The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

13 October 2016

From The New Yorker:

In the late nineteen-thirties, in a tall house in Berkeley, California, a girl climbs out the attic window onto the roof in search of solitude. If she scrambles far enough up the redwood shingles, she can reach her own Mt. Olympus, the roof’s peak. From here, she can gaze out over the rough blue of the bay to the city of San Francisco, row upon row of white houses climbing the hills above the water. The city is strange to her—she rarely ventures so far from home—but the view is hers, and splendid. Beyond it she knows there are islands with a magical name: the Farallons. She imagines them as “the loneliest place, the farthest west you could go.”

Meanwhile, inside the house, the girl’s father is at work, thinking about myths, magic, songs, cultural patterns—the proper territory of a professor of anthropology. From him she will take a model for creative work in the midst of a rich family life, as well as the belief that the real room of one’s own is in the writer’s mind. Years later, she tells a friend that if she ended up writing about wizards “perhaps it’s because I grew up with one.”

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, in 1929, into a family busy with the reading, recording, telling, and inventing of stories. She grew up listening to her aunt Betsy’s memories of a pioneer childhood and to California Indian legends retold by her father. One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.

Ursula absorbed these stories, together with the books she read: children’s classics, Norse myths, Irish folktales, the Iliad. In her father’s library, she discovered Romantic poetry and Eastern philosophy, especially the Tao Te Ching. She and her brother Karl supplemented these with science-fiction magazines. With Karl, the closest to her in age of her three brothers, she played King Arthur’s knights, in armor made of cardboard boxes. The two also made up tales of political intrigue and exploration set in a stuffed-toy world called the Animal Kingdom. This storytelling later gave her a feeling of kinship with the Brontës, whose Gondal and Angria, she says, were “the ‘genius version’ of what Karl and I did.”

Her father was Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the past century. A New Yorker from a prosperous German immigrant family, he went west in 1900, when he was twenty-four, and did field work among the Indians of Northern California. Throughout his career, he learned about cultures that were rapidly being transformed or destroyed from men and women who were among the last survivors of their people. At a time when the dominant story of America was one of European conquest, Ursula was aware, through her father and his Indian friends who came to the house, that there were other stories to tell and other judgments that might be made.

Ursula’s mother was Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, born in Denver in 1897 and raised in the mining town of Telluride. A friend of Le Guin’s recalls seeing her, at the house in Berkeley, “coming down the long staircase, a majestic-looking woman with a long gown and a great big Indian silver and turquoise necklace. She was very stately.” Theodora took to writing in her late fifties, and produced “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a nonfiction account of the last survivor of the Yahi people. Le Guin loved her mother and admired her psychological gifts. But she says that their relationship also contained “something darker and stranger” that she has never quite understood. “We were very lucky, because we never had to act that out. But if I see daughters and mothers act it out toward each other it doesn’t shock me or surprise me. It’s there.”

. . . .

If it was difficult to be the youngest and most precocious of the Kroeber children, leaving the house to enter the world made Ursula feel like “an exile in a Siberia of adolescent social mores.” In the fall of 1944, at fourteen, small for her age, disguised in the sweater, skirt, and loafers of a “bobby-soxer” (a term that still makes her shudder), she began her first year at Berkeley High School, a huge, impersonal institution where popularity mattered more than learning, and fitting in was the ideal. When Le Guin speaks of her teen-age years, she speaks of loneliness, confusion, and the pain of being among people who have no use for one’s gifts. “You’re just dropped into this dreadful place, and there are no explanations why and no directions what to do.”

She found a refuge in the public library, reading Austen and the Brontës, Turgenev and Shelley. In fiction, she could satisfy her deep romantic streak: she fell in love with Prince Andrei in “War and Peace” and once, at thirteen, defaced a library book by cutting out a still of Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy and taking it home to look at in private, guilty rapture. From Thomas Hardy she learned to handle strong feelings in fiction by pouring them into landscapes, letting the settings carry part of the emotional charge. “There’s a patronizing word for that: the ‘pathetic fallacy,’ ” she says. “It’s not a fallacy; it’s art.”

