Monitoring the international publishing scene

From The New Publishing Standard:

Monitoring the international publishing scene can be depressing at times. A lot of times.

Because even in the 2020s a common theme being touted by events organisers, culture ministers, publishing execs and other authoritative figures that really should know better is that young people are not reading because they are too busy with their mobile phones, wasting time on social media when they could be reading a dry, dull-as-possible, micro-font text book written for a 1950s audience.

What is up with the youth of today? Don’t they understand that reading is something you have to do – a daily chore – not something you choose to do because it is pleasurable?

It’s no coincidence that this nonsense is being perpetuated in the least dynamic book markets, while conversely the dynamic book markets openly embrace social media, digital reading and the accessibility of mobile devices to expand reading.

This past week a useful survey from the UK Publishers Association (it happens!) took in the opinions of over 2,000 16-25 year olds (the so-called Generation Z) and confirmed what most of us in the western book markets are already acutely aware of – that social media drives reading and drives book sales.

The focus here was on the social media platform BookTok. Here’s what the PA survey concluded:

  • 59% of 16-25 year olds say that BookTok or book influencers have helped them discover a passion for reading.
  • 55% turn to BookTok for recommendations
  • 66% say that BookTok has inspired them to read a book that they would have never considered otherwise.

And bricks & mortar booksellers need not worry this is only drving digital book sales. From the press release:

The good news is that Booktok can also have a positive impact on physical bookshops, with nearly half (49%) of respondents visiting a physical bookshop to buy a book they have seen on BookTok. 

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG notes the OP is based on a research project conducted by the UK Publishers Association and includes a link to the press release describing that research project.

Another game falls to an AI player

From The Economist:

Backgammon was an easy win. Chess, harder. Go, harder still. But for some aficionados it is only now that artificial intelligence (ai) can truly say it has joined the game-playing club—for it has proved it can routinely beat humans at Diplomacy.

For those unfamiliar with the game, its board is a map of Europe just before the first world war (except that, for no readily apparent reason, Montenegro is missing). Participants, seven ideally, each take on the role of one of the Great Powers: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey. Each has armies and navies, and geographically based resources to support them, and can use its forces to capture the territory of neighbours, thus gaining the means to raise more forces while depriving others of the same.

The trick is that, at least at the beginning, players will get nowhere without making agreements to collaborate—yet they are not bound by the game’s rules to keep to these agreements. Only when orders for the movement of troops and vessels, which have to be written down, are revealed, does a player discover who really is a friend, or an enemy.

Cicero, a program devised by a group of Mark Zuckerberg’s employees who dub themselves the Meta Fundamental ai Research Diplomacy Team, proved an adept pupil. As the team describe in Science, when they entered their creation into an online Diplomacy league, in which it played 40 games, it emerged as one of the top 10% of players—and no one rumbled that it was not human.

In all past ai game-playing projects the program has learned by reinforcement. Playing repeatedly against itself or another version of itself, it acts first at random, then more selectively. Eventually, it learns how to achieve the desired goal. Cicero was taught this way, too. But that was only part of its training. Besides having the reasoning to plan a winning strategy, a successful Diplomacy player must also possess the communicative ability to implement it.

The Meta team’s crucial contribution was therefore to augment reinforcement learning with natural-language processing. Large language models, trained on vast amounts of data to predict deleted words, have an uncanny ability to mimic the patterns of real language and say things that humans might. For Cicero, the team started with a pre-trained model with a baseline understanding of language, and fine-tuned this on dialogues from more than 40,000 past games, to teach it Diplomacy-specific patterns of speech.

To play the game, Cicero looks at the board, remembers past moves and makes an educated guess as to what everyone else will want to do next. Then it tries to work out what makes sense for its own move, by choosing different goals, simulating what might happen, and also simulating how all the other players will react to that.

Once it has come up with a move, it must work out what words to say to the others. To that end, the language model spits out possible messages, throws away the bad ideas and anything that is actual gobbledygook, and chooses the ones, appropriate to the recipients concerned, that its experience and algorithms suggest will most persuasively further its agenda.

Cicero, then, can negotiate, convince, co-operate and compete.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that lawyers frequently negotiate, convince, co-operate and compete. He will also note that the market for legal AI software is booming now.

He understands the state of the legal art hasn’t reached the point where one can buy a software program instead of hiring a lawyer to go to court, but he suspects it’s only a matter of time.

A Case for the Midlist

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The common wisdom tells us that time is money, but for a writer, money is time. Writing is not the same as typing—it takes much more time: time to gaze out the window awhile thinking, reflecting and dreaming your way onto the page for instance, to pause, reconsider, order your thoughts, conduct research, to write, of course, but also to read what you have written, consider it, change it, polish it. This is what grants and advances against royalties are for.

I was in my early 30s when I received my first advance. I can’t remember the exact figure. Something like $14,000, and, of course, I only got half of that on signing. While this does not seem like very much now, in 1974, cobbled together with renting rooms in my house, workshop fees, and lectures, it allowed me to focus on writing my book. Since, as it turned out, Woman and Nature took me four years to write, the advance did not last long enough. But with a bit of luck and lots of nerve, I managed. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts during one of those years made a big difference.

Over time, as I gained readers, the advances increased. I received a relatively larger advance for 1981’s Pornography and Silence, and that one took me far less time to write. During the period it took me to write that book, I felt relatively flush. But soon after it was in print, I was close to being broke again.

If writing as a profession is often less than profitable, it’s also wildly unpredictable with regard to finances. For my next book I had several ideas, none of which I was able to sell. I did not develop any of these proposals. Finally, during what was understood as a crisis caused by a nuclear arms race, I decided to write about the intersection between gender and weapons of mass destruction. I knew I had the right subject when I realized that whether I found a publisher or not, I was going to do it. I did receive an advance for that book eventually, though the money disappeared long before I completed A Chorus of Stones, which came out in 1992. That book took me 10 years to write, during which it often seemed I was living off the fumes from my passion for the subject.

The research alone took me at least three years. It was a perilous time, during which more than once either my health or my spirits faltered. Yet I never regretted my decision. The greatest reward writers receive is not monetary. Like farmers who love their work, most writers are less motivated by profit than by love of the work itself.

Though A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in many classes throughout the country, it was not a bestseller. It was what is called a midlist book. I was turned down for more than one grant, most probably because—as its subtitle, The Private Life of War, indicates—weaving public and private histories together, the book fell outside familiar categories.

Over the last two decades, as the publishing industry faltered in the wake of the internet, most large publishers stopped giving midlist writers advances large enough to last more than a few months. Even though, in the first year after they are published, midlist books do not sell as many copies as bestsellers do, they often stay in print for many more years, catching up in sales over time.

But there is another, more compelling reason to support the midlist. Though some bestsellers break boundaries and explore new ideas, many tend to align with what is already popular, what we already know and want to hear more about. By contrast, as they venture into the unknown, midlist books often take greater risks, inventing new forms, revealing unique ways of seeing. Isn’t this what we need now as we find ourselves sinking under the weight of a history of unfortunate decisions our culture has made in the past?

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Or, you could self-publish, release your books when you decide they’re ready, not pigeonhole yourself in the midlist, charge less so more people could buy and read your books and still earn more money than you do on the midlist dusk of traditional publishing, to say nothing of living with a sense that your work is not treated as particularly important by your publisher, upon which you are totally reliant for your ability to continue writing.

[The previous paragraph qualifies as PG’s longest run-on sentence of the day. He hopes no English teachers were harmed.)

PG suggests that, if you want to make a career writing books, you will complete and publish more books via the self-publishing path and end up earning a significantly higher lifetime income from your writing, than you will by being one of the also-rans in a traditional publisher’s stable of authors.

(Another run-on, but nothing to brag about.)

If you’re Barack and Michelle, by all means, go to a traditional publisher who will pay you a $65 million book advance which will never earn out, but you’ve already got the money in your pocket, so you don’t really care.

(PG has runonitis today.)

How Ukraine’s artists are taking on Putin’s Russia

From The Guardian:

When I meet him, artist Oleksiy Sai, along with his wife and son, have slept the night in their studio, a warren of rooms tucked behind an unassuming courtyard in central Kyiv. It’s on the ground floor, and with good walls, so they reckon it’s reasonably safe from Russian rockets. Safer, that is, than their apartment: the previous day they were woken by the juddering scream-boom of cruise missile strikes, one cratering a children’s playground a block from their flat. Somehow, their windows survived, though the glass was blown out of most of the nearby buildings. Now, the whole family is busy making work: his son Vasyl is at a screen editing videos; his wife, Svitlana Ratoshnyuk, is making folksy textiles embroidered with “Fuck Putin” in Ukrainian.

Before the war, Sai – slim, intense, wearing a black hoodie – used to make colourful works, based on Excel software, that wryly commented on “office life and global culture”. But when the Russians invaded on 24 February, he says, “I forgot about art completely, I forgot all my plans and started working for the war.” First, he began rolling out designs for protest posters. “I know how to do it fast,” Sai says; he honed the skill nearly a decade ago, during the 2013 Maidan Square protests against the pro-Russian then president, Viktor Yanukovych. Sai’s banner designs have been seen on the streets of London, New York and Berlin. They are not subtle. “Unilever! Quit Russia!” reads one, the familiar corporate logo rendered as a U-shaped spatter of blood. Another depicts a line of Russian medals “For torture”, “For looting” and “For the genocide of the Ukrainian people”.

Later, Sai made a video work. He shows it to me on his computer. Brutal images march across the screen in a grim procession: shattered and broken bodies, twisted and collapsed buildings, the full Goya-esque horror of war. The raw material for the piece was 7,000 photographs from the conflict’s barbaric heart – gathered from journalists, but also from photographers he knew who had signed up as combatants and taken pictures deep amid the raw carnage. “My goal is to terrify people,” he says. “To show that the war is total. To show that it’s fucking serious.” The work has been shown at the Nato headquarters, at the European parliament. Its sound consists of radio intercepts of Russian soldiers talking to their mothers or girlfriends, along with a sort of dull metronomic beat that gives the whole work a “zombified” feel, as Sai puts it. “It’s too scary for news,” he says. “But for art, it’s possible.” None of the images is captioned, there’s no contextual information; it’s designed to cut to the marrow. It’s certainly not intended to be journalism. As an artwork, “it gives you a deeper emotional connection, and a deeper knowledge”, he says. He calls it “propaganda” before checking himself: “It’s not propaganda. It’s not the stuff I want to do, it’s the stuff I need to do.” He adds: “It is practical and useful, and people changed their minds about the war. It worked.” In the resistance against the Russian invasion, Sai’s art is his weapon.

The work is distressing; after a few moments, to my relief, he pauses the video. I can’t help wondering what it was like to live among these images, studying them, editing them together in his small dark studio. “It was three weeks of hell. I dreamed about them. They got into my head,” he says. He developed a nervous tic, started scratching himself obsessively. For relief, he has been making what he calls his Smoke series of drawings – swirls of black that recall the clouds rising from the site of missile strikes. After Russian attacks, Ukrainian outlets show footage not of the affected buildings, but only the smoke – so as not to reveal whether the intended target was hit. There’s a stack of these Smoke works at the back of the studio; he’s given lots away so they can be sold to raise money for the war effort. “I’m lucky to get to edit in this comfortable place, smoking and eating,” he says. “I won’t lose my leg doing it. It’s easier than firing a gun.”

. . . .

Where to begin a story of war? Every war teems with stories: stories of survival and violence, of resistance and compliance, of struggle and terror. They go together: many of the oldest stories that survive (the Iliad, the Odyssey) are stories of war and its aftermath. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war full of stories but also a war about a story, about the accepted facts, about the prevailing narrative. Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, as he calls it, seems to have been intended to provide a spectacle, a kind of war movie, for domestic consumption, drawing the Russians together against what he hopes to frame as a common enemy – described variously as Nazis, terrorists or even, bizarrely, as the forces of Satan. At the same time, the war’s false justification has its own disturbing narrative, its own warped internal logic. Underlying Putin’s military aggression, as his speeches and essays have for years made clear, is his assertion that Ukraine has no distinct existence – that it can be seen only as an adjunct to Russia. In such a war on a nation’s culture, identity and history, it is artists and cultural figures who find themselves the crack troops of the resistance. The war is on one level about borders, and it is being fought with shells, Himars rocket launchers and Shahed-136 drones. But it is, on a deeper level, about culture. And, desperately holding the line, fighting on the cultural front, weaponising their work, are Ukraine’s artists.

. . . .

