Books in General

When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do

29 June 2016

From The New York Times:

I once knew a woman who had been famously kidnapped as a child. She confessed to me that she longed to talk about her kidnapping, but no one ever brought it up. “Why?” she wondered. The story had been in print, after all, the subject of national headlines; it preceded her into every room. She was left with an acute sense of apartness, her unspoken story roiling inside her. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked me. “Pick up the phone and call Patty Hearst?”

Though I have never been the victim of a famous kidnapping or any kidnapping at all, for most of my adult life, I have been preceded by my own stories — not so much ones that have been written about me, but ones I have written. I am the author of three, going on four, memoirs. I have captured my 20s, my early midlife, my years as a writer and now my long marriage between hard covers like insects trapped forever in amber. Those of us who have written multiple memoirs feel surprisingly alone. (What am I supposed to do? Pick up the phone and call St. Augustine?)

People who have read my work feel as if they know me. And while certainly there is a powerful intimacy inherent in the experience of reading memoir, readers who meet me seem a bit embarrassed by this intimacy, as if, rather than having read my books, they have seen me naked without my consent. They seem to think of memoirs as more personal than any other literary form, as if the word “memoir” necessarily signals confession, testimony, diary and strip tease all in one.

At a dinner party in Connecticut, I watched as a woman turned to Frank McCourt, who was seated next to her. “You must feel like I know everything about you!” Her tone was challenging, slightly accusatory, as if it was his fault for making her uncomfortable. “Darling,” he responded dryly. “It’s just a book.”

. . . .

 In “Essays After Eighty,” the poet Donald Hall writes, “For 70-odd years I have been writing about myself, which has led to a familiar scene: I meet someone, we chat, something stirs my memory, I begin to tell an anecdote — and the head in front of me nods up and down and smiles. She knows this story because I have put it in print, possibly three times.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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Nearly 400 Publishers Have Applied for Medium’s Plan to Help Them Make Money

26 June 2016

From Advertising Age:

In early April, Medium, the platform founded by Ev Williams, made a pitch to the publishing community: come to Medium, and we’ll help you make money. There’s not a publisher these days that isn’t looking for new revenue streams, so it’s not surprising that nearly 400 publishers have applied to participate in the beta version of Medium’s revenue program, according to figures provided by a spokeswoman for the company. (She declined to say how many applicants have been accepted.)

There are both advertising and consumer revenue opportunities available for publishers that either put their entire site on Medium, as The Awl and Bill Simmons’s new The Ringer have done, or publish a Medium edition of their publication, like far more companies have done.

Medium aspires to play a big role in the publishing ecosystem, offering publishers both a technical lifeline (in the form of a sleek, easy-to-use platform, and back-end support) and a set of options to make money. Whether Medium is able to become the power player — and journalism savior — it seems to want to become depends on how many publishers actually take the company up on the offer its making.

Participating publishers can run links to promoted posts from advertisers at the bottom of articles and share a cut of the revenue with Medium.

Publications are also free to sell sponsorships on their own. The Ringer has a deal with Miller Lite, and there’s a “Presented by Miller Lite” banner at the bottom of article pages.

A handful of publishers have also been testing out Medium’s membership program, in which certain pieces of content are locked, available only to paying readers.

Link to the rest at Advertising Age and thanks to Gordon for the tip.

The Hidden Messages of Colonial Handwriting

23 June 2016

From Atlas Obscura:

Imagine a world in which the font you use is chosen for you, based entirely on your demographic affiliations. All doctors write in Garamond, while designers are mandated Futura Bold. Middle-aged men get Arial; women, Helvetica. Goofy aunts must use Comic Sans.

Seem strange? A few centuries ago, that was just how things worked. In colonial America, “the very style in which one formed letters was determined by one’s place in society,” writes historian Tamara Thornton in Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. Thanks to the rigorous teachings of professionals called “penmen,” merchants wrote strong, loopy logbooks, women’s words were intricate and shaded, and upper-class men did whatever they felt like. So different were the results, says Thornton, that “a fully literate stranger could evaluate the social significance of a letter… simply by noting what hand it had been written in.”

Understanding how colonists put pen to paper means understanding why they wanted to write in the first place. As  E. Jennifer Monaghan explains in “Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England”, Puritans and other early colonists considered reading and writing to be largely separate endeavors. For your average Thaddeus, Miles or Hiram, reading was generally valued not as a skill in itself, but as a direct route to the era’s most popular book: the Bible. Starting around age six, children were taught reading by their mothers, aunts, or grandmothers, with the aid of what John Locke called the “ordinary road” of educational materials—religious texts of varying difficulty, starting with a one-page “Horn Book” and ending with a complete Bible.

