Ken Follett Says Readers Still Like Epic Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ken Follett’s latest novel, “The Armor of Light,” concludes a wildly successful eight-volume series spanning 1,000 years of human civilization. Yet when he first switched to historical fiction decades ago, after years of writing bestselling thrillers, it was against the advice of his publisher.

Few would have predicted that the first book in the series, “Pillars of the Earth,” about building a medieval cathedral, would have wide appeal. But Follett, 74, got the last laugh. Published in 1989, it remains his most popular book. Despite its epic length—a trait of most of his novels—it still sells 100,000 copies a year in the U.S. “When a book is good, readers don’t want it to stop,” he insists. “The evidence is in my bank account.”

With his new book, out next week, Follett returns once again to the site of his cathedral, the fictional English town of Kingsbridge. “Readers like the familiarity and so do I,” he says. Set hundreds of years later, “The Armor of Light” traces the dawn of the industrial revolution in Great Britain in the 18th century, when machines began to enhance the work done by people in manufacturing and then to displace them. “The new machines created social conflict, and social conflict is dramatic,” he says over video from his country house in Hertfordshire, north of London, where he lives with his wife, Barbara. “I like dramas in my stories to arise not merely from my imagination but from historical change.”

Most of his books brim with war, sex, intrigue and battles of will. Yet Follett, who has sold around 190 million copies of his 36 novels in over 80 countries, says the trick for riveting readers is ensuring they care about his characters. “A book may be beautifully written, it may be clever, but if it doesn’t grab the reader emotionally it won’t sell,” he says.

“The Armor of Light” has clear resonances with the current moment. Its characters struggle with rising food prices, disruptive industries, variable weather, exploitative monopolies and an intractable war—in this case with France, to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas to othermonarchies. Follett says it’s “inevitable” that contemporary concerns drive his stories, but he strives to keep his books apolitical: “Look, readers would know if I was skewing the facts to suit a particular point of view.”

Despite his own lavish good fortune—“I do know that money and success sometimes makes people unhappy, but not me, I really like it,” he says—Follett still plainly sympathizes with economic underdogs. “Perhaps it’s because my roots are in a coal-mining community in South Wales,” he explains. His own grandfather was an apprentice coal miner at 13—an experience Follett imagines at the start of “Fall of Giants” (2010), the first volume of his Century trilogy, which chronicled major conflicts of the 20th century through the interrelated lives of five families.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Ariana Grande, Guillermo del Toro, Padma Lakshmi and More Sign Open Letter Denouncing Book Bans and Their “Chilling Effect” 

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Ariana Grande, Guillermo del Toro, Padma Lakshmi, Roxane Gay, Gabrielle Union, Sandra Cisneros, Amanda Gorman, Margaret Cho and Ron Perlman are among the signatories of an open letter calling on creative communities in Hollywood and beyond to leverage their voices to stop book bans.

Upwards of 175 actors, musicians, authors, comedians, reality stars, models, media personalities, academics, activists and more have signed the open letter spearheaded by Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton and published Tuesday via public advocacy organization and political action committee MoveOn Political Action.

The letter encourages signatories and readers to address challenges at the local level across U.S. school districts, while calling out book bans as “restrictive behavior” that is “antithetical to free speech and expression.” It also underscores the “chilling effect” these bans can have “on the broader creative field.”

“We cannot stress enough how these censorious efforts will not end with book bans,” the letter continues. “It’s only a matter of time before regressive, suppressive ideologues will shift their focus toward other forms of art and entertainment, to further their attacks and efforts to scapegoat marginalized communities, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks.”

The letter concludes that signatories will “refuse to remain silent as one creative field is subjected to oppressive bans” and urges artists to “band together, because a threat to one form of art is a threat to us all.”

“It’s embarrassing that we are banning books in this country, in this culture, in this day and age. And it’s dangerous that a handful of individuals are deciding that any book with Black and queer people is divisive,” said Burton, executive producer of the 2023 documentary The Right to Read. “We are calling on everyone to join us in raising their voices to uphold artistic freedom, embrace multicultural history and put a stop once and for all to book bans.”

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter

PG won’t opine at length as he has done before on this topic, but he does think that public schools have a right to select or not select books for students as the teachers and school administrators deem best for their students.

In making such selections, it is reasonable for teachers and administrators to consider the opinions of the parents of those students. After all, these are publicly funded schools, and those parents, as well as the rest of the community, pay school taxes to support them.

It’s a long distance between places like Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Santa Monica and states like Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Having known people living in both of those geographic areas, PG can assure one and all that majority opinions about what sort of books children should and should not read diverge quite substantially from opinions in the other area.

PG ended up opining at length and apologizes for misleading any who relied on the truth of his earliest paragraph.

J. G. Ballard’s Brilliant, Not “Good” Writing

From The Paris Review:

Putting Ballard on a master’s course list, as I’ve done a couple of times, provokes a reaction that’s both funny and illuminating. Asked to read Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition, the more vociferous students invariably express their revulsion, while the more reflective ones voice their frustration that, although the ideas might be compelling, the prose “isn’t good.” This is especially the case with students who’ve been exposed to creative writing classes: they complain that the books are so full of repetition they become machinic or monotonous; also that they lack solid, integrated characters with whom they can identify, instead endlessly breaking open any given plot or mise-en-scène to other external or even unconnected scenes, contexts, and histories, resulting in a kind of schizoid narrative space that’s full of everyone and no one.

This second group, of course, is absolutely right in its analysis; what’s funny (and, if I can teach them anything, reversible) about their judgment is that it is these very elements (repetition, machinism, schizoid hypermnesia) that make Ballard’s work so brilliant. Not only are his rhythmic cycles, in which phrases and images return in orders and arrangements that mutate and reconfigure themselves as though following some algorithm that remains beyond our grasp, at once incantatory, hallucinatory, and the very model and essence of poetry; but, mirroring the way that information, advertising, propaganda, public (and private) dialogue, and even consciousness itself run in reiterative loops and circuits, constitute a realism far exceeding that of the misnamed literary genre. If his personae are split, multiplied, dispersed, this is because they are true subjects of a networked and fragmented hypermodernity—ones for whom identification, if it is to amount to anything more than a consoling fiction, must come through man’s recognition of himself (as Georges Bataille put it) not in the degrading chains of logic but instead, with rage and ecstatic torment, in the virulence of his own phantasms.

While Ballard’s more outwardly conventional books may give us solider, more stable realities, what these realities often present—in, for example, Empire of the Sun, which is digestible enough for a blockbuster Spielberg adaptation—is a child (or childlike figure) frolicking against a backdrop provided by the destruction of an older order of reality that the world previously took for granted. It’s a cipher for his oeuvre as a whole: endlessly playing among the ruins, reassembling the broken or “found” pieces (styles, genres, codes, histories) with a passion rendered all the more intense and focused by the knowledge that it’s all—culture, the social order, the beliefs that underpin civilization—constructed, and can just as easily be unconstructed, reverse engineered back down to the barbaric shards from which it was cobbled together in the first place. To put it in Dorothean: In every context and at every level, Ballard’s gaze is fixed, fixated, on the man behind the curtain, not the wizard.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

TikTok is changing the way books are recommended and sold

From The Economist:

First the camera pans across eight books arrayed with hundreds of sticky tabs, flaunting that they have been closely read and meticulously annotated. Next a description runs across the screen: “Books I would sell my soul to read again for the first time”. The music crescendoes, and a manicured hand reveals the books’ covers in time with the beat, featuring authors including Simone de Beauvoir, Elena Ferrante and Sally Rooney.

