonists and characters with multiple marginalisations, being POC and LGBTQ+, without the stories being focused primarily around overcoming racism, homophobia or transphobia. These authors, and many others, share marginalisations with their characters, or experience marginalisation in other ways. While every marginalised person’s experience is different, and it is possible for authors to write about groups that they’re not part of with dedicated research and the hiring of sensitivity readers, the fact that many marginalised authors writing from their own experiences are being published is heartening, and does seem to support the idea of YA as an area where diversity is being achieved more effectively than in adult literature.

Diversity, of course, does not simply apply to characters’ identities. Meaningful diversity must include systemic change that challenges the publishing industry’s centering of white, cis het, and abled experiences and makes the world of publishing accessible to marginalised authors, editors and people working in all other publishing roles. As So and Wezerek, and Akbar’s articles indicated, the publishing industry is still majority white, middle-class, cis het and abled.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

The point is

The point is, being a Christian does not mean hating or belittling the non-Christians. Being a Muslim does not mean hating or belittling the non-Muslims. Being an Atheist does not mean hating or belittling the religious people. In a civilized society, diversity in religious orientation should be the reason for celebration, not the cause for hatred and differentiation.

Abhijit Naskar

A war correspondent’s intimate portrait of an embattled minority

From The Economist:

After a strict convent education, Janine di Giovanni, an American war correspondent, drifted from religion. Yet as she travelled the world, reporting from Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, her faith returned. Wherever she went, she writes in “The Vanishing”, she would find a church, seeking “ritual and a sense of belonging”. Her book is the culmination of two decades of fieldwork in the Middle East, its four sections reflecting her stints in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. As the title suggests, it is a portrait of a disappearing people.

Christians are an embattled minority in many countries, including North Korea, where tens of thousands are believed to be held in concentration camps, and Sri Lanka, where around 250 people died in the Easter bombings of 2019. In the Middle East, Islamic extremists depict Christians as Westernised interlopers, yet the region was the birthplace of the religion, which flourished until the Muslim Arab conquest of the seventh century. Christians have since faced discrimination in varying degrees, precipitating waves of emigration. Today 93% of the population of the Middle East and north Africa are Muslim.

Ms di Giovanni brings a compassionate perspective to her narrative, interweaving complex, sometimes dense history with evocative vignettes and interviews. Her interlocutors range from nuns to imams, from the last vestiges of Gaza’s Christian elite to Cairo’s impoverished Zabbaleen, who sort rubbish in “Garbage City”. These “dying communities” of various Christian denominations, some claiming direct descent from Jesus’s disciples, share a stark choice: to abandon ancestral roots in search of a better life elsewhere, or cling on for a precarious future. Most keep their heads down, but the allegiance of some to dictators—seen as bulwarks against extremism—has antagonised Islamists.

. . . .

In the fourth century Gaza was wholly Christian. By the 21st century the community had shrunk to under 1,000, and the consequences of the election of Hamas in 2006 imperilled its members further. They endure the same hardships and dearth of opportunity as other Gazans and receive scant government protection; unemployment among young Christians stands at 70%. Egypt’s Christian population, chiefly Copts, is the region’s largest, but still suffers legal and social discrimination, even if some families are insulated by privilege. “The underlying sense of inferiority is our greatest persecution,” says one woman. “I’ve had Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf on.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

A Complete Expert Guide to the Amazon Self-Publishing Costs for New Publishers

From The Urban Writers:

Finishing your first book leaves you feeling like you’ve finally arrived at the center stage. The excitement alone can make your world spin around as you read it once more. It’s understandable when the authors want to rush into the next step.

However, they don’t realize there’s a bunch of sharks waiting out there, waiting to snatch them. New writers must take a step back and consider Amazon’s self-publishing cost and pricing before they allow these predators to grab hold of them.

I was in your position a few years back and I was impatient to get my book out there. I needed people to read my story and listen to my advice. I emailed publishers all over the world with a manuscript, hoping to get a response.

It was only two weeks before the first shark came at me head-first. This publisher was prepared to take my book, but they wanted me to pay for publishing costs upfront. The quotes started pouring in and I was shocked with the requests!

Suddenly, I felt like I had to sell my soul and those of my kids, spouse, and even my dog just to cover the costs. Figures ranged madly but the average was well over $2,000 from publishers that didn’t even leave a stain on the map.

This might not seem like Mount Kilimanjaro, but I assure you that this was only the cost to get started. I still had to pay ridiculous commissions on top of this. The sacrifice of my soul wasn’t enough and they only promised me 25% of future sales.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use the easily accessible internet to find other options like a normal person would. I ended up giving my book to a company that would give me 15% royalties and owns the first 5,000 copies in lieu of printing costs.

I sold my book to the devil, never mind a shark. They haven’t bothered to promote the book and it became lost in the vast world of available reads. The worst of all is that my book is sitting on Amazon at a price that even I wouldn’t pay.

Link to the rest at The Urban Writers

The OP continues with better results after the author discovers that he can self-publish on Amazon.

PG will say again – if any “publisher” you haven’t heard of on multiple occasions (not from a “friend,” but as mentioned in a legitimate publication that talks about books and authors you have heard of before) wants to publish your book, check the sales rank of the publisher’s books on Amazon. Look at several. If the average sales rank is a number greater than something like 5,000, and the publisher doesn’t want to give you a lot of money up front, take a pass. If you can’t find them on Amazon, take an instant pass.

If you think the publisher may be legit, but, again, haven’t heard of them before, contact several of the authors of the publisher’s books on Amazon. Check out the author’s web page and get in touch. (If the author doesn’t have a web page, you probably don’t want the author’s advice on anything. A big Facebook page might substitute for a web page, but PG would be chary of anyone who hasn’t spent the time or money for a web page of their own.)

A great many authors are happy to reply to emails or even give you a phone number you can call. Ask the author all about the publisher. Don’t be afraid to ask about royalty payments and whether they’re arriving on time with royalty statements the author can understand.

If doing this sort of investigation seems like more than you want to do, keep your manuscript, your $5,000 and everything else. Maybe look into a local trade school to learn welding. You’ll make much more money working as a welder for six months than you ever will as an author dealing with a shady or second-rate publisher.

A Pay to Play Bookstore Scheme: The Reading Glass Books

From Writer Beware:

I’ve recently gotten several reports of phone solicitations from a New Jersey-based bookstore called The Reading Glass Books.

Why would a bookstore be calling authors out of the blue? Well in this case, to sell shelf space: $350 for six months. Authors can direct the store to sell the books at whatever price they like, and will get “100% of the royalties” (which of course makes no sense, since direct sales proceeds are not royalties). And if you’re thinking that the store will order the books…no, no, no, don’t be silly. Authors must provide their own copies.

Paid shelf space for self-published authors isn’t a new idea. Here’s one entrepreneur who set up a bookstore entirely on that model (the store closed in 2019). And a few years ago there was some media coverage of independent bookstores that were renting shelf space to self-pubbed and small press writers–in some cases for a good deal more than $350.

Whatever you may think of paying for shelf space, these were all real brick-and-mortar stores in the business of selling books to the public–not exploitative schemes aimed primarily at extracting money from writers. Based on its solicitation phone calls, sketchy website, and array of other paid services, my guess was that The Reading Glass Books fell into the latter category. I wanted to be sure, though, so I did some research.

Reading Glass claims a physical address–7 Wrightstown Cookstown Road (aka County Road 616) in Cookstown, New Jersey. To my surprise, there actually is a storefront. It’s located in a small strip mall on a relatively empty stretch of road. Here’s an image,, courtesy of Google (note the prime location, between Air Transport International and Domino’s Pizza).

. . . .

The mall’s roadside location is not exactly conducive to the foot traffic that real bookstores count on–though I guess it’s possible that Reading Glass gets some walk-ins from next-door Domino’s, or from the tattoo and barber shops that are also in this mall. However, those well-shaved and freshly inked book lovers won’t find the store’s inside much more prepossessing than its outside. Interior photos (a number of which are present on Reading Glass’s Facebook page and Google listing) show a small space with sparsely populated shelves. Here we are in December 2020:

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

The 36 Best (Old) Books We Read in 2021

From The Literary Hub:

I know, I know, it’s December, we’re all contractually obligated to tally up the Best Books of the Year That Was—and don’t worry, we will. (No shade to book lists, end of year or otherwise; they are, as Eco reminds us, a cultural bulwark against death. Also they are fun.) But as your father says, age before beauty, and so before we take the measure of the new kids on the block, the Lit Hub staff would like to celebrate some non-2021 books that we discovered (or re-discovered) this year.

After all, one of the great things about books is that they don’t disappear after the first year of their publication—barring floods and thieves, they can loiter forever on your shelves, waiting to be picked up and rediscovered, manic publicity cycle be damned. They can be revisited, loaned out, traded, forgotten and found. They can have strange, long lives. And hey, sometimes you’re just in the mood. So here are the older books we’ve been reading this year, whether for the first or the tenth time.