. . . .

Even if you could motor through the whole Bible, though, there was no guarantee you could copy any of it. If “reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual need,” Thornton writes, “writing was taught second, and then only to some.” The practice of writing in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was considered less of a creative or analytical endeavor than a kind of rote physical one.

“Just as ‘good’ reading was considered to be accurate oral reading, so ‘good’ writing seemed to be viewed entirely in terms of fine letter formation,” writes Monaghan. Any art involved was concentrated not in what the words said, but in what they looked like.

. . . .

In the Middle Ages, church authorities mandated a particular type of dense, blocky script—now known as “Gothic” script—for religious documents. To differentiate themselves, legal and court scribes developed their own, slightly different hands, and readers became accustomed to the symbolic coexistence of different styles.

. . . .

For a brief period in the 17th century, the two hands flourished in America—people sometimes switched between both in a single sentence—but soon, the hierarchy shook out: by the end of the 1600s, the Gothic hand was old-fashioned; the newer Italian hand trendy and on the rise. Though Gothic script was still required for legal documents, everyone else kept away from it—indeed, Thornton writes, its increasing impenetrability may have added to people’s distrust of lawyers.

. . . .

A client could hire a penman to teach him whichever script he needed. A merchant, banker or tradesman might learn “round text,” a skinny hand with a slight lean, or “round hand,” a loopier variant—both forms of stripped-down Italian script, good for people who needed to be both quick and legible. Some who wished to differentiate themselves from more prosaic farmers or artisans might learn to add slight embellishments, or ornate capital letters—though penmen cautioned them against compromising their speed or assuredness.

“Among Men of Business, wrote one expert, “all affected Flourishes and quant Devices… are as much avoided as Capering and Cutting in Ordinary Walking.”

. . . .

Penmen got to cut a little looser while teaching ladies. While working women also learned the round hand, aristocratic women—who, as penman John Davies once wrote, could never “bruise a letter as men could do”—were privy to a whole different set of scripts. One favorite was the “roman,” a flowing hand which, with its light touch and varying thicknesses, was easy on the eyes and the wrist (as a bonus, it supposedly could not be managed well by men’s fingers, which were “hardened by the sword-hilt”). Certain forms of it even required decorative shading, indicating that the writer had time enough to go back over all her letters—an unmistakeable sign of a leisurely lifestyle.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Jet And Ebony Sold, Ending A 71-Year Run Under Johnson Publishing

23 June 2016

From WBEZ – Chicago:

Last week marked an end of an era for the historic Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company. After 71-year run as an outlet for the expression of both the highest aspirations and deepest frustrations of African Americans, the family-owned business has sold its iconic lifestyle magazine — Ebony— and the now digital-only Jet magazine.

The magazines were sold to Clear View Group, a private equity firm in Texas that has been described as African-American-owned. Johnson Publishing will retain its ownership of Fashion Fair cosmetics and the company’s extensive photo archives.

Johnson Publishing was founded by John H. Johnson, the grandson of slaves who became the first African-American to appear on the Forbes List of the 400 Richest Americans. His depiction of African-American notables living elegant lives set a new standard for coverage of black Americans. So too did his decision to publish photos of the open casket of the Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was kidnapped and tortured by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.

. . . .

On the editorial future of the magazines

Kyles: We can continue to be what John Johnson wanted us to be, which is this — not only an educator, an entertainer, but a beacon of hope providing an example and showing people, “Hey, here’s some of the most wonderful things that black people are doing all over the world,” and inspiring people to know that they can do the same.

. . . .

On the “famous story” about her father donning a disguise to get access to and buy one of his offices

LJR: What he did was, in order to buy this building, he actually had to have a white gentleman who was really was kind of the face of the purchase, and my father proceeded to act like he was just a janitor so he could just walk through the building and take a look at it. And that is the nuts and bolts of that story.

. . . .

On the significance of Jet and Ebony as chroniclers of the African-American experience and the continued need for such publications

LJR: I think you will find that a lot of young African-Americans are really searching for, “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” and “What is my past?” I think we’re as relevant now as we’ve ever been. For example, when we did the Bill Cosby cover in fall of last year, it was a lot of controversy.

It was the Cosby family on the cover, but overlaid on that it appeared to be a shattered glass. So it really wasn’t just about the shattering of the Huxables, it was really a shattering of the black family. And it was a question about that and where do we stand on that. And so, these are things that are very, very relevant that Ebony will continue to cover.