The user, who is called “buryme.withmybooks”, does not say why she likes them, but that does not matter. On TikTok hyperbole is the name of the social-media game. Around 9.3m people have watched the video and almost 400,000 people have saved it for future reference.

TikTok, which has more than 1bn regular users, is making a mark on the world of publishing. Much of this is done through BookTok, the app’s community of users who comment on books. It is among the largest communities on the app; videos with this tag have been viewed 179bn times, more than twice as many as BeautyTok (beauty enthusiasts splinter into various groups). Adding #reading, #books and #literature pushes views to more than 240bn. Whoever said books are dead has not spent much time on TikTok, nor in bookstores, which now have whole displays touting titles “as seen on TikTok”.

Last year in Britain one in four book buyers used TikTok. The slice of sales directly attributable to the app is still small. Video platforms like TikTok and YouTube drove only around 3% of sales in 2022 in Britain, according to Nielsen, a research firm. But TikTok’s influence is significant and growing. The largest group of book buyers—women aged 54 and younger—are more likely to use the app than their male peers. TikTok recommendations influence their purchases, creating new literary stars and unearthing unlikely past ones, too.

TikTok is not the first online platform to alter the publishing landscape. Wattpad, a self-publishing firm founded in 2006, helped writers publish stories and reach readers online. For years Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (now X) have allowed authors to connect with readers—and sometimes score a book deal in the first place.

However, TikTok functions slightly differently. One way to think about BookTok is as a book club for the internet age. Just as stars like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama can cause copies to fly off bookstore shelves by updating their lists of recommended reads, BookTok does something similar. However, the tastemakers are not usually celebrities but attractive #bookgirlies doing #readingchallenges, often in artfully lit bedrooms. (Although Ms Winfrey’s book club is now on TikTok, too.)

In many ways BookTok has become a new artistic genre, where emoting about characters and plots is glorified, even required. (Unlike those buttoned-up professional literary critics, who do not tend to write about how books make them cry.)

Some old-fashioned bibliophiles may suspect that BookTok is less about books than about people seeking attention by promoting them. But BookTokers are already swaying bestseller lists. Novels categorised as “romance” have enjoyed the biggest boost, as happened with previous technological shifts, including the rise of e-books. Colleen Hoover’s “It Ends With Us” went viral on TikTok in early 2022 and has sold over 1m paperback copies in Britain. Six of the ten bestselling titles in America last year were written by her, too. They pick up similar themes, such as women lusting after hard-to-get men and “trauma bonding”, subjects that fare well on the video-sharing app.

But BookTok favourites are often older releases, with some, including Ms Hoover’s most popular, written before the app was invented. For example, an aesthetic known as “dark academia”, which glamorises gothic-style universities, tweed and classic literature, has brought attention to a 544-page novel published in 1992 called “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt.

The popular Netflix show “Bridgerton”—big on colourful costumes, light on substance—created new fans of period romance and, in turn, inspired young readers to rediscover classic books such as “Pride and Prejudice”. In August Jane Austen’s novel won “Best BookTok Revival” at TikTok’s inaugural book awards. (How Austen would have felt about this honour is another question.)

Because TikTok is so visual, the app has an outsize impact on sales of physical books in particular. E-books do not make such attractive visual props. According to a survey by Nielsen, 80% of Brits aged 14-25 prefer print. BookTokers show off annotations and flick through pages. Filming themselves finishing a book in a single day against a backdrop of hundreds of them on shelves is all part of the performance, and viewers will be extra impressed if the book looks thick.

Many authors remain puzzled by the app. Ms Hoover does not have a TikTok account, and neither do many of her other bestselling peers. Publishers, happy for new sales, are also a bit perplexed;their official TikTok accounts are unpopular by comparison. The challenge is how to keep up. It is not as simple as commissioning more books that make people cry, squirm or shudder and then hoping that people film themselves doing so. Although some editors are doing that anyway.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Admission: PG’s first response to the OP was to dismiss it.

However, he quickly decided he was having a bout of oldcrockitis and needed to open his mind to new possibilities.

While PG is close to 100% ebooks for his personal and business reading, he thinks it’s interesting that BookTokers are drawn to physical books.

He admits that ebooks may get misplaced for a long time on his various overloaded electronic reading devices, but the physicality of a hardcopy book certainly makes it more noticeable around the house/teenage bedroom and somewhat less likely to be forgotten or ignored.

And for a video, a physical book works as a more interesting prop than a Kindle.


What did Colleen Hoover put in this book? #booktok #fyp

♬ Jaws Theme – Jaws

The Blog Today

PG was heavily occupied by a variety of different technical issues that were more difficult for PG to solve than they should have been.

Then, he was reminded of Gay Talese, a favorite author of a much younger PG. So, he downloaded one of Talese’s best from Zon and will do some reading.

PG hopes you enjoy the quotes. El Blogo will look more familiar tomorrow.

Bartleby and Me

From The Wall Street Journal:

Gay Talese and Frank Sinatra have enjoyed a rich, symbiotic relationship, one that has long outlasted the singer, who died at 82 a quarter-century ago. Back in 1965, Mr. Talese trailed Sinatra around Las Vegas and Hollywood for a profile for Esquire magazine. At his peak after a triumphant comeback, Sinatra brushed off the writer’s pleas for an interview, but Mr. Talese produced a piece anyway. The result, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” became one of the most celebrated magazine articles from the golden age of the slicks—and an enduring testament to Sinatra’s talent and fame.

Along with Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and others, Mr. Talese has been acclaimed as a virtuoso of the novelistic New Journalism. Now 91, he has published a short and charming second memoir, “Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener.” Once again, Sinatra takes center stage. But there’s more, especially the author’s take on the kind of journalism he’s practiced for seven decades, starting as a copy boy at the New York Times in 1953.

Mr. Talese takes his inspiration—and his title—from “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about an inconsequential law clerk. “Growing up in a small town on the Jersey Shore in the late 1940s, I dreamed of someday working for a great newspaper,” Mr. Talese writes. “But I did not necessarily want to write news. . . . I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies.”

His first published piece, carried without a byline on the Times’s editorial page, was about a “nobody” who operated the illuminated ribbon sign that announced the latest news around a lower floor of the old Times Tower in Times Square—a Bartleby for the age of Ike.