What happens to art when a war appears as an unwelcome guest in your country? In the short term, war ruptures language and meaning; art seems pointless. No one I speak to in Ukraine can forget the shock of the first day of the invasion – a day that is sealed into people’s memories as surely as a fly trapped in amber, to borrow an image from Maksym Kurochkin, a Kyiv-based playwright turned soldier. Musicians tell me how they seemed to fall deaf, in those early days; novelists, how they started to muddle languages they’d never confused before. Art is no use against rockets or guns. “You could not protect your family from a rifle with your poems,” as Oleksandr Mykhed, a writer I meet at a book festival in Lviv, puts it. Everything collapsed in on itself, in those early days.

The best use of words, as the invasion began, was not to arrange them into elegant poetic forms, but to use them to send a message to your friends that you were alive, or to help someone stay safe. Mykhed speaks of a backpack his wife, Olena, has put together, containing equipment to use in the event of a nuclear attack, along with directions. “If the backpack survives, then we have a piece of nonfiction with instructions for restoring life,” he says. On 23 February, the day before the invasion, he finished writing a book. As the tanks rolled in, he volunteered for the military. On the fifth day of the war he was sleeping in barracks. On the seventh, his home was shelled to destruction. In such a way, war renders a life unrecognisable, over the course of a single week.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Rejection

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

. . . .

Fear of Rejection

Notes

One of our basic human needs is to be loved, wanted, needed, and accepted, so it makes sense that people generally want to avoid rejection. When this fear is taken to an extreme, it can hold the character back in their career, relationships, and their basic enjoyment of life. As a result, characters with this fear often feel stuck where they are, unable to grow.

What It Looks Like

Being overly agreeable
Exhibiting a strong work ethic (to prove their worth to others)
Being a perfectionist
Being passive aggressive rather than straightforward about their feelings
The character not standing up for themselves
Sticking like glue to the people who accept and love the character
Being conflict-averse
Being shy with new people and in new situations
Taking extra pains with their appearance so they’ll always look their best
Being a people-pleaser
Being evasive or dishonest about beliefs and opinions that others may not agree with
Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking or feeling
Getting their feelings hurt easily
The character keeping mostly to themselves
Avoiding romantic relationships unless they’re absolutely sure of the other person’s feelings
Underachieving and encouraging low expectations (so people won’t expect too much, be disappointed, and reject them)
Having secret hobbies
Ending romantic relationships and leaving jobs prematurely (rejecting others before they can reject the character)

Common Internal Struggles

Wanting to open up to others but being afraid their true thoughts and opinions will be criticized
Wanting to stay in a relationship but also wanting to get out of it
Being afraid of failure or letting people down
The character despairing of ever reaching their full potential
Longing to be in a romantic relationship but being too afraid to put themselves out there
Struggling with loneliness but not knowing how to build deep connections with others
Feeling unwanted or unlovable
Constantly worry about what others think
The character wondering what’s wrong with them

Flaws That May Emerge

Antisocial, Cowardly, Disorganized, Insecure, Jealous, Needy, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Suspicious, Timid, Withdrawn

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler

From Vulture:

Octavia Estelle Butler was named after two of the most important people in her life: her mother, Octavia Margaret Guy, and her grandmother, Estella. Her grandmother was an astonishing woman. She raised seven children on a plantation in Louisiana, chopping sugarcane, boiling laundry in hot cauldrons, and cooking and cleaning, not only for her family but for the white family that owned the land. There was no school for Black children, but Estella taught Octavia Margaret enough to read and write. As far as Butler could tell, her grandmother’s life wasn’t far removed from slavery — the only difference was she had worked hard enough and saved enough money to move everyone out west during the Great Migration, to Pasadena, California, in the early 1920s.

Octavia Margaret worked from an early age; she attended school in California but was pulled out after a few years to help earn money. When Butler was very young, her family used to “stay on the place,” meaning they lived on the property of the family they worked for. Her father, Laurice James Butler, worked as a shoeshiner and died when she was 3 years old. Later, her mother would rent a spot for the two of them in Pasadena and work as a day laborer for wealthy white women. Octavia Margaret’s dream was to have her own place where she could tend her garden. She was quiet and deeply religious, and she read Butler bedtime stories until she was 6, at which point she said, “Here’s the book. Now you read.”

In her family, Butler went by Junie, short for Junior, and in the world, she went by Estelle or Estella to avoid confusion for people looking for her mother. As a girl, she was shy. She broke down in tears when she had to speak in front of the class. Her youth was filled with drudgery and torment. The first time she remembered someone calling her “ugly” was in the first grade — bullying that continued through her adolescence. “I wanted to disappear,” she said. “Instead, I grew six feet tall.” The boys resented her growth spurt, and sometimes she would get mistaken for a friend’s mother or chased out of the women’s bathroom. She was called slurs. It was the only time in her life she really considered suicide.

She kept her own company. In her elementary-school progress reports, one teacher wrote that “she dreams a lot and has poor concentration.” That was true. She did dream a lot, and she began to write her dreams down in a large pink notebook she carried around with her. “I usually had very few friends, and I was lonely,” Butler said. “But when I wrote, I wasn’t.” By the time she was 10, she was writing her own worlds. At first, they were inspired by animals. She loved horses like those in The Black Stallion. When she saw an old pony at a carnival with festering sores swarmed by flies, she realized the sores had come from the other kids kicking the animal to make it go faster. Children’s capacity for cruelty stayed with her. She went home and wrote stories of wild horses that could shape-shift and that “made fools of the men who came to catch them.”

She found a refuge at the Pasadena Public Library, where she leaped into science fiction. She especially liked Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Zenna Henderson, whose book Pilgrimage she would buy for her friends to read. She was a comic-book nerd: first DC and then Marvel. When she was 12 years old, she watched Devil Girl From Mars, a black-and-white British science-fiction movie about a female alien commander named Nyah who has mind-control powers, a vaporizing ray gun, and a tight leather outfit with a cape that touches the floor. Butler thought she could come up with a better story than that, so she began to write her own: temporary escape hatches from a life of “boredom, calluses, humiliation, and not enough money,” as she saw it. “I needed my fantasies to shield me from the world.”

When she learned she could make a living doing this, she never let the thought go. Later, she would call it her “positive obsession” and would put it all on the line. Her mother’s youngest sister, who was the first in the family to go to college, became a nurse. Despite her family’s warnings, she did exactly what she wanted to do. That same aunt would tell Butler, “Negroes can’t be writers,” and advise her to get a sensible job as a teacher or civil servant. She could have stability and a nice pension, and if she really wanted to, she could write on the side. “My aunt was too late with it, though,” Butler said. “She had already taught me the only lesson I was willing to learn from her. I did as she had done and ignored what she said.”

Butler would grow up to write and publish a dozen novels and a collection of short stories. She did not believe in talent as much as hard work. She never told an aspiring writer they should give up, rather that they should learn, study, observe, and persist. Persistence was the lesson she received from her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt. In her lifetime, she would become the first published Black female science-fiction writer and be considered one of the forebears of Afrofuturism. “I may never get the chance to do all the things I want to do,” a 17-year-old Butler wrote in her journals, now archived at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. “To write 1 (or more) best sellers, to initiate a new type of writing, to win both the Nobel and the Pulitzer prizes (in reverse order), and to sit my mother down in her own house before she is too old and tired to enjoy it.” The world would catch up to her dreams. In 2020, Parable of the Sower would hit the best-seller list 27 years after its initial publication and 14 years after Butler’s death. After years of imitation, Hollywood has put adaptations of nearly all of her novels into development, beginning with a Kindred show coming to Hulu in December. She is now experiencing a canonization that had only just begun in the last decade of her life.

“I never bought into my invisibility or non-existence as a Black person,” Butler wrote in a journal entry in 1999. “As a female and as an African-American, I wrote myself into the world. I wrote myself into the present, the future, and the past.” For Butler, writing was a way to manifest a person powerful enough to overcome the circumstances of her birth and what she saw as her own personal failings. Her characters were brazen when she felt timid, leaders when she felt she lacked charisma. They were blueprints for her own existence. “I can write about ideal me’s,” she wrote on the cusp of turning 29. “I can write about the women I wish I was or the women I sometimes feel like. I don’t think I’ve ever written about the woman I am though. That is the woman I read and write to get away from. She has become a victim. A victim of her upbringing, a victim of her fears, a victim of her poverty — spiritual and financial. She is a victim of herself. She must climb out of herself and make her fate. How can she do this?”

. . . .

Butler was on the 6 p.m. Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh heading home from the Clarion Workshop for science-fiction writers. She felt proud of the past six weeks. She had just turned 23, and Clarion was the first time she was taken seriously as a writer. After graduating from high school, she had continued to live at home while attending Pasadena City College. She exhausted the creative-writing classes there and the extension classes at UCLA, where a teacher had once asked her, “Can’t you write anything normal?” She got into a screenwriting class at the Open Door Workshop through the Writer’s Guild of America, where she met the writer Harlan Ellison. She knew his work well, particularly his anthology Dangerous Visions, which was part of a literary, more socially minded turn in the genre. He later said she “couldn’t write screenplays for shit” but knew she was talented and encouraged her to go to Clarion, even giving her some money.

Clarion was the farthest Butler had ever been from home and required a three-day cross-country trip to get there. Adjusting was difficult at first. Western Pennsylvania was hot, humid, and lonely. The radio stations stopped playing at eight. When the other students socialized, she wrote letters to her friends and mother — six in the first week. Epistolary writing was a way to unload and unblock herself and, at least at Clarion, to feel less isolated. “Write me and prove that there are still some Negroes somewhere in the world,” she wrote to her mother early on. Ellison did tell her there would be one Black teacher there: Samuel Delany, who at 28 was a literary wunderkind. He’d published nine novels by then, winning the Nebula Award — the field’s highest honor — for Best Novel two years in a row. When Butler saw him for the first time, she told him he looked like a wild man from Borneo. (She probably shouldn’t have said that, she thought later.) When she felt particularly hard on herself, she would write letters to her mother she never sent. “I’m not doing anything,” she wrote. “I’m hiding in this blasted room crying to you. Which is disgusting.” Her mother had forgone dental work so Butler could attend. She wouldn’t complain like that.

Yes, she was still shy. She rarely spoke in class, and when she did, she put her hand over her mouth. (“She would never volunteer an answer,” Delany recalled, “but whenever I called on her, she always had an answer and it was always very smart.”) But Ellison’s session was a shot in the arm. Butler hadn’t turned in anything all workshop, and his one-story-a-day gauntlet invigorated her. She finished “Childfinder” at 4 a.m. — a story about a Black woman named Barbara who has the ability to locate children with latent psionic abilities and to nurture them. She sold the story to Ellison for his next anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, and an editor at Doubleday encouraged her to send along her book manuscript for Psychogenesis, a world she had been building out since her teens.

Ellison was a social force: vexing and impossible to feel neutral toward. He would tell Butler to “Write Black!” and “Write the ghetto the way you see it!” — advice that annoyed her. She also had a crush on him. In her journals, she gave him a code name, El Llano, something she did for all of her crushes (William Shatner was “Gelly”). She wanted someone who could help guide her career, and she had hoped Ellison could be her mentor, champion, and lover. “Llano could easily be that master,” she wrote. But she was wary of losing herself. “If I am not careful, he will take over without even realizing it. A master must teach me to use my own talent, not to lean on his. I love him, but this is not what he teaches. So I will continue to love him and teach myself.”

. . . .

The high of Clarion wore off quickly. Ellison had promised “Childfinder” would make Butler a star, but the publication of The Last Dangerous Visions kept getting delayed. She sent fragments of Psychogenesis to Diane Cleaver, the Doubleday editor she met at the workshop. Cleaver said it was promising but she would need the complete manuscript. Over the next five years, Butler didn’t sell any writing but wrote constantly. She had moved into her own place in Los Angeles, one side of a single-story duplex in Mid City. On Saturdays, she packed a draft of Psychogenesis into her briefcase and went to the library to do research. One day, she lost the briefcase in a department store; from this point on, she always made a backup copy of her work.

She tried to stick to a tight schedule. Every morning at 2 a.m., she woke up to write. This was the best time, before the day was filled with other people, when her mind could roam freely. Sunrise brought the life she did not ask for: menial jobs at factories, offices, and warehouses. She subsisted on work from a blue-collar temp agency she called “the Slave Market.” Her mother wished she would get a full-time job as a secretary, but Butler preferred manual labor because she didn’t have to “smile and pretend I was having a good time.” Her body hurt; she needed to go to the dentist. She took NoDoz to stay awake during the day. She was always crunching numbers: the price of paper, how far she could stretch a $99.07 biweekly paycheck. “Poverty is a constant, convenient, and unfortunately valid excuse for inaction,” she wrote in one journal entry.

The world of Psychogenesis had to do with psionics — telepathy, telekinesis, mind control — which was popular in the science fiction she was reading. The possibility that you could control the circumstances of your life with your mind held a strong appeal for Butler. She believed in its real-world application, too. She had begun taking self-hypnosis classes back in high school and devoured self-help books like The Magic of Thinking Big and 10 Days to a Great New Life. She particularly loved Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, a book of motivational practices cribbed from the French psychologist Émile Coué’s concept of optimistic auto-suggestion, which originated the mantra “In every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” She would learn to manifest.

One of Hill’s exercises was to go to a quiet spot and write down a sum of money you want to earn and how you would get it. You had to do it with “faith.” For a stretch of months in 1970, Butler would follow these instructions in the morning and at night. “Goal: To own, free and clear, $100,000 in cash savings,” she wrote. These mantras sounded a drumbeat throughout her early journals. She drew up contracts for herself with writing benchmarks — I will put together an outline; I will complete a short story — and signed them “OEB.” She copied out Frank Herbert’s quote “Fear is the mind killer” and wrote it again, breaking it up into stanzas. Writing was an incantation, a spell she could cast upon herself and the reader. “The goal right now is to achieve a scene of pure emotion,” she wrote. “I want the feeling to spark in the first sentence and I want my reader, my captive to read on helplessly hating with vehemence any interruption strong enough to break through to them. I shall succeed.”

Then, in December 1975, at 28, she sold her first book. After losing the Psychogenesis draft, she began writing another novel, Patternmaster, that takes place in the same universe. It was about a struggle for succession between two psionics, a young upstart named Teray and a seemingly unbeatable being named Coransee, both vying to become the next “Patternmaster” — that is, the leader of the telepathic race known as the Patternists. Butler sent the manuscript to Doubleday. By then, Cleaver had left, and Sharon Jarvis, the science-fiction editor, accepted the submission.

Link to the rest at Vulture

Physics at Its Simplest

From The Wall Street Journal:

Over the last few decades, there have been quite a few science-related books with one-word titles. “Cod” and “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky come to mind, as does Dava Sobel’s “Longitude.” Such books promise their readers a comprehensive exploration focused on a single concept. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the entries for “cod,” “salt” and “longitude” are neither long nor complicated, describing a fish, a mineral and a geographic line, respectively. The books revolve around exactly these things.

But look up “force” in the OED and the entry is significantly longer. Like “time” or “motion,” the word denotes a broad, multifarious concept used in many ways and for many purposes. Henry Petroski’s “Force” explores something broader than even the OED’s mammoth definition anticipates. Mr. Petroski is an emeritus professor of engineering at Duke and a prolific author who often examines a single object—a toothpick, a pencil, a bookshelf—from various viewpoints, sharing fresh and sometimes unusual perspectives. His latest book, using force as an organizing principle, aims to provide a better understanding of what engineers like himself do.

At its core, “Force” is about the everyday physical interactions between people and the material world in which we live. Those looking to better understand arcane scientific concepts, such as Isaac Newton’s “action at a distance” or the nature of gravity and magnetism, should look elsewhere. Mr. Petroski’s book includes only a few scattered formulas and no deep dives into quantum mechanics or Maxwell’s equations. Instead he presents a number of technological vignettes and short histories in precise and meticulous terms.

Arguably no large piece of human-constructed infrastructure lends itself so readily to the analysis of force as the bridge. In 1826 an iron-chain suspension bridge was built across the River Irwell in northern England. The bridge collapsed five years later when 74 soldiers paraded over it. Their unison steps caused the bridge deck to resonate, shake violently and break apart. The disaster demonstrated that bridges and other structures have natural frequencies, and that inducing vibrations of a matching wavelength can have catastrophic consequences. Henceforth, engineers would add or subtract mass to key structural elements to prevent such occurrences.

The engineers who designed the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, which opened in 2000, “made sure that the frequency of up-and-down forces exerted by people walking or running across it in synchrony did not correspond to a natural frequency of the structure,” Mr. Petroski writes. What they did not take into account “was that when we walk we not only push down and backward with our feet—we also push sideways to keep our balance as we shift from one foot to the other.” The relatively puny forces emanating from the tread of pedestrians were enough for Londoners to bestow the nickname “Wobbly Bridge” before the passage was closed, redesigned and reopened.

Mr. Petroski considers the relocation of the Vatican Obelisk, an 83-foot-high monument dating from the 13th century B.C. The obelisk first arrived in Rome during the reign of Caligula. In 1585-86, Pope Sixtus V had it moved roughly two blocks in order to accommodate the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Mr. Petroski describes the scene as a complex interplay between forces and the people working with them. “When it was time to lift the obelisk into its new upright position,” he writes, “the engineer demanded—under penalty of death—absolute silence from the crowd of onlookers so that the working crew could hear the leader’s commands.”

It was fortunate that a single voice could be heard. As the day progressed, the ropes used to move the obelisk started to slip and lengthen, endangering the outcome of the project. As the author writes: “Suddenly, a seasoned sailor in the crowd with plenty of experience and feel for rigging ropes and the forces they can bring to bear, shouted, ‘Acqua alle funi,’ which translates from the Italian as ‘water to the ropes.’ The old salt knew that wetting the ropes would cause them to contract, as they did at sea, and so become functional again.” The sailor’s advice saved the day; by dampening the ropes, the workers regained their purchase and the obelisk was successfully moved to the spot where it stands today.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Alternative Book Review: Letter To A Protagonist

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

After reading Priya Malhotra’s gorgeous WOMAN OF AN UNCERTAIN AGE I felt compelled, rather than writing a review, to write a letter to the protagonist, Naina.

. . . .

When fifty-something Naina Mehta’s husband dies of a heart attack, she transforms herself from a suburban wife into a bold woman thirsty for new experiences. A far cry from the classic image of the aging Indian widow who dresses in subdued colors and focuses solely on her children and God.

Naina moves to New York City, takes up a low-paying job in a contemporary art gallery, and becomes besotted by Jai, her daughter’s boyfriend. But that’s only the beginning of her journey into this new world that allows her to explore the possibilities of being who she wants to be.

As Naina becomes more empowered, she dips her toes into the world of dating for the first time in her life. Maybe the possibility of love still exists for a woman of her age. But what happens if the man in question is Muslim and stirs generational wounds and the wrath of her conservative son?

Woman of an Uncertain Age explores the rocky, uncertain terrain of a middle-aged widow during a time when the parameters and ideas of midlife are being challenged. What does it mean to be a fifty-plus woman with grown children in such an environment? Especially for Naina, who comes from a culture where life is expected to follow a strict traditional course.

LETTER TO A PROTAGONIST

Dear Naina,

First of all, I’m sorry for your loss. I know it’s been quite a while since you lost your husband, but I think one can never just “move on” from such immense tragedy. It becomes part of you.

You’d be pleased to know that Priya did a remarkable job retelling your journey, her lush descriptions of your life, how you arrived in America from India, your arranged marriage, your life in New Jersey first of all, and your (brave!) move to Manhattan after the unthinkable happened, rather than doing the “expected” thing of resigning to being the dutiful widow, blending into the background, demure.

You might be less pleased to hear that Priya wrote your story candidly, unflinching, pulling no punches, and revealing far more about yourself than you would have wanted, considering you’re quite a private person.

The guilt you felt when you fell for your daughter’s boyfriend for instance.

The horror upon your daughter’s discovery, the heartwrenching months that followed.

But they were necessary revelations.

If we were to meet in real life, I assume you’d only tell me what I might want to hear, hiding the painful and embarrassing aspects of your journey (don’t we all do that, giving people the version we’d like them to hear?).

What kind of mother are you, Naina?

I must admit, I did question this, and it was tricky at times to refrain from judging you, but the fact that you could barely live with yourself because of what had unfolded, and the remorse which seeped from the pages made me want to climb in between the sentences to comfort you.

You are a flawed human being, a beautiful, wise, and inspiring one.

It was no surprise that you turned to online dating eventually, even though you never thought you’d do so. It was entertaining to read, some of the emails you received actually made me laugh out loud.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

No, Books Should Not Have Content Ratings Like Movies

From Book Riot:

One of the great joys of my young life was reading books pitched to older children. Graduating from picture books to chapter books with pictures, then chapter books, then longer and longer books was a big deal to me. For kids’ books in the U.S., you can usually find an age range somewhere on the flap or back cover of a book. Readers and people acquiring books for readers occasionally use this as a guide for getting books for appropriate ages. In recent years, certain groups have demanded a more robust rating system for books, similar to the MPAA rating system for movies. However, there are many reasons why books should not have content ratings like movies.

The general idea behind a “rating” system for kids’ books makes sense to me. The widespread availability of the Internet means that kids have access to some of the worst information ever documented with just a few keystrokes. Technology companies attempt to keep up with this freedom by providing methods of blocking content that could be upsetting or out-of-age-range for young children. The problem with books is that there’s no way to automatically censor content in books unless you ban them, rip out specific pages, or cross out certain words with a permanent marker.

Since books are longer and more involved than movies, they’re trickier to pin down with exact content ratings. Including age ranges can sort of help, but they don’t tell you much about the content. A 10 year old is also unlikely to have the exact same experiences or sensitivities as a 10 year old from a different country, or even one from a different neighborhood.

. . . .

Jon Lewis, author of Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry, argues that the ratings are subjective by design. We can see what he means in how certain movies are declared to be far more “adult” than others.

. . . .

Parents don’t even seem to like the MPAA rating system all that much, criticizing it for desensitizing children to violence. So what’s the argument for a rating system for books?

The idea is that kids should not have access to stories that could upset them or expose them to difficult topics. The rating system outlined on Book Cave uses seven categories (crude humor/language, profanity, drug and alcohol use, kissing, nudity, sex and intimacy, and violence and horror), and then rates each category on a scale from All Ages to Adult+. The book is then weighted for a final rating. Common Sense Media gives detailed advice about how to assess various aspects of books and how to choose them for children, and promises to provide detailed reviews to help parents, guardians, and other stakeholders make decisions.

. . . .

Age ranges and reading levels are also very hit-or-miss. Reading levels were introduced in schools to make sure students were keeping up with reading demands, so there were lots of numbers introduced to explain these levels. The important part of reading levels is that children should be able to ingest and understand the majority of the book they’re reading so they don’t get discouraged. However, kids should challenge themselves with books theoretically outside of their level so they don’t get bored.

If reading levels are determined by word difficulty alone, that can also make books look less complex than they are. Age ranges and reading levels are somewhat necessary for educators to build curricula, but kids should always be allowed to seek books outside of their “level” or assigned classroom work. I’m an advocate of the method “bring kid to library and let them explore for three hours,” as my caretakers did for me.

There are problems with rating systems that use categories to determine appropriateness as well. A book might not have violence in it explicitly, but it could have imagery that gives your child a nightmare. We can’t determine how kids will react to reading in general, so over-arching rules and categorical rating systems are limited.

Rating systems that determine how “adult” a book is also impose a certain kind of life experience on childhood. They present a monolithic idea of maturity: a child can only read about violent content when they’re of the age to be familiar with it. There are children in the world who are familiar with curse words, or have experience with violent or upsetting events. “Milestones” in childhood are impossible to pinpoint because people’s life experiences are so wildly different.

Reading about difficult topics, whether or not children have experienced them, can be a good way to process complex emotions. It’s also an important way for children to develop language and understanding around “inappropriate” topics.

. . . .

At the surface, none of this sounds necessarily bad. Parents obviously want kids to read, but they don’t want kids diving into books with intense horror that will scare a 7 year old or overt descriptions of sex before a parent has had ‘The Talk’ with their kid.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes that parents are not the only people who give or choose books for children.

Schools, public and private, also give/choose books for children. Ditto for libraries.

A ratings system doesn’t need to be perfect to be useful for people who choose books for children to read.

Given the nature of a relatively small portion of books which parents are likely to find objectionable, PG doesn’t mind terribly that a ratings system might err on the side of excluding books that only a small portion of the children’s families would likely find objectionable.

A single book is not the only way a child can learn about something the child or family might regard as objectionable. There are zillions of books available on all manner of topics, presenting them in a wide variety of ways.

As a final observation, PG notes that opinion pieces that claim it’s important for children know about this or that at a particular age are generalizing about children in a manner that assumes that all children of a certain age are ready to understand this or that fact of life. They also often assume that getting such information with a certain degree of specificity is important when a more general discussion might provide some or all children with the information they need to know and assuming they can extrapolate from the general to the specific without having the specific laid out in great detail.

PG’s experience growing up on ranches and farms with livestock of various sizes and shapes exposed him to some universal elements of mammalian interaction between the female and male of a given species gave him the general idea concerning male/female reproduction cause and effect among mammals of other types.

He expects that any child growing up in a neighborhood with more than one or two dogs might have the same general type of experience from time to time without the specificity provided in a book describing such details between human males and females of different ages.

But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong about this whole subject.

More than half of young readers credit BookTok with sparking passion for reading

From The Bookseller:

A poll conducted by the Publishers Association has found more than half of young readers credit BookTok, a subcommunity on the social media platform TikTok focused on books and literature, with helping them discover a passion for reading.

Of 2,001 16–25-year-olds surveyed by the organisation in October, 59% said that BookTok or book influencers had “helped them discover a passion for reading”, while more than half (55%) said they turn to BookTok for recommendations. Moreover, 68% said BookTok had inspired them to read a book that they would have never considered otherwise.

The research also saw 38% of young people say they turn to BookTok for recommendations ahead of family and friends, while nearly one in five (19%) reported that following the Booktok hashtag helped them find a community. Another 16% reported that they had made new friends through BookTok.

Dan Conway, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said: “It’s great to see that the BookTok phenomenon is igniting a love of reading for young people. Reading can be so beneficial to health and happiness and is a way for all ages to connect over common interests.”

Findings suggest a boost for bookshops, too, with nearly half (49%) of respondents visiting a physical bookshop to buy a book they have seen on BookTok. Book Bar, an independent bookshop and wine bar in London, is among a number of bookshops aiming to cater for this audience.

Due to trends driven by BookTok, the shop now stocks more contemporary books which cater to a broader demographic. Chrissy Ryan, the owner of Book Bar, said: “Launching in the pandemic was challenging but BookTok has been really helpful in driving customers into our store. More and more we are seeing young people come to the shop asking for books they discovered on TikTok.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

And the Fair Land

For all our social discord we remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators.

Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.

And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.

For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.

His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places—only to find those men as frail as any others.

So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?

Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.

But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere—in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

This editorial has run annually on Thanksgiving since 1961.

The Desolate Wilderness

From The Wall Street Journal:

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

This editorial has run annually since 1961.

Reading After the University

From Public Books:

It’s no news that the university is in crisis. Foreign-language departments have perhaps been the most affected, but few humanities programs have gone unscathed. English departments form the subject of two new attempts to provide a backstory to our present disorder: Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University by Andy Hines and Professing CriticismEssays on the Organization of Literary Studies by John Guillory. Both depict literary study within universities as something strange and recent. And both situate the university in longer stories of racial capitalism and class distinction. Taken together, they provide a sobering analysis of the limited political potential of today’s English departments.

At the same time, amid this morass of dysfunction, both books soothe themselves with the fact that the university has no monopoly on reading. Students are never confined to the official syllabus. Some part of literature and literary study has always been eccentric to the university curriculum, and accounts of the “outside” of university-based practices, like the one Hines finds in a Black radical tradition that emphasized literature’s political potentials, could proliferate in many directions. Disciplinary outsides and eccentricities have tended to negatively inform professional literature scholars’ assertions that study of “their” objects requires specialist training in unique methods, or that university-based study of literature is the most inherently humanizing or importantly political reading practice. Guillory and Hines flip the script. By treating the professional literary academic as only one kind of reader, they suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.


Both books part ways with what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell describe as a liberal “crisis consensus” that envisions universities as inherently progressive institutions that need only be saved from the recent ravages of neoliberal privatization.1 Hines depicts the English department as having been an “institutionalized cultural space governed by whiteness and anticommunism.” In his telling, the postwar establishment of the new criticism, which foregrounded close reading of the text as a self-contained aesthetic object, helped ground the emerging postwar hegemony of US liberal capitalism, which imagined itself as an apolitical unity-amid-diversity in opposition to mandated Soviet conformity. None of this could have happened without demonizing left and communist Black intellectuals who treated culture as an engine of revolutionary transformation.

In turn, Guillory’s historical breadth—encompassing the rise and fall of rhetoric, belle lettres, philology, and more—supplements some of Hines’s archival work on the late 1940s and 1950s. Guillory understands the new criticism as just one piece of a massive sociological and methodological shift that made the literary object a “verbal work of art” and, built around it, the English department as a site of disciplinary expertise. By subordinating documentary or political aspects of the text to “an aesthetic ontology,” English professors granted themselves jurisdiction over literary inquiry, and thus a role within the university in servicing the expanding professional-managerial class.

In Hines’s account, the new criticism enabled the racialized exploitation and exclusion of some people to secure the freedom of others within the “state-academic apparatus.” “Black writers, Black leftists, and communist affiliates who sought to build institutions around the critical study of Black literature,” among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Melvin B. Tolson, fought the new criticism’s consolidation with US institutions, seeking instead an interracial coalition that would challenge American capitalism and “the ills of racial liberalism.” Their radical vision of future possibility was undermined by a “racist interpretation complex” that made “the imagining of such efforts, and the efforts themselves, appear improbable.” The causal claim is important here: it is the racist interpretation complex, backed by and embodied within the new criticism, that undermined the work of those committed to using the study of literature and culture in service of radical social transformation.

Hines’s interest lies in the political and economic circumstances that have shaped methodologies for literary study. His is a form of attention that has itself been denigrated by the new critical formalisms that interest him, which would insist that one “focus on the text” or “look at the literature itself.” You may object that these kinds of new critical approaches in their purest expression are not especially resonant anymore in the contemporary English department. You may even say that approaches indicting new critical work as apolitical formalism—a tradition of critique to which Hines adds—have been more characteristic of the discipline since the late 1960s.

This is where Guillory’s account comes in. His sociology of the institution explains why, long after new criticism’s fall from grace, the English department continues to be relatively homogenous. For despite Hines’s materialist interest in the political-economic backgrounds framing literary inquiry, he attributes more agency than does Guillory to the new criticism as an intellectual formation, describing it variously as a “crucial instrument,” an “integral part,” and as having “played an important role” in the establishment of English as a discipline of whiteness and anticommunism that rejects political approaches to literature as a betrayal of its true import. Unlike the revolutionary conceptions of culture that flourished in the people’s schools, in which writing could express and shape radical consciousness of the need for social transformation, “new Critical methods denied the possibility of criticism garnering any material force,” Hines argues. Does a critical tendency’s own self-conception undermine its material force, or do the material forces shaping study already relegate criticism to a particular role, at best a handmaiden or a message force multiplier?

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was tempted to go on a rant, but posted the adjacent Henry Kissinger quote instead.

Great Dialogue is the Art of the Unsaid

From Writer Unboxed:

As a not-professional editor who nonetheless gets to edit my friends’ writing, one of the most common questions I get is, “Does the dialogue sound natural?”

And often, because my friends are talented, the answer is most definitely “yes.”

But is “natural” really the highest form of dialogue? We all want our dialogue to sound natural, as opposed to stilted, but dialogue can sound natural and still be missing that extra spark that takes it from “good dialogue” to “oh my god, Becky, I will remember this line for the rest of my days” dialogue.

As I looked up some online sources on writing good dialogue that I could share with my friends, I found that many of them repeated the same advice. Most of the focus was on what characters should say, or else how they should say it: dialogue must move the plot forward, dialogue must reveal something about the relationship between characters, dialogue should sound natural but not too natural, dialogue should be unique to characters’ backgrounds, don’t pad your dialogue with unnecessary small talk, avoid greetings and soliloquies and goodbyes, have characters be indirect.

These are great pieces of advice, but even if you follow them to the letter, your dialogue still may come out sounding wooden.

I’d like to offer a third way to look at dialogue, and ironically, it’s through what isn’t said.

“But Kelsey,” you say, “that sounds like ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is the oldest advice in the book.”

Yes. I mean, it is basically that, but “show, don’t tell” was usually framed around character actions, not dialogue: e.g., “Sally was mad” versus “Sally stomped to her room and slammed the door.” Similarly, there is plenty of advice out there that recommends having characters be indirect in their speech (one of my favorite tactics), but that’s not what I mean here, either.

The classic example of the art of the unsaid—and it’s a classic for a reason—is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story, the topic of discussion between the man and woman is never made explicit; readers must complete the story by insinuating the couple’s meaning from what they say and how they speak. But if we take our analysis even further, we can see that part of what makes this story so compelling is not just because of what was left unsaid, but how it was left unsaid.

Take this passage, for example:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

Aloud, the man says, “But I don’t want you to do it [spoiler alert for a nearly century-old story: they are talking about her having an abortion] if you really don’t want to.”

But when the woman asks, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” he replies, “I love you now. You know I love you.”

His non-answer tells us everything we need to know about the man’s true feelings. First, by simply avoiding any acknowledgement of the woman’s first two questions—“you’ll be happy and things will be like they were”—we, the audience, can infer that he is not comfortable promising those things because he does not believe them. Had he outright lied to her, this would be a different story: they likely would not be having this conversation at all, because the man would have told her what she wanted to hear in order to get what he wants.

Second, his reply to her third question—“and you’ll love me?”—is equally a non-answer. He replies in the present tense, while she is looking for reassurance about the future. Again, rather than being forthright and telling her that he cannot make promises about the future, he avoids and redirects the conversation.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Nicola Sturgeon on the push for another Scottish referendum

From The Economist:

When I wrote previously for this publication, back in 2015, it would have been all but impossible to predict the course which global events have since taken. We have witnessed Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and its toxic legacy, a global pandemic, the return of war to the European continent with Russia’s brutal, illegal invasion of Ukraine—and, in the United Kingdom, a cost-of-living and general economic crisis on a scale unseen in many decades.

Any one of these things would have the capacity to be unsettling. Taken together, though, these events have thrown the world around us into a state of flux of a kind rarely seen in modern times.

In Scotland, the government I lead is doing its utmost to protect people in the face of the severe economic challenges we face. However, those challenges have been exacerbated by the reckless actions of the British government, whose policies have sent sterling plummeting to record lows against the dollar, while prompting central-bank interventions to prop up the economy and leading to surging interest rates which are having a punitive impact on ordinary citizens at a time when inflation had already risen to its highest level in around 40 years.

Against such a challenging backdrop, some may ask why the Scottish government is committed to giving the people of our country the choice of becoming an independent nation. The answer, quite simply, is that Scotland cannot afford not to seize the opportunity of independence given the current circumstances.

When people last voted on the issue, back in 2014, they were told by the British government of the day that the only way to protect Scotland’s place in the European Union was to reject independence.

That pledge, like so many other promises of the No campaign in 2014, has proved to be empty. Scotland has been taken out of the eu against our will and removed from the world’s largest single market—a market around seven times bigger than Britain’s.

No one can now seriously claim, given the chaotic nature of British governance in recent times, and especially in light of the turmoil of recent months, that Scotland’s future is in safe hands for as long as we remain subject to rule from Westminster. The fact that the uk is now predicted to have the slowest growth of any G20 economy in 2023, with the exception of sanctions-hit Russia, is further proof.

At the time of writing, Scotland’s ability to hold a referendum without agreement from Westminster—in line with the overwhelming democratic mandate for one secured in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election—is in the hands of the UK Supreme Court. The court is having to rule at all only because the British government is seeking to block that electoral mandate.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that the author of the OP is Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland.

While having Scottish and English ancestry, PG and his forbearers have lived in the United States for quite a long time, so PG is not in any position to comment on an internal matter of the UK.

PG realizes that UK internal politics are not the usual subjects for TPV, he will note that the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, extending through the weekend, puts a lot of US book talk on hold, so he ranges farther afield than usual.

The Last Furriers

From The Paris Review:

One of Werner Herzog’s lesser films is about fur trappers in Siberia: big men who sled for eleven months of the year in pursuit of sables, the small and silky martens that live east of the Urals, burrowing in riverbanks and dense woods, emerging at dusk and at dawn. Russian sable—barguzin—is one of the most expensive furs in the world. The trappers make their skis by bending birch with their own hands, the same way trappers have for a thousand years. They see their wives for only a few weeks a year. They seem to have no inner life, neither anxieties nor aspirations: no relationships besides those with their dogs, no goals beyond survival. “They live off the land and are self-reliant, truly free,” Herzog tells us: “No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.” The film is called Happy People.

There was a year in which I tried very hard to make a film about the decline of the fur industry in New York City and Connecticut, and all I ended up with was a fox’s foot, a holographic poster for vodka, and a hard drive full of footage that, had I ever finished the film, would have been strung together as an incoherent montage of fragmented memories.

I remember eating General Tso’s chicken and drinking sugary deli coffee while people paid in thousand-dollar rolls of bills and tipped in edibles. I remember watching a woman get fitted for a blue leather catsuit, and the way she laughed into three mirrors when the tailor told her to unhook her bra and bend over. I remember a Greek furrier with slicked-back hair and a camouflage bandanna who shooed a family out, shouting, “I don’t want your money!” He told me they were “Gypsies.” I remember asking a sweet salesgirl with plump hands about parties where people wore two or three furs and tried to sell them through the night.

I remember sitting in what seemed like a storage unit out on a weedy section of Connecticut Route 10, amid unused pizza boxes and a jukebox and blow-up guitars and ten thousand holographic posters of a tiger. The owner was an attorney of uncertain penchants: “In Boston, some Italians got me into garbage law,” he kept telling me. He was trying to get out from pizza and out from music and out from law and into vodka. He looked panicked and vaguely taxidermic. When I asked why he didn’t want to be a furrier, he said he didn’t want to be like his father in any respect.

I remember Fred, out near New London, a town of salt-whipped, faded Victorians that in its whaling days was the richest in America. Women kept coming in with their dead mothers’ coats and being told they were worthless. Fred told me that even if fur were to become popular again, there was simply no one left who knew how to sew it. I remember two Greek brothers in New Britain who’d grown up in a dirt-poor tobacco village. After years of struggle, they’d bought a store with a cherry-red, mid-century marquee, a store that now had trash piled up in front of a sign that read “95 Years! Sorry We’re Closed—Forever!” In an online “Immigrants Hall of Fame” entry, one brother had written about how he had “achieved the American dream as a business owner.” He now worked at a Jos. A. Bank in the Boston suburbs. A little badge on his LinkedIn profile photo read #opentowork. When I asked the other brother about the decline of the fur industry, he looked away and said, “It hurts. It hurts!” When I asked him about my generation, he said, “Good luck!”

I remember a bald Greek man in Adidas track pants with big, naked-looking eyes, like a deepwater creature, who hobbled on his cane. In the dark of the fur freezer, with minks and sables and leopards all around us, a column of light scattered on his round face, he told me that one must learn how to make fur, how to sew for that many hours, as a small, small child because, “After seven, it is difficult to sit in a chair.”

And I remember, now, Pascal’s pensée: “All of man’s misery derives from a single thing: his inability to sit alone in a room.”

Until a few years ago, the only person I’d ever known who wore fur was a French professor I’d had in college, a woman who showed up to a three-student seminar on surrealism in a dim room in the math building wearing stiletto boots and carrying a Coach handbag and saying that she’d just gotten back from Paris. She chain-smoked Parliaments and put heavy cream in her coffee, and she had red hair and a figure like a woman in a fifties movie who’s going to do something terrible. When the weather hit fifty, she donned a honey-colored mink that went down to her feet, which were always in heels. Everyone in Gainesville, Florida, a town nick-named “the swamp,” swarming with sorority girls and gargantuan flies, seemed utterly perplexed by her. She tended to see men who were two decades younger and owned boats. She was the first adult I’d met who seemed happy to be alive.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

For the record, PG grew up on ranches and farms where animals were raised for the purpose of selling them for food after they reached a certain size.

He will be happy to assure one and all that a steer or a pig won’t make a very good pet.

For those who would condemn ranchers and farmers for raising animals that people like to eat, PG wonders if they’ve ever eaten seafood or a hamburger.

He has known some vegans and respects their choices. He would hope that they would respect his choices as well. He also recalls some reliable reports to the effect that plants have a measurable reaction when their leaves are cut.

PG’s quick and dirty online research indicates that, while it isn’t known whether plants feel pain, they definitely feel sensations. Studies show that plants can feel a touch as light as a caterpillar’s footsteps.

However, it is possible that plants have intelligence and sentience that we cannot yet detect. One day, we might learn that plants have ways of experiencing pain that we have yet to comprehend.

PeTA

How “offshore journalists” challenge Vladimir Putin’s empire of lies

From The Economist:

The Kremlin banned them, branded them “foreign agents”, criminalised them and chased them out of the country. It cut off their finances and tried to isolate them from their audiences. But they have regrouped, rebuilt and come back stronger. Never in the past 30 years have Russian journalists been under such assault and never have they fought back with such vigour, calling out the Kremlin’s lies, exposing its corruption and unearthing evidence of its war crimes.

Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship does not leave much scope for street protests, but independent reporters have formed a virtual resistance movement, lobbing explosive stories at his war machine and supplying news and opinions to those who look for them. Most are doing so from outside Russia, something they call “offshore journalism”. At least 500 journalists have left Russia since the invasion, according to Proekt Media, an investigative outlet.

Scattered across Europe, in cities such as Riga, Tbilisi, Vilnius, Berlin and Amsterdam, such journalists reach a large audience, most of them under the age of 40. “Our job today is to survive and not let our readers suffocate,” says Ivan Kolpakov, the editor-in-chief of Meduza, a news website.

Meduza has reported on the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, and the extraordinary number of convicts being pressed to join Wagner, a mercenary group run by a crony of Mr Putin. Mediazona, an online outlet founded by two members of Pussy Riot, a punk band, is trying to count the true number of Russian casualties. It has also found an ingenious way to work out how many Russians have been conscripted, by analysing open-source data on the unusually high number of marriages since mobilisation began. (Draftees are allowed to register their marriage on the same day as they are enlisted, and often do, since they don’t know when they will see their partners again.) Mediazona estimates that half a million people have already been drafted—far more than the 300,000 the Kremlin said would be.

For the Kremlin, suppressing real news is an important part of its war effort. Some outlets remain in Russia that are not propaganda organs, such as Kommersant, a private newspaper. But they are highly constrained—they cannot call the war a war, for example. Since Mr Putin invaded Ukraine he has muzzled most independent voices, lest they sow doubt among citizens or induce a split within the elite.

tv Rain, Russia’s best known independent television channel, went dark eight days after the war started. Echo of Moscow, a radio station with 5m listeners, went silent on the same day. Soon after that Novaya Gazeta, the most outspoken newspaper, stopped printing. Alexei Venediktov, the editor of Echo, and Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel prize-winning editor of Novaya Gazeta, stayed in Russia while some of their former colleagues set up operations offshore. tv Rain is back on air, now based in Latvia and broadcasting via YouTube to 20m viewers a month, most of them inside Russia. Echo is in Berlin, streaming news and talk-shows live via a new smartphone app, which the Kremlin tried but failed to block.

A dozen new digital outlets, most of them set up since Mr Putin first started grabbing chunks of Ukraine in 2014, are publishing investigative journalism. A recent probe by The Insider, an online outlet, working with Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence group, unmasked dozens of engineers and programmers who have been directing Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities. “Investigative journalism, which is declining in many countries, is flourishing in Russia,” says Roman Dobrokhotov, who runs The Insider. “There is plenty of demand for it, there are people who know how to do it and there is no shortage of subjects to investigate.”

Russians find real news via apps and virtual private network (vpn) services, which can help them bypass censorship. Before the war Russia was the 40th-largest user of vpns; now it is the largest in the world. Nearly half of young Russians use one, according to gwi, a market-research firm. Most are well-educated urbanites. But even in rural areas, a fifth of people use vpns.

Remote working during covid was a good preparation for offshore journalism. “I am physically located in Berlin, but I live in the Russian information field,” says Maxim Kurnikov, the editor of Echo.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Michael Lewis (Once Again) Tells the Biggest Story in Finance

From Jane Fried

Michael Lewis hit the story of a lifetime when he published his bestselling book, The Big Short, about the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Looking back, Lewis seemed to be the right person at the right time and place to capture the biggest financial story of a generation.

It was the ultimate setup. Before writing The Big Short, Lewis was already regarded as a world-class storyteller. Plus, he had the advantage of coming from a career in finance. Lewis had even made a name for himself in financial journalism through his debut book, Liar’s Poker. Mix in Lewis’ southern charm and we might begin to understand how he pulled such a rich and detailed story from an otherwise tight-lipped industry.

But that’s a once-in-a-career finance story, right?

Well, not for Michael Lewis. A few months ago, during an interview with Financial News, Lewis gave his readers a small clue regarding the subject of his next book. Lewis said, “I guess it is possible it will be framed as a crypto book, but it won’t be a crypto book… It’ll be about this really unusual character.”

In recent weeks, the financial world has watched closely as one of the largest crypto exchanges, FTX, endured its public fall. The details of which—including probable fraud, a major hack and theft to the tune of $400 million, and a feud between crypto founders—are still coming to light.

. . . .

Creative Artists Agency announced that Michael Lewis has spent the past six months interviewing FTX founder, Sam Bankman-Fried.

. . . .

Right time and place, once again, Mr. Lewis.

Central to most of Michael Lewis’ works are larger-than-life characters who find themselves at the center of major industry or societal shifts. As Lewis once told The Guardian, “I am not an essayist… I need characters. If I don’t have a character, I can’t find my way into a story.” Lewis seems to seek out people, rather than mere stories, which may be the real secret behind his uncanny ability to find once-in-a-career journalism material.

. . . .

Lewis could not have foreseen the epic tale of controversy, hacks, and potential fraud that has transpired in recent weeks at FTX. But perhaps what Lewis did see, many months before anyone else, was a deeply human story of cutthroat competition between two opposing charismatic founders, Sam Bankman-Fried at FTX and Changpeng Zhao at the crypto exchange, Binance.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Ruin of All Witches

From The Wall Street Journal:

In February 1651, a stream of townspeople in Springfield, Mass., filed into the home of magistrate William Pynchon to report unsettling occurrences. A pudding of offal and oats had spoiled for no reason. A woman experienced agonizing pain shortly before childbirth. A piece of salt beef tongue vanished; a missing set of knives reappeared. Pynchon duly recorded these events in a book of testimony that ran to dozens of pages.

We are fortunate that historian Malcolm Gaskill immersed himself in this remarkable and, until now, largely neglected document. Archived at the New York Public Library, it grounds his enthralling book on a 17th-century witch hunt that, in the author’s deft hands, fascinates as much as the more notorious one that gripped Salem decades later.

A brief note at the end of “The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World” elucidates Mr. Gaskill’s method: painstakingly reconstructing events as they took place to capture the experiences of those involved without using the wisdom of hindsight to explain what was “really” happening. We may know that the early settlers of Springfield lived during the fraught transition from the medieval to the modern world: They, of course, had no such awareness. “Objective ‘reality’ must sometimes be played down to point up the subjective quality of experience,” writes Mr. Gaskill, a scholar of the history of witchcraft and an emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia. “Only by taking the strange on its own terms can we understand ourselves in time.”

Before things get really strange, however, Mr. Gaskill sets the scene with a vivid description of daily life in Springfield. The Puritan settlement was founded in 1636 by Pynchon, a wealthy speculator and fur trader who ruled over the small population, in the author’s words, “like a lord of the manor from the Old World.” Springfield’s inhabitants, mostly English and Welsh migrants of low social status, were busy with labor and chores from dawn to dusk six days a week, with Sundays spent in worship. Pynchon distributed property for homes and farms he had “bought” from the Agawam Indians, and he set each household’s tax rate. He also owned the town’s general store; residents were given credit and repaid their debts in labor or shares of their crops. For men and women alike, writes the author, it was an existence of “piety and toil.”

It was also a breeding ground for bitterness and envy, in no small part because of the difficulty of getting ahead. Colonists were forced to rely upon their Native American trading partners yet feared them; turf conflicts abounded with Dutch settlers and with nearby English settlements. But “even more immediate,” the author writes, “were the resentments and recriminations felt toward neighbors with whom they lived cheek by jowl. Distance bred distrust, for sure; but familiarity and proximity nurtured paranoia and spite.” In Mr. Gaskill’s moody telling, the city on a hill doesn’t sound so shining.

Population increase and bad weather heightened competition for resources. And throughout this atmospheric account, with its creeping sense of dread, most of the weather is bad, from “breathtakingly” and “astonishingly” cold winters that killed livestock to “stifling” summers that withered crops. Amid a deteriorating economic situation, one Hugh Parsons became the target of his neighbors’ suspicions. The town’s brickmaker, he had arrived in Springfield in 1645, marrying Mary Lewis later that year. He was a taciturn man who occasionally became belligerent. He had acrimonious relationships with many of his neighbors, and before long his marriage was troubled too.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

How much YouTube pays for 1K views, according to creators

From Yahoo Tech:

For the first time since YouTube started reporting its advertising revenue in 2019, the video platform saw a slowdown last quarter, with ad revenue dropping to $7.07 billion from $7.2 billion in Q3 2021.

Creators, though, seem to have been spared big drops in their rates.

Insider spoke with a number of creators to see how their earnings from YouTube’s ad revenue share program have changed over time. Most reported that their revenue per mille (RPM) rate — or earnings per 1,000 views — have stayed steady year over year.

Some creators, like Joshua Mayo, even saw their RPMs grow.

“It’s grown to this massive business that is very lucrative, and I’m very thankful for all of it,” Mayo said, adding that his RPM rate went from around $6 in October 2021 to $29.30 in October 2022, growth that he attributes to creating creating more content around personal finance.

. . . .

Eight creators recently shared how much YouTube paid them per 1,000 views, and their answers ranged from $1.61 to $29.30.

YouTube creators can earn 55% of the revenue from Google-placed ads on their videos when they join the YouTube Partner Program, or YPP.

To qualify for the program, they must have 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time on their long-form videos.

Link to the rest at Yahoo Tech

When It Comes to TikTok, Authors Must Manage Their Expectations

From Publisher’s Weekly:

TikTok has upended the conventional marketing wisdom of publishers—which holds that noncelebrities’ books have a brief time after launch to see hitmaking sales before fading into obscurity—by suddenly catapulting books that have been out for years into the spotlight and onto bestseller lists. Authors have taken notice: with TikTok boasting approximately one billion active monthly users, and with BookTok content having received 74.4 billion views and counting, that’s a lot of readership and sales potential.

Or so it would seem.

Sara Raasch is the bestselling author of the YA fantasy trilogy Snow Like Ashes, the YA fantasy duology Stream Raiders, and the duology Set Fire to the Gods, cowritten with Kristen Simmons. She joined TikTok in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit. Thanks to a handful of viral videos, Raasch’s TikTok account quickly amassed more than 80,000 followers.

“I often tried to play to TikTok trends, and just shift them to fit books and writing,” she says. “I always saw the best uptick in views when I hit trends at the right time. Trends are increasingly difficult to play to, as they come and go so fleetingly and quickly get saturated.”

With such a large platform, one would think Raasch would see a major increase in sales, but she says this is not the case for her YA novels. “Not only did I not see any boost in book sales,” she notes—“the time I was spending making TikTok content was quickly sucking up my writing time.”

Raasch says that she tried a different strategy on her pseudonym account for adult romance novels. “I have had a video go viral on my pseudonym TikTok account [which has more than 2.2 million views as of this writing], and I saw a direct bump in sales because of it.” She suggests that she spent a lot of time on her YA account branding herself, but on her pseudonym account she only posts about books and doesn’t show her face.

“The success I garnered there plays entirely into the analogy of social media as a casino,” Raasch asserts. “High engagement is the jackpot you may or may not get, but if you play the game long enough—i.e., post consistently, play to trends, etc.—you might win.” She adds that she feels the success she’s had on her pseudonym account “was entirely luck,” but she continues to post there because she’s seen the potential payout.

Dante Medema, author of YA novels Message Not Found and The Truth Project, joined TikTok in February 2021 and now has more than 83,000 followers. “I have received some pretty amazing career opportunities through TikTok,” she says, citing connections with other authors and readers and lining up interviews and speaking engagements. “Overall, I think it’s had a positive impact.”

However, she echoes Raasch’s sentiment that engagement and views will vary. “It’s easy to get discouraged,” she says. “I think it’s about understanding that not every video is going to get a bunch of likes and comments.”

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Paramount scraps deal to sell Simon & Schuster to Penguin after weeks after judge rejected merger

From CNBC:

Paramount Global said Monday it scrapped its $2.2 billion deal to sell book publisher Simon & Schuster to rival Penguin Random House, weeks after a federal judge rejected the merger.

Penguin, which is owned by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, said it still believes Simon & Schuster is a good fit for its business, but that it accepted Paramount’s decision.

“We believe the judge’s ruling is wrong and planned to appeal the decision, confident we could make a compelling and persuasive argument to reverse the lower court ruling on appeal,” Penguin said in a statement Monday afternoon. “However, we have to accept Paramount’s decision not to move forward.”

Paramount’s decision to pull the plug on the deal came more than a year after the Justice Department sued to block the deal, saying it would hurt competition for books in the publishing world. On Halloween, after a trial that included testimony from bestselling horror author Stephen King, U.S. District Court Judge Florence Y. Pan on Halloween ruled against the deal, delivering a major victory for the Biden administration’s antitrust agenda.

King, who writes books for Simon & Schuster, said he was “delighted” by the ruling. “The proposed merger was never about readers and writers; it was about preserving (and growing) PRH’s market share. In other words: $$$,” he tweeted.

In its announcement Monday, Paramount said Penguin is on the hook for a $200 million termination fee.

Paramount also indicated that it would still seek to unload Simon & Schuster.

Link to the rest at CNBC and thanks to J. for the tip.

Commentary:

Part 1: Yes, this is the actual CNBC headline. PG checked it on Grammarly, expecting a mild digital uproar over the two “afters”, but Grammarly simply suggested that “judge” and “merger” needed appropriate articles.

Part 2: PG wonders if either side of this deal has decided to move to a different law firm, at least for antitrust matters. In PG’s enormously outsized opinion, this deal screamed of antitrust problems from the first time he read about it and the screaming never stopped until the District Judge put an arrow in its heart.

Of course, there’s no appeal because each party finally consulted adult antitrust lawyers, who likely delivered the news that the case was a loser up and down the legal line and had been since the start.

Part 3: If PG had a financial interest in Penguin, PG would scream bloody murder over a $200 million termination fee. Which officer of Penguin approved this provision? Did the board of directors actually vote to put Penguin on the hook for a busted deal that was dodgy from the very beginning?

Part 4: PG assumes that someone at Bertelsmann, the sole owner of Penguin, approved this transaction. Surely, someone in Gütersloh or several someones in this small German city will be sending out the German equivalent to resumes, résumés or resumés to the entire world.

(PG just learned that the German word for this sort of document is Lebenslauf. Apparently Lebenslauf doesn’t have versions with accent marks.)

Part 5: How are the Mohn family and the managers of various Mohn stiftungs that really own and control Bertlesmann feeling these days? PG doesn’t know whether $200 million is pocket change for these folks or not. He hasn’t looked up the German translation for “You’re Fired!” but expect there is an equivalent term. (He did learn that the German term for “Hit the road!” is Sich auf den Weg machen! or simply, Losfahren!)

(PG apologizes if there is supposed to be an upside-down exclamation point anywhere in all this German. He wasn’t exactly certain how to look that up.)

Amazon makes a new push into health care

From The Economist:

As big tech companies face a brutal slow-down the hunt is on for new areas of expansion. Amazon, which is now America’s second-biggest business by revenue, is a case in point. In the final quarter of 2022 its sales are expected to expand by just 6.7% year on year. On November 17th Andy Jassy, Amazon’s chief executive, confirmed that the firm had begun laying off employees and would fire more next year. Mr Jassy said it was the most difficult decision he had made since becoming boss. But he also noted that “big opportunities” lay ahead. One that he highlighted is the largest, most lucrative and hellishly difficult businesses in America: health care.

Many tech firms have health-care ambitions. Apple tracks wellbeing through the iPhone; Microsoft offers cloud-computing services to health firms and Alphabet sells wearable devices and is pumping money into biotech research. But Amazon is now creating the most ambitious offering of all. Two days before Mr Jassy’s statement, on November 15th, it launched “Amazon Clinic”, an online service operating in 32 states that offers virtual health care for over 20 conditions, from acne to allergies. Amazon describes the new service as a virtual storefront that connects users with third-party health providers.

The Amazon Clinic launch follows the $3.9bn takeover, announced in July, of One Medical, a primary-care provider that offers telehealth services and runs bricks-and-mortar clinics (the deal has yet to close). It has 790,000 members. The deal was led by Neil Lindsay, formerly responsible for Prime, Amazon’s subscription service, who has said health care “is high on the list of experiences that need reinvention”.

These latest moves complement Amazon’s existing assets. Its Halo band, a wearable device that went on sale in 2020, monitors the health status of users. In 2018 it bought PillPack, a digital pharmacy that is now part of Amazon Pharmacy, for $753m. Amazon Web Services launched specific cloud services for health care and life science companies in 2021.

The move into primary care, jargon for the role of the traditional family doctor, is a big step but has an obvious logic. Walgreens, a pharmacy chain, reckons the industry is worth $1trn a year. Around half of Generation Z and millennial Americans do not have a primary-care doctor and One Medical’s membership has almost doubled since 2019. Amazon Clinic will accept cash for its services, rather than relying on America’s nightmare insurance system to recoup costs.

The company is betting that primary care will become more digital. And it is likely that it will seek to integrate these services with other parts of Amazon’s health-care offering. Amazon Clinic’s new users can buy drugs from Amazon Pharmacy. Over time the firm could add a feature to the Halo band reminding users to take medicine. It might also set up clinics in branches of Whole Foods, the supermarket chain it acquired in 2017. And it may wrap health care into Prime, which now has some 200m members worldwide. “The low-hanging fruit is offering discounts on membership to Prime members,” says Daniel Grosslight of Citigroup, a bank.

Amazon’s health push comes with several risks. One is that its own record is far from flawless. It is closing Amazon Care, which it launched to provide health services for its own employees and which expanded to offer some services to outside customers. Haven—a collaboration with Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s investment firm, and JPMorgan Chase, a bank—was set up in 2018 to procure lower cost health care for employees, but died less than three years later.

Another danger is competition. cvs, an American retail pharmacy, reportedly outbid Amazon for Signify Health, a large primary-care provider in September. In October, Walgreens increased its stake in Villagemd with a $5.2bn investment. JPMorgan recently opened primary-care centres of its own. Amazon’s new venture will also compete with the likes of Ro and Hims & Hers, tech startups dedicated to providing virtual health care.

Finally, Amazon will have to grapple with regulators. The Federal Trade Commission, a trust-busting agency, is examining the One Medical deal. The takeover, and the launch of Amazon Clinic, will raise questions about who should be allowed to hold sensitive health-care data. Amazon has said “we remain focused on the important mission of protecting customers’ health information”. The firm may need to set up hefty firewalls to separate customer information held by clinics from that gathered through other products and services. But satisfying data-privacy concerns could wipe out many of the data-sharing opportunities that Amazon deftly deploys across the rest of its business.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Two Bites of the Apple on Kindle Vella

From Writer Unboxed:

If you’re considering self-publishing and wanting to maximize potential income, do yourself a favor and take a peek at Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform.

If you haven’t already heard about Kindle Vella, it’s a place where you can serialize your novel over an extended period, instead of publishing one whole story all at once. Instead of chapters, you are publishing “episodes,” much like a television series.

This isn’t a new concept. Serialized novels first popped up as early as the 17th century and really took off in England during the 19th century when novels were published episodically in newspapers and magazines.

This allowed poorer overworked readers to enjoy stories that would have been too expensive for them to read as leather-bound volumes. In the modern era, Kindle Vella readers are reading on their phones, often during short breaks in their busy days, like while standing in line at the DMV or waiting in the carpool lane.

There was (and still is) a benefit to authors for writing serially. Many unknown 19th century authors were able to establish an audience and grow in popularity by first publishing in serialized format, including but not limited to Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Many modern-day authors are having similar success, building their fan bases through Kindle Vella. Why couldn’t this be you?

In a nutshell. The first three episodes of every Kindle Vella story are free to readers. After which, readers must redeem tokens to unlock future episodes. The number of tokens it takes to unlock an episode corresponds to the length of the episode. For example it takes 6 tokens to unlock an episode that is in the 600-699 word length. It takes 12 tokens to unlock and episode that is 1200-1299 words in length.

Readers can buy tokens in bundles of 200 ($1.99), 525 ($4.99), 1100 ($9.99), or 1700 ($14.99).

As they read, readers can give feedback such as marking your story as a “favorite” or giving an episode a “thumbs up.” This feedback will affect your bonus. More on that later.

How to get started. It is ridiculously easy to set up an author account. If you do not already have an Amazon account, start there. Once you have an Amazon account, access Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Once you sign in to KDP, access the “Kindle Vella Library.”

After that, KDP will take you through the step-by-step process of entering your name/pen name, the title of your story, the genre, and the key words.

As for the cover image, you don’t have to pay for an expensive book cover. Traditional book covers aren’t even allowed. Instead, choose a simple image with no words on it that conveys the tone, theme, and genre of your story. You can find many images for free online. For example, explore Canva. The dimensions of a Kindle Vella cover image should be 1600 x 1600 px.

. . . .

Writing the Perfect Episode. Kindle Vella allows episodes to be anywhere from 600-5000 words; however, there does seem to be a “sweet spot” with readers. Because they’re often reading on their phones to kill time in between events in their busy days, the 12-20 token (or 1200-2000 word) episode seems to do the best.

Obviously, it is imperative that you make every episodes hugely compelling and end each episode on a devastating cliffhanger that leaves the reader desperate to know what happens next. If readers aren’t hooked, they won’t waste their tokens on your paid episodes. They’ll move on to explore other stories, and yours will wither on the vine. For this reason, you may need to end your episodes in the middle of what you might consider a “normal” chapter ending.

Again, think of the classic Batman episode. It always ended with Batman tied up and the swinging blade getting closer and closer to his neck.

Publishing an Episode. Publish one episode at a time (it’s as easy as a click of your mouse) and do so at consistent intervals so readers know when to expect the next installment. This is another similarity to Victorian-era serialized stories in newspapers that came out at regular intervals.

You can also write ahead and schedule several episodes (or even your whole story) so a single episode is released according to your pre-determined schedule. In fact, writing ahead and scheduling episodes is something I would strongly recommend so you don’t fall behind. I actually don’t publish Episode 1 until I have 5-6 episodes ready to go.

Royalties and Bonuses. You don’t earn any royalty on your first three episodes, which are free to readers. After that, your royalty depends on how many tokens are required to unlock your episode. Obviously, the more tokens the higher the royalty, but also remember that the more tokens required, the less likely it is that a reader will open the episode (see “sweet spot” above).

The royalty calculation is (number of tokens to unlock episode) x (token-bundle price/# tokens in bundle – taxes and fees) x (50% revenue share). For example, if it takes 12 tokens to unlock your episode, and those tokens were purchased in a 200-token bundle…

12 tokens x ($1.99/200 token bundle – $0 taxes) x 50% = Royalty

Or…12 x .00995 x 50%=6-cent Royalty

Not super exciting, BUT where the real excitement comes in are the monthly bonuses. It is a little unclear how bonuses are determined—it has something to do with reader engagement and the consistency of your episodes—but they can be surprisingly high.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

In Real Life Arranged Marriage is No Joke

From Electric Lit:

How do you discuss something so intimate and uncomfortable as finding a spouse, without laughing or crying or cringing in embarrassment or fear? How do you talk about it without using the L-word? As in Luck. As in, you can plan and strategize as much as you want to, you can prepare as if you’re preparing for battle, you can organize and plan for all contingencies. There is still a certain amount of luck involved.

More on that later.

Frequently it is a different L-word. As in Laugh. It’s a laughing matter — as in when you see it on TV or the silver screen, you end up laughing at either the future groom or the bride, or perhaps both, for all of the misunderstandings and all of the foibles. Sometimes you’re laughing out of relief: As in “Thank god that isn’t happening to me.” Sometimes you’re laughing in recognition: “Been there, done that!”

There is a romantic presumption of happily ever after, of marital bliss. There are the underlying assumptions that maybe your family does know what’s best for you, that perhaps it’s not just two people getting married but two families and two communities coming together. Perhaps it shouldn’t be left to the young and inexperienced to figure out for themselves. Think We Are Lady Parts. Think Indian Matchmaking.

Then there’s the comedy of errors when the groom or bride deviates from the chosen path that is meant to make us laugh, to ease the cringing and the uncomfortable moments. Think of Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick or Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

But in real life, arranged marriage is no joke. 

. . . .

It is an accepted practice around the world. Most of the time, in my experience with my family and friends and acquaintances, marriages are arranged with good intentions.

In India, where my ancestral family originates, it is complicated. Here is a nation famous for worshiping female deities such as Durga and Kali, tongues out, weapons in hand. And India had its first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, decades before the purported democratic ideal, The United States, fielded Kamala D. Harris to the nation’s second highest position. Still, India and the subcontinent remain in the news — so much violence and oppression against women. Child marriage, yes, but also dowry deaths and female infanticide and sexual assault. 

But I digress, again. 

Arranged marriage ultimately becomes something borne out of a visual medium: think picture brides. Someone posing, unsmiling, that is supposed to symbolize a potential bride or groom’s merits and seriousness. There are many stories and books about that concept  — famously, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short story collection, Arranged Marriage, and The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which vividly depicts the lives of Japanese picture brides emigrating to the United States and making their way in the years before World War II. Kiran Desai’s debut novel, Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, has one of the best descriptions of the expectations of and for a daughter-in-law that I’ve ever read, and I chuckle every time I have a moment to revisit it.

For as long as I can remember the dominant American culture has looked upon arranged marriage in eastern cultures or non-English speaking parts of the world as something backward or something that was to be treated as abusive or suspicious. Of course everything in the world is a circle/cycle and there are now healthy numbers of Americans  on eHarmony or Matchdotcom or something similar trying out a more modern version of arrangement and the institution of marriage. 

My family and my husband’s family hail from similar backgrounds. We are both academic brats, children of college professors. In fact we were both raised in the U.S., Bengali in origin — and our parents are friends. Yes, we were introduced but as we are fond of saying, “We got married despite our parents and not because of them.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Picture Limitless Creativity at Your Fingertips

From Wired:

PICTURE LEE UNKRICH, one of Pixar’s most distinguished animators, as a seventh grader. He’s staring at an image of a train locomotive on the screen of his school’s first computer. Wow, he thinks. Some of the magic wears off, however, when Lee learns that the image had not appeared simply by asking for “a picture of a train.” Instead, it had to be painstakingly coded and rendered—by hard-working humans.

Now picture Lee 43 years later, stumbling onto DALL-E, an artificial intelligence that generates original works of art based on human-supplied prompts that can literally be as simple as “a picture of a train.” As he types in words to create image after image, the wow is back. Only this time, it doesn’t go away. “It feels like a miracle,” he says. “When the results appeared, my breath was taken away and tears welled in my eyes. It’s that magical.”

Our machines have crossed a threshold. All our lives, we have been reassured that computers were incapable of being truly creative. Yet, suddenly, millions of people are now using a new breed of AIs to generate stunning, never-before-seen pictures. Most of these users are not, like Lee Unkrich, professional artists, and that’s the point: They do not have to be. Not everyone can write, direct, and edit an Oscar winner like Toy Story 3 or Coco, but everyone can launch an AI image generator and type in an idea. What appears on the screen is astounding in its realism and depth of detail. Thus the universal response: Wow. On four services alone—Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, Artbreeder, and DALL-E—humans working with AIs now cocreate more than 20 million images every day. With a paintbrush in hand, artificial intelligence has become an engine of wow.

Because these surprise-generating AIs have learned their art from billions of pictures made by humans, their output hovers around what we expect pictures to look like. But because they are an alien AI, fundamentally mysterious even to their creators, they restructure the new pictures in a way no human is likely to think of, filling in details most of us wouldn’t have the artistry to imagine, let alone the skills to execute. They can also be instructed to generate more variations of something we like, in whatever style we want—in seconds. This, ultimately, is their most powerful advantage: They can make new things that are relatable and comprehensible but, at the same time, completely unexpected.

So unexpected are these new AI-generated images, in fact, that—in the silent awe immediately following the wow—another thought occurs to just about everyone who has encountered them: Human-made art must now be over. Who can compete with the speed, cheapness, scale, and, yes, wild creativity of these machines? Is art yet another human pursuit we must yield to robots? And the next obvious question: If computers can be creative, what else can they do that we were told they could not?

I have spent the past six months using AIs to create thousands of striking images, often losing a night’s sleep in the unending quest to find just one more beauty hidden in the code. And after interviewing the creators, power users, and other early adopters of these generators, I can make a very clear prediction: Generative AI will alter how we design just about everything. Oh, and not a single human artist will lose their job because of this new technology.

Link to the rest at Wired

Passwords

Let’s see. Experts say everyone should have a unique password for every website.

Which you should change on a regular basis.

PG just counted the number of passwords he has for websites beginning with the letter “A”.

There were 104 Letter A sites.

No, PG is not going to count the number of passwords for sites beginning with something other than the letter “A”.

Why not just memorize a unique password (and sometimes a unique user ID as well) for each site PG visits?

Of course, there are 26 letters in the alphabet. If website names began with the other letters of the alphabet were also that numerous (they’re not, but this is PG’s hypothetical), that would mean that PG had to remember 2,704 different passwords, containing both letters and numbers, with various minimum character counts required by more than one site.

Mrs. PG asks him to go to the grocery store to pick up a few things, she usually provides PG with a written shopping list.

PG is almost always happy to help, but if Mrs. PG gave him a grocery list that contained 2,704 different items to pick up, even if she gave him a list, he might have to draw a line. Or put his foot down. Or something else.

If Mrs. PG asked PG to memorize a grocery list containing 2,704 items to pick up (including every flavor of yogurt and every type of soup), PG’s mind would turn to mush.

Fortunately for PG, although he’s not aware of any grocery list software, he has used a password manager for a very long time.

The Best Password Managers to Secure Your Digital Life

From Wired:

PASSWORD MANAGERS ARE the vegetables of the internet. We know they’re good for us, but most of us are happier snacking on the password equivalent of junk food. For seven years running, that’s been “123456” and “password”—the two most commonly used passwords on the web. The problem is, most of us don’t know what makes a good password and aren’t able to remember hundreds of them anyway.

The safest (if craziest) way to store your passwords is to memorize them all. (Make sure they are long, strong, and secure!) Just kidding. That might work for Memory Grand Master Ed Cooke, but most of us are not capable of such fantastic feats. We need to offload that work to password managers, which offer secure vaults that can stand in for our memory.

A password manager offers convenience and, more importantly, helps you create better passwords, which makes your online existence less vulnerable to password-based attacks. 

. . . .

Why Not Use Your Browser?

Most web browsers offer at least a rudimentary password manager. (This is where your passwords are stored when Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox ask if you’d like to save a password.) This is better than reusing the same password everywhere, but browser-based password managers are limited. In recent years Google has improved the password manager built into Chrome, and it’s better than the rest, but it’s still not as full-featured, or widely-supported as a dedicated password manager like those below.

The reason security experts recommend you use a dedicated password manager comes down to focus. Web browsers have other priorities that haven’t left much time for improving their password manager. For instance, most of them won’t generate strong passwords for you, leaving you right back at “123456.” Dedicated password managers have a singular goal and have been adding helpful features for years. Ideally, this leads to better security.

WIRED readers have also asked about Apple’s MacOS password manager, which syncs through iCloud and has some nice integrations with Apple’s Safari web browser. There’s nothing wrong with Apple’s system. In fact, I have used Keychain Access on Macs in the past, and it works great. It doesn’t have some of the nice extras you get with dedicated services, but it handles securing your passwords and syncing them between Apple devices. The main problem is that if you have any non-Apple devices, you won’t be able to sync your passwords to them, since Apple doesn’t make apps for other platforms. All in on Apple? Then this is a viable, free, built-in option worth considering.

Apple Passkeys and the “Death of the Password”

A concerted effort to get rid of the password began roughly two days after the password was invented. Passwords are a pain—you’ll get no argument here—but we don’t see them going away in the foreseeable future. The latest effort to get rid of the password comes from the FIDO Alliance, an industry group aimed at standardizing authentication methods online. 

It’s still early days, but Apple has implemented the FIDO protocols in what the company calls passkeys. Passkeys are a lot like passwords but are generated and managed by your device. You don’t need to do anything. Apple will store them in iCloud’s Keychain so they’re synced across devices, and they work in Apple’s Safari web browser. Passkeys are now available in iOS 16 and macOS Ventura, but there are some limitations. Websites and services need to support the FIDO Alliance’s protocols, which, at the moment, most don’t. We expect that to change rapidly though. Since Apple is using the work of the FIDO Alliance behind the scenes, passkeys will eventually also function with Google, Microsoft, Meta, and Amazon’s systems.

You might be wondering if passkeys are different from passwords. They really aren’t. They’re generated key pairs instead of passwords. If you are familiar with GPG keys, they’re somewhat similar in that there’s a public and private key; the site has a public key and verifies your identity by requesting the private key from your device. While passkeys aren’t a radical departure, they’re still an improvement by virtue of being pre-installed for people who aren’t going to read this article and immediately sign up to use one of the services below. If millions of people suddenly stop using 12345678 as a password, that’s a win for security. 

Should you use them? If you’re all in on Apple devices, then jump in wherever they’re supported. Support outside the Apple ecosystem will come with time. Dashlane, one of our picks below, has already announced it will support passkeys so you can manage both legacy passwords and passkeys in a single service. Expect other existing services to follow suit. 

If you use a variety of devices, you might want to hold off on adopting passkeys. While there is a workaround for other devices, it involves QR codes and looks a bit cumbersome. We expect Android, Windows, and other platforms to begin rolling out their own support for FIDO Alliance protocols in the future, at which point we’ll start testing and figure out the best way to navigate the passwordless future.

Link to the rest at Wired

The OP continues by discussing a variety of different password managers (some free) that you can utilize to store (and usually create) a password that nobody else is likely to guess or use. You’re a unique human, you need several thousand unique passwords. Get used to it.

(Digression: PG wants to get a t-shirt that says FIDO Alliance.)

Science fiction is any idea

Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Ray Bradbury

Print Book Sales Are Slipping

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Unit sales of print books fell 4.8% through the first nine months of 2022, from the comparable period in 2021. Unit sales dropped from 570 million copies sold in the January through September period in 2021 to 542.6 million in 2022 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. The sales decline slowed during the third quarter, falling from a drop of 6.6% in the first half of 2021. The decline also follows a year in which unit sales for the full year rose 8.9% over 2020.

Adult fiction has been the strongest category all year, and that was particularly true in the third quarter, when sales jumped 38.5% over the third quarter of 2021, leading to a 9.2% sales increase through the first nine months of the year. To date, all four books that have sold more than one million copies were novels, and two of the three books that have sold more than 900,000 copies are in the adult fiction category. To no one’s surprise, Colleen Hoover has been the bestselling author so far this year, with sales of It Ends with Us nearing two million copies sold, while her Verity and Ugly Love have also posted sales of more than one million copies each. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was the fourth title to have sold more than one million copies through September, with sales just over 1.6 million.

. . . .

The top-selling adult nonfiction book in the first nine months of 2022 was Atomic Habits by James Clear, which sold more than 933,000 copies, higher than the 902,000 copies that American Marxism by Mark Levin, the #1 adult nonfiction book at this point in 2021, sold. (Atomic Habits sold about 610,000 copies through September 2021.) The 933,000 copies sold of Atomic Habits was just about double that of the second-bestselling adult nonfiction title so far in 2022, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Among the adult nonfiction subcategories that dragged down sales were history/law/political science, where sales fell 16.8% from last year, as well as general nonfiction (down 15.1%), and reference (off 13.7%). The travel area continued to bounce back from a few down years, with unit sales up 18.3%.

The only other major category to post an increase in sales besides adult fiction was young adult fiction, where sales inched up 0.4%, helped by a good third quarter. Jenny Han was the category star, with four of her books tied to the streaming service hit The Summer I Turned Pretty selling about 1.1 million copies.

Sales in juvenile fiction and nonfiction were down 8% and 9.9%, respectively. All juvenile fiction subcategories had declines through September, with general juvenile sales down 15.1%, and sales of classics fell 12.3%. In juvenile nonfiction, unit sales in the social situations/family/health segment had the largest decline, falling 19.5%, while biography/autobiography sales dropped 13.6%. The only subcategory to have an increase in the nine-month period was holidays/festivals/religion, where sales increased 4.8%.

All print formats had declines in unit sales in the period, with the struggling mass market segment having an 18.4% sales drop. Hardcover unit sales fell 8.9%, much higher than the 1.8% drop reported by the cheaper trade paperback format.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Should I Hire an Editor to Help Cut My Manuscript?

From Jane Friedman:

Question

I’m a newbie writer, working on a memoir about a trip I took in 1976. It’s a tad long, and I’ve been trying to pare it down from its three million words to its most important story lines. At what point do I call in an editor for help/advice?

—Needing Help in the Pacific NW

Dear Needing Help:

Writing a long memoir draft is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ve collected all the material you’ll need to write an interesting book. On the other, you’ve got to figure out what’s important.

Identifying those important moments and revising is a daunting process for all new writers, but it’s trickier for memoirists. Unlike a novelist, you can’t solve your story’s problems by making stuff up. Instead, you must find meaning in the chaotic parts of your life, a process that can feel a lot like describing your face without looking in the mirror.

Many memoirists believe an editor is the mirror they’ve been searching for. While the allure of a trained eye on your manuscript can be difficult to resist, high-quality editorial feedback is expensive. Before shopping for an editor, it’s important to know when to contact one, and how they might be able to assist you—something your Spidey senses have already alerted you to.

To help answer those questions, let’s talk about the three skillsets new writers need to develop:

  • Foresight
  • Storytelling
  • Stamina

Foresight: To revise well, writers need to develop a clear vision of what’s next in both the writing and publishing processes. This will help them create a logical plan of steps to take.

Storytelling: Recording life events and telling a story are not the same thing. Even strong writers, and avid readers, must learn how to do the latter. Cultivating strong storytelling skills makes it easier to hack a million-word draft into the most meaningful chunk, then craft what’s left into a succinct, well-written story.

Stamina: I’ve only met a handful of unicorns who can complete a publishable book in less than twelve months. None were new writers. That means most of us need to figure out how we’ll sustain our enthusiasm throughout what might be a long and bumpy ride.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG knows quite a number of indie authors who write and publish more than one book per year. And, if Amazon sales rank is to be credited, some of these authors earn quite a tidy sum, more than they would likely earn if they wandered down the dusty path of traditional publishing.

PG just checked one of his favorite fantasy/scifi authors, Brandon Sanderson, and discovered, that at the age of about 47, he has published (per his website), 33 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 illustrated books and 5 short fiction pieces.

Excel says that’s 46 books Sanderson has written or published (Short fiction may be pieces published in periodical form). Sanderson’s first book, Elantris, was published in 2005, when he was about 30 years of age. Per the OP, Sanderson would qualify as an uber-unicorn. Per his website, Sanderson also teaches one university creative writing class each year.

MegaThreats

From The Wall Street Journal:

Since Gilgamesh, apocalyptic prophecies have been a staple of human culture. These stories follow a familiar pattern: God will punish man for his sins by ending the world. But as faith has waned, the genre has taken a scientific turn, from Elizabeth Kolbert predicting mass extinction as a result of our burning fossil fuel to Nick Bostrom theorizing that our work in artificial intelligence could lead to being ruled by robots. Nouriel Roubini, with his book “MegaThreats,” makes those Cassandras look like Pollyannas.

“Will a deadly pandemic finish us before the transition to machines is complete?” asks Mr. Roubini, an economist and consultant who earned the sobriquet “Dr. Doom” for his congenital pessimism. “Will climate change destroy the planet before rational machines come to the rescue? Will we suffocate under a mountain of debt? Or will the U.S. and China destroy the world in a military conflict as competition to control the industries of the future becomes extreme?” In fields from economics to epidemiology to foreign policy to technology, the author finds reasons for fear and even panic.

But the reason he has chosen to survey 10 different megathreats, rather than emphasize just one, is that he believes a common thread unites these challenges facing humanity: They are all slow-moving, and therefore those who warn about them can for a long time look like the boy who cried wolf.

Pandemics had worried public health experts for years—the George W. Bush administration drew up detailed plans to fight them—before Covid-19 took the world by surprise. Milton Friedman warned in the 1980s that an aging population would make entitlement programs insolvent, while Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost an election in part because of their support for reform in 2012. China has wanted to take over Taiwan since the days of Chiang Kai-shek.

Mr. Roubini writes to urge us to confront the looming dangers of climate change, pandemics, inflation, artificial intelligence, war with China, the fall of the U.S. dollar, and several other worrisome trends that earn paragraphs instead of chapters in the book. The author warns that we are lurching from a “period of relative stability to an era of severe instability, conflict, and chaos.” Our return to the dark ages may be the result of the convergence of megathreats: climate change causing pandemics, China and the U.S. fighting over control of AI technology, a declining population exacerbating a debt crisis.

Mr. Roubini halfheartedly suggests potential solutions. Maybe the U.S. could import young immigrant workers to help solve its demographic challenge, or perhaps nations could offer universal basic income to those unfortunates put out of work by robots. But he fears that most of the problems he raises are essentially unsolvable. “Spoiler alert,” he writes in the prologue. “We are in way too deep.”

At times, Mr. Roubini gets so caught up in pessimism that he seems only cursorily interested in making coherent arguments for action. For example, he approvingly cites a Natural Resources Defense Council study that estimates the potential economic effects of climate change by the end of this century: $1.9 trillion a year. Pages later, he advocates taking drastic action to mitigate climate change, citing those immediate costs at between $2 trillion and $6 trillion annually. If this is the type of math used to justify climate action, an economic argument is hard to make.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that there have been innumerable business booms and busts around the world. There have also been pandemics that killed millions in their day, a far higher percentage of the population then than a similar number of deaths would be in the contemporary world.

Athens v. Sparta is the earliest state-sponsored war PG knows much about, but wars and rumors of wars are a relatively consistent fact of life. Today, modern communications bring us news about wars of any meaningful size starting anyplace in the world almost immediately.

Wikipedia has a page titled List of ongoing armed conflicts with a map which helpfully shows the location where armed conflicts all over the world. One sub-part of that page lists 6 conflicts that have caused at least 10,000 direct, violent deaths per year in battles between identified groups. And this is a list of wars with a significant number of organized fighters fighting on each side. It doesn’t include deaths from criminal acts or gang violence.

PG is not certain how many times a war has been described as, “a war to end all wars.” Such is a wonderful goal and a thing of beauty to contemplate, but wars have continued, regardless.

Ditto for crop failures, pandemics, etc. In 1918-20, The Spanish Flu appeared. About 500 million people, or one-third of the global population at the time, fell ill. At least 50 million died, with 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S. The population of the United States in 1919 was an estimated 104,514,000, so 0.646% of the US population died from the Spanish Flu. Two other world-wide influenza pandemics occurred in 1957 (the Asian Flu) and 1968 (the Hong Kong Flu).

The Asian Flu killed 1.1 million worldwide and 116,000 in the United States. The Hong Kong Flu killed 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Covid has infected 636 million worldwide and caused 6.61 million deaths worldwide.

PG remembers hearing a quip a long time ago, “Everybody has to die from something.”

With every major outbreak of an infectious disease or virus, experts appear to warn us that the apocalypse is right around the corner. PG is not dismissing threats of various sorts, but is very optimistic about the ability of humanity to overcome and bounce back.

PG is reminded of the old adage about the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

PG’s general optimism is likely to prevent him from being quoted in the Wall Street Journal any time in the future.

Canada’s CBC Books Names Five Finalists for Its 2022 Poetry Prize

From Publishing Perspectives:

Like its annual show and competition Canada Reads, the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize program is another enviable example of the public services performed by CBC Books.

That program’s literary prizes include not only this poetry competition, but also one in nonfiction and one in short stories. In the case of the Poetry Prize, most of the five finalists announced today (November 17) have considerable experience and are professionally published writers, although the rules for entering the competition requires that an entry be “an original, unpublished poem or collection of poems up to 600 words in length (with no minimum words limit). The program, then, highlights previously unpublished content.

CBC Poetry Prize 2022 Finalists

Links for each finalist’s work are to CBC’s write-ups on the writers selected. On those writers’ pages, you’ll find all or part of each al

  • From the Mouth by Rachel Lachmansingh (Toronto)

Lachmansingh is a Guyanese Canadian writer from Toronto. She’s been published in Minola Review, Grain, the Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, The Puritan and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing her bachelor of arts degree in creative writing at the University of Victoria. Lachmansingh was also longlisted for the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize for The Window of a Stranger’s House.

  • To the Astronaut Who Hopes Life on Another Planet Will Be More Bearable by Brad Aaron Modlin (Guelph, Ontario)

Modlin is a creative writing professor and poet. His work has been used for orchestral scores, an art exhibition in New York, and has been featured on The Slowdown with U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón and Poetry Unbound from public radio’s On Being Studios. His book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won the Cowles Poetry Prize.

  • Mouth Prayers by Luka Poljak (Vancouver)

Poljak is a Croatian Canadian poet currently in the bachelor of fine arts degree program at the University of British Columbia. He’s a board member of the nonprofit YouthCO and is currently working on his first chapbook of poetry.

  • Grief White by Kerry Ryan (Winnipeg)

Ryan has published two books of poetry: The Sleeping Life and Vs., which was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. Her third poetry collection, Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children, is to be released in the spring. Ryan was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2020 for Driver’s Seat & Grief Knot. 

  • Spell World Backwards by Bren Simmers (Charlottetown)

Simmers is the author of four books, including the wilderness memoir Pivot Point and Hastings-Sunrise, which was a finalist for the Vancouver Book Award. Her most recent collection of poetry is If, When. She was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2013 for I Blame MASH For My Addiction To MLS and in 2012 for Science Lessons.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

While PG is something of a snob about poetry (he hasn’t seen much written after the mid-20th century that he’s liked very well), he wishes the best for each of the Canadian poets listed above.

Mona Lisa in AI

PG decided to conduct an ai art experiment.

He created four images with the identical prompt, “Mona Lisa in the style of Leonardo DaVinci” and here’s what he got, four different images via one of the most commonly-used AI art generators – DALL·E 2 – OpenAI

And, finally, here’s a copy of the real thing:

PG posits that, if Leonardo had finished his painting a couple of years ago and registered it with the United States Copyright Office, he would be very unlikely to prevail in a copyright suit against the creators of any of the AI-generated images or the owners or creators of the programs that generated them.

None of the AI images would serve as a substitute for the original. No one would mistake any of the AI images for the original. At best, the AI images would be non-infringing satirical art. No one would buy an AI image as a substitute for the real thing. No one looking at the AI images would have been fooled into thinking it was a painting created by Leonardo.

PG acknowledges that there are different kinds of technical tools that generate deepfake images of individuals or images of individuals. Those are a different animal from AI Image creators.