Link to the rest at WBEZ

PG had the privilege of meeting John Johnson a long time ago in the offices of Johnson Publishing and Ebony magazine on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The occasion was a reception for some of the executives of a large Chicago advertising agency where PG worked.

Mr. Johnson wanted the agency to place a lot more advertisements in Ebony and Jet magazines and made an excellent presentation about the ascendance of a black middle class across the country. He was a very persuasive and successful entrepreneur. The Johnson corporate offices were much more impressive than those of another well-known Chicago publishing organization of that era, Playboy.

PG doesn’t know if John Johnson noted the wide sidewalks in front of the Johnson Publishing building before he purchased it, but he put those sidewalks to good use. He was known for driving his big Mercedes sedan over the curb and up on the sidewalk, parking it in front of his building. The Chicago police made certain no one disturbed Mr. Johnson’s car while it was parked there.

On the Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

23 June 2016

From LitHub:

A year ago at a literary festival in Wales, I met a woman. It was at a reception at a castle that had a beautiful park and a regal view of the Welsh landscape. I had no companion to the reception, knew nobody there, and was circling with a glass of champagne trying to make it look as if I was waiting for someone who had just briefly stepped out of the picture. Then suddenly a woman appeared in front of me. Hello, she said. Isn’t it a breathtaking view? I nodded, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. She was British, I was Danish. She pointed at a small man with a cell phone behind some shrubbery in the park: My husband, she said, and who are you with?

I told her that I was with nobody. I also told her that it was a bit strange to be with nobody amid scenery that so much called for somebody. But I’m a writer, I said, I’m used to traveling on my own. She looked at me as if I was mirroring something, and I was: We were both two middle-aged women at a reception without men (not counting the husband in the shrubbery) and it called for some narrative.

The woman explained to me that she had been a very successful lawyer. For over twenty years her career had escalated, she had become a star attorney, and there was not a week where she didn’t have to meet with the people in 10 Downing Street. She was someone, and therefore had to work around the clock and it was great fun, it was super interesting, it was high profile, and it was very exhausting. When she reached her mid-forties her husband (Mr. Shrubbery) had suggested that she slow down. It was too late to have children but never too late to rediscover themselves as a couple, and to be frank she wasexhausted from all the Prime Ministerial counseling. So she let go of her job and found herself a lower profile one. No more cab rides to the center of power, just a briefcase, her 46th birthday coming up, and then the husband who would chew his toast very slowly in the morning. Perhaps he always chewed his toast that slowly, it’s possible, she just hadn’t been around to notice it, but there it was: slow chewing, and she had all the time in the world to witness it.

The worst thing, however, the woman told me and leaned in, was that this career change collided with my disappearance as a woman. You could say that I was no longer somebody, but I was also becoming a person with no body.

I nodded. There was something recognizable in this picture. I said:

So the cars don’t stop for you when you want to cross the street anymore?

She shook her head. I said:

You ask a younger man for directions at the railway station and he ignores you?

She nodded. I said:

You have an interesting conversation with a couple of men and a younger woman enters your circle, and the conversation is suddenly over?

She nodded and I finally threw the ace on the table:

Men you know are leaving their middle-aged wives to date women who are in their twenties and early thirties?

. . . .

I do write books about middle-aged, childless women on the brink of disappearing—or you could say—on the brink of losing their license to live. If a woman has kids, she will always be a mother, but a woman who has chosen not to procreate and who now no longer is young and sexy is perceived by many as a pointless being.

. . . .

The interesting thing is that middle-aged women on the search for essence and their license to live can come off as quite provocative characters. Some people regard them as lacking self control—or even worse; they are conceived of as “self absorbed.” A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything? She has no children, she has no family, the only thing she has is her own life and what good will that do anyone when she’s no longer a star attorney at 10 Downing Street, or when she doesn’t have a rehearsal space where she can compose her music, or when she’s in the process of turning into spring itself: Overflowing, no longer firm and contained, but escalating, growing wild.

Link to the rest at LitHub

Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels

22 June 2016

From The Atlantic:

Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies. The most striking thing about Flynn’s cool, clever mystery is the childishness of its main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, the sheer pettiness of the deadly games they play with each other. And the prize for winning is something like a gold star from the teacher:Gone Girl takes place in a world in which grown-up girls—and boys—will kill for no better reason than self-validation. This is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized. On the streets his people walked, motives were more basic—money, sex—and means were more direct. “When in doubt,” he once told his genre brethren, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” When today’s crime writers are in doubt, they have a woman come through the door with a passive-aggressive zinger on her lips.