Thankfully for magazine journalism, Mr. Talese eventually overcame his original preoccupation, but before he did so he chronicled alley cats, bus drivers, ferry-boat captains, dress-mannequin designers, even those who pushed the three-wheeled rolling chairs along Atlantic City’s boardwalk. After two years of military service at Fort Knox—during which he contributed pieces to the Louisville Courier-Journal—he returned to the Times as a sports writer. (As a college correspondent for the Times in the late ’50s, I sometimes squatted at an empty desk near his in the uncrowded sports department.)

In 1965 Mr. Talese left the paper to join Esquire, then in its glory days under the brilliant editor Harold Hayes. The young writer promptly sold Hayes on a profile of figures at the Times, both obscure and heralded, starting with Alden Whitman. Whitman had revolutionized obituaries at the paper by conducting long premortem interviews with Harry Truman, Pablo Picasso and other luminaries. The lauded “Mr. Bad News” piece helped lay the groundwork for “The Kingdom and the Power,” Mr. Talese’s 1969 book about the Times—his first bestseller.

Bartleby’s murmurous response to the world was “I prefer not to,” while Sinatra famously belted out “I did it my way.” Still, the young Talese was drawn to him.

Fully a third of “Bartleby and Me” is a reconstruction of Mr. Talese’s frustrated pursuit of Sinatra—from his first glimpse of his lonely subject nursing a Jack Daniel’s at the bar of the Hollywood hangout The Daisy, to watching him pick a fight with a young writer because Sinatra didn’t like his boots, and at a recording session after an earlier one was aborted because the crooner had the sniffles. Sinatra genially blows off Mr. Talese’s requests to talk, so the writer interviews Sinatra’s entourage, including his sort-of-look-alike stand-in, as well as the little old lady who totes around his hairpieces, and his daughter Nancy. Mr. Talese even describes how he took his Sinatra notes on cut-down laundered-shirt cardboards.

The 14,000-word cover story ran in the April 1966 issue, was later published as a short book and, on the 70th anniversary of Esquire, was voted by its editors and staff the best piece ever to run in the magazine.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Business Musings: Platforms

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

At the beginning of August, Patreon had what some termed a payment meltdown. Some creators couldn’t access their payments. Banks notified some Patreon backers that their payments were being flagged as fraudulent.

Patreon claimed that the problems weren’t one problem; they were two problems. For the creators, the problem was a payment partner of Patreon that wouldn’t let them cash out. For subscribers, the problem was a lot more arcane than I want to go into here.

The secondary problem for creators, though, was that the subscriber issue brought the subscription to the attention of the subscriber. The great thing about subscriptions is that once people subscribe, they tend to forget how much they paid for the subscription.

If that subscription in any way loses value in the mind of the subscriber, or if their financial situation has changed, or if they had completely forgotten the subscription existed, having that subscription brought to their attention makes them reevaluate it. When they do that, many cancel. In this latest kerfuffle, one creator claimed they lost 300 subscribers.

A friend on Facebook gleefully reported all of this, and mentioned this was why they avoided all outside platforms, choosing to go through their website and with the systems they had built. (And yes, I see the irony of a friend using a platform to claim that they never use platforms. Don’t go there.)

They did have a point about platforms, though. We’re moving to our own online store for a variety of reasons, but one is that it gives us a cushion should one of the bigger online retail platforms change its way of doing things.

Another friend complained about online store platforms like Shopify, and said that they preferred to design their own. Turns out when I looked at their site, they had defaulted to WooCommerce, which we had tried and didn’t like.

The first friend’s point about outside platforms caught me, though, and got me thinking. My initial gut reaction to both of these folks was that my website has had a lot more problems over the past 25 years than I’ve ever had with the platforms. The idea of depending solely on my website scares the bejeezus out of me.

Having only one point of contact for all of my work is too risky for me, even if I supposedly control that one point. I don’t control the platform on which my website rests. It’s also taken forever to get someone to help me rebuild the website here. Some of that is me stalling, but some of it is finding the right fit.

Still, outside platforms have their own issues. At Christmastime last year, Amazon caused a lot of turmoil by dropping its newspaper and magazine subscription service. Some magazines were invited into the Kindle magazine program, but others were not. As Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld wrote at the time:

Earnings from Amazon subscriptions provide a varying and sometimes significant portion of the revenue that these publications require to stay in business. If you don’t already know, genre magazines are subscription-driven, meaning that subscriptions make up the bulk of their income. Some people think advertising is a major source, but it actually represents a tiny fraction for us….

None of these magazines are entirely reliant on Amazon, but as the largest ebook retailer in the field, the cancelation of this program will hurt and in some cases, hurt badly. Badly enough to shutter a magazine? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell …

Platforms change all the time. They make decisions that have a huge impact on the people they partner with. Amazon’s change was a cost-cutting measure driven by severe layoffs in the fourth quarter of 2022 and into 2023. The Patreon problem had a lot to do with a platform they had hired to help them process payments.

PayPal also changed its fee structure in late 2022, closing a loophole that a lot of businesses used as well as upping some fees. I’m sure online store platforms like Shopify will change how they do things as well over time, and many of those changes will harm some group of their partners.

Sometimes these companies do things seemingly en masse. They’re not. (Well, some of them might, but mostly, no.) Generally, they’re responding to market conditions which were not favorable in the last half of 2022 to anything online.

. . . .

The online boom started roughly fifteen years ago, when I already had an established career. Frankly, it saved my novel career. I couldn’t sign the contracts from the major publishers any longer. I couldn’t take the rights grabs.

I was looking at a short-story-only career. At that point, I thought I could still bring in some money from royalties. That changed as well.

I had assiduously gotten my rights back for almost every book that was an original. I owned the books and could relicense them; I just wasn’t sure how to proceed.

Then the online revolution, from viable ebooks to print on demand to easy-to-produce audio to podcasting to video podcasting to video production—well, you were there. You know.

All of these things go on various platforms. I have too much product to put it all on my website or on websites controlled by me. I would never get to all of it.

Dean and I had to hire people to help us put our books and short stories up on the various platforms, otherwise we would have had to give up writing. That’s why we started WMG Publishing, so that we had people to handle the various platforms.

We have a good staff, but they’re horribly overworked. They can’t control everything, just like Dean and I couldn’t. We’re constantly researching and finding the best way to put our product out into the world. We do a lot of experimenting. That’s why we were on Kickstarter in 2012. It was an experiment—one that worked. We did a variety of experiments that did not work.

. . . .

I decided long ago to use other people’s platforms for a lot of the work that we do. We use Amazon and Barnes & Noble and D2D and Bookfunnel. We use Mailchimp and Kickstarter and Teachable and YouTube. I use Patreon. We now use Shopify. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of platforms that we use. I do know that there are many that we are investigating and some we used to use. There’s a lot we’ve tried and a lot we abandoned and a lot that we have learned to love.

But that doesn’t mean we’re going to use them forever.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

European Publishers Hail Parliament’s Book Sector Report

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its statement today from Brussels (September 14), the Federation of European Publishers notes that today’s adoption by the European Parliament of what’s called the Future of the European Book Sector report is “the first time in 10 years that the parliament has made dedicated recommendations for the [book] sector, in which Europe is a world leader.