As a child, she was painfully shy, and she still alludes to anxieties that she keeps hidden from the world. I caught a glimpse of that when she asked me, cautiously, “Wouldn’t you say that anybody who thought as much about balance as I do in my work probably felt some threat to their balance?” After a long pause, she added, “Of course all adolescents are out of balance, and very aware of it. To become adult can certainly feel like walking a high wire, can’t it? If my foot slips, I’m gone. I’m dead.”

Equilibrium is a central metaphor in Le Guin’s great works about adolescence, the six-volume Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with “A Wizard of Earthsea.” That book follows Ged, a lonely teen-ager with a gift for magic, who at wizards’ school learns a painful lesson in achieving balance rather than forcing change. There’s little resemblance between the school on Roke Island, with its Taoist magic (a mage is taught to “do by not doing”), and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There is some resemblance between Ged, the provincial boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Ursula Kroeber, the Californian in jeans arriving at Radcliffe College in 1947, all books and opinions, never before out of her home state, eager to prove herself as a poet. Her Radcliffe friend Jean Taylor Kroeber, who became her sister-in-law, recalls that, before she and Ursula bonded over Russian literature, jokes, and music, she found her “a little frightening. It’s not that she meant to be, but that’s the way it came across . . . that there was a good chance that she was ahead of you, in wherever the conversation was going. And one rather brief acute remark could set you back on your heels.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

How Bruce Springsteen Was The Boss of His Book

14 September 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

One of the biggest books of the year was written on spec.

Instead of signing a contract and getting an advance beforehand,Bruce Springsteen worked on the manuscript of his autobiography “Born to Run” for seven years—by himself—before it was shown to a publisher. The book, which has been held tightly under wraps, will debut in a coordinated, global release on Sept. 27. In all, it is set to be published in 22 countries.

. . . .

The project began when Mr. Springsteen penned a first-person account for his website describing his experience on stage at the 2009 Super Bowl. He wrote the piece in stream-of-consciousness style, sprinkled with all-caps. Mr. Springsteen, who is often described as a control freak, wrote that he’d been worried that he would feel “‘out’ of myself and not in the moment.”

. . . .

After posting his account, Mr. Springsteen quietly kept going. “I felt like I found a good voice to write in,” he recalled in a video released earlier this month by his publisher. “I said, maybe I’ll try to write a little more and see where it takes me.”

. . . .

In 2014, Simon & Schuster published Mr. Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete,” an illustrated book for adults based on his song about a bank-robbing baby. The book sold modestly—about 12,000 print copies, according to Nielsen BookScan—but the experience was apparently positive for Mr. Springsteen; less than two years later, his legal representatives, Allen Grubman and Jonathan Ehrlich, brought the manuscript exclusively to Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp.

“This is the book we’ve been hoping for,” Mr. Karp said in a February news release announcing the book. Mr. Karp declined an interview request, as did Mr. Springsteen’s attorneys.

It’s rare for a celebrity to write an autobiography on spec, Simon & Schuster spokesman Cary Goldstein said: “I can’t think of anyone of Bruce’s stature who has done it this way.”

. . . .

While news of the book was still closely guarded, Marie Florio, the company’s director of subsidiary rights, began approaching pre-selected foreign publishers, rather than holding auctions. She invited each to make an offer. At least one European publisher made an offer on the book sight-unseen.

“In France, Bruce Springsteen is more than a music legend,” Anne Michel, foreign department director of the French publisher Éditions Albin Michel, said in a news release when the book was announced on Feb. 11. “He has become, over time, the incarnation of a certain idea of America.”

Publishers then commissioned quick-turn-around translations. Mr. Springsteen revised the manuscript between concerts on tour this summer, as translators across Europe worked simultaneously to update their versions with his latest changes.

“It was more or less a real-time operation,” saidEduard Richter, senior publisher at Spectrum in the Netherlands, who supervised the process there.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Dave for the tip.


An Algorithm to Predict a Bestseller

12 September 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

A laboratory is a more compelling setting than a church. Life in the classroom trumps partying on campus and readers largely prefer novels with dogs in them, rather than cats.

These are just some of the patterns the authors of a new book, “The Bestseller Code,” out Sept. 20, have detected through an algorithm they designed to identify the DNA of bestselling novels. For the last five years, Matthew L. Jockers, associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor for Penguin UK, have been scanning texts and compiling data. They claim the algorithm can pick out a future New York Times-list best seller with 80% accuracy.