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997)

I am not a huge re-reader, but in the middle of a rainy weekend bookshelf alphabetization disaster I uncovered Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, a book I read a decade ago in an MFA class called “The Hysterical Male” taught by Gary Shteyngart. I remembered the very end of the book scene by scene; I also remember finishing the book exactly at my subway stop and uncontrollably crying, much to the absolute terror of everyone around me. Either because I was aware the organizational project was soon going to break me or because I needed a distraction, I found myself spending the rest of the weekend with the curmudgeonly Barney Panofksy, self-described “wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap, a drunk with a penchant for violence and probably a murderer.” It is an exceptionally fun book to read, and from a craft perspective, Richler’s mastery of both voice and unreliable narration still feels surprising. Thoroughly recommend for a first, or second, read.

Sebastian Castillo, Not I (2020)

Sebastian Castillo’s Not I is a book of accumulation. It has twelve sections, one for each of the English language’s verb tenses; each section uses English’s 25 most common verbs to create a series of first-person sentences. The maybe-Sebastian, maybe-nobody, maybe-everybody speaker catalogues the quotidian: “I make toast.” “I go to the park.” “I will be getting surgery tomorrow.” And the emotional: “I felt depressed.” “I thought you were my friend.” “I felt sorry for myself.” The speaker bends to authority figures; indulges in moments of luxury; longs for closeness; worries about doctor’s appointments. In mapping the everyday, Castillo’s doing something close to Perec’s idea of taking an account of the infra-ordinary, but with an inventory of time instead of space.

For Not I is concerned with the end. Juries, judgments, and grades make recurring appearances. “I have accumulated the bits of my life,” says maybe-Sebastian. And: “I will have called it the past.” Not I is aware and skeptical of the urge to accomplish, to turn your life into something you can look back on and feel pride. (Like, a book.) But its format knits the past to the future, promising that even banal experiences add up. When the book hits future tense, the sentences read like mantras, and the future experiences start to feel like the reader’s. It becomes a book of faith: look at all we have done, we will do, we will have done.

. . . .

Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952)

To my great shame, I must confess to never having read a Patricia Highsmith novel before 2021. Despite my love of the film adaptations of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Price of Salt (aka Carol)—all of which I consider to be masterpieces—I never bothered to walk the quarter mile to my local used bookstore and spend the price of a pint on a battered paperback by the troubled poet of apprehension. What a fool I was. The atmosphere of unease Highsmith conjures in her novels is thick enough to choke, and this tale of sexual awakening, obsession, and liberation is (despite being, I think, murder-free) no exception. The story of a disaffected New York set designer/shop girl who becomes infatuated with a glamorous suburban housewife, The Price of Salt is also a tender, bitingly witty, and surprisingly hopeful love story.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

If you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally a thousand times, as I have, it’s perhaps time to venture into the rest of Nora Ephron’s oeuvre. Reading this novel feels like watching one of her beloved movies, at a tilt. It comes with all of her signature wit, but it’s by no means a romantic comedy. (NB: Heartburn was, in fact, adapted for the screen. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, it’s definitely not what you’re expecting. But the book! The book feels closer to classic Nora.)

Reader, meet Rachel Samstat. She writes cookbooks for a living. She’s a devoted wife, a doting mother, she’s pregnant with her second child—and then she finds out her husband is having an affair. The rat bastard! For a book that revolves around such devastating discovery, it’s unexpectedly light. We have our effervescent narrator to thank for that. She’s smiling through her tears! She’s finding something funny in the tragedy! And she’s doling out tips for a killer vinaigrette!

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Artists on Trial

From The Wall Street Journal:

Enjoying the novels of Ernest Hemingway can be a difficult thing to do after reading the man’s biography. “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are masterpieces of efficient storytelling that changed Anglophone writing forever. But their author was an inveterate liar, prone to hedonism and violence, vicious beyond belief to wives and friends, and culpably stupid on political subjects.

The case of Hemingway is an extreme one, but the truth is that most supremely gifted artists are not in possession of high moral character and have wrought immense pain in the lives of those closest to them. Their admirers learn to manage the tension between life and work as best they can. Some cases are easier to manage than others, depending on the nature of the work and one’s emotional and intellectual attachment to it. But in the end, work almost always trumps biography. I doubt there are many people inclined to relish the music of Richard Wagner who refuse to do so on account of his anti-Semitism and all-around repugnance. Lord Byron’s sexual propensities would be hard to describe in a respectable newspaper, but one learns to forget them while reading his poetry.

Is there much to say about the capacity of terrible people to produce works of great beauty? I have on my shelf a marvelous collection of essays by the literary critic Brooke Allen, “Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior” (2004). Ms. Allen holds up her subjects’ disgraceful conduct and splendid literary productions and registers little more than gentle surprise that one can produce the other.

But the young today, and especially the inhabitants of elite college campuses, are no longer content simply to contemplate the mystery that wonderful works of art can emerge from the crooked timber of humanity. The highly educated young are ready to judge—even if, in a world without mythology or religion, they lack clear principles on which to base their judgments. In “Drawing the Line,” Erich Hatala Matthes aims to give them those principles. He acknowledges the perils and excesses of a worldview in which past sins constantly threaten to nullify accomplishments and soil reputations, but he accepts its premises almost entirely. The didacticism of his subtitle—“What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies”—captures the spirit of the age. What to do with them!

Mr. Matthes, who teaches philosophy at Wellesley College, uses four chapters to ask four questions: Do immoral artist make worse art? Is it wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists? Should immoral artists be “canceled”? And how should we feel about immoral artists?

There are, to my admittedly hidebound sensibilities, basically two problems with the book. The first is that Mr. Matthes draws no distinctions between what constitutes “art” and what doesn’t. Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Paul Gauguin, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Roald Dahl, Caravaggio, Chuck Close—all are simply and equally “artists.” But they are not all artists except in the loosest sense. Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr are comedians. Michael Jackson was a stupendously gifted entertainer but not the creator of any transcendent or ennobling work of the human spirit.

The distinction matters. The only reason an aesthetic artifact deserves to remain in the public consciousness is that it possesses unique and abiding worth. We can argue about what constitutes that worth, but a catchy pop song with a forgettable tune and nonsense words, or a mildly humorous comedic routine memorable mainly for its idiotic vulgarity, is bereft of it. Enjoy it as much as you like. Or don’t. The argument that its creator’s deplorable personal deeds or retrograde social views should determine its longevity in our collective life is simply not interesting.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if the free link doesn’t work for you, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG says that the artist is not the work and vice-versa.

If they are the somehow linked, do we put the work of an artist who committed a serious crime in prison? Or do we destroy it completely?

How, exactly, does condemning art (and, presumably, putting it away someplace where no one will be offended by it) that gives many or some people pleasure make the world a better place?

Exactly how evil does the artist have to be in order to be banished from society?

In the United States, generations of people referred to African Americans by what is now described as the “N-word”. At the time and in the place where this practice was common, it was the standard term for African Americans. If a person at those times and in those places did not use the N-word, he/she/they would be perceived as making some sort of distinction between members of the race.

During PG’s lifetime, the word, “Negro”, has moved from a polite way of referring to an individual’s race into something that may lead to some degree of scorn for someone who utters the word.

A great many Americans also used slang words to describe other groups of people as well. Poles, Germans, Japanese and Jews come immediately to PG’s memory. Some of those slang words have moved into the impolite realm of language. PG is unaware of any that have reached the negative place occupied by the N-word, but time continues to march on.

In summary, a bad person can produce good art and good literature.

In PG’s youth, those who banned or attempted to ban books were regarded with scorn and disdain – narrow-minded, prissy neo-puritans.

“Banned in Boston” referred to the time period during which Boston officials had wide authority to ban works featuring “objectionable” content, and often banned works with sexual content or foul language. This even extended to the $5 bill from the 1896 “Educational” series of banknotes featuring allegorical figures which were partially nude.

Per Wikipedia:

Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, four cast members were placed under arrest.

. . . .

This movement had several unintended consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than other cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.

Prominent literary figure H. L. Mencken was arrested in Boston in 1926, after purposely selling a banned issue of his magazine The American Mercury. Though his case was dismissed by a local judge, and he later won a lawsuit against the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade, the effort did little to affect censorship in Boston. The interracial romance novel Strange Fruit, by Lillian Smith, was also banned by the Watch and Ward Society and in 1929 Boston’s mayor Malcolm Nichols and the city censor banned Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Strange Interlude.

During the same era there were also periodic “purity campaigns” on radio, as individual stations decided to ban songs with double-entendres or alleged vulgar lyrics. One victim of such a campaign was bandleader Joe Rines who, in November 1931, was cut off in mid-song by John L. Clark, program director of WBZ, for performing a number called “This is the Missus”, whose lyrics Clark deemed inappropriate. Rines was indignant, saying he believed Clark was over-reacting to a totally innocent song, but Clark insisted he was right to ban any song whose lyrics might be construed as suggestive.

The Warren Court (1953–69) expanded civil liberties and in Memoirs v. Massachusetts and other cases curtailed the ability of municipalities to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies. The last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. was fought over Naked Lunch, which was banned in Boston in 1965.