As is clear in this briefing from the parliament’s offices, the report is a “bibliographical review” ordered up by the rather direly termed “Cult Committee,” which is the legislative body’s committee responsible for cultural and educational elements of the European Union.

In this briefing’s introduction, we read, “Besides its important cultural value and role, the book sector is an essential economic activity in the EU.

“In 2021, it was assessed as the second cultural activity, right after watching or listening [to] a program, and represented 12 percent of the EU average cultural expense. Still in 2021, it had a turnover of more than €23 billion (US$24.5 billion), 18 percent of it being generated by export (a rate relatively stable over the years).”

This compendium of papers, however, contains nuanced points that get at the caution required in an age of unprecedented dynamics that include—by organizational headers—digital and digitization; ecological considerations; market evolution; diversity and accessibility; COVID-19; and “stakeholders’ points of view.” At various points in this material, you can catch glimpses of the fact that books and publishing exist today in an historically unprecedented competitive environment of electronically produced and distributed entertainment media.

The federation in its statement reflects this, writing that the report, “recognizes the fundamental contribution of the book sector, providing citizens with millions of books to educate and entertain themselves.

“But this contribution relies on key elements which must be defended, even in the EU: including a balanced value chain, freedom of expression, editorial diversity, and independence from state censorship.”

The book sector also has a societal responsibility to fulfill, according to the federation, such as to become greener; provide more accessible books to people with a handicap; or support Ukraine. The report underlines the initiatives already taken by the sector but also highlights the need for further technical and financial support to help publishers in their efforts.”

. . . .

Federation president Ricardo Franco Levi is quoted, saying, “The European Parliament made very important proposals to ensure that Europe remains the world leader of publishing, while facing the many challenges of the 21st Century.”

. . . .

Members of the European Parliament, the publishers write, “call for a stronger place for the book sector in existing EU programs, such as Creative Europe and Horizon—the latter of which having made news last week when the United Kingdom rejoined—to support translation, the circulation of books, innovation, and research.

“The Parliament also calls for national and European initiatives to support reading promotion, such as book vouchers or ‘reading ambassadors.’”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Books and politicians are not PG’s favorite combination.

Are A.P. Classes a Waste of Time?

From The New Republic:

In 2019, an anonymous high school student posted on Reddit that they had worked out a “nice formula” to game the Advanced Placement English language test, one of the 38 subject areas in which the College Board, a private company, sells high school students a chance to take exams for college credit. By “very deeply analyzing the organizational patterns of high scoring previously released essays,” the student found, one could avoid the kind of independent analysis the A.P. language test is meant to measure. “Even though it’s kinda weird imitating other people’s styles of expression,” the Reddit poster writes, “it definitely may improve your score nonetheless because you’d be writing exactly as they want you to.”

At Colby College, where I teach, we don’t accept A.P. English Literature for credit or for placement, nor does Colby’s Writing Program accept A.P. English Language in lieu of the college’s first-year writing course (W1), which all matriculating students are required to take. But many students arrive here and elsewhere having taken A.P. classes; in 2022, the College Board boasts, roughly 1.2 million students took more than four million A.P. exams in public high schools throughout the country. And when I teach a first-year writing course, or an introductory course in the English major, I inevitably spend the first few weeks undoing the damage the A.P. system does to how students understand both writing and the study of literature.

The damage is familiar to college faculty across disciplines: writing as a form of Frankfurtian bullshit for which it’s more important to be superficially convincing than rigorous or factually correct; the study of literature as exercise in literary device-hunting, a trick-mirror image of literary formalism from 75 years ago. If you want to ruin an English professor’s mood, just say “logos, pathos, and ethos,” which show up every year in a preponderance of first-year student essays, regardless of subject matter. In more concrete terms, the A.P. English exams make it harder for college faculty to teach students how to write for the rhetorical situations they’ll actually face—such as writing the City Council to get a dangerous intersection fixed or explaining to a co-worker what’s misleading about a client’s data visualization—and how to engage with literature for a lifetime rather than for a mark meant to exempt them from college-level work.

As Annie Abrams documents in Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, the choice not to accept A.P. English and other A.P. exams for credit or placement is the norm at highly selective colleges and universities, like Colby, in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, the Ivy League, and at other perennial targets of the nation’s most privileged high school students. Private academies that aim to place their students in highly selective colleges and universities also eschew A.P. in favor of a more substantive and autonomous curriculum.

The result is that, although the A.P. program is meant to create egalitarian pathways to a rigorous and rewarding education, it ends up encouraging still more rote learning—especially in less privileged high schools—replicating the system it was meant to replace. Today’s A.P. system may purport to scale advanced learning opportunities beyond the elite, to give as many students as possible a chance at college-level work in high school, but what it really teaches is which boxes to tick so you don’t have to do college-level work in a given subject. What’s supposed to be the beginning of inquiry too often becomes its ending.

A.P. emerged in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of World War II, when many of the nation’s leaders had an eye on how to reform education to promote democracy. Harvard president James Conant, among others, was an influential proponent of “general education,” which Abrams tells us was a synonym for a “liberal education” that was “soulful, democratic, and multidimensional.” Gordon Chalmers, then president of Kenyon College, wanted education reform as, in Abrams’ words, a “response to concerns about the Korean War, Communism, and increased demands for a well-educated polity.” Chalmers partnered with the Ford Foundation to promote “intellectualism and individualism” as twinned public goods, providing institutional and financial backing to committees to study education reform.

One such body, the Blackmer Committee, was initiated by Andover headmaster John Kemper after lunch with popular Andover English teacher Alan Blackmer. The goal was to figure out how best to coordinate between schools and colleges. One of Kemper’s suggestions was that “schools could take full responsibility for liberal arts, while colleges could focus on specialization.” Another was to “somehow shrink the last two years of high school and four years of college into four years total.” In 1951, Andover would join a group of prestigious schools and colleges—Exeter and Lawrenceville, along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—as part of a study of the relationship between school and college curricula.

From the beginning, Abrams shows, A.P. was explicitly designed to serve the most advanced and elite students. “The program was more concerned with reproducing habits of mind in the emerging ruling class,” Abrams writes, “than it was with understanding the American education system as a mechanism for rapid social restructuring.” Hence the schools and colleges in the inaugural study were a sampling of the most elite institutions. And the final report of the Blackmer Committee explains its intentions to improve education from the top down, starting with the most elite with the hope that the benefits would ultimately extend further through the system: “We believe in the ‘Jacksonian’ ideal of extending the benefits of education as far down the scale of ability as it is possible,” the authors declared. “But our task in the present study is to emphasize the ‘Jeffersonian’ concept of the right of every able student to the best education from which he is capable of profiting.… While we have tried to outline a program of study which would offer all students of college caliber a better education, we have been particularly concerned about the superior student.”   

. . . .