For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre. Like the cowboy, the private eye once embodied male fantasies of rugged individualism. As individualism itself became a less sustainable concept, the popular imagination began to relocate its mythic figures to places farther and farther away from the real-world settings of the old West and the modern city (to, say, the Marvel universe).

I miss those tough guys, with their cigarettes and their hats, but I’ve learned to do without them. I’ve read crime fiction all my life, and like most mystery lovers, I don’t really have a type. As a young reader, I favored Sherlock Holmes stories and intricate puzzles of the Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr sort, then moved on to the grittier, bloodier private-eye stuff of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler and Ross Macdonald. In my baffled adulthood, I have found myself drawn, more and more, to the kind of dark, fatalistic psychological thriller that noir writers such as Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and especially Patricia Highsmith brought into the world in the 1940s and ’50s—tales of people in impossible situations making catastrophically poor choices.

. . . .

The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence. Murder is de rigueur in the genre, so people die at the hands of others—lovers, neighbors, obsessive strangers—but the body counts tend to be on the low side. “I write about murder,” Tana French once said, “because it’s one of the great mysteries of the human heart: How can one human being deliberately take another one’s life away?” Sometimes, in the work of French and others, the lethal blow comes so quietly that it seems almost inadvertent, a thing that in the course of daily life just happens. Death, in these women’s books, is often chillingly casual, and unnervingly intimate. As a character in Alex Marwood’s brilliant new novel,The Darkest Secret, muses: “They’re not always creeping around with knives in dark alleyways. Most of them kill you from the inside out.”

. . . .

Traditional mysteries are still with us, but tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers are what readers seem to want now, and dozens of women are ready, willing, and able to oblige. Last year, the publishing industry found, in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, its long-sought “next Gone Girl,” which is to say another blockbuster bourgeois nightmare about terrible relationships, told in the voices of more than one profoundly unreliable narrator. Unlike Highsmith and Rendell, who preferred to ply their sinister craft in a dry, deadpan third person, writers of the current school tend to favor a volatile mixture of higher-pitched first-person tones: hectoring, accusatory, self-justifying, a little desperate. Reading these tricky 21st-century thrillers can be like scrolling through an especially heated comments thread on a Web site, or wandering unawares into a Twitter feud. Down these mean tweets a woman must go …

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Esther for the tip.

TPV Burped

21 June 2016

About an hour ago, PG updated a security plugin and the update process misbehaved.

The misbehavior caused The Passive Voice to go entirely offline. Only a lengthy error message appeared when he tried to access both the public and private worlds of the blog.

PG’s blood pressure doubled.

PG has installed a plugin that backs up the entire site before updating any plugin, but discovered that he had failed to take the final configuration step necessary for a quick recovery. The non-quick recovery process was daunting in the extreme, particularly with the entire site down.

His blood pressure doubled again.

PG contacted the hosting provider where TPV lives – Hosting Matters – where a genius named Annette works in tech support. Annette is the person you definitely want to work with when your blog goes boom and she’s helped PG with blog problems in the past.

He sent an email and, 11 minutes later, received a reply from Annette telling him she had fixed everything and TPV was its old self again. PG doesn’t think she even broke a sweat.

A few years ago, PG realized he didn’t know everything and couldn’t fix some things when they broke. When one of those can’t fix things breaks, it’s a wonderful feeling when someone else is ready to help out.

Three cheers for the Annettes of the world!


Is Yale About to Cave on ‘Too White’ Major English Poets Course?

21 June 2016

From HeatStreet:

The English faculty at Yale looks prepared to surrender to social justice warriors demanding a rewrite of the storied “Major English Poets” course.

The faculty’s chair appeared to make concessions after calls for the compulsory course be “decolonized” because it features too many white male authors.

Students claimed that they were “so alienated that they have to walk out of the room” because of a preponderance of authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer, who “actively harm” them.

. . . .

They concluded: “It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices. We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

While noting the course – which dates from the 1920s – has “never been in the news before”, [Professor Langdon] Hammer said it “seems fitting for students and faculty to raise questions” about the content.

Those questions include how the course could be “made better” and what it “will look like tomorrow”.

Link to the rest at HeatStreet and thanks to Felix for the tip.

PG listened to a podcast earlier today that discussed cognitive errors/distortions and their treatment.

The OP reminded him of  Emotional Reasoning:

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Link to the rest at PsychCentral

My Dad Reads ‘Wuthering Heights’ For The First Time

20 June 2016

From Rosa Lyster via Hairpin:

My dad and I are enthusiasts. We are two punchy salespeople, and we would like to interest you in this book. It is Middlemarch, or All My Puny Sorrows, or A Brief History of Seven Killings, or the last thing we really liked. Please read it right now. You might as well, because we will not hush until you do. Just get it over with, and then come back and tell us that you loved it.

We are blind to the faults of the things that we love. My dad will not, for instance, hear a word against Bach. If you get into his car and start it after he has been driving around by himself, you will be immediately pinned to your seat by the wall of Bach coming out of the speakers. It’s Bach at levels far beyond what I presume was intended. Bach is for when you are at home, surely, and you are putting together your elegant supper, and your friend arrives and says Wow what’s this, and you say It’s the Goldberg Variations, man.

. . . .

He is similarly bewildered by slights against the books he adores. My dad is a great one for tirelessly recommending books about Shackleton, or Poor Old Captain Scott of the Antarctic, or Darwin, or Roger Casement. He is very persuasive, and, as a result, I have read fifteen more books about Captain Scott than I need to.

. . . .

For a long time, these books were non-fiction only. My dad studied English at university . . . and assures me that he read heaps of novels when he was younger. At some point, though, he just stopped. Maybe he got a few duds in a row, or he read a book that was too sad, but at some point before I was born, he hardened his heart against fiction and turned exclusively to non-.

This happens sometimes, I think. Mostly to men. They begin to feel that there is something vaguely unsound about fiction. That it is charming, but will ultimately let you down, in the manner of a guest who chatters effusively at dinner but who did not bring any wine, and who ignores all the unattractive people at the table. That it could not teach you anything that wouldn’t be more effectively learned via a book about the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

He ditched fiction altogether, for about twenty-five years, and he was happy with this arrangement. Then, he put his back out — classic dad move. He was immobilized for weeks, and all he could do while he recovered was lie there and read.

. . . .

It’s not that he loved Lolita, understand — he is a nice man, and a dad, and the whole exercise was ultimately too gross for him, but he could not deny its impact. Here is an excerpt from an email he sent me while he was reading it:

“I’m just taking a well deserved break from Lolita. It’s so intense that its making me agitated. I feel that I may not be able to carry on, even though I know I will.”

Lolita renewed his respect for fiction, but it did not make him fall in love. Middlemarch did that. I was visiting my parents for the weekend when he was about halfway through, and he walked around the house like a man in a trance. His eyes were all misty, and he kept raising his hands to his head. When I got back to Cape Town, there were emails waiting, with subject lines like “DOROTHEA”, and “Oh God, Lydgate”, and “I think Mary Garth is great.” It was all we spoke about for months.

He felt very strongly about Middlemarch, but he was not totally sure about Dorothea. He liked her fine, but he could not really commit. He thought that she had it too easy, overall. Dorothea knows little of suffering, or at least not the polar explorer kind of suffering that my dad reveres: cold, sad, starving to death, etc. Crying out for help and no one even notices, etc. The suffering of a friendless orphan, a trembling reed of a person.

Enter Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre the novel, but also Jane Eyre the character, who my dad speaks about as if she is a real woman — the best woman to ever exist. Jane Eyre blew my dad’s mind, and Jane Eyre broke his heart. Subject line: JANE EYRE IS THE BEST. Subject line: I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN BEST FRIENDS WITH CHARLOTTE BRONTË. Subject line: Didn’t you love the bit where she puts her foot down? Subject line: Didn’t you love the end?

The problem is, I didn’t. I didn’t really like any of it. Being the salesman that he is, it is hard for my dad to resign himself to the fact that I don’t love his favorite book ever. I just don’t. It’s too long, and too dense with stuff I can’t care about. I find Mr. Rochester creepy as the dickens. Most importantly, I have difficulties with Jane herself. I respect her, but I cannot warm to her. Something about her self-control, I think, her ability to make decisions and then turn them over in her mind, altering them if required. I like to make decisions and then shoot them out of a canon straight away, so it’s difficult for us to relate to each other.

Link to the rest at Hairpin

You Know You’re a Crime Writer When …

20 June 2016

From author Lee Lofland:

What is it that sets writers of crime fiction apart from, well, everyone else in the entire world? Well …

1. The worst murder scene in the world pales in comparison with the thoughts roaming through your mind at any given moment of the day.

2. You actually do wonder what human blood smells like.

3. Somewhere in your house is a book containing photos of crime scenes and/or dead bodies.

4. You want to ride in the back seat of a police car.

5. Your internet search history has a file all its own at the Department of Homeland Security.

. . . .

11. Your favorite bookmark is an actual toe tag from the morgue.

Link to the rest at Lee Lofland and thanks to Jacqueline for the tip.

Here’s a link to Lee Lofland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

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