Banned books included those from Walt Whitman, Giovanni Boccaccio, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway (twice), William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and The Everly Brothers (for “Wake up, Little Susie”)

Inside the Realms of Ruin

From TechCrunch:

“The Ruin stirs, and the Five Realms rumble,” a now-archived web announcement read on Thursday morning. “You are cordially invited to join New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, David Yoon, and Nicola Yoon in Realms of Ruin, a collaborative fantasy epic filled with dark magic, intrigue, and unique characters — launched online in a thrilling new way.”

These celebrated young adult authors shared the announcement across social media, opening a Twitter, Instagram and Discord server for fans to discuss the buzzy new project that would propel the traditional publishing industry into the new territory of Web3, an evolution of the decentralized internet that emphasizes privacy, data ownership and compensation for work — maybe even fan-made creative works.

As the catalyst for this collaborative fantasy epic, these authors would post 12 initial origin stories about their fictional universe, to which they owned the copyright. Then fans would be tasked with writing their own stories, submitting them to the Realms of Ruin universe by minting them as NFTs on the Solana blockchain. If the authors were to enjoy a fan’s story enough, they could declare it part of the project’s official canon.

Within hours, fans confronted the authors in the Discord server with their concerns about the project. If the authors are inviting fans to write fan fiction about a universe they created, who owns the derivative works? Does minting those stories as NFTs affect the copyright of those stories? And how are these concerns exacerbated given that these authors’ target audience is too young to buy cryptocurrency on platforms like Coinbase and Gemini?

Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, aptly summed up the situation. “It’s a turducken of things people don’t understand,” she said. In other words, on top of the usual NFT concerns, the team would also be facing copyright questions and confronting the historical hesitancy from fan fiction writers over monetization of their works in a commercial environment.

Along with a team of nine developers, the six young adult authors spent two months working nights and weekends to bring Realms of Ruin to life. Within hours of its announcement, the project garnered so much backlash that they pulled the plug.

. . . .

Fan fiction is a tricky, yet fertile ground for legal questions about copyright and ownership.

Sometimes, top fan fiction writers can even parlay their online success into real publishing careers. If a writer can capture the interest of tens of thousands of readers online, it’s not unreasonable to believe that, with original characters and an original story, they could do the same on The New York Times bestsellers list.

One recent example of this phenomenon is Tamsyn Muir’s “Gideon the Ninth,” published in 2019, which The New York Times called “a devastating debut that deserves every ounce of hype it’s received.” But Muir isn’t secretive that she got her start writing fan fiction. Another unabashed proponent of fan fiction is N.K. Jemisin, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” awardee who is also the only writer to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row. From a revenue standpoint, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” series might be the best example of how a writer can start their career by posting derivative stories online — before the series was an international hit, it was Twilight fan fiction.

But monetizing fan fiction through online platforms is a trickier matter. For example, when Tumblr announced it would roll out Post+, a paid subscription product, the company used fan fiction writers as an example of a content creator who could profit from the product. This caused concern among writers who worried that putting a derivative work behind a paywall could land them in legal trouble.

. . . .

“My main concern was that [the Realms of Ruin project’s creators] were asking their audience to come in and write a bunch of stuff, and they would then select things to be canon in their world. And the tricky part of this is that they already made this world and copyrighted it,” said Manzano. She said it wasn’t clear if the fan fiction writers would be able to do anything more with their work or if they would be acknowledged or compensated for creating it.

TechCrunch’s source close to the project feels differently. Although the six established authors own the Realms of Ruin copyright (at least according to the archived version of the website), writers can be paid to participate in larger publishing projects where they don’t have ownership in the franchise. Over 850 “Star Trek” novels have been published, for example, but that doesn’t mean that those authors own the rights to “Star Trek.”

Harvard Law professor Rebecca Tushnet — who is a member of the legal team at the Organization for Transformative Works, which runs major fan fiction site Archive of Our Own — said that these questions would depend on what the actual contract is between Realms of Ruin and the writers.

“If they’re giving permission, there aren’t copyright infringement questions, there are ownership questions. And those would be navigated by contract. But the thing that you usually expect is that the people writing the fan works might have limited rights,” she told TechCrunch. Because the Realms of Ruin project was shut down before it officially launched, contract details weren’t available.

“The fan fiction part is probably the least interesting part about this,” added Tushnet. “It’s not unknown for authors to say, ‘I want to authorize you to play in my world, and you can even have some of the money.’ Kindle Worlds was an attempt at this, but it ultimately did not seem to be profitable, and Amazon shut it down.”

Fan creators are generally skeptical of projects like Kindle Worlds since they can seem like thinly veiled ways for corporations to profit off of these communities.

Link to the rest at TechCrunch

PG says that just because you can conceive and code something doesn’t make it a good idea.

Any time a person or entity is publishing something another person has written, there’s a legal issue over ownership of the copyright and what rights the copyright owner is granting or not granting to the publisher.

Fan fiction can be a lot of fun to read and write, but if you get your one blockbuster story idea and give it to someone else to publish someplace in cyberspace or meatspace, there are legal issues involving copyright ownership and what rights the author has granted to others. You don’t want anything hazy with respect to rights to something you’ve written. No hand-waving should be involved.

If you write something really good, haziness and hand-waving could quite possibly mean that everybody is giving a lot of their money to lawyers – many digits between the dollar sign and the decimal point. In some sorts of litigation, whoever runs out of money first loses.

Getting it right at the beginning is much, much easier and far, far cheaper.

Imagination

From Dave Farland:

Come Original

The first thing that I seek in a great story is originality. You may not realize it, but the most common problem with stories is that they’re tepid. The same ideas crop up over and over again. So I look for new and intriguing concepts, especially when I’m judging science fiction and fantasy.

. . . .

[S]tories come along in thematic clusters. For example, the quarter after the sheep Dolly got cloned, I had dozens of stories come across my desk about cloning. Now, were any of them publishable? Sort of. The writing was often good, the story fairly interesting. But I don’t think that I had a finalist about cloning that quarter. The idea felt tepid.

One quarter, I got several good stories that featured mind transference. The quarter before that, it was ghost stories. One quarter, I got no less than twenty stories written from the point of view of sperms making a heroic journey. (Life is hard when you’re dodging gobs of spermicidal gel, white blood cells hell-bent on destruction, and struggling not to get bounced out of the race by the sperms of Hitler wannabes.)

Stand Out

So when I see several iterations of the same idea, I have to ask myself, “What makes this story stand out? What makes it better than others?”

The truth is, that sometimes one of the authors stretches himself or herself further than others. They look for a new idea to couple with an old, twisting it, so that we get something that I haven’t seen before.

For example, in that quarter of Writers of the Future where I got several good ghost stories, one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s take, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a young girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world, that the girl can peer into.

So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before. Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it. So she scored higher on the originality scale, than did some of the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.

 Do you see how a story can manifest originality in a number of ways?

1. Premise

Your story may explore an idea that no one has ever written about before. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” for example, is a story about a man who engineers the DNA in his blood so that each cell becomes a miniature computer. The cells begin creating their own vessels to explore his body, and become sentient . . . and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s a great idea. Similarly, the concepts of mathematical sociology that lead to social engineering in Asimov’s Foundation series really intrigued me as a teen. In science fiction and fantasy, the unique idea shows the highest form of creativity.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

AG Submits Comments on Press Publisher Protections

From The Authors Guild:

The Authors Guild submitted comments to the U.S. Copyright Office recommending changes to copyright law and policy to stop internet platforms like Facebook and Google from monetizing news content freely, and to give newspaper and magazine publishers more power to negotiate with platforms that aggregate news content. The comments come in response to the Copyright Office’s “Publisher Protection Study,” which seeks to understand the effects of “news aggregators” like Google and Facebook on newspapers and magazines with the goal of issuing policy guidelines to protect the industry.

The Guild’s comments emphasized that the Facebook and Google “duopoly” over the digital advertising market has siphoned revenues out of the press publishing ecosystem, leading to mass closure or consolidation in the industry. According to the Pew Center, 2,100—or about one in five—newspapers or magazines have shuttered or merged into larger entities since 2008, with advertising revenues sinking from $55 billion per year in 2005 to just $8.8 billion in 2010. The comments also underscored the impact on writers and journalists, pointing out that full-time journalism jobs had dwindled by 26% since 2008 and per-word and piece-based freelance rates were vastly lower than they were 15 years ago.

. . . .

Apart from the clear economic harm to journalists, freelance writers, and press publishers, control of the news space by internet platforms have also dealt serious blows to democratic culture. As the last four years show, when the public relies on misinformation and fake news instead of real journalism—which, unlike clickbait, takes hard work, time, and resources to produce—the cost to society are immense. 

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

The Static Hiss

From Writer Unboxed:

I don’t much listen to my car radio. With my phone connected via Bluetooth, I can listen to audiobooks, stream podcasts or enjoy my own playlists. Plus, the top hits of the Eighties and Nineties were great back then but I don’t want them on an endless loop in my head. If I stream a radio station it’s jazz, like Newark’s WBGO.

