Books in General

Too many books? What ‘Super Thursday’ tells us about publishing

7 October 2015

From The Telegraph:

In his new book Power of Reading, the sociologist Frank Furedi talks about “the Gutenberg Parenthesis”. This is the idea that the age of the book was, in fact, a 500-year blip; that, thanks to the internet, we’re moving from a written culture back towards an oral one.

It’s the academic version of an argument you often hear. No one buys books. No one reads books – in print, anyway. No one makes books – at least, not the good kind, the kind they used to make before publishing became commercial and commoditised.

But is any of that actually true? I came across the Gutenberg idea because I decided to engage in an experiment: to take the temperature of the book market by looking at every single book published on a particular day. And not just any day, but this coming Thursday, October 8. This is “Super Thursday”, the busiest and most important date in the publishing calendar, when the big firms and big names launch their assault on the Christmas market, accompanied by a three-day promotional blitz under the banner “Books Are My Bag”.

. . . .

And if you look at the data, what do you find? For starters, you find the book market in rather better shape than most people expected. The number of books is up – The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan estimates that there are 20 per cent more top-tier titles than last year. And so are publishers’ profits: after years of fretting about the impact of the internet, sales of print books have risen this year for the first time since 2007. Partly, says Tivnan, this is because of the resurgence of Waterstones, but it’s also because publishers have become savvier about what works online, and what reads best in print.

. . . .

A-list celebrities, says Tivnan, “bring in revenue, but they’re a gamble – if you pay high six figures or even low seven figures, you have to sell a lot of books to earn that back”. Over the past couple of years, there were as many misses as hits, including such seemingly safe bets as Stephen Fry and John Cleese.

The celebrity market now is smaller and safer: lower advances, less risk.

. . . .

In fact, the picture that emerges from the full list is not one of commercial conformity, but bewildering variety. Of the adult titles published on Super Thursday, roughly 50 are academic, from critical portraits of Kierkegaard to a study of Adolf Hitler’s domestic interiors. Another 50 are educational or vocational. That leaves just over 200 “general” books for adults, of which fewer than a 10th are memoirs of any kind.

Yes, there are 11 books categorised as “humour”, and 10 books about football (Liverpool are top of the table, which isn’t a sentence you often hear, but Tivnan explains that they and Manchester United are the only guaranteed sellers). But taking a random set of titles yields a smorgasbord of topics: “Dogs as pets”, “Human geography”, “Dictionaries; crosswords”, “Poetry anthologies (various poets)”, “Historical maps and atlases”, “Formula One and Grand Prix”.

There is something else that leaps out from the list. These are not, in fact, books for the nation – they are books for its dads and grandads. There’s no chick-lit, for example, and the handful of novels tend to surge with testosterone: Martina Cole on crime, Harris on Rome, Bernard Cornwell on the Vikings, Melvyn Bragg rewriting the Peasants’ Revolt as a saga of blood, sex and pox.

. . . .

There’s a parallel here with television. For years, people fretted that online competition and shorter attention spans would see TV become a cultural wasteland. Instead, the big worry now is that we have reached “Peak TV”, with just too much good stuff competing for our attention. The same is true of publishing.

Yes, in the era of “Peak Book”, some worthy titles that hope to make a splash will struggle to muster a ripple.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

hapax legomenon

6 October 2015

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

hapax legomenon, n.

. . . .

Chiefly in linguistic and literary studies: a word or word form which is recorded only once in a text, in the work of a particular author, or in a body of literature.

. . . .

1774 J. Rhudde Ribband (ed. 3) (Annotations section), The word ‘Ribband’, is of that order, called, hapax legomenon, [h.e. [sic] a word, found occurring but once] in respect, we mean, of our English Bible.

. . . .

1957 C. Brooke-Rose Lang. of Love iv. 34 She saw herself go through the minutiæ of scansion, dialect forms, emendation, haplography, hapax legomena and anacolutha in Beowulf.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

So your TPV challenge for today is to use hapax legomenon in a conversation.

Hardwired for Stories

4 October 2015

From The Digital Reader:

Pareidolia is the scientific term for our tendency to see faces in objects.

. . . .

Actually, pareidolia is more than that — it encompasses several phenomena, from seeing animals in cloud shapes to hearing ‘hidden messages’ on records played backwards. When presented with random or incomplete stimulus, our brains labor to find patterns or significance. So, we see faces in things that have no face.


. . . .

Similarly, I think our brains are addicted to stories, and strain mightily to find a narrative even when presented with random (or contradicting) events. We want to identify a hero and a villain, we will find some side to root for, and we imagine that every course will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There will be a conflict, a decisive outcome, and a happy ending (or a cathartic release after tragedy). We want to tell stories, and we’ll make them out of the flimsiest of figments, connecting dots and assigning roles as required — facts be damned.