Using several computers they analyzed 5,000 novels, all published over the last 30 years. The selection comprised a mixture of 500 best sellers and 4,500 non-bestselling paperbacks, hardbacks and e-books. The algorithm focuses on 2,800 features including points of theme, style, vocabulary and punctuation. It is unaware of an author’s name and reputation and can just as confidently pick out the work of an unknown writer as a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling.

“The idea of studying contemporary literature was not on my radar until Jodie put it there,” says Mr. Jockers, who has written several books on computational text analysis and co-founded the Stanford Literary Lab, a research center that applies computational criticism to literature, with Franco Moretti. “Jodie basically said that she had a suspicion that she had detected a commonality in bestsellers just by reading a lot of them and that there was something going on that was independent of genre.”

The algorithm validated this hunch, revealing that subject, not genre, has a much greater impact on driving a best seller. Topics grounded in reality, like marriage, love and crime are far more interesting to most readers than fantasy worlds which play by their own rules. According to the authors, regular best-selling writers have a subject that is overwhelmingly important to their brand. The two authors identified by the algorithm as having “the best understanding of getting the right topics in the right order” over the last 30 years are John Grisham, whose top-ranking subject is the law, and Danielle Steel, whose top-ranker is family domestic life. Bestselling novels tend to have one or two topics which often feed off each other such as “children and guns” or “love and vampires” that together make up nearly a third of the novel whereas novels that fail to hit often try to cram too many topics in.

. . . .

The book has hit a nerve among some in the publishing industry. “I have had people express worry about their job security should computers take over their everyday duties of evaluating manuscripts,” says Daniela Rapp, a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press who acquired the manuscript. “Others simply reject the actual science behind the authors’ work as irrelevant to how publishing works, whereas others engage with the algorithm’s results and compare the results to their own reading experience.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Here’s a link to the book.

Color PG skeptical.

Books about subjects “like marriage, love and crime are far more interesting to most readers than fantasy worlds which play by their own rules” would seem to imply that JK Rowling missed the really big market.

Is It Possible to Predict the Next New York Times Bestseller?

12 September 2016

From Digital Book World:

The upcoming book The Bestseller Code is getting a great deal of buzz, forcing many of us to ask the question, Can one genuinely predict what kind of book will become a New York Times bestseller (typically considered the most prestigious bestseller list)?

The promise of a formula for predicting a bestseller is getting many in the publishing industry and those who write about books excited, or at least curious. Several journalists contacted me for an opinion about the book because of my background in pub-tech and reader analytics. Thus, I became interested in reading it, and St. Martin’s Press was kind enough to provide me with an advance reader copy.

First of all, this is a delightful book to read. I would recommend it as both an entertaining and educational read for anybody interested in the business of books. This is not a magisterial work, like Merchants of Culture by John Thompson, but a book written for the mass market with plenty of anecdotes and examples that readers and authors can relate to.

The “code” is based on some of the latest advances in machine learning as applied to literature, but the authors attempt to simplify the computer science behind the book. There is no mention of “big data” or artificial intelligence—just plain and simple descriptions of what the “black box” does, with references for interested readers to find out more about its inner workings.

. . . .

If the algorithm is applied to 50 books that are genuinely bestsellers, then it will recognize that 40 of these (80 percent) are indeed bestsellers, but will classify incorrectly (“falsely”) that 10 of the books (20 percent) are not bestsellers (a “negative” result). Thus, the 10 titles that are missed are what statisticians call the “false negatives.”

The inverse is also true: if the algorithm is applied to 50 books that are known not to be bestsellers, then it will recognize that 40 of these (80 percent) are indeed not bestsellers, but will classify incorrectly (“falsely”) that 10 of the books (20 percent) are, in the opinion of the algorithm, in fact bestsellers (a “positive” result), when in fact they never were bestsellers. Thus, these 10 titles that are incorrectly predicted to be bestsellers are false positives.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

But can an algorithm nurture?

If writers are to survive we must take responsibility for ourselves and our industry

5 September 2016

From The Guardian:

In the windowpane above Ann Patchett’s desk is a small steel and enamel sign that reads: “What good shall I do this day?” This simple dictum is the engine of Patchett’s world, both on the page and off. In the Orange prize‑winning Bel Canto, comradeship, love and creativity bloom among terrorists and hostages; in 2011’s artful State of Wonder, a sensible research scientist faces not just the snakes and other terrors of the Amazonian jungle, but the dragon of her former medical lecturer.