Still, once in a while I’ll want traffic news or weather or Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” because Steve Winwood always lifts me up. But when I switch to radio receiver what I get is static hiss. I punch the Seek button to find a station. The receiver jumps to the next signal, which might be Blondie singing “Heart of Glass” or it might be static hiss. Yes, I could have presets. I don’t, so I punch. Hiss. Punch. Hiss.

Static hiss is electronic interference to a radio signal. If the signal-to-noise ratio is low then the signal is overwhelmed and rather than music you get hiss. The interference itself comes from different sources. It can be neighboring radio signals, electrical switches, motors, computers, or thermal noise in circuits. There’s also electromagnetic interference such as lightning, explaining why static hiss gets louder when you see a zig-zag flash in the sky. There’s also cosmic background noise coming from the sun and even the center of the Milky Way.

The radiation that produces hiss is, in essence, louder than the radio signal that you really want. It is a signal but it’s random and erratic. Our brains do not process the hissing into anything meaningful. It’s just noise. We turn down the volume dial and punch the Seek button, looking for a stronger signal carrying more intelligible and interesting sounds. Hiss is natural. It’s part of the universe. It’s there in the background all the time but we find it irritating and quickly dismiss it.

Manuscripts are like a radio signal. Too often static hiss interferes with the story. Static hiss is anything we don’t need in order to understand and enjoy the tale we’re reading. It’s the stuff we tune out, if not immediately skip. Hiss. Punch.

Why do manuscripts, and published novels too, present material that we don’t want? Obviously, the author set down what seems important—but is it? Not always. Think about it this way: Is every page of every novel you read absorbing, exciting and memorable? Obviously not. While we don’t expect that level of memorability from every single printed page, we do hope always to get something interesting, or at least something we won’t skim or skip.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG loves the sound of “Static Hiss”. It occurred to him that it might be transferred to a character in ancient Rome named Staticus.

No One Likes a Copycat Au Pair

From Electric Lit:

I loved Ayşegül Savaş’s first novel Walking on the Ceiling and have been pressing it into everyone’s hands for the past two years. I approached her second novel, White on White, with excitement and some trepidation, wondering whether I would love it as much. Well, the answer is yes. How exhilarating to be swept off my feet once more, torn between wanting to savor every sentence while also wishing to rush through to the end! Savaş’s writing is unadorned and yet perfectly attuned to the poetry and strangeness of everyday life. It surprises you with kernels of wisdom, such as “We make ghostly twins to carry the weight of our desires.” The world she describes is both recognizable and slightly off-balance, and nothing is ever what it seems at first glance. It is writing that I devoured in a few sittings and then returned to over and over again. 

The premise of White on White is simple—a young student moves to a new city and becomes a confidant of sorts to the landlady, Agnes, a striking and magnetic artist, who very soon unsettles the narrator with her intimate monologues. Much of the novel is shaped by scenes in which the student listens to Agnes reflect on her art and recount memories of her marriage, children, and friendships with other women. At times I was reminded of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Both narrators spend a year in a new apartment that is flooded with light. The passage of time feels hazy and is often marked by the change in seasons. There is an undercurrent of tension, barely perceptible at first, that intensifies throughout and makes it impossible to look away.  

The excerpt below recounts Agnes’s years as a new mother and her relationship with her young au pair, beautifully exemplifying what I loved most about Savaş’s novel: the stories within stories, showing how what we remember from our past illuminates the way we see ourselves; the dissonance of memories within a family and how those breaks in understanding reveal an unwillingness or inability to see. At the end of this passage, the student feels that Agnes has “left out a part of the story.” One of the pleasures of reading White on White comes from exploring those omissions and being never quite sure what to believe. I reveled in this ambiguity: the constant shifts in perception, my expectations overthrown with each story. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The forgotten importance of the War of Jenkins’ Ear

From The Economist:

It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a bottle and presented to King George II of Britain as proof of Spanish barbarity. The ensuing conflict lasted from 1739 to 1742.

Yet as Robert Gaudi writes in his new history, the war’s causes went beyond a single outrage. Tension had simmered over a dispute about fees for Britain’s contract to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies. British ships ran contraband to and from the West Indies in defiance of bilateral agreements. And then there was the strange case of the Italian castrato opera star, whom King Felipe V of Spain whisked from London and made his personal divo in Madrid. One journal summed up the sentiment in Britain: “What are the taking of a few Ships, and the cutting off the Ears of the Masters of our Merchantmen, to the loss of our dear, dear Farinello?”

The war proved disastrous for Britain. It assembled an armada and intended to invade the Spanish ports at Cartagena (now in Colombia), and Santiago, Cuba. The Cartagena operation was a fiasco, bogged down by tropical weather, mosquito-borne disease and indecisive leadership. Bad planning and squabbling commanders meant that the Santiago campaign was over before it could even begin. Spain suffered defeats of its own, failing to take Georgia in the North American colonies. Led by James Oglethorpe, the British joined Native Americans and used ambushes to repel the larger Spanish force.

Among the engagements at sea was an action at Porto Bello, Panama, which yielded one of Britain’s few victories. Mr Gaudi, though, is less interested in the detailed narration of naval fracases than in sketching some of the vivid characters who fought them. The British succeeded at Porto Bello largely because of Admiral Edward Vernon, “boisterous and bellicose”, who became an instant national hero. (The song “Rule, Britannia!” was written in the afterglow of his achievement.) On the Spanish side was the pugnacious Don Blas, famous after an earlier incident in which, when he was only 15, his leg was amputated in the heat of battle.

Why does this forgotten war matter now? For two reasons, suggests Mr Gaudi. First, a different result could have changed the fate of North America. Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent. Second, the war nurtured the resentment of Britain that ultimately led to the American revolution. The British recruited 3,000 Americans to fight in the Cartagena campaign, but held them back from the vanguard out of mistrust and fear of desertion.

Link to the rest at The Economist (You may hit a paywall. PG apologizes.)

Plug-in Added

Google’s Site Kit reported that TPV was not loading as fast as it should, so PG added a plug-in that is supposed to fix that.

If anyone has been having problems with the speed with which the site has been loading or starts to have problems with site loading from here on forward, let PG know through the Contact PG link at the top of the page.

Alice Sebold apologizes to exonerated man who spent years in prison for her rape

From CNN:

Author Alice Sebold apologized to a man who last week was exonerated of her rape, a crime she wrote about in her memoir “Lucky,” but the writer also appeared to place as much blame on a “flawed legal system” as she did on the role she played in his conviction.

“First, I want to say that I am truly sorry to Anthony Broadwater and I deeply regret what you have been through,” Sebold, the author of “The Lovely Bones,” wrote in a statement posted on Medium.com.
Broadwater, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted of the rape in 1982 and spent 16 years in prison. He was denied parole at least five times because he wouldn’t admit to a crime he didn’t commit, according to his attorneys. He tried at least five times to get the sentence overturned, he told CNN.

Last week, a New York State Supreme Court judge exonerated Broadwater and vacated his conviction and other counts related to it. The Onondaga County district attorney joined in the motion to vacate the conviction.

Broadwater was convicted on two pieces of evidence — Sebold’s account and a cross-racial identification — the author is White and Broadwater is Black — and the analysis of a piece of hair that was later determined to be faulty, his attorneys wrote.

In “Lucky,” Sebold wrote that after she failed to identify Broadwater in a police lineup, “a detective and a prosecutor told her after the lineup that she picked out the wrong man and how the prosecutor deliberately coached her into rehabilitating her misidentification,” according to the attorneys’ affirmation that led to Broadwater’s exoneration.

The unreliability of the hair analysis and the conversation between the prosecutor and Sebold after the lineup would probably have led to a different verdict if it had been presented at trial, the attorneys said.

Sebold described the rape, which occurred when she was a freshman at Syracuse University in 1981, in brutally honest detail in “Lucky.” It was published a year after Broadwater was released from prison.
Her publisher Scribner, and its parent company, Simon & Schuster, will stop distributing the book in all formats “while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised,” said Brian Belfiglio, Scribner vice president of publicity and marketing, in a statement to CNN.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG hasn’t been in a criminal courtroom in a very long time, but he can’t imagine any prosecutor he ever dealt with way back when doing what Ms. Sebold says the detective and a prosecutor did in her case.

Here’s a link to a post Ms. Sebold made discussing this subject.

Congo’s government has banned songs that annoy it

From The Economist:

“I consider myself to be like a mosquito,” says Bob Elvis, a musician, from his studio in downtown Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I may be small but I can annoy you all night long, by singing, biting and not leaving you alone.”

Mr Elvis’s latest rap song, “Letter to Ya Tshitshi”, has rankled the president of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, so much that it was banned days after being released. The song addresses Étienne Tshisekedi, the president’s dead father, a firebrand opposition leader, by his nickname. It laments his son’s incompetence.

In the video, Mr Elvis raps to a photo of Mr Tshisekedi senior, surrounded by flickering candles. He repeats the refrain “since you left” and describes the country’s woes, from the scarcity of clean water to the abundance of corruption, electoral fraud and conflict. “Since you left, war in the east goes on,” he raps. “We are fighting for the rule of law.”