We see this in journalism — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Finding the story or through-line can help us make sense of new and unfamiliar information, and a well crafted narrative makes the end result more readable (or watchable, in the case of documentary film). Indeed, this is why one term used for journalistic output is story, and also why History is History. (actually the etymology there is reversed – we derived ‘story’ from Greek/Latin ‘historia’)

The problem comes with the constant, always-on, 24 hour news cycle of Cable TV, newswires, and internet feeds. We are presented with so much random stimulus, our brains are begging to see the story behind it all, even when there isn’t a ‘story’ per se.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

Who said it? Stephen King or Mark Twain?

3 October 2015

From The Bangor Daily News:

Stephen King, one of the world’s bestselling authors and perhaps the most famous living Mainer, is known for writing dozens of horror novels, many of which have been made into movies or television shows. He’s a star of popular culture, and despite increasing appreciation for his place in literature, King once reportedly called himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

In contrast, Mark Twain, who wrote the 19th century classics “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is considered one of the greatest literary icons in American history.

Both have become quotable philosophers in their own ways, however, and may be more alike than their writing styles let on. Read these 12 quotations — some are from interviews, some are excerpts from books — and determine which author they’ve been attributed to. Is it Stephen King? Or Mark Twain?

. . . .

 “There are basically two types of people: People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”

. . . .

 “In small towns people scent the wind with noses of uncommon keenness.”

“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

Link to the rest at The Bangor Daily News and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Cheat! It’s the Only Way to Get Published

3 October 2015

From The New Republic:

Unlike Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet made infamous for his inclusion in this year’s Best American Poetry under the name Yi-Fen Chou, I keep no “detailed records” of my literary submissions. I prefer to focus on the successes, few and insubstantial as those may be.

Some years ago, I wrote a short story and began sending it around to the journals and small magazines, which (relatively) promptly declined to accept it. After a few failed efforts, I chanced upon a publication that offered detailed instructions on its website for unsolicited submissions. This was a bicoastal operation, with offices in Brooklyn and Portland (a lit-world cliché even then, but not quite on today’s order of eye-rolling magnitude), and the editors provided two mailing addresses: Portland for stories by writers without an agent; Brooklyn for those with agents. I was, at the time, “between representation,” by which I mean I had sent samples of my writing to a good 25 or so agents in New York and points elsewhere, without luck. The closest I’d come to securing an agent was at a writers’ conference I had attended in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My attendance fee bought me a five-minute sit-down with an agent named Cherry Weiner, which has nothing to do with this story, but: Cherry Weiner is a fantastic, fantastic name.

At the time of these submissions, I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo, and rules be damned, sent it to the folks in Brooklyn. A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story, which I think rose slightly-but-not-significantly above not-half-bad. It was published a few months later after a few skillful edits. I earned $500, which I believe is $495 more than I had earned in my fiction-publishing career to that point.

. . . .

 I sent a story directly to the editor of a California journal after having first asked him to write something for me at my publication. He never did, but he took my story. Another editor gratefully accepted something I wrote and within days of publication had sent me a story of his own to consider.

. . . .

 I was one of four unpaid seasonal interns at my former publication before joining the staff, and one of our responsibilities was to read the piles of unsolicited submissions—the slush pile—and reject them. Once a month or so, the editors would order in pizza and beer for us and we’d spend a night in our group cubicle, dashing the hopes of foolhardy writers with money to waste on postage. I would make it through a few sentences on each one, drunkenly reading selections from the laughable worst, sign the rejection slip—slip!!!—with a fake name (Patrick Haste was my Yi-Fen Chou—I went WASP with my perfidy), and move on to the next.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Does Banned Books Week Really Matter Anymore?

29 September 2015

From Publishing Perspectives:

September 27th through October 3rd is officially Banned Book Week.

And with that, the American Library Association has released its list of the most banned books of 2014:

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”
  2. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
    Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”

. . . .

“The ALA promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

“A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.”

. . . .

But at Slate, Ruth Graham argues that “Banned Books Week is a Crock.”

Why? “No one bans books anymore. We won!”

Looking at the recent case of a Jackie Sims, the mother of a 15 year old son in Knoxville, Tennessee who objected to the assignment of Rebecca Skloot’s critically acclaimed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because she thought the book was “pornographic,” and wanted it “taken out of the hands of all the students in the district,” Graham writes that:

” … the brouhaha got a boost from the approach of Banned Books Week, an annual event promoted with much fanfare by the American Library Association and other organizations. This year’s event began Sunday and runs through the end of the week, with parties and “read-outs” all over the country. It’s a cause that’s easy to support; Banned Books Week is well-intentioned, and it’s unquestionably run by the good guys. In the battle between a prudish mom and freedom, it’s not hard to pick sides. But in feeding off of conflicts like Sims vs. the school board, Banned Books Week also traffics in fear-mongering over censorship, when in fact the truth is much sunnier: There is basically no such thing as a “banned book” in the United States in 2015.

“The statistics certainly sound alarming. Since Banned Books Week was instituted in 1982, the event’s website informs us, 11,300 books have been challenged. In 2014 alone, 311 books were banned or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States, with many more cases unreported. It would be easy to assume that the literal banning of books is still a routine occurrence in the United States.

“But take a closer look, and there’s much less for freedom-loving readers to be concerned with. The modifier ‘banned or challenged’ contains a lot of wiggle room, for one. A ‘challenge,’ in the ALA’s definition, is a ‘formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.’ By that definition, Sims’ one-woman freak-out in Tennessee qualifies as a ‘challenge,’ despite the fact that it posed no real threat to Skloot’s book, let alone the ‘freedom to read.’”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

A Facelift for Shakespeare

29 September 2015

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension.

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

In “Hamlet,” when Polonius famously advises Laertes to “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” much of what he says before that point reaches our modern ears in a fragmentary state at best. In the lines, “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character,” look means “make sure that,” and character is a verb, meaning “to write.” Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, “Note these things well.”

He goes on to say: “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment,” which seems to mean that you should let other people criticize you but refrain from judging them—strange advice. But by “take censure” Shakespeare meant “evaluate,” so that Polonius is really saying “assess” other men but don’t jump to conclusions about them.

We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

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

PG hopes they retain really good translators. Poets, too.

How Many Novels Should You Write in a Year? Bad Advice for Writers Has Your Answer!

22 September 2015

From The Huffington Post Blogs:

We at Bad Advice for Writers are a little upset.

We’ve been dispensing official Bad Advice for a little while now . . .  and we take this job seriously, because legitimately bad advice for writers is an art form, and we like to take our time crafting that advice. We have a laboratory. And white coats. We look adorable in them.

With all the work we put into this, we’re displeased when someone who is not licensed and certified to administer bad advice to writers comes along and does so without even consulting our institute first.

All right, it’s a little bit our fault.

A few weeks back, a famous and somewhat prolific author wrote an article in The New York Times about how writing fast isn’t such a bad thing and it would be nice if some of his personal favorite authors maybe put out a novel more often than we elect Presidents. We should have taken this as a sign.

Shortly after that came another article from a not-famous, not-at-all prolific probably-author who declared that being too prolific is bad, and further that there is a maximum number of books an author should write and a year. The number she gave? “Less than four.”

We have a lot of problems with this, because while this is certainly bad advice, it is not the worst bad advice, and certainly nothing our institute would ever certify. For starters, it’s incredibly vague: less than four could be a lot of numbers. Three, for instance. Or even two!

. . . .

Question: what is the correct number of novels a novelist should write in a year?


Based on our calculations — 1.736

Yes, that is the exact number of novels a writer should aim for in order to create a genuine, legitimate, quality work of novelistic art.

You’re welcome!

Also, if this number looks familiar to you, it should! It’s the Golden Ratio! Plus 0.118!
An amazing coincidence!

We’re sure you have a lot of questions.

How did you arrive at this figure?

Math! Lots of it! Using numbers!

What can I do with this information?

So much!

Link to the rest at Huffington Post Blogs and thanks to Mark for the tip.


The Secrets of Vera Caspary, the Woman Who Wrote “Laura”

22 September 2015

From The New Yorker:

In a recent piece about the book “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s,” edited by Sarah Weinman and published this month by the Library of America, Megan Abbott, a woman crime writer of the 2000s, pointed out that “women are the primary readers of crime fiction.” There is, Abbott noted, a popular theory about this: “that women savor the victim role,” that they “are masochists, unable to rise above the roles assigned them by the patriarchy.”

Abbott rightly refuted this theory, in part by detailing the virtues of the suspense novels that the collection reprints, which do not, in fact, gives us female characters who are mere “victims or corpses.” She might also have pointed to the women who wrote them—Vera Caspary, for instance, who does not, for one moment in her long, unusual life, seem to have imagined herself a victim of anyone or anything.

Here, for example, is a good Caspary story. Late in 1944, she was having dinner at the Stork Club when the director Otto Preminger walked in. Preminger was just coming off the great success of “Laura,” the film he directed based on Caspary’s novel of the same name, which is included in “Women Crime Writers.” In both the book and the movie, a woman is shot dead in her Manhattan apartment; days later, the presumed victim, Laura, walks in the door quite obviously alive. The mix-up makes her a suspect in her own murder. The success of Preminger’s adaptation vaulted him out of intra-studio shouting matches into fame and industry clout (and an Oscar nomination). He could have behaved graciously toward the woman whose novel provided the characters, story, and premise that audiences and critics alike couldn’t resist.

Instead, as Caspary put it in a memoir, “Preminger turned with a grin of triumph to inform me that the biggest hit of the year was the screenplay I’d criticized.” Preminger was a difficult man, known for screaming on sets and casting himself as a Nazi in his own movies. He was big, too. Caspary was shorter, older, framed by a cloud of frizzy hair. The “hysterical” shouting that followed Preminger’s remark brought waiters running and Caspary’s companions to their feet, as they “snatched off their jackets prepared to defend my honour.” A brawl was narrowly averted. This, Caspary reported, was a “fuss and fury that swelled my pride.”

Caspary did hate the script that Preminger had first shown her. She’d given up the right to shape her characters for the screen by way of what she called “one of the worst contracts ever signed.” “Laura,” when published, had been a hot enough property to attract the attentions of Marlene Dietrich. But Caspary had, by then, been kicking around the movie business for a long time. She used the generous screenplay payments to finance her novels. Conscious of what a struggle it could be, in the collaborative environment of the movie studios, to get a picture made, she made an impulsive decision to let the producers write their own script.

When invited to read the first draft of the script, what bothered her most was Preminger’s ideas about the story’s dead-but-not-dead title character, Laura Hunt. He told Caspary, “In the book, Laura has no character. She’s nothing, a nonentity.” He added, “She has no sex. She has to keep a gigolo.” (He was referring to Laura’s fiancé, whom she supports financially but who is never identified as a prostitute.) Preminger had remedied this by all but stripping out Laura’s professional ambitions and practical-mindedness.

Caspary was appalled. “I raged like a shrew,” she remembered. “I resented Preminger’s turning her into the Hollywood version of a cute career girl.” Here, she thought, was evidence that Preminger didn’t know a thing about women, their “maternal instinct,” their “satisfaction in consoling a troubled man.”

. . . .

Caspary was invested in the character because she’d modeled Laura’s personality on her own. She was a “career girl” avant la lettre and never seems to have pictured or wished herself otherwise. Born to bourgeois Jewish parents in Chicago in 1899, she went out to work almost as soon as she turned eighteen and rarely stopped churning out copy from that day until she died. There was no college and no finishing school, no slow courtship of traditional critical respect. She had to make a living, so she wrote.

. . . .

 “I became both editor and staff of Trianon Topics,” she explained, “an eight-page tabloid-sized weekly devoted to clean dancing.” She worked the way most journalists once did: she hung around, talking to every sort of person who came through the place. And though she could not print scandals, she found that “through the gathering of inane and trivial news I was educated and profoundly changed.”

. . . .

 Caspary’s first novel, called “The White Girl,” tells the story of a black woman passing as white in Chicago. It was praised by a number of African-American newspapers, even as white papers mostly ignored the book. “There are many Solaria Coxes in America,” the Chicago Defender wrote, “and Miss Vera Caspary, who happens to be a former Chicagoan, must have met some of them. She knows them far better than most white people get to know them.”

. . . .

The writing of “Laura” was a kind of accident, done for money. Caspary did not like murder mysteries herself, and she saw in them a structural flaw. “The murderer, the most interesting character,” she wrote, “has always to be on the periphery of action lest he give away the secret that can be revealed only in the final pages.” If she was going to write one, she decided she needed to do it differently.

A friend suggested she read Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” and try out his manner of using the voices of several characters to weave the story. It worked, not least because she found inspiration for Lydecker’s type in Collins’s villainous, obese Count Fosco. “Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries—a good friend to a man and to those about him, as often as it is his enemy,” Fosco declares in that book.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker


20 September 2015

PG was sorry to see problems arise in some of the comments while he was away. Due to third-world internet access during his trip, he couldn’t keep up with discussions and emails last week.

The comments have been and should be the best part of TPV. In order for that to remain so, respect for opinions that vary a great deal from one another is necessary. Unfortunately, in many places on the internet, the bad drives out the good as individuals or groups conduct personal attacks others for their views.

In the US, the political season surrounding presidential elections seems to grow longer and longer to the general detriment of the quality of public online conversations about a wide range of topics. “Everything is political” formerly represented the beliefs of only small groups of activists but, unfortunately, today seems to be a credo for an increasing number of individuals of all political views.

While PG won’t police comments for opinions with which he personally disagrees, he will police comments for discourtesy to others, personal attacks and intentional goading of others for their beliefs. He will be aware of topics that seem to generate discussions containing more heat than light, but doesn’t want to avoid topics of interest to authors. In that past, he has shut off the commenting feature for a few posts when discussion descended into ugly argument. He has and will also terminate commenting by those who feel unable to avoid personal or insulting attacks on others.

If you see any comments that you feel go over the line, please send PG a comment through the Contact Page so he can be aware of problems as soon as possible.


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