The first of Abrams’s two major theses, then, is that the reality of A.P. today—mechanistic, superficial, increasingly delivered through an artificially paced, software-forward program, and with too many constraints on those trying to teach it—neither democratizes elite education nor achieves any of the liberal humanist ideals of its founders. One of those founders, Henry Bragdon, wrote in 1968, “Tests too often encourage bad pedagogy,” therefore “teachers should emancipate themselves from the tyranny of testing-cum-grades and try to evolve a variety of intellectual exercises in which grading is subordinated to training in reading, writing, discourse, methods of inquiry, and critical thought.”

Today, however, the A.P. test score is the alpha and omega of students’ experience with A.P. coursework, with lesson plans and pacing shoehorned into test-preparation packages dictated by the College Board.

. . . .

From my experience as an English professor, I think Abrams is right to raise concerns about this system. Most of the damage control I have to do in my introductory college courses involves disabusing students of the truisms they learned from a test-driven A.P. curriculum. One is that writing is a “soft” exercise of rhetorical flourish in which factual accuracy, sound reasoning, research and data-gathering, and appropriate treatment of evidence don’t matter. Another is that literature is purely subjective, so literature’s facts—whether contextual or within the fictional world of a novel or a play—don’t matter; a text is just a prompt for expressing your opinions. 

One problem with such impressions is they reinforce for students the false notion that studying literature or history—or forming an argument in writing—is neither real nor applicable analytical work; that it doesn’t matter if you read carefully or develop a knowledge base that informs what you’re studying and what you get out of it. A more serious problem is that, emptied of the stakes of being right or wrong, accountable or not, there’s no joy in studying something that seems pointless. You write “exactly as they want you to,” you tick the box, you move on. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

. . . .

Broad-based access to quality higher education is both essential and extremely complicated to achieve. A.P. was not designed for such challenges—certainly not the ones we face today—and there’s no good reason to empower it with such influence over high school and college curricular decisions.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

New ALA Data Shows Book Challenges Still Surging

From Publishers Weekly:

With Banned Books Week approaching, the American Library Association has released new preliminary data showing a continuing surge in attempts to censor books and materials in public, school, and academic libraries during the first eight months of 2023.

In a release, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials between January 1 and August 31, 2023, up only slightly from the 681 documented attempts at this point last year, but still on a record-setting pace. Those 695 challenges involve a growing number of books, however, with the number of unique titles challenged jumping 20% over last year: 1,915 unique titles have been targeted so far in 2023 compared to 1,651 last year. And once again, ALA data shows that most of the challenges were to books “written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

The rise in unique titles challenged is indicative of the rise in organized political groups creating and sharing lists of objectionable books. In past years, most challenges came from individuals seeking to remove or restrict a single title.

“The largest contributor to the rise in both the number of censorship attempts and the increase in titles challenged continues to be a single challenge by a person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles,” ALA officials explain. “As in 2022, 9 in 10 of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.” And challenges that targeted “100 or more books” were reported in 11 states thus far in 2023, compared to six during the same reporting period in 2022—and zero in 2021.

The data also suggests that the surge in book bans is moving from school to public libraries. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for nearly half of the challenges documented (49%) thus far in 2023, ALA officials report, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022.

“Expanding beyond their well-organized attempts to sanitize school libraries, groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a statement. “These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights. To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”

ALA data on book challenges is compiled from reports filed with its Office for Intellectual Freedom by library professionals in the field, as well as from news stories published throughout the United States. The data presents a snapshot of the censorship climate, officials say, noting that man (likely most) book bans are never reported, and, on challenges may be resolved in favor of keeping challenged books.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How Did He Get Away With It?

From The City Journal:

Long before the rest of us were talking about blue and red America, Tom Wolfe not only recognized the cultural divide; he bridged it. When he began his career in the 1960s, the liberal establishment was more dominant and even smugger than it is today. There were no pesky voices on cable television or the web to challenge the Eastern elites’ hold on the national media. Then along came Wolfe, a lone voice celebrating the hinterland’s culture, mercilessly skewering the pretensions and dogmas of New York’s intelligentsia—and somehow triumphing.

How did he get away with it? The most entertaining analysis opens in theaters this weekend in New York and next weekend in Los Angeles and Toronto. The documentary, Radical Wolfe, is a superb chronicle of his life and career, told through footage of Wolfe (who died in 2018 at the age of 88) expounding in his famous white suits. It features the Jon Hamm reading from Wolfe’s work along with interviews with his friends and enemies, his daughter, Alexandra Wolfe, and his fans, including Christopher Buckley, Niall Ferguson, Gay Talese, and Peter Thiel. Director Richard Dewey draws on the insights and research of Michael Lewis, who pored through the archive of Wolfe’s letters and papers for a 2015 article in Vanity Fair, “How Tom Wolfe Became . . Tom Wolfe.”

Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and remained true to his roots when he went north. In private, he remained the quiet, courtly Southern gentleman, the perpetual outsider gently bemused by the Yankees’ tribal beliefs and customs. “He was a contradictory character,” Talese observes in the film. “Such a polite person, such a well-mannered person. With a pen in his hand, he could be a terrorist.”

After getting a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale, Wolfe worked as a fairly conventional reporter and feature writer at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, the Washington Post, and the New York Herald Tribune. His breakthrough came during the New York newspaper strike of 1962–63. Needing money to pay his bills, he took an assignment from Esquire to write about custom-car culture in southern California, which fascinated him but left him with a severe case of writer’s block, as related in the film by Wolfe and Byron Dobell, his editor at Esquire.

With the deadline looming and a color photo spread already printed for the upcoming issue, Wolfe told his editor that he just couldn’t write the piece. Dobell told him to type up his notes so another writer could put some words next to the photo spread. Wolfe began typing that evening, stayed up all night, and delivered a 49-page letter to Dobell the next morning. The editor’s reaction: “It’s a masterpiece. This is unbelievable. We’d never seen anything like this. I struck out the ‘Dear Byron’ and struck out the parting words, and we ran it.” The headline was appropriately Wolfean: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .”

 Wolfe went on writing in his inimitable voice for the Herald Tribune Sunday supplement, which would be reincarnated as the independent New York magazine. His prose style—exclamation points, ellipses, long sentences, and streams of consciousness—appalled the high priests of the literary world, particularly when he applied it against their temple, the New Yorker. Other writers in the 1960s dreamed of being published in the magazine, but Wolfe wrote a two-part series savaging it as a moribund institution. The first piece in the series was titled “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” The second article, “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” mocked its plodding articles, with their cluttered subordinate clauses and understated pseudo-British tone. He dismissed its fiction as a “laughingstock” that kept the magazine in business by serving as filler between pages of luxury ads aimed at suburban women:

Usually the stories are by women, and they recall their childhoods or domestic animals they have owned. Often they are by men, however, and they meditate over their wives and their little children with what used to be called “inchoate longings” for something else. The scene is some vague exurb or country place or summer place, something of the sort, cast in the mental atmosphere of tea cozies, fringe shawls, Morris chairs, glowing coals, wooden porches, frost on the pump handle, Papa out back in the wood bin, leaves falling, buds opening, bird-watcher types of birds, tufted grackles and things, singing, hearts rising and falling, but not far—in short, a great lily-of the-valley vat full of what Lenin called “bourgeois sentimentality.”

The empire struck back. The novelist J.D. Salinger emerged from seclusion to declare that the Herald Tribune would “likely never again stand for anything either respect-worthy or honorable” after Wolfe’s “inaccurate and sub-collegiate and gleeful and unrelievedly poisonous” attack on the New Yorker. There were more denunciations from the writers E.B. White, Ved Mehta, Muriel Spark, Murray Kempton, and from the syndicated columnists Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann.

. . . .

Literary critics sneered at his work, but his nonfiction books and novels were best-sellers that changed the national conversation. His coinages entered the common usage—the astronauts’ “Right Stuff,” Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe,” Park Avenue’s “Social X-Rays.” He identified lowbrow “statuspheres” across America and made heroes out of the stock-car racer Junior Johnson and the fighter ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager. While doomsaying journalists and intellectuals were decrying American culture and modern technology, he declared that we were experiencing a “happiness explosion” and explained, “It’s only really Eng. Lit. intellectuals and Krishna groovies who try to despise the machine in America. The idea that we’re trapped by machines is a 19th-century romanticism invented by marvelous old frauds like Thoreau and William Morris.”

Link to the rest at The City Journal

PG was a huge fan of Wolfe’s writing style a very long time ago. The OP made him realize he should reread some of Wolfe’s books.

The Back Cover of a Book: Just as Important as the Front Cover?

From The Book Designer:

Does the design of the back cover of a book really matter?

Since the front cover of a book is usually the first thing a reader sees, there’s often a heavy focus on making sure that the front cover stands out, “pops,” does cartwheels, and jumps through as many hoops as necessary to get noticed. 

Unfortunately, book back covers often get the short end of the stick with only a focus on the essentials:

  • the tagline
  • blurb
  • author bio
  • testimonials
  • publisher details
  • barcode information

This information is useful and essential, but there’s some flexibility in how and where these details are placed, and depending on how creative your back book cover design is.

. . . .

Why Does the Back Cover of a Book Matter?

The back cover of a book is the extension of the front cover and spine, but the three are sometimes disjointed as if the front cover is one book and the back cover is another. When a potential reader picks up your book and flips it over to read the summary, there’s only a single opportunity to pull them in: with words. But, when the book’s back cover design creates an atmosphere that pulls the reader in, the odds begin to stack in your favor that they’ll make it to page one. 

With over 4 million books published in 2022, authors are facing a new set of challenges in a flooded book market. 

Quality and creativity, not to mention a great story, are the most important differentiators from the sea of sameness that plagues virtual and brick-and-mortar bookshelves everywhere. 

What Are the Parts of a Book’s Back Cover?

The Tagline and Blurb

Similar to a company tagline, a book’s tagline is a sentence or two that piques your interest and gets you to continue reading. It’s the statement that tells you to prepare yourself for what is to come. It is designed to get you to keep reading. The tagline is usually in a larger, bold font above the blurb. 

The blurb, on the other hand, is the teaser that sets the stage for what’s on the inside of the book. It can be a plot summary, dialogue between characters, or a conversation with the reader.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

In fiction, taglines and blurbs are centered around the characters and the book’s plot. In nonfiction, the tagline and blurb focus on what problem the book provides a solution to or what new or interesting information will be gleaned from the content.

Author Bio

Author bios are third-person accounts of an author’s background. Bios are a great way to share pertinent information that will endear readers to the author by establishing trust. 

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Whether fiction or nonfiction, an author’s bio offers details about the author that the author wants to share. This can include biographical information, honors and awards, education, work history, the names of books written, or a combination of them all. Many bios will include website details and a photo. 


Testimonials are book reviews from first readers that are added to the cover for social proof. Only the best reviews or reviews from prominent sources are placed on the cover.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

In fiction, testimonials are usually about the story, the characters, and the feelings the book evoked. Nonfiction testimonials center around the quality of the information shared and in what ways it helped the reader.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

The British empire peaked 100 years ago this month

From The Economist:

The British empire was and is many things to many people: a civilising endeavour, a bringer of peace, an exploitative force or a project based on white supremacy. Arguments exist for each characterisation. But there is one thing that the British empire is not: completely over.

It lives on in court cases, including one brought in 2019 by indigenous people of the Chagos Islands, whom the British colonial government forcibly relocated between 1965 and 1973 (with American support). It exists in the loyalties of the 15 commonwealth “realms”, including Australia and Canada, for which King Charles III (pictured in 1984) is their monarch and head of state. And it lives on in the demographic make-up of Britain, where one in five people is Asian, black or mixed race. (A similar share of cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are children of immigrants from the former empire.) As the old saying goes, “We are here because you were there.”

Two new books consider the “here” and “there”. “One Fine Day” is a sprawling account of the British empire by Matthew Parker, a historian. It travels like the never-setting imperial sun across Asia, Africa and outposts of the “new world” in the Caribbean. The book’s organising principle is a day—September 29th 1923—when the British empire reached its maximum territorial extent. The portrait is achieved with a wide-angled lens, but the choice of a single day also brings focus.

Mr Parker’s approach is to find the most interesting currents in the empire’s various corners in September 1923 and to tell them through little-remembered colonial administrators and prominent locals. For example, in what was then Malaya (modern-day Malaysia and its surrounds) readers meet Hugh Clifford, who learnt Malay and fell in love with the country and its people. He was self-aware enough to wonder whether “the boot of the white man” had stamped out the best parts of local culture. Yet Clifford was also responsible, at the age of just 22, for adding 15,000 square miles of territory to the empire and described Malays as “the cattle of mankind”.

In colonies across continents, elites were disillusioned with the obvious hypocrisy of foreign rulers, while foot-soldiers such as George Orwell found themselves uneasy with the violence of colonial rule. What emerges is a picture of an empire straining under the weight of its own contradictions. The British thought of their role as an enlightened one: stopping tribal warfare and introducing modern health care and education. Yet they brought forced labour and colonial massacres, racist rules, and substandard health care and education. Rather than simply stating so baldly, Mr Parker points this out through copious examples and meticulous research. He appears to have read the front page of every newspaper published in the empire on that day.

. . . .

Imperial Island” by Charlotte Lydia Riley, a historian at the University of Southampton, is half the length and better organised. Starting with the contributions of the empire’s troops in the second world war and the meagre thanks (or even acknowledgment) given to them afterwards, she runs through headline events of post-war British history.

Yet to call this an imperial history is misleading. The book reads more like a history of race relations in modern Britain, and the links to empire often feel forced. Fundraising for a famine in Ethiopia reveals, in Ms Riley’s telling, a guilt-ridden imperial hangover, as do children’s books about India and cookbooks with dishes from around the world. A map of countries where an overseas volunteer organisation operates is—what else?—a throwback to the British empire’s pink map.

This is a shame, because a book that lived up to the promise made by Ms Riley’s would have been revealing and important. The legacy of colonialism, like the empire itself, is riddled with contradictions. It is impossible to attempt to understand Britain today without wrestling with ambiguities. Yes, children of immigrants in Britain carried out the tube bombings in 2005, sparking a national reckoning over homegrown extremism, as Ms Riley describes over several pages; but another child of immigrants, Rishi Sunak, ascended to the highest echelons of government and is not mentioned by Ms Riley. The Brexit campaign to leave the European Union was based on the paradoxical promises of keeping foreigners out while opening up to the foreign empire. It deserves more careful examination than the meagre four pages Ms Riley devotes to it.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Hemingway’s Letters to Fitzgerald

From The New York Times, October 25, 1972:

The strangely ambivalent relationship between two of this country’s foremost novelists — Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald — is pitilessly traced in a series of letters that Hemingway wrote between 1949 and 1951 to Arthur Mizener, Fitzerald’s biographer, and that are due to be auctioned Tuesday at Sotheby Parke Bernet.

The unpublished typewritten letters, part of a large collection of modern first editions, autograph letters manuscripts to be sold at the auction, offer penetrating insights into Hemingway’s mixed feelings about the friend who was one of his earliest supporters but for whom he said he “never had any respect.” They also present his strongly personal – and frequently scatological – views of such other prominent literary figures as Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Geismer, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust and Budd Schulberg.

The eight letters, which Sotheby Parke Bernet calls “the most important group of Hemingway letters ever to appear at auction,” are expected to bring between $4,000 and $6,000, although a spokesman for the auction house said they might go for considerably more.

. . . .

The Hemingway-Fitzgerald relationship began in 1925 when the latter was instrumental in bringing the noted Scriber’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, and Hemingway together, A rift developed between them in 1936 after Fitzgerald published in Esquire a confessional article entitled “The Crack-Up,” in which Hemingway felt Fitzgerald demeaned himself. Shortly thereafter, Hemingway spoke slightingly of Fitzgerald in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but Fitzgerald bore the insult with remarkable patience and just before his death in 1940 wrote Hemingway a laudatory letter on the publication of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” adding, ‘I envy you like hell and there’s no irony in this.”

The letters also provide glimpses of Hemingway as he strikes out at Edmund Wilson, whom he calls a great critic with “strange leaks in his integrity,” because of Wilson’s suggestion that Hemingway had been influenced, by a mysterious “wound,” and of his famous boxing match with the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan, one round of which Fitzgerald, as referee allowed to go on for 13 minutes. And Hemingway writes sadly about the killing of a young German soldier in World War II.

In one excerpt, Hemingway said that James Joyce was the only living writer he ever respected. “He had problems,” Hemingway wrote, “but he could write better than anyone else. Ezra was nice and kind and friendly and a beautiful poet and critic. G. Stein was nice until she had the menopause. But who I respected was Mr. Joyce, and not from reading his clippings.” The eight letters, all addressed for Hemingway’s home of Finca Vigia in the Cuban village of San Francisco de Paula, about 15 miles from Havana, were written in response to requests by Mr. Mizener for information on Fitzgerald. Mr. Mizener, whose letters will also be auctioned in the same lot with the Hemingway letters, was already working on the biography, which was published in 1951 under the title of “The Far Side of Paradise.”

Hemingway’s first letter, dated July 6, 949, advised Mr. Mizener to get in touch with Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s last love, whom he described as “the movie critic,” for additional information, and added: “I loved Scott very much but he was extremely difficult with that situation he got himself into and Zelda constantly making him drink because she was jealous of his working well…He had a very steep trajectory and was almost like a guided missile with no one guiding him.”

. . . .

In the next letter, dated Aril 22, Hemingway revels most clearly the ambivalence of his feelings about Fitzgerald. “I never had any respect for him ever,” he wrote, “except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent. If he would have had fewer pompous musings and a little sounder education it would have been better maybe. But anytime you got him all straightened out and taking his work seriously Zelda would get jealous and knock him out of it.’

“Also alcohol, that we use was the Giant Killer, and that I could not have lived without many times; or at least would have cared to live without; was a straight poison to Scott instead of a food. Here’s something you should know too; he never slept with another girl except Zelda until Zelda went officially crazy. She was crazy all the time I knew them but not yet net-able. I remember her at Antibes saying, ‘Don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?’ I said, ‘No,’ which was the only answer I knew at the moment…

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The English Major

The English major is, first of all, a reader. She’s got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

Mark Edmundson

Fig Tree scoops Barker’s ‘propulsive’ literary horror in eight-publisher auction

From The Bookseller:

Fig Tree has scooped Old Soul, a “propulsive, beautifully written literary horror novel” from The Incarnations (Black Swan) author Susan Barker.

In an eight-publisher auction, publishing director Helen Garnons-Williams acquired UK and Commonwealth rights from Emma Paterson at Aitken Alexander Associates. North American rights have been acquired by Sally Kim, publisher of Putnam.

The novel was also recently the subject of a heated international eight-way auction for TV rights, handled by Lesley Thorne at Aitken Alexander Associates, the result of which will be announced soon. Rights have been sold in Germany to Suhrkamp at auction and was pre-empted by Psichogios in Greece. Fig Tree will publish it in hardback in early spring 2025.

The synopsis says: “In New Mexico, a woman and a teenager set out together across the desolate Badlands. But what does the sophisticated Therese want from 17-year-old Rosa, a hotel cleaner she has only just met? In Osaka, two strangers, Jake and Mariko miss their flight, and over dinner discover they have both lost loved ones whose paths crossed with a beguiling woman no one has laid eyes on since.

“Following the traces this woman left behind as she moved from country to country, Jake gathers testimonies from other troubled souls who encountered her across the years, until finally the trail leads him to a sculptor in Taos County, New Mexico who knows the woman better than anyone – and might just hold the key to who, or what, she is.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

What Are Antagonistic Proxies? And How Can They Help Your Story?

From Writers Helping Writers:

Understanding how story works means stripping it down to the basic mechanics that undergird storyform itself. At its simplest, story is protagonist versus antagonist. However, it’s important to understand the definitions. Although we most commonly (and usefully) think of protagonist and antagonist as vibrant, three-dimensional personalities, the functional reality is a bit simpler. Protagonist is the part of the story that drives the plot via a forward-moving goal. Antagonist is the corresponding part of the story that creates conflict by obstructing that forward momentum. So what are antagonistic proxies, and how do they fit into this mix?

It’s true that on a mechanical level, the antagonist is simply whoever or whatever stands between the protagonist and the ultimate goal. But when we start layering on all the enticing nuances and details that take story from a basic equation into a full-blown facsimile of real life, we start discovering a couple more rules of thumb.

One is that the antagonistic force needs to be consistent through the story. Just as the protagonist’s forward drive should create a cohesive throughline all the way through the story, from Inciting Event to Climactic Moment, so too should the antagonistic force present a united front that consistently opposes the protagonist for thematically resonant reasons.

But this gets tricky. As you deepen the complexity of your story in pursuit of that “facsimile of real life,” it can often become difficult to create logical story events and to keep the protagonist and the antagonist properly aligned throughout.

For instance:

  • Your story might not feature a specific human antagonist, but rather a series of humans who oppose the protagonist at different levels and moments.
  • Your story might not feature a human antagonist at all.
  • Your story might play out on a large scale in which it simply doesn’t make sense for protagonist and main antagonist to meet until late in the story or maybe not at all.
  • Your story is complex, as is life, and focuses on a system as the antagonist rather than a specific person or entity.
  • Your story focuses on relational goals rather than action goals, in which case the antagonist might, in fact, be the protagonist’s greatest lover, friend, or supporter (more on that in a future post).

These variations, and many more, show how antagonistic proxies can come in handy. And what are antagonistic proxies? Antagonistic proxies are exactly what they appear to be: less important characters who stand in for the main antagonist. Really, the use of antagonistic proxies is quite intuitive. There’s a reason the henchman is a universal trope!

However, using antagonistic proxies comes with some pitfalls. The most important pitfall is that when you start adding in sub-antagonists without understanding the underlying function of the antagonist’s role in story form, you can end up struggling with a chaotic story structure or a plot and/or theme that feels like it’s being pulled in many different directions. The good news is that as long you understand the function of the antagonist, you can add as many antagonistic proxies as you need without derailing your story.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Liberating Arts

From The Wall Street Journal:

Higher education in the 21st century has been marked by a series of financial and existential crises. The great recession of 2007-08 raised difficult choices about which programs universities should invest in and which should be targeted for elimination. Generally when universities need to tighten their belts, liberal-arts disciplines are among the first to find themselves in the crosshairs, and at that point traditional disciplines like classics, philosophy, history and art have already begun to contract. Students, administrations believe, vote with their feet: If consumer demand is absent, universities respond not by supporting a curriculum they know is formative and valuable but by giving their customers what they say they want.

Once universities adjusted and recovered from the great recession, the 2020 Covid pandemic blindsided them. This disruption, including the long period where professors were out of the classroom, prompted a group of Christian humanists, many of whom teach in small liberal-arts colleges, to contemplate the value of the liberal-arts education they’ve spent their careers providing. The timing was auspicious—political movements that arose after the murder of George Floyd were calling for the decolonization of syllabi, and the #DisruptTexts movement began to associate classic texts with white supremacy. Many administrators, meanwhile, adopted the argument that liberal arts are a luxury that cannot be afforded in times of austerity. The liberal arts were under fire from all sides.

One result of that moment was a series of conversations, begun informally and then organized through videoconferences and supported by a grant, which has resulted in a collection of essays, “The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education,” edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson and David Henreckson. Fourteen of its contributors are professors, five are administrators, two are students, and four are writers who are friendly to the liberal arts. The essays are organized as a series of responses to common critiques: Do we need this sort of education? Is it a waste of time? Is it racist?

As dean of an honors college explicitly dedicated to liberal learning through the study of classic texts, I find myself mostly in agreement with the vision of higher education put forward here. I agree with David Henreckson that the liberal arts are not mere skills or techniques but a way of life that allows human beings to flourish. I find myself nodding along when Zena Hitz argues that liberal learning has fundamentally to do with leisure, the cultivation of habits of contemplation and reflection that allow us to pursue the highest human activities. And I could not be more thrilled to read Brandon McCoy’s argument that “the goal of education should be to create liberated persons who seek to examine life in its fullness, to enjoy friendships with others, and to foster the health of their communities.”

But I’m not the one who needs convincing. It is noteworthy that the book’s most compelling arguments for learning as truly liberating do not come from professors or administrators but from students and readers outside the university. For example, Sean Sword speaks movingly about his incarceration; Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, he tells us, offers a way in which “the liberal arts play a key role in the prisoner’s restoration to society.” In a similar vein, the testimony from students in the Odyssey Project, which brings “great works” courses in literature, philosophy, art and history to low-income adults, 95% of them from communities of color, is compelling and inspirational. Angel Adams Parham speaks movingly of her work with the Nyansa Classical Community, a program founded to bring classical learning and literature to young people of diverse backgrounds, especially from the African diaspora.

When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern—the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG has been increasingly bothered by the inflation of tuition and fees at a great many colleges and universities in the United States.

The idea that going into serious debt will be made right by increased earning power resulting from learning almost anything from higher education institutions can be financially dangerous if the graduate is unable or unwilling to take a remunerative job upon graduation.

In the United States, student loans are generally not subject to discharge in a bankruptcy proceeding, one of a small number of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Suppose someone buys a house or a car that turns out to be more costly than they can afford due to job loss or other financial setbacks. In that case, bankruptcy law will extinguish those obligations entirely or allow the debtor to pay a portion of the debt if the debtor can do so.

Ditto for large medical bills and nearly all other financial mistakes or mishaps. PG wonders why borrowing for college costs (in reasonable or outsized amounts) should be privileged over healthcare or other non-discretionary debts an individual is likely to incur.

PG admits that some of his attitudes result from his experience in college,, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in an impractical subject that did almost nothing to prepare him for any sort of job available in a large city.

If he had not graduated when employers needed many employees who seemed likely candidates to be trained in a subject of which they were utterly ignorant, PG would have been in a bad way financially.

Raymond Chandler

PG is not certain what put him into a Raymond Chandler mood this afternoon and evening, but hopes you found the Chandler quotes of interest.

Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago to an Irish immigrant mother and a father who was an alcoholic civil engineer who worked for the railway. His father later abandoned the family.

His mother managed to move the family back to what is now the London Borough of Croydon where they lived with Chandler’s maternal grandmother and received some reluctant support from his mother’s brother.

Chandler was educated at Dulwich College, a public school (which would have been called a private school in the US) in London. He did not attend university. After a brief stint with the Civil Service, he was an unsuccessful freelance newspaper reporter in London, writing his own fiction on the side.

In 1912, he borrowed money from his uncle (to be repaid with interest) to return to America, where he initially settled in San Francisco.

After moving up and down the American west coast, in 1917, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent to France to fight in the trenches in World War I. After his service was interrupted by two bouts with the Spanish Flu, the war ended and Chandler made his way back to Los Angeles.

Chandler married an American woman, started as a bookkeeper/auditor for an oil company, and rose to the position of vice president before being fired for alcohol abuse and promiscuity with some of the female employees.

Chandler then started writing pulp fiction for Black Mask magazine where Erle Stanley Gardner was another, more prolific pulp writer.

Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939, and featured the detective Philip Marlowe, speaking in the first person.

His second Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), became the basis for three movie versions adapted by other screenwriters, including the 1944 film Murder My Sweet, which marked the screen debut of the Marlowe character.

In 1946, the Chandlers moved to La Jolla, an affluent coastal community north of San Diego. Chandler continued to have problems with his drinking, which worsened after the death of his wife in 1954. Chandler died in 1959.

Chandler’s reputation grew after his death. Many contemporary authors, including W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, and Ian Fleming, greatly admired his writing. Fleming said that Chandler wrote “some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today.”

Down these mean streets

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world

Raymond Chandler

Being a copper

Being a copper I like to see the law win. I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.

Raymond Chandler

You were dead

You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.

Raymond Chandler