The Censorship Commission banned another six of Mr Elvis’s songs as well as a track called “What we have not done” by mpr, a hip-hop group. This song is about the failings of every Congolese president since independence. The ban on mpr’s track was rescinded a day later when fans kicked up a fuss.

Mr Elvis has not been so lucky. Broadcasters that play his forbidden tracks risk having their licences revoked. Other musicians have been targeted, too. A rapper from southern Congo, Sébastien Lumbwe, known as “Infrapa”, fled the country two weeks ago after being harassed by officials over his songs, which poke the government. “It is part of a pattern of shrinking civic space,” says Jean-Mobert Senga of Amnesty International, a watchdog. “It goes against President Tshisekedi’s commitment to respect human rights.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

Where Is My Thinking Machine?

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazement and alarm have been persistent features, the yin and yang, of discourse about the power of computers since the earliest days of electronic “thinking machines.”

In 1950, a year before the world’s first commercial computer was delivered, the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing published an essay asking “Can machines think?” A few years later another pioneer, John McCarthy, coined the term “artificial intelligence”—AI. That’s when the trouble began.

The sloppy but clever term “artificial intelligence” has fueled misdirection and misunderstanding: Imagine, in the 1920s, calling the car an artificial horse, or the airplane an artificial bird, or the electric motor an artificial waterwheel.

“Computing” and even “supercomputing” are clear, even familiar terms. But the arrival of today’s machines that do more than calculate at blazing speeds—that instead engage in inference to recognize a face or answer a natural language question—constitutes a distinction with a difference, and raises practical and theoretical questions about the future uses of AI.

The amount of money chasing AI alone suggests something big is happening: annual global venture investing in AI startups has soared from $3 billion a decade ago to $80 billion in 2021. Over half is with U.S. firms, about one-fourth with Chinese. More than six dozen AI startups have valuations north of $1 billion, chasing applications in every corner of the economy from the Holy Grail of self-driving cars to healthcare and shopping, and from shipping to security.

Consider another metric of AI’s ascendance: An Amazon search for “artificial intelligence” yields 50,000 book titles. Joining that legion comes “The Age of AI and Our Human Future.” Its multiple authors—Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state; Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google; and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing—say their book is a distillation of group discussions about how AI will “soon affect nearly every field of human endeavor.”

“The Age of AI” doesn’t tackle how society has come to such a turning point. It poses more questions than it answers, and focuses, in the main, on news and disinformation, healthcare and national security, with a smattering about “human identity.” That most AI applications are nascent is evidenced by the authors’ need to fall back frequently on “what if” in an echo of similar discussions nearly everywhere.

The authors are animated by the sense many share that we’re on the cusp of a broad technological tipping point of deep economic and geopolitical consequence. “The Age of AI” makes the indisputable case that AI will add features to products and services that were heretofore impossible.

In an important nod to reality, the authors highlight “AI’s limits,” the problems with adequate and useful datasets and the “brittleness,” especially the “narrowness,” of AI—an AI that can drive a car can’t read a pathology slide, and vice versa.

However, AI’s narrowness is a feature, not a bug. This explains why hundreds of AI startups target narrow applications within a specific business domain. It explains why apps have been so astonishingly successful (consumers have access to more than 200 million apps, most of which are not games). Many are powered by hyper-narrow AI and enabled by a network—the Cloud—of unprecedented reach.

The book’s discursive nature illuminates, if unintentionally, a common challenge in forecasting AI: It’s far easier today than in Turing’s time to drift into the hypothetical.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Writing Down the Bones

From Nilichoandika:

Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg was published the year my elder sister was born. I read it . . . thirty five years since it broke into print

. . . .

1. Claim your writing. This is something I struggle with. Hearing someone say they loved my book, or a character so much that they want to talk about him/her or even that they hated my work- and with the star rating index, anything short of a 3-star review is enough to have me put my music player on shuffle. She shares how important it is to claim the good and bad- to accept that you wrote it.

. . . .

4. Don’t marry the fly. I laughed so much reading this chapter because I have felt it as a reader. Sometimes when I read a book and I am following what is happening, there are certain sentences or details that throw me off- and often I feel like the author lost me, or that the author’s trend of thought changed and Natalie explains why this happens. Simply put she says, “If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander.” In another sense, details are important but if you focus on one detail so much you may lose the reader.

Link to the rest at Nilichoandika

Books are everywhere

Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

Virginia Woolf

A Czech Second-Hand Books Boom

From Publishers Weekly:

The Czech digital seller of second-hand books Knihobot reported sales of some 18 million Czech koruna (US$792,000) for the entire year of 2020, but in October of this year alone, it generated sales of 10 million koruna (US$440,000).

This month, having raised its monthly sales to a level above the 2020 total, Knihobot is looking to expand its services to neighboring Slovakia, according to company officials.

. . . .

“Knihobot is an online platform and e-shop that helps with the circulation of books,” she says in describing the company’s brand.

“That means we’re helping people to sell their books and to find new ones. We arrange everything around the selling, storage, and even the transportation from your home to Knihobot’s storage.

“After the book is sold, we pay a commission to the original owner.”

Hladíková’s outlook in the near term is optimistic: “For this year,” she says, “we’re projecting a number of 70 or 80 million karuna. We’ll see.”

This upturn in Knihobot’s business may not indicate that Czech readers are losing interest in buying new books.

The latest available data from the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers (SKCN) suggests that in 2019, the country’s book market expanded by 3.5 percent to some 8.6 billion Koruna (US$379 million), reporting an annual increase for a fifth year.

. . . .

Asked whether it’s possible that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged more readers to buy second-hand books, perhaps instead of using public libraries, Hladíková points to a number of factors that might explain Knihobot’s strong financial performance in past months.

“There are many reasons for this change of behavior” among consumers, she says.

“Sustainable consumer approach, a wider range of books because you can buy new and older publications in one place, better prices, and the rising online presence of second-hand bookshops overall.”

. . . .

Asked by Publishing Perspectives about the rising interest in used books and its potential impact on publishers’ and authors’ revenues, Czech publishing industry representatives have been reluctant to comment.

A Warsaw-based academic publishing executive speaking on condition of anonymity, however, tells us, “When you look at the size of the publishing market, second-hand  book operations don’t represent a big share of the industry—but it’s another factor that is trimming [publishers’] profit margins, which already are quite slim.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

7 Books About Life After a Civil War

From Electric Lit:

I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.

I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.

. . . .

Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.  

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasm

Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”

The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Best We Could Do
Dark Tourist

Face Surveillance Was Always Flawed

From Public Books:

In 1879, Alphonse Bertillon joined the Parisian police department. At the time, people who committed multiple crimes were having a good run of it—branding had been banned and fingerprinting had not yet been widely adopted. Officers’ memories, as Richard Farebrother and Julian Champkin have detailed, were the main remedy against repeat offenders, who gave false names, claimed it was their first offense, and were able to avoid serious consequences. The only alternative for 19th-century law enforcement: sifting through stacks of notecards cataloging prior arrests, which were completed idiosyncratically and organized haphazardly.

Struck by the system’s inefficiency, Bertillon created a cunning new method to identify alleged offenders. He envisioned “giving every human being an identity, an individuality that is certain, durable, invariable, always recognizable, and which can be established with ease.” Photography had just begun to arrive on the scene, and Bertillon recognized its potential for cataloging people who had been arrested. He pioneered the idea of seating accused people in the same chair, set a standard distance from the camera, and photographing them at standard angles. In so doing, Bertillon invented the mugshot.

More than a century later, face surveillance has gone digital. In January 2020, journalist Kashmir Hill revealed that a secretive start-up company called Clearview AI had scraped photographs from untold numbers of websites, collecting more than three billion pictures (now closer to 10 billion) to fuel face recognition technology used by law enforcement. The public was horrified. But the massive consentless collection of face data for carceral purposes is a foundational approach to face surveillance that originated with the two men who developed it, first as an analog technique and later as an automated technology.

As Bertillon’s story makes clear, the earliest applications of face surveillance were also not rooted in consent. Nearly 150 years ago, using images of faces to identify people who’d committed crimes was done without permission of those portrayed. Law enforcement officers were the primary users. And that tradition continued when Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Bledsoe automated face surveillance in the 1960s.

These essential flaws cannot be corrected with greater accuracy or oversight. Despite more than a century of time for potential introspection about face surveillance, it seems that law enforcement has not truly grappled with the collateral consequence of its expansion: the elimination of privacy for everyone. Instead, more law enforcement agencies are adopting face surveillance as you read this article. Face surveillance began as a carceral technology, and that application continues to ensure that the technology will be available, attractive, and financially advantageous to law enforcement and the companies who serve it.

Bertillon and Bledsoe’s work assumed that law enforcement personnel should have the power to surveil the faces of the people they were supposed to protect and serve. Today, law enforcement continues to buy into that belief. But Bertillon’s and Bledsoe’s stories reveal that face surveillance was flawed from the start and illustrate why those flaws persist.