“I have been shown so much kindness in my life, so for me to write books about good, kind people seems completely natural,” Patchett says. “When people say, ‘Oh it’s too nice, it’s naive,’ I just think: who killed your mother?”

It violates a literary taboo to write fiction that suggests people might be fundamentally good. For the 52-year-old Patchett, however, the real taboo was writing about her family. Commonwealth, her seventh novel, published this week, spans 50 years and two families, the Cousinses and the Keatings, whose common fate is set in motion at a gin-soaked christening party where Albert Cousins kisses Beverley Keating.

. . . .

What do you do when the bookstores in your hometown all shut down? If you’re Patchett, you open one yourself. In 2011, she founded Parnassus Books, an idyll in a strip mall, with her business partner, Karen Hayes. She has since become a rallying voice for independent bookstores.

“I feel that writers are treated like orchids: they keep us in the hothouse, they mist us and attend to our every need, but if this system is going to work, if we are going to survive, we need to come out of the hothouse and take responsibility for ourselves and for the health of the industry.”

She takes a firm line. When customers visit the bookstore and tell her Amazon is cheaper: “I’m like, ‘You cannot come in, soak up what we have, talk to the staff, get recommendations, then go home and buy the book on Amazon. If you do, I will hunt you down and smack you around.’ Somehow,” she adds with a grin, “Ann Patchett can say that in a way that your regular bookstore owner can’t.”

. . . .

She and her husband, the surgeon Karl Vandevender, talk about “Ann Patchett” in the third person, as do her friends and colleagues at the bookstore. “They’ll say: ‘Oh, we need Ann Patchett for something’, and I’ll go: ‘I’ll see if I can conjure her up’. ‘Ann Patchett’,” she says definitively, “is the brand. I’ve got to put that away at the end of the day.”

All of her novels, she explains, are the same story: a group of people are thrown together and must forge connections to survive. “I’ve been writing the same book my whole life – that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.” Finally, she asked herself: “I wonder if I wrote the story that I’m so carefully not writing, if I might be free of it?”

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG says Ms. Patchett seems like a nice person, but “writers are treated like orchids” does not reflect the lives of most of the traditionally-published authors with whom PG interacts.

George R.R. Martin Interview

7 July 2016
George R.R. Martin talks about the Game of Thrones series that’s sold 58 million copies.  (He owns Robby the Robot!)

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

4 July 2016
Comments Off on Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

Margaret Mitchell wrote one book, Gone With the Wind, the bestselling novel of all time.  This is a documentary about her life.



Truman Capote, Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett

3 July 2016

On writers and writing.

Diana Gabaldon on Writing

2 July 2016

Bestselling author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon reveals her personal writing habits and how she came to be a novelist.

J.K. Rowling’s chair sells for $394K

8 April 2016

From Page Six:

The humble chair J.K. Rowling sat on while writing the first two books of the Harry Potter series was auctioned in New York City on Wednesday for $394,000.

An anonymous private collector made the winning bid, Heritage Auctions said.

The chair is one of four mismatched chairs given to the then little-known writer for her flat in Edinburgh, Scotland, and which she used while writing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

. . . .

The unassuming 1930s-era oak chair with a replacement burlap seat decorated with a red thistle sat in front of Rowling’s typewriter when she was “writing two of the most important books of the modern era,” said James Gannon, director of rare books at Heritage.

. . . .

Before Rowling donated the chair to the “Chair-rish a Child” auction in support of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 2002, she painted the words “You may not/find me pretty/but don’t judge/on what you see” on the stiles and splats. She also signed the backrest in gold and rose colors and wrote “I wrote/Harry Potter/while sitting/on this chair” on the seat.

The word “Gryffindor,” the Hogwarts house of Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, is spelled out on a cross stretcher.

The chair is accompanied by an original typed and signed letter Rowling wrote prior to the first auction.

It reads: “Dear new-owner-of-my-chair. I was given four mismatched dining room chairs in 1995 and this was the comfiest one, which is why it ended up stationed permanently in front of my typewriter, supporting me while I typed out ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn’t. J. K. Rowling.”

Link to the rest at Page Six

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