Bertillon believed that “every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth.” His approach, as Kelly Gates details, was not actually intended to reveal the inner workings of the individual—unlike physiognomy, an old, racist pseudoscience that postulated that certain facial features predicted criminality. Bertillon’s use of scientific measurement seemed a stunning development. He coupled his mugshots with intrusive measurements of people who had been arrested, such as their arm length and head circumference, to create measurements collectively known as a Bertillonage. He was assisted by Amelie Notar, a woman with impeccable handwriting whom he met crossing the road and who later became his wife.

It seemed improbable that an arrested person would share the same Bertillonage with any other person (though that assumption was ultimately proven wrong). Bertillon’s mathematical approach to identifying people who had allegedly committed crimes was popular and effective. Ultimately, Bertillonage identified more than 3,500 repeat offenders in its inaugural decade.

Bertillon himself became quite famous. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to his own famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, as the “second highest expert in Europe”—after Bertillon, of course. But his methods proved fallible.

In 1903, a Black man named Will West arrived at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. As was the standard procedure, identification clerks took his Bertillonage and matched the measurements with one William West. Police expressed no surprise that Will West was a repeat offender, nor that he denied being one. But upon investigation, Will West was discovered to be an entirely different man serving a life sentence for murder in the same penitentiary. The two men had identical measurements, something Bertillon and other police had believed impossible.

The fallibility of Bertillonage is among the least problematic aspects of Bertillon’s legacy. When he was not photographing people who had been arrested, Bertillon was writing a book called Ethnographie Moderne: Les Races Sauvages—translated, Modern Ethnography: The Savage Races. Bertillon also concocted a handwriting test used in the Dreyfus Affair, a now infamous case of government anti-Semitism. His participation in the trial spurred his brother, married to a Jewish woman, not to speak to him for years.

By the turn of the century, Bertillon’s “science” had been discredited. But the mugshot lived on. And it fueled generations of corporations, governments, and researchers curious about mathematically measuring the faces of people accused of committing crimes.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was

From The New Yorker:

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.

When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was invece. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun vece—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicis, declined as vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vicis in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, recompense, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.

But let’s move back to the Italian term, invece, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating invece across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers

From SFWA:

You open the SFWA Bulletin to start reading an article about second person point of view (POV), and immediately you’re put off. You didn’t expect the article itself to use this POV, since most articles don’t. What a cheap gimmick, you think. You wonder whether you should stop reading at this point, because you’ve been told how you feel and what you expected in the span of a few sentences, and you’re growing increasingly uncomfortable—angry, even—with these assumptions made by the writer. She doesn’t know you! Why is she trying to put words in your mouth and thoughts in your head? Why is she presuming to control your actions?

But seriously, how did that make you feel?

Of all the points of view available to writers when choosing how to tell a story, second person seems to be the most maligned. Common objections include that it’s confusing, unsettling, and weird, that it breaks suspension of disbelief and forces the reader out of the story rather than drawing them in. Dig deeper and you may hear that it’s more than discomfiting, it’s downright presumptuous, even aggressive. The writer is forcing you to think or feel a certain way, crafting a costume and then jamming you, an innocent voyeur, inside, tying you up with strings and putting you on a stage to perform the story like a puppet rather than allowing you the comfort and distance of being in the audience.

In recent conversations about this topic, an interesting trend emerged: many marginalized writers, especially BIPOC ones, expressed that they had written second person POV stories and found the form quite natural, even desirable for their specific purposes. Why might that be, and what are those purposes precisely? As with most other aspects of society, much of this is rooted in how marginalized folks are already expected to adjust our needs and wants to what’s available, while those in the perceived “mainstream” expect what’s available to be created with their needs and desires already in mind.

. . . .

For many marginalized folks, as readers we often experience fiction as a window rather than a mirror. We are more likely to be accustomed to dealing with discomfort or a lack of familiarity related to the characters we’re reading about, their lives and thoughts and choices and so on. The mirrors that do exist may be flawed, warped like carnival glass, reflecting not merely an alternate form of a particular identity, but one that is rendered so imperfectly, regardless of intent, that its subject is barely recognizable. Many of us have become reconciled to the fact that fiction with experiential reality is a form of labor that becomes natural with time and repetition, by necessity. Without that skill, it’s challenging to, for example, navigate situations like basic educational systems and standardized testing due to their use of presumed “universal” touchstones that are only really “universal” to a select group.

Link to the rest at SFWA

Build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the most common missed opportunities I see when I’m editing novels involves mysteries.

Do you want to know what it is? Am I being mysterious?

Often, when trying to be mysterious, authors just end up being vague. It’s really hard to invest in a mystery when we don’t have enough information to understand what’s happening entirely.

Instead, it’s often better to let the reader into the mystery in order to build anticipation. Orient the reader around whether a character will succeed or fail.

. . . .

You’ll often see novels start off with something that nominally feels high stakes, like a character running through a dark forest as fast as they can… only the author doesn’t tell us why they’re running. The author wants us to wonder: why is this character running as fast as they can through the forest? Mysterious, right?

But it’s downright confusing to not be given more information that that, particularly in first person narratives when we’re tied to a character’s inner thoughts. We should generally know what the protagonist knows, and it feels vaguely hostile when the author is just holding out on us.

Then, in the climactic moment, we find out everything all at once in a chaotic jumble. The character slays what was chasing them and then we find out: Oh. Actually it was an evil moon demon and had the protagonist not succeeded they would have gotten ripped to shreds.

. . . .

Vague mysteries are missed opportunities to build suspense and anticipation.

What’s the better mystery: Why is this character running through the forest, or is this character going to avoid getting ripped to pieces by a nasty moon demon?

Had we known from the start that there’s a demon after the character, we would also learn the contours of what’s at stake. We would start imagining what might happen if they fail and get ripped to shreds. We would start investing in the outcome, and thus would feel more satisfied when the protagonist barely escapes.

When we only find out what was really happening after the fact, it invariably feels like a letdown. The reader’s reaction is more like: “Yeah… had I known the situation was life or death, I might have been worried. Instead I was just confused.”

The moment we learn what a character wants (to escape) and what’s at stake (if they fail they’ll get ripped to shreds), it’s almost like a clock starts ticking, and every bit of delay and extra effort the protagonist expends deepens the reader’s investment in what’s going to happen. It builds suspense for the eventual showdown.

In order for formula that to work: the reader needs to know what’s happening.

Beware rug-pulling

It’s even worse when the vague mystery is an excuse for a cheap attempt at pulling the rug out from under the reader.

In the “just kidding it was a game of tag” example, it erodes trust in the narrative voice for the mystery to be just a matter of the author leading the reader astray. After that moment, the reader will have a very hard time taking anything in the novel at face value, which is an exhausting way to read.

Authorial trust once lost is difficult to regain.

Be careful with movie and TV show mystery tropes

This is also another area where screenplay-izing your novel and relying on tropes in film and TV can lead you astray. I’m sure we can all think of countless hit TV shows and movies that start with a character running and we don’t know why. In visual mediums there’s more leeway to just show a character running and let the viewer see what shows up and let that be the surprise.

Novels are different. We’re more connected to characters’ inner consciousness, so it’s more confusing to not be let into the story to see their motivations. And in a novel, it’s hard to process as much information in a flash as we can with film and TV, so it feels overwhelming to find out everything all at once when the demon arrives.

. . . .

Motivation is everything in a novel, and this extends to mysteries too. If you can connect your mystery to the things your protagonist wants, the reader will be far more invested in the outcome and feel those stirrings of suspense.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Guess What’s Better Than a Book Blurb

From Publishers Weekly:

When I sold my 15th novel, The Enlightenment Project, and my publicist asked for a list of people I could ask for blurbs, I faltered. I explained that my husband had been quite ill, and that I had been out of the loop for a while—that anyone I asked would likely say, “Lynn who?”

My publicist persisted. “Tell me who you know.” I mentioned that Wendell Berry, the great poet and writer, had been my teacher and my mentor. “Perfect,” she said. “Ask him.”

So I did. I sent a typed letter, reminding Wendell rather shyly who I was. I addressed him as Dr. Berry, and apologized for the audacity of my request. Three days later I received a response—handwritten on a sheet of yellow legal pad, in pencil. Wendell has been known to write on a feed sack, but I believe such surfaces are reserved for poetry.

I sat at my desk, dog at my feet, and read the letter, my hand shaking, just a little, as a slow smile of joy spread across my face. Wendell began by telling me that what I called audacity, he remembered as “your good sense and a vivid spiritedness, that I saw in you when you were a student and remember very well. But I quit writing blurbs a long time ago, just because I didn’t have the time to make honest work of it. I am not sorry I quit, but I’m sorry to say no to you.”

He said that he hoped I was all right, and to please stop calling him Dr. Berry, as he was my old friend, Wendell. He sent me a signed copy of his book of essays, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, and I read it right there at my desk, happy just to hear his voice in his work, remembering when I had stormed the University of Kentucky, a 16-year-old freshman, seeking out every writing class offered.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

From The MIT Press Reader:

Robots have histories that extend far back into the past. Artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots all find expression from the human imagination in works and contexts beyond Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE) and the story of Pygmalion in cultures across Eurasia and North Africa. This long history of our human-machine relationships also reminds us that our aspirations, fears, and fantasies about emergent technologies are not new, even as the circumstances in which they appear differ widely. Situating these objects, and the desires that create them, within deeper and broader contexts of time and space reveals continuities and divergences that, in turn, provide opportunities to critique and question contemporary ideas and desires about robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

As early as 3,000 years ago we encounter interest in intelligent machines and AI that perform different servile functions. In the works of Homer (c. eighth century BCE) we find Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithing and craft, using automatic bellows to execute simple, repetitive labor. Golden handmaidens, endowed with characteristics of movement, perception, judgment, and speech, assist him in his work. In his “Odyssey,” Homer recounts how the ships of the Phaeacians perfectly obey their human captains, detecting and avoiding obstacles or threats, and moving “at the speed of thought.” Several centuries later, around 400 BCE, we meet Talos, the giant bronze sentry, created by Hephaestus, that patrolled the shores of Crete. These examples from the ancient world all have in common their subservient role; they exist to serve the desires of other, more powerful beings — either gods or humans — and even if they have sentience, they lack autonomy. Thousands of years before Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” to refer to artificial slaves, we find them in Homer.

Given the prevalence of intelligent artificial objects in Hellenic culture, it is no surprise that engineers in the later Hellenistic period turned to designing and building these machines. Mathematicians and engineers based in Alexandria began writing treatises on automaton-making and engineering around the third century BCE. These included instructions for how to make elaborate dioramas with moving figures, musical automata, mechanical servants, and automata powered by steam, water, air, and mechanics. Some of these devices were intended to illustrate the physical principles animating them, and others were scaled up and incorporated into public spectacle. Regardless of size, they were intended to evoke a network of emotional responses, including wonder and awe.

Robots were so prevalent in the imaginative and material culture of the Greek-speaking world that they were seen as emblematic of Hellenistic culture by others. Buddhist legends focused on north-eastern India from the fourth and third centuries BCE recount the army of automata that guarded Buddha’s relics, built with knowledge smuggled from the Graecophone world. In one version, which features both killer robot-assassins and robot-guardians, a young man travels in disguise to the land of the Yavanas (Greek speakers) to learn the art of automaton-making, a secret closely guarded by the yantakaras (automaton makers) there, knowledge that he then steals to make the artificial guards. We find stories of automatic warriors guarding the Buddha’s relics in Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindu, and Tibetan texts. Additionally, mechanical automata also appear elsewhere in the Chinese historical record: for example, at the court of Tang ruler Empress Wu Zhou (c.624–705 CE).

The trope of the guardian/killer automaton also appears linked to stories about the ancient world from medieval Latin Christendom — where, unlike much of the rest of Eurasia, people lacked the knowledge of how to make complex machines. In an Old French version of the Aeneid (c.1160 CE), a golden robot-archer stands sentry over the tomb of a fallen warrior queen, and in the history of Alexander the Great (c.1180 CE), the ruler encounters golden killer robots guarding a bridge in India and armed copper robots protecting the tomb of “the emir of Babylon.” Hellenistic handbooks on automaton-making, translated into Arabic in the ninth century CE at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, also influenced the design and construction of automata in Islamdom that were usually placed in palaces and mosques, and included musician-automata, programmable clocks and fountains, and mechanical animals. These makers in Islamdom innovated on the designs of the Alexandrian School and created increasingly complex machines; although some of the objects hearken back to much older forms. In the work of courtier and engineer al-Jazari (1136–1206 CE), for example, we find designs for wheeled cupbearers and servants, an echo of the wheeled servants attending to the gods on Mount Olympus.

Al-Jazari’s courtly mechanical servants and the killer sentries in imaginative literature share a link to surveillance, foreshadowing another purpose to which AI and robots have often been turned. Sentries and guards keep watch and discern friend from foe, while courtly servants operate in ritualized, hierarchical environments where people are under constant scrutiny. Objects like those of al-Jazari’s designs were found throughout Islamdom and the eastern Roman Empire, but were unable to be built or reproduced in the Latin Christian West until the late 13th century. However, they appear earlier in imaginative texts as luxury objects, in elite settings, as fantasies of perfect surveillance and perfectly obedient servants.

. . . .

Robots and AI have long been used both to foreground and to trouble the conceptual boundary between born and made, and the related boundary between life and not-life. Yet the contexts in which these stories appear supply different meanings to the same story. In the early Taoist text “The Book of Liezi”(compiled circa fourth century), the skill of the artificer is appreciated by the king and his court, but in other stories about learned men and their automaton-children, such as those attached to Albertus Magnus in the 14th and 15th centuries, and to René Descartes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the robot is destroyed by ignorant people out of fear. In E. T. A. Hoffman’s version of this tale, “The Sandman” (1816), the inability to distinguish made from born drives the protagonist, Nathanael, insane and, eventually, to his death.

Link to the rest at The MIT Press Reader

The MIT Press article is excerpted from The Lovemakers, edited by Aifric Campbell

The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot

From The Wall Street Journal:

If fame is the name of your desire, writing about literature is among the least likely ways to find it. From the 17th century until today, only four literary critics, John Dryden (1631-1700), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Matthew Arnold (1828-1888) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)—five if one includes that one-man Tower of Babel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)—have attained enduring reputations. All five also wrote poetry, but, apart from Eliot, it is doubtful if today any would be remembered for his poetry alone.

What these men have in common is that all were, in the old-fashioned phrase, men of letters. T.S. Eliot, who may have been the last of the breed, defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.” Literature, for the man of letters, who not only writes about it but practices it by himself writing poetry, fiction or drama, provides wisdom beyond all other wisdoms, surpassing science, social science, history and philosophy, while incorporating them all.

The man of letters, like the poet, has a responsibility to the language, for, to quote Eliot, “unless we have those few men who combine an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our own ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.” He is also responsible, as Eliot wrote in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923), for “the reorientation of tradition” in the arts, and, like the artist, is “the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real.”

The responsibility of the man of letters is finally for the culture at large. His duty, as Eliot wrote in the 1944 essay “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe,” is “neither to ignore politics and economics, nor, certainly, to desert literature,” but to “be vigilantly watching the conduct of politicians and economists, for the purpose of criticising and warning, when the decisions and actions of politicians and economists are likely to have cultural consequences,” for “of these consequences . . . the man of letters is better qualified to foresee them, and to perceive their seriousness.” As he views politics as being too serious to be left to the politicians, the man of letters feels education is hopeless without a clear ideal of the educated individual. “I hope,” Eliot wrote in “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” “that we shall not consciously or unconsciously drift towards the view that it is better for everyone to have a second-rate education than for only a small minority to have the best.” Which is, of course, where we are today.

. . . .

In his late 20s Eliot would write of Henry James, whom he much admired, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” Cosmopolitan in interest and outlook though he was, Eliot went on to become an Englishman to the highest power: He applied for British citizenship, at the age of 39, in 1927, the same year he was confirmed in the Church of England. So rigidly English did he seem that Virginia Woolf called him “the man in the four-piece suit.”

The young T.S. Eliot was also a careerist, fully aware what would bring him the prominence and ultimately the fame he craved. Eliot wrote to J.H. Woods, one of his teachers at Harvard, that there were two ways to succeed in the literary life in England: one being to appear in print everywhere, the other to appear less frequently but always to dazzle. Eliot arranged to do both, publishing his dazzling poems at lengthy intervals, propelling himself to prominence with the prolificacy of his brilliant criticism and commentary.

. . . .

How prolific, and to what impressive effect, is now revealed in “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot,” a handsome trans-Atlantic co-publication of Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, London. An eight-volume hardcover collection, “The Complete Prose”—edited by many hands under the guidance of Ronald Schuchard, a professor of English emeritus at Emory University—is elaborately but relevantly footnoted, a work of learning and scholarship. The separate introductions to its eight volumes, running to roughly 250 pages, constitute a splendid biography in themselves. This edition of the prose makes plain, as nothing before it quite has, that T.S. Eliot, as the introduction to the seventh volume has it, “lived life large—larger than we have known.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Iconic downtown Ann Arbor bookstore will close early next year

From Michigan Live:

Crazy Wisdom Bookstore is closing permanently early next year due to the “relentlessness” of running a retail business, its owners said.

“Our own family has grown up, and we’re in our 60s, and we’re ready to look out upon a new and different horizon,” Bill Zirinsky and Ruth Schekter, bookstore owners, wrote on Facebook. “The bookstore had a very profitable year (due to having closed the tea room at the onset of the pandemic), and that’s not a bad way to go out.”

. . . .

“We know that Crazy Wisdom has been a unique destination and special bookstore in our region, and treasured by its friends and customers,” the owners wrote. “We and our longtime managers and staff, past and present, have so much gratitude for having had the privilege over these decades to serve people in our region who are searching in their lives – spiritually, psychologically, holistically, and in terms of sustainable and conscious living.”

The building itself, which Zirinsky and Schekter own, is not for sale, they said, adding that they are, however, open to selling the bookstore or renting the space.

Although they have no “preconceived ideas” about who a potential buyer might be, they do want someone with “financial werewithal,” Zirinksy said.

“That allowed us to sustain the store for over three decades, and to create a physically appealing environment in a historic building downtown, and to expand into having live music, poetry readings, fairy teas, storytelling nights, and so on,” Zirinsky wrote in an email to MLive. “But one would also want that buyer to be a reader, a lover of the written word, a wordsmith. And to appreciate the fine aesthetics of the store’s jewelry and craft items, and its non-linear loveliness.”

Link to the rest at Michigan Live

For visitors from outside the United States, Ann Arbor is the home of the 200+ year-old University of Michigan, a selective public university with over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a faculty and staff of about the same size, including 20,000 employees at the University’s hospital.

Per the 2020 US Census, Ann Arbor had a population of about 124,000 people. (PG has no idea how many students were or were not included in this count.)

Suffice to say, the University and those associated with it are most of what’s going on in Ann Arbor on a daily basis.

PG includes this information because college and university towns are generally known as places where people purchase a lot of books. Traditionally, these have been wonderful places to operate a bookstore.

Amazon’s $4 Billion Holiday Fix: Half-Empty Trucks, $3,000 Bonuses

From Bloomberg:

Most cargo ships putting into the port of Everett, Washington, brim with cement and lumber. So when the Olive Bay docked in early November, it was clear this was no ordinary shipment. Below decks was rolled steel bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, and piled on top were 181 containers emblazoned with the Amazon logo. Some were empty and immediately used to shuffle inventory between the company’s warehouses. The rest, according to customs data, were stuffed with laptop sleeves, fire pits, Radio Flyer wagons, Peppa Pig puppets, artificial Christmas trees and dozens of other items shipped in directly from China—products Amazon.com Inc. needs to keep shoppers happy during a holiday season when many retailers are scrambling to keep their shelves full.

By chartering the Olive Bay and dispatching it to a relatively sleepy port a few miles north of hometown Seattle, Amazon did an end-run around the shipping snarls that have stranded holiday inventory in Los Angeles and other ports. Besides Everett, the company has also docked at the Port of Houston. Such extreme measures have given Amazon executives confidence they’ll have adequate inventory to meet yet another record-breaking holiday shopping season, when Adobe projects U.S. consumers will spend $207 billion online, up 10% from last year. Many retailers have exhorted consumers to shop early to avoid disappointment. Amazon’s unflinching message: Bring it on!

In addition to chartering ships like the Olive Bay, Amazon hired 150,000 U.S. seasonal workers to help pick, pack and ship items, boosting pay and offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000. It’s dispatching half-full trucks to get packages to customers on time. The logistical effort’s projected $4 billion cost threatens to wipe out the company’s profit during its most important three months of the year. But for Amazon, which burnished its reputation serving as a lifeline during the Covid-19 outbreak, the holiday season is an opportunity to extend its advantage over rivals.

If the company succeeds in meeting its promises to customers this year, that will be thanks to Amazon-chartered ships taking products from factories in Asia, Amazon Air cargo jets crisscrossing the U.S., Amazon-branded vans departing from hundreds of local delivery depots and the hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors at each step along the way.

“There are structural advantages you have in redundancy if you’re Amazon,” says Jason Murray, a former Amazonian who led teams working on logistics software. “Amazon has its own transportation network, it has access to all the carriers. Multiple ships, multiple factories.”

This logistical prowess hasn’t been lost on the merchants who sell products on Amazon’s sprawling marketplace. For years, they resisted using the company’s global shipping service because doing so means sharing information about pricing and suppliers, data they fear the company could use to compete with them. But container shortages in the leadup to the holiday season persuaded many of them to overcome their qualms and entrust their cargos to the world’s largest online retailer. “Amazon had space on ships and I couldn’t say no to anyone,” says David Knopfler, whose Brooklyn-based Lights.com sells home décor and lighting fixtures. “If Kim Jong Un had a container, I might take it, too. I can’t be idealistic.”

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

E-Commerce Needs Real Store Locations Now More Than Ever

From The Wall Street Journal:

After losing ground to e-commerce, bricks-and-mortar stores are back in style.

Retailers this year are expected to open more stores than they close for the first time since 2017, according to an analysis of more than 900 chains by IHL Group, a research and advisory company. Most of the growth is coming from mass merchants, food, drugs and convenience chains.

Department stores and specialty retailers, which experienced the biggest shakeout over the past five years, are still closing more stores than they are opening. But the pace of closures has slowed from record levels.

Behind the shift are changing views about the value of physical stores, industry executives and analysts said.

Stores have become integral in fulfilling e-commerce orders. They serve as distribution hubs and convenient places for shoppers to pick up and return online purchases—services that will be key this holiday season as orders once again threaten to overwhelm shipping carriers.

As the cost of acquiring customers online has skyrocketed, stores also are a less expensive way to attract new shoppers. And as landlords have become more willing to accept shorter and more flexible lease terms, retailers are less likely to wind up locked into unproductive locations, the executives and analysts said.

“Five or six years ago, there was lots of discussion about whether e-commerce would gobble up bricks-and-mortar retail,” said Toni Roeller, senior vice president of in-store environment and visual merchandising at Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. Instead, she said, the online and store experience became more closely linked, which translated into a need for more stores.

The stores that retailers are opening today are different. Some are smaller, and more of them offer experiences beyond browsing.

Dick’s is adding to its fleet of more than 800 stores by opening newer concepts that include House of Sport, Public Lands and Golf Galaxy stores that have interactive features such as batting cages, rock-climbing walls and putting greens. It also has added some of those features to its namesake Dick’s stores.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Will Publishing Sales Grow Again?

From Publishers Weekly:

When the Association of American Publishers released its final industrywide sales report for 2020 last month, it showed another basically flat year, with sales of $25.71 billion, down 0.2% compared to 2019. The small decline was in keeping with the overall pattern over the past five years. Between 2016 and 2020, overall publishing sales rose only in 2019, up 1.7% over 2018, and 2020 sales were down 3.9% compared to 2016.

The trade segment, the industry’s largest, has been the steadiest performer over the past five years, with sales up 3.1% in 2020 compared to 2016. The adult category was the main driver, with sales rising 4.9%, while sales in the children’s/YA category fell 0.8%. The decline in children’s/YA is slightly deceiving, since 2016 was an exceptionally strong year for children’s/YA fiction, where sales were $3.96 billion—a total that has not been reached since. The religious presses category had the largest increase over the period, overcoming an 8.4% decline in 2020 that was largely due to the lockdown of bookstores and religious institutions.

The higher education and professional books categories had the biggest sales declines between 2016 and 2020; the professional category had a particularly difficult 2020, with sales falling 14.5% compared to 2019. Sales in the higher ed category have declined steadily since 2016, and publishers have been trying to adjust to increased student purchases of digital materials, which tend to be less expensive than print. Pre-K–12 instructional sales had hit $4.38 billion in 2019 before falling 12.3% in 2020 due to the pandemic, which shrank textbook purchases and accelerated the shift to digital materials. The growing importance of digital content has led a number of former textbook publishers to refashion themselves as learning technology companies.

In addition to greater sales of digital materials, the pandemic led to a 19.2% increase in online sales in 2020 over 2019, to $9.5 billion overall. The AAP also noted that 2020 was the first time that the online channel, dominated by Amazon, accounted for more than 50% of trade sales.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

2030 audio market projection hits $50 billion

From The New Publishing Standard:

In a presentation for the US Audio Publishers Association in September 2021 TNPS suggested a more likely valuation of $37 billion, while acknowledging that could be conservative.

Then came the Spotify and Storytel US acquisition news and TNPS made clear our $37 billion forecast for 2030 was looking “tame”.

The latest forecast, from Denmark-based podcasting platform Podimo, projects a 2030 audio market valuation of $50 billion, and here at TNPS we’re not seeing that is unrealistic in the light of recent developments.

It was back in July 2019 that TNPS reported, to the amusement of many in publishing, that Mofibo founder Morten Strunge had raised $6.7 million in seed funding for a beyond-crazy idea that money could be made out of podcasts, which everyone back then regarded as the poor man’s audiobook, only good for giving away free to try upsell the real thing.

. . . .

The genius of Podimo lies not just in giving consumers quality content, but in rewarding creators through its “user-centric” revenue-sharing model.

In a press release Strunge explains:

Our model provides premium content and a seamless user experience through AI-driven personalized recommendations and video trailers. As a full-service content production house, we can enrich existing IP in new and exciting ways, as well as produce our own IP, challenging what listeners can expect from short and long-form audio now, and in the future.

While Strunge doesn’t offer any detail on his projection, he asserts the podcast and audio market will,

grow beyond 50 billion USD over the next 5-6 years.

Strunge went on:

…With more and more audiences discovering compelling, short-form, spoken word audio every day. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and with our strategic focus on content in local markets’ native languages, we feel well-positioned to grab a substantial part of this market.

With a solid foundation, we can accelerate our investments into premium original and exclusive content from today’s most exciting and important voices, bringing in more users and bigger payouts to creators, while applying our learnings to new market expansion.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard