Don’t Call Them Trash

From The Atlantic:

One of my most enduring school memories is of an austere English teacher urging us—a class of two dozen 13-year-old girls with all the raging hormones of a Harry Styles arena tour—not to succumb to the books of Jackie Collins. “If you read trash, girls,” she articulated, with icy precision, “you will write trash.” Thinking back on this, all I can summon is: I wish. Collins sold half a billion novels during her life, made more than $100 million, and had a Beverly Hills mansion and a gold Jaguar XKR with the license plate lucky77. We should all be so blessed as to write like she did.

Still, for me, the message stuck—not a moralistic warning about the dangers of sexually explicit popular fiction, but an aesthetic one. The idea that “bad” novels could poison someone’s thinking, could plant roots in the recesses of her brain only to send out shoots of florid prose years later, was an alarming one. I read all of Jackie Collins anyway, while feeling slightly embarrassed about it, my initiation into a world where virtually everything that’s pleasurable for women is shaded with guilt. Her characters—bold, beautiful women striding through Hollywood in leopard-print jodhpurs and suede Alaïa boots—embodied a combination of desirability and ambition that was totally intoxicating to a British teenager with a school uniform and a clarinet. And her writing did settle into my subconscious, I can see now, but not at all in the ways my teacher feared it would.

Dip even a toe into the pool of popular fiction by women writers, and you’ll discover that this word, trash, has a long lineage. George Eliot, in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” excoriated what she interpreted as “the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature,” a genre of contemporary fiction that concerned itself merely with “the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces,” written by ladies in “elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen.” One year earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a fit of pique, had vented to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women” dominating the American literary market. “I should have no chance of success,” he pouted, “while the public is occupied with their trash.”

The intellectual disdain for novels enjoyed by women often went hand in hand with a paternalistic sense of unease about how these kinds of stories might influence the innocent, unsuspecting reader. “Let us go into the houses of the poor, and try to discover what is the effect on the maiden mind of the trash which maidens buy,” Edward G. Salmon suggested in his 1886 essay “What Girls Read.” “We should probably find that the high-flown conceits and pretensions of the poorer girls of the period, their dislike of manual work and love of freedom, spring largely from notions imbibed in the course of a perusal of their penny fictions.”

Salmon might have been onto something. I’m not here to suggest that all, or even most, romance novels aspire to be highbrow endeavors (the works of E. L. James in particular are still the most brain-meltingly awful and regressive things I’ve ever read), or that a novelist’s popularity is a metric for literary accomplishment. Or that no “literary” fiction these days devotes sexually graphic attention to female ambitions and appetites. But it’s worth considering where so much of the anxiety over popular stories written by and for women, especially romances, might stem from. The history of fiction is full of stories about men who do; their deeds, wars, journeys, heroic triumphs are the texture of the tale. In stories about women, by contrast, characters primarily are: The action lies in their inner lives, dreams, conflicts, desires.

“Admiration for the heroine of a romantic novel … is love for an idealized image of oneself,” Rachel Brownstein wrote in her 1982 book, Becoming a Heroine. The subversive potential of so many works derided as trash is that they focus on female interiority, female pleasure, female aspiration. The “notions” sparked by romantic fiction and Nancy Meyers movies alike are that women’s earthly desires—for love, for sex, for chocolate cake, for professional elevation, for pristine Poggenpohl kitchens with white-marble backsplashes—can and should be gratified.

How fitting, then, that many of the ideas this genre draws from were pioneered by a woman whom hardly anyone remembers. So argues the historian Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. Glyn’s 1907 novel, Three Weeks, about a young man drawn into an obsessive romantic relationship with a married European royal, was more explicitly sexual than a mass-market novel had ever been (the bookseller WH Smith & Son refused to stock it) but also, Hallett insists, more progressive. It made the case, while the Victorian era and its mores still loomed large in the popular imagination, that women’s sexual desire not only existed—a heretical concept—but burned with an intense heat. (Glyn’s female protagonist describes love in one scene as “a purely physical emotion … It means to be close—close—to be clasped—to be touching—to be one.”) Its power was so great, in fact, that it threatened the patriarchal structures that the 20th century was built on. If women experience desire with a fervor equal to men’s, what else might they also secretly be craving? Glyn, in her autobiography, described the furious response to Three Weeks as “a curious commentary on the stupendous hypocrisy of the Edwardian age.”

Glyn enjoyed unprecedented success as a novelist during the early 1900s—by 1917, Three Weeks had sold more than 2 million copies—and went on to become an equally successful Hollywood screenwriter. Yet more than a century later, her radical vision of sexual politics seems to have all but vanished from the screen, as mid-budget movies have waned and audiences for streaming have become more segmented. The romantic comedy, after an ’80s and ’90s heyday that at its best furthered the idea that men and women could meet on equal terms, is essentially dead in the U.S. (with sporadic, gloomy attempts at resurrection—2022’s Marry Me, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, featured an extremely silly odd-couple setup and almost negative sexual tension between its stars). Sex on television is largely relegated to the dead-eyed, joyless teen couplings on Euphoria and the bouncy, intimacy-avoidant bonkfests of Sex Education. Even adaptations of romantic fiction such as Outlander and Bridgerton struggle; sex is lamentably suffused with violence in the former, and was quietly sidelined in the most recent season of the latter. Meanwhile, romance novels, reliably one of the most profitable and well-read genres in book publishing, have for decades featured a degree of diversity and (not always heteronormative) sex positivity that puts mainstream culture to shame, yet are still derided.

. . . .

Three Weeks, written in what Hallett likens to a haze of longing for a recently departed paramour, was an extraordinarily bold work for a writer in 1907 to publish under her own name. The so-called sex novel had already existed for centuries alongside its more sedate cousin, the romance. (John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, published in 1748, was so graphic in its biography of a former sex worker that it was banned in the U.S. until a Supreme Court ruling in 1966.) But Glyn brought the two genres closer than any other writer had managed. Three Weeks is told from the perspective of a well-off young Englishman banished to Europe after a flirtation with an unsuitable local girl. There he becomes sexually enthralled by a woman he notices one night dining in his hotel.

She has—unbeknownst to him—fled the clutches of her husband, a cruel and psychopathic Slavic king; she’s smitten with the Englishman, Paul, and decides to take his sexual and romantic initiation into her own hands. Paul is young and handsome and what we might now call basic. His passions include hunting, clothes, and ogling “perfectly virtuous” young women at the theater. The lady (who is only ever referred to as such) gently mocks him as a “great big beautiful baby.” Before he can be her lover, he has to submit to her authority and accept her terms. “I don’t belong to you, baby Paul,” she tells him when he tries to pay for lunch during one of their outings in the Swiss mountains. “You, for the day, belong to me.”

Three Weeks, in so many ways, predicted the formula for the romance novels that would follow it. The genre tends to be structured around accumulation: of pleasure, of possessions, of status. The protagonist, who is almost always female, begins the novel with next to nothing and emerges having gathered all kinds of capital. In a world in which marriage has been enshrined as “the one great profession open to our class since the dawn of time,” as Virginia Woolf wrote, love and wealth were already tied in the popular imagination. Three Weeks, though, bucks the marriage plot (the lady pursues the man because she desires him, and is more intent on having his child than his hand). It emphasizes the sensuality of luxury, the headiness of comfort, “the redemptive powers of sexual pleasure when performed in the key of glamour,” as Hallett writes.

The novel contains all the tropes of popular escapist fiction: exotic locations, extravagant sumptuousness, an older, experienced person seducing a naive ingenue. But the seducer is, crucially, a woman. And the most rebellious feature of Glyn’s writing is that the lady insists that Paul indulge her, meet her on her terms. “I must try to please you,” Paul learns, “or you will throw me away.” In positioning Paul as the ingenue transformed by his entanglement with the lady, Three Weeks was more subversive than most standard romantic fare. Callow and two-dimensional at the beginning, he grows more intelligent, more sensitive, and more fascinating to the people he encounters.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

The Illusionist Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Psychological science and stage magic are the best of frenemies. Both scientists and magicians attempt, for instance, to uncover the workings of the human mind, albeit toward different ends. The former seek to share their methods and results widely, for applications in medicine, education or management, or for the sheer sake of knowledge. The latter mean to deceive and entertain, while keeping their methods proprietary; replication is very much not the point. The two fields also differ in their standards of success. In science, statistical patterns count as discovery. On the stage, a single slipup spells disaster.

In “The Illusionist Brain: The Neuroscience of Magic,” Jordi Camí and Luis Martínez elucidate the ways the two disciplines can illuminate each other. The book adds to the steady stream of academic articles and popular-science books published in the past 15 years—among them Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s “Sleights of Mind” (2010) and Gustav Kuhn’s “Experiencing the Impossible” (2019)—that explain how tricks fool us. Dr. Camí, a professor of pharmacology and a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism, and Mr. Martínez, a neuroscientist, offer an accessible introduction, spending the first third of their book laying the groundwork for how the brain operates, before delving into the mechanics of magic.

One central message is that the brain has limitations, leading to apparent flaws in perception, attention and memory. For example, each retina has a blind spot where it attaches to the optic nerve. According to Dr. Camí and Mr. Martínez, “this is a point where we should not see anything, but we do not even realize that the blind spot exists because the brain fills that gap.” Ultimately, the authors write, “our brains are in charge of building reality.”

. . . .

In . . . a classic study of “memory reconsolidation”—participants are asked to assess the speed at which two cars either “hit” or “smashed” into each other; when asked later whether they had seen any broken glass as a result of the accident, those in the higher-velocity “smashed” group were more likely to falsely recall seeing shards of glass at the scene.

As the authors move from such laboratory fare to magical illusions, however, they rarely reveal all. They suggest ways in which an illusionist might direct our attention away from the pocketing of an object or talk us into recalling an action that never actually happened, but the book is light on concrete walk-throughs. Maybe the authors intended to remain abstract to protect the secrets of the trade. The most satisfying demonstration is a video they point to—viewable online—that annotates the beats of a magic trick using the labels “divided attention,” “attention capture,” “active deviation of attention,” “neutral maneuver,” “physical concealment,” “amodal completion” and “speed.”

What’s amazing is how stubborn the brain is in its fallibility. There’s the phenomenon called “choice blindness,” in which people are easily tricked into justifying a decision they never made. There’s also “choice blindness blindness,” in which people exhibit the phenomenon of choice blindness and then deny their susceptibility when it is explained to them.

While the book focuses on how magicians undercut our smarts, it also touches on the muddier terrain of why we enjoy such brazen humbling. The authors don’t explore this ground fully, noting little more than magic’s inducement of wonder. I suspect it’s a combination of a few factors. First, it highlights human errancy in a nonthreatening way. (The psychologist Peter McGraw has described humor as resulting from “benign violations” of how we believe the world ought to be.) Second, it displays a performer’s ingenuity or dexterity at exploiting such mental bugs. Many also see magic as presenting tantalizing puzzles, but some audiences don’t want a solution. As the magician Teller once told me, “it’s the joy of being defeated by art.” Sometimes, there’s also an engaging narrative, although acts rarely tap into deep emotions like sorrow or anger, denying magic the reach of music or film.

. . . .

In fact, magic and science pair best at the educational level, with science explaining to nonmagicians how magic works, and magic demonstrating scientific ideas to nonscientists. Still, the authors suggest some scientific questions about magic, probing the neural correlates as one witnesses the “impossible,” exploring the characteristics of those who dislike magic or studying the possibility of using artificial intelligence to invent tricks. The latter would be a feat. Using AI simply to predict human reactions to elaborate acts would be a grand challenge, requiring common-sense reasoning and perhaps emotional processing.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

30-year-old retiree earned $97,000 in passive income from Amazon last year: Here’s how she got started

From CNBC:

In 2017, by age 24, Rachel Richards had already worked as a financial advisor and then as a financial analyst at a manufacturing firm. After picking up her license, she began working as a Realtor. No matter what kind of work she was doing, one thing remained constant: People in her life were constantly looking to her for help with their finances.

“I began to wonder, ‘Why aren’t they learning on their own? Why aren’t they reading books, or listening to podcasts or looking on websites?’” says Richards, now 30.

Then it dawned on her: Most of the financial books she’d come across were boring and esoteric, bordering on intimidating. And few were targeted toward young women. “So I thought to myself, ‘How can I make this topic sassy and fun and simple?’”

Richards began writing her first book, “Money Honey” in January 2017 and self-published on Amazon that September. By just about any measure, it was a massive success. In its first month, the book brought in $600. The next month it brought in $1,000. “After that, it was pulling in $1,500 a month pretty consistently,” she says.

. . . .

The robust income she earned from publishing didn’t hurt. All told, through the end of July 2022, Richards has sold about 25,000 copies each of “Money Honey” and her second self-published book, “Passive Income, Aggressive Retirement,” a 2019 release which details her strategies for early retirement.

In 2021, royalties from the two titles netted Richards more than $97,000 in profit. Here’s how she did it.

She self-published online

Richards, like many aspiring authors, dreamed of seeing her name in print through the window of her local bookstore. She also hoped that with a traditional book deal, the publisher would handle the labor-intensive task of promoting the book. That turned out not to be the case.

“The more I asked authors about their experience, the more I learned that publishers expect you to do 99% of the marketing and promotion,” Richards says. “If you’re an author with no platform, they’re not going to send you out on a national book tour.”

Once she learned she’d have to flog the book herself no matter what, Richards was far less inclined to give a publisher a big chunk of her royalties. “When you get a book deal, you earn a 10% to 15% royalty. When you publish on Amazon, you earn a 35% to 70% royalty.” (Royalty structures vary between different formats, such as e-books and paperbacks, and factor in costs such as shipping and tax.)

She also says that self-publishing guarantees creative control, even if it comes at a cost. Thinking her book wouldn’t sell and hoping to limit her losses, Richards spent just $561 to hire an editor and a cover designer for “Money Honey.” She says a more “realistic” minimum budget is at least $2,000 and ideally would include an interior formatter as well. She spent $3,500 putting together her second book.

Link to the rest at CNBC

It’s Time to Embrace Physical Media Again

From LifeHacker:

It’s finally time to admit streaming apps and digital distribution have ruined most creative media industries, and maybe physical media was the right choice all along.

Okay, that’s a tad dramatic. But it’s not exactly wrong.

To be fair, streaming apps aren’t all bad. Streaming services and digital storefronts make it easy to access our favorite shows, bands, and video games on just about any device we own. And they give us legal ways to support legacy media without succumbing to greedy scalpers or shady piracy sites. But what started as a way to “cut the cord” and stick it to cable companies and record labels has only birthed a new corporate overlord—one that does not respect its customers, the media it distributes, or the people who make it.

The issue with streaming and digital media

One could argue annoyances like The Office leaving Netflix or that the first Mannequin film is unavailable digitally while Mannequin 2: On the Move is readily available are just part of the reality of the new digital landscape.

But that impermanence is starting to seem a lot more like a bug than a feature. This past week, we learned Warner Bros. Discovery unceremoniously delisted TV shows from the HBO Max app for no reason other than it wanted to stop paying residuals to its creators—sorry if you ponied up your $14.99 per month expecting HBO Max Originals content to actually be available on HBO Max. Meanwhile, digital video games are regularly delisted from digital shelves, making them impossible to purchase or redownload, even as inevitable server shutdowns render multiplayer modes—or even entire games—unplayable even after you’ve purchased and downloaded the game.

It’s not just music, movies, and games—even ebooks and comics are in peril due to streaming and all-digital platforms. Just look at the backlash against Amazon’s recent Comixology overhaul, which made purchasing new comics almost impossible for certain users, and rendered some comics and manga unreadable thanks to unwanted layout changes.

All streaming apps, regardless of media, revoke your access to their free libraries if you unsubscribe, they experience a sudden service outage, or they permanently go offline—not to mention streaming business models notoriously screw over the artists and creators that distribute their work through these apps.

These issues and more make it increasingly difficult for customers to enjoy their purchases, and make media preservation virtually impossible.

You know what doesn’t have those issues? Physical media.

Link to the rest at LifeHacker

PG doesn’t want to go back to printed books. On rare occasions (once per year or so), he’ll purchase a pbook, but he finds the percentage of those which are set aside after reading the first part is quite high.

The newsletter boom is over. What’s next

From Vox:

Remember when newsletters were hot?

This was all the way back in 2020 and 2021: Big Name Writers were leaving Well-Known Publications to start one-person publishing operations, and some of them were making a lot of money doing it. Serious people were asking whether Substack, the email platform of the moment, was a threat to the New York Times. Facebook and Twitter wanted in on it.

That was then.

Now newsletters are less … heated. Some writers who’ve gone out on their own have decided that they’d like a full-time job working for someone else, just like the old days. Substack has struggled to raise funding and has laid off some of its staff. Twitter doesn’t talk much about its newsletter plans anymore. And a year after launching Bulletin, its own Substack platform, Facebook has put the project on the “back burner.”

Which doesn’t mean newsletters have gone away. At all. Just some of the hype surrounding them. And in its place, there’s a more realistic attitude about the format and the business you can build around it: Newsletters, it turns out, are just like blogs and podcasts — they’re super simple for anyone to create. But turning them into something beyond a hobby — let alone turning them into a full-time job — requires talent and sustained effort.

“I don’t think it’s an easy path to fame and riches,” says Judd Legum, who has been writing his Popular Information newsletter since 2018. “But that was a thing that I never believed.”

Legum, whose muckraking newsletter focuses on the way big companies interact with public policy — he recently pressured Match Group, the dating app operator, to stop donating money to the Republican Attorney Generals Association following the demise of Roe v Wade — is doing quite well. He says he has more than 15,000 subscribers paying at least $50 a year, which means he is likely grossing more than $750,000 annually. And that revenue has given him the ability to hire two full-time employees for his micropublishing company.

Link to the rest at Vox and thanks to R. for the tip.

Writers’ Arbitration Ruling Yields $42 Million From Netflix

From Publishing Perspectives:

On Thursday (August 4), it was announced to members of the Writers Guild of America that a case of arbitration with Netflix has resulted in a huge win for screenwriters, coming to some US$42 million in residuals.

As the pace of development of books to film picks up—and as many international book publishers and literary agencies work to develop stronger channels into screen development deals for their properties and authors—the case highlights an interesting inflection point in the relationship of filmmakers’ writers and the streamers. And as EJ Panaligan at Variety reports, the arbitration was based in the case of the Netflix Original Bird Box, a film based on the 2014 novel of the same name by author Josh Malerman from HarperCollins’ Ecco. (Our interview with Malerman and background from literary agent Kristen Nelson is here.)

As reported by Wendy Lee at the Los Angeles Times, the Writers Guild of America West has reported that 216 writers who worked on Netflix’s theatrical films are being paid a total US$42 million in unpaid residual fees, thanks to the arbitrator’s ruling.

Eric Heisserer (Bird Box, Arrival, Hours) is the most visible screenwriter, thanks to his work on Bird Box. The arbitration has resulted in Netflix being required to pay him US$850,000 in residuals as well as $350,000 in interest.

The point on which the arbitration turned was Netflix’s own move into self-production, the Netflix Originals work—some of it written by guild members—which has become a major element of the company’s film library.

David Robb, writing for Deadline, carries part of an explanation provided by the union to its members on Thursday, and it’s a good summation of how the self-production vs. third-party production aspect of this was at the heart of the decision.

For our international readership: there are several industry acronyms here, all of which may not be familiar. Rather than spell each out on first reference–which complicates the text–we’ll list them here in the order you’ll encounter them before quoting the guild.

MBA: minimum basic agreement
DGA: Directors Guild of America
SAG-AFTRA: Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
AMPTA: Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers

The Writers Guild of America West leadership writes to members:

“When a theatrical [film] is licensed or released in any other market—like streaming or television or home video—residuals must be paid on revenues earned in those markets. The typical residual for the credited writer is 1.2 percent of the license fee paid to the producer for the right to exhibit that film.

“If the license is between related parties—for example, when Netflix is both the producer and the distributor of the film—the MBA [minimum basic agreement] requires that the company impute a license fee based on arm’s-length transactions between unrelated parties of comparable pictures—for example, a Sony film licensed to Netflix. This critical definition, negotiated as part of the resolution of our strike in 2008, protects against the undervaluation of license fees through self-dealing.

“Rather than follow the established MBA definition for related-party transactions (which exists in the DGA and SAG-AFTRA agreements with the AMPTA as well), Netflix negotiated new deals with the DGA and SAG-AFTRA that allow Netflix to pay residuals on significantly less than the cost of the film. Netflix then tried to force the Writers Guild of America to take this ‘pattern’ deal. Since it was clear the new formula negotiated by the other guilds undervalued these ‘imputed’ license fees, the guild instead took the dispute to arbitration.

“During the arbitration, the guild showed that when Netflix licensed comparable theatrical films from third party producers it almost always paid a license fee that exceeded the budget. The industry refers to this model as ‘cost-plus.’ The guild argued that Netflix must apply this cost-plus model to its own films and impute license fees in excess of the budget for the purpose of paying residuals. The arbitrator agreed and ruled that the license fee should be 111 percent of the gross budget of the film.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

A Love-Hate Relationship with Book Promotion

From Publishers Weekly:

Do you always wait for the launch day of the year and then miss it?

Sorry for the awkward paraphrase, but my novel Daisy was recently published digitally (print follows in September), and as I write this, my long-awaited digital launch has also passed. Yet, just as Daisy Buchanan coyly makes fun of her own forgetfulness, I’m wondering about my, well, nonchalance.

. . . .

I’ve been prancing around the internet talking about it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, cringing, as I suspect most authors do, at the BSP (blatant self-promotion) required of writers. Which leads me to a question: does any author really enjoy promoting their own books? I veer between wanting to sing the song of my stories and wanting to sit quietly in my home without saying a peep about them, hoping somehow the world discovers them.

In my (mumble, mumble)years of writing, I’ve done blog tours, radio and newspaper interviews, book signings (one at BookExpo America back in the day), book talks, and readings. I’ve given away free copies to my (dozens of) fans. I’ve asked readers to consider penning fair reviews at Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble if they like my books.

As enthusiastic as I might be at the start of this process, at some point I always come to feel, well, what is the point?

We all know that as valuable as those promotional activities are, they’re not what makes a bestseller. Starred reviews don’t always make bestsellers, either. Nor do blurbs from top authors. Nor do many of the tips in “how to market your book” blogs and tomes. It’s buzz, that elusive buzz, that makes the difference, and finding it is as difficult as Gatsby’s quest for the woman behind the green light at the end of the pier.

After looking at that green light for decades now, I’m convinced that influencers talking about a book might be the single best way to increase sales. But influencers seem to gravitate toward books that already have some buzz or some great preorder sales, and rarely do they focus on books published by small presses. Which reminds me—excuse me for a moment—Oprah, Reese, are you listening? I have a book coming out that I think you might like, but it’s published by a small press! (More book promo, check.)

I think authors have two dreams when they start their careers: one is just to get published, and the other is to be bestsellers. But after you’ve bumped around the business for a while, you realize that even if you don’t achieve that latter goal, you just can’t stop writing. You have to tell stories—even if they, like Gatsby, only become bestsellers after you’re gone.

In fact, there’s consolation in looking at bestseller lists over the decades. While you find many books there that are still read today, there are also many titles you’ve never heard of. Fame—in the form of bestseller status—can be fleeting.

Nonetheless, selling a lot of copies of your book usually means more money—or a film deal, which means more money. Excuse me a moment once more—Hollywood producers, I have a novel coming out with a strong female lead! (Book-to-film promo, check.)

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Wedding Present

From The Atlantic:

During my very first term of high school, I failed elementary algebra, and as a consequence was doomed to study German. It was 1942, when the war was well under way—the Second World War, for my generation always “the” war, despite all that came after. Mine was a traditional school that claimed old-fashioned standards; today they might be regarded as archaic. Four years of Latin were required, and a choice between French and German. There seemed no need for Spanish; Cervantes notwithstanding, it gave off a faint hint of infra dig, of roiling Central and South American populations at a time when these were remote.

Together with nearly everyone else, I had opted for French. German, especially for a Jewish student in 1942, was a sinister tongue contaminated by its criminal speakers, repellent in its very substance. The massive murders of European Jews were already in progress when, in that same year, the infamous 90-minute Wannsee Conference systematized and codified the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” a concealing German euphemism among others equally flagrant. The term deportation invokes a kind of authoritarian dignity—Napoleon on Elba, say—papering over the terror of outright savagery in the abduction of millions of defenseless Jews torn from their homes. Was I to be condemned to the penalty of learning German solely for the sin of flunking algebra?

Still, the German teacher—Frau Doktor Eva Lange, Ph.D., whose doctorate was in linguistics—was contractually in place, and also the German department and its four-semester curriculum. And so the obligatory German class was filled—for the most part with flunkees from Latin, but no others (that I was aware of) from elementary algebra. A number were the children of post–World War I German immigrants who heard German at home but could neither speak nor read it. For these, the language carried no explicit threat or horror: Theirs was a pursuit of nostalgic family retrieval.

Our teacher was middle-aged and graying and German-born. She might have passed for one of the Jewish refugees who had lately escaped Hitler’s genocidal reach and were beginning to settle in parts of New York. Their children, mostly native to Berlin and Vienna and Antwerp and Paris, were being pressed by the speech department to erase their accents, while in our class, in that very hour, Doktor Lange was urging the perfection of our German. The ubiquitous ch was particularly difficult for American tongues. It was this offensive consonant, placed somewhere between phlegm and a sibilant, that was mocked in anti-Nazi wartime movies. Under Doktor Lange’s tutelage it, and also the umlaut, had a place of honor. She hoped to lure us into the sonorities and ingenuities of the language. She surprised us by teaching the dazzling phonetic morphings of the “High German consonant shift.”

. . . .

By the end of the war, in 1945, more was emerging from that history. In the movie houses, between the feature and the cartoon, a film of a British bulldozer pushing gargantuan heaps of twisted corpses was shown again and again. Studies recording scores of witnessed atrocities began to proliferate. The term Holocaust had yet to take hold, and when it did, it filled a void: War implied combat by two or more armed forces. The Jews of Europe were neither combatants nor enemies. They were, or had been, fellow citizens.

Yet few of these burgeoning disclosures had fully entered public awareness; nearly two decades passed before the meaning of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and all the others became rooted in popular discourse. My high-school years, from 1942 until Germany’s defeat, were mainly untouched. During the summer break, groups of classmates—those not vacationing or working as camp counselors—met to write patriotic letters to American soldiers. Food rationing was imposed, but no one went hungry. The lack of nylon stockings was lamented. Young men were drafted by the thousands.

. . . .

At commencement I won the German Prize. It was a 19th-century history of German painting, a lavish art book, the colors brilliantly true, printed on exquisite linen paper. As I later learned, there was no graduate German Prize; there never had been. Doktor Lange had paid for this treasure out of her own pocket.

. . . .

Germany was in collapse, its bombed-out cities in ruins, its people dazed and demoralized. Berlin, where swastika banners had lately hung in their hundreds, was cut in two, half parceled out to the victorious Soviets. Hitler had promised conquest and Lebensraum; instead, Aryan zeal was muzzled, Aryan belief bludgeoned. And meanwhile I was steeped in Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller.

It was then that my correspondence with Karl Gustav Specht began. Precisely how it happened I can no longer recall, but I surmise that it came about through one of those postwar exchanges, Americans writing to their foreign counterparts, who replied in their own language. Each would enrich the other’s skills. Each knew nothing about the other. But at the very start, Karl Gustav Specht told me that he was a soldier who had been at the Eastern Front. A soldier? This meant the Wehrmacht, the so-called regular army, soon to be exposed as a force as fully implicated in overt criminality as the SS itself. The Eastern Front? This meant Stalingrad, the battle that devastated and routed the German military—fatally short of supplies, its straggling troops unfed and shoeless and dying in the Russian cold, more than 700,000 killed, wounded, or captured. (Supply trains elsewhere were at the same time industriously moving their human cargoes.) On May 7, 1945, the Germans officially surrendered to the Allies, and on May 9 to the Soviet Union.

To Karl Gustav Specht’s introductory greeting, I wrote back politely. Beyond this one biographical datum—his presence at the Eastern Front—nothing else of his experience appeared in his letter. Nor did I pursue more. My own circumstances spoke for themselves: I was an American student with a literary bent who was attracted to foreign languages. I was also attracted to Karl Gustav Specht’s voice, impressively bookish and high-minded. If I stripped him of his recent history, I might think of him as kind and enlightened. An idealist. A humanist. But he had no irony, or avoided it, and his tone, even when it carried a smile, was clear of humor. He was above all earnest. And it was plain that he delighted in our exchanges; so did I.

Looking back at a distance of decades, it seems perverse—even lunatic—that a young Jewish woman in New York was corresponding, in a friendly way, with a soldier loyal to his national duty, a German who had only a short time before served at the Eastern Front, who belonged to the nation that had conceived and carried out the Decree Against Folk Pests. Of which I was one. And still I knew nothing: not his age, nothing of his family, no inkling of his inward thought. Of his outward thought I learned much: art, philosophy, Roman history, his mastery of languages, English and French and Greek and Latin. We had the Aeneid in common; we could speak feelingly of infelix Dido on her pyre. At the center of it all was an unnamed silence.

But once, only once, he had written, “Ich hasse keine Rasse.” “I hate no race.” It was a sentence that was left floating like a wayward mote in the middle of a vacuum.

In june of 1945, one month after Germany’s surrender, my brother graduated from dental school, and was instantly sent, as a second lieutenant, to Camp Grant, in Rockford, Illinois, to join an Army medical unit. He was 22, and was assigned to housing for unmarried officers. Abutting Camp Grant, some distance away, was Camp Hampshire, where German prisoners of war were interned. Camps like this were scattered all over the Midwest, partly to keep the prisoners away from the bigger cities, and also to supply farm and factory labor at a time when such workers were scarce. The Germans were paid wages identical to those of the Americans. They ate identical meals, and feasted on whatever they wished from an abundantly stocked camp canteen. There were manifold entertainments—movies, some in German, supplied by public libraries, and performances the prisoners organized for themselves. They were permitted, on their honor, to frequent restaurants in the center of town, where Jim Crow routinely turned away the Black American soldiers of Camp Grant. German friendships with the local population were mushrooming. Following their release and repatriation, several thousand former prisoners returned to become American citizens. Intermarriages abounded.

On a blizzardy midwinter night, when a pelting of sleet was blinding and ice smothered trees and roads and footpaths, my brother received an apologetic telephone call from Camp Hampshire: It was an emergency. The alternate dentist who was to have been on duty was not to be found; it was not my brother’s turn, but would he come immediately? A German officer, an Oberstleutnant, was in howling agony. Half his face was swollen, a throbbing molar was festering, the pain was unbearable.

My brother was shaken: He had pledged to serve and succor and heal and repair and renew. But here, unexpectedly, was a Nazi soldier, a lieutenant colonel no less, one who had commanded obedience, and was himself obliged to obey—to do what? What was the nature of his complicity? Had he ordered the ditches to be dug, and the naked women with their little ones lined up on the brink to be shot and tumble in?

A below-zero blast stung my brother’s eyes, and the dental offices were a long and miserable trek away. A suffering man was waiting for him, a man dedicated to the credo that a Jew was a Folk Pest, no different from vermin. Zyklon B, a common pesticide, the gas used in the death camps, was manufactured by the German firm IG Farben, a conglomerate that included Bayer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Although Bayer lost the trademark in 1918, its name was still commonly used for aspirin, a popular remedy for toothache.

Were these brutal associations in my brother’s thoughts? I cannot say, but he knew what he must do.

He followed his skills and their urgencies. He injected the anesthesia. He spoke to the patient as he would speak to any patient, reassuring, explaining the procedure to come. He wrote prescriptions for post-care medication. When all of these ameliorations were completed, and the unendurable pain was relieved, the German broke into shamelessly grateful sobs.

And then my brother did what he had known he must do. He exacted his punishment.

Ich bin Jude,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Stephen King Testifies Against Book-Publishing Merger

From The Wall Street Journal:

Famed horror novelist Stephen King took the witness stand in a federal antitrust case on Tuesday, testifying that up-and-coming authors would be harmed if his longtime publisher Simon & Schuster is acquired by larger rival Penguin Random House.

“I came here because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” Mr. King said in a Washington, D.C., courtroom. “That’s my understanding of the book business, and I’ve been around it for 50 years,” he said.

The bestselling author said less-established writers are harmed by corporate consolidation in the industry. As publishers combine, “it becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find money to live on,” he said.

Mr. King’s testimony came on the second day of trial in the Justice Department’s lawsuit challenging Penguin Random House’s planned purchase of Simon & Schuster, a deal valued at more than $2 billion.

The trial is being closely watched by authors, literary agents and publishing-industry executives. Instead of arguing that the deal will increase book prices, the government has focused on author wages, saying writers of anticipated bestsellers likely will receive smaller upfront payments, or advances, if the deal is completed.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster have defended the transaction as pro-competitive, saying that author advances won’t be lowered and that Simon & Schuster authors will benefit from access to Penguin Random House’s distribution channels and supply chain.

The German media company Bertelsmann SE, which owns Penguin Random House, agreed in November 2020 to buy Simon & Schuster from ViacomCBS.

. . .

Mr. King testified that he wasn’t reassured by Penguin Random House’s pledges that, if the merger is completed, imprints it owns will continue to compete against imprints owned by Simon & Schuster.

“It’s a little bit ridiculous,” Mr. King said. “You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal and thanks to S. for the tip

PG notes that Bertlesman is a very large media conglomerate which is owned and controlled by one very wealthy German family, both directly and via a family-controlled trust.

PG suggests that such ownership is usually not conducive to innovation, including lower prices.

Nobody cares about feminist academic writing

Nobody cares about feminist academic writing. That’s careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted… But I recognize the fact that we have this ridiculous system of tenure, that the whole thrust of academia is one that values education, in my opinion, in inverse ratio to its usefulness—and what you write in inverse relationship to its understandability. […] Academics are forced to write in language no one can understand so that they get tenure. They have to say ‘discourse’, not ‘talk’. Knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful.

Gloria Steinem

Oxford University Press Is Migrating Its Catalogue to Its Online Platform

From Publishing Perspectives:

A migration of Oxford University Press‘ books as well as journals to the online platform Oxford Academic announced Wednesday (August 3) is expected to “further streamline access to high-quality scholarly content,” according to media messaging.

At this point, the company writes, more than 42,000 books and more than 500,000 chapters have been uploaded to the site, which already hosts some 500 journals and roughly 3 million articles.

Last month’s migrations included books from Oxford Scholarship OnlineUniversity Press Scholarship OnlineOxford Handbooks OnlineOxford Medicine OnlineOxford Clinical Psychology, the AMA Manual of Style, and Very Short Introductions.

. . . .

While it may seem something that a company as prominent as this in academic publishing would have done before now, the rationale for the move is one that makes sense: the ability to create a one-stop point of access and search for a broad base of high-profile and disparate content.

“By collating core research books and journals onto one online platform,” Oxford’s media messaging says, “Oxford University Press is better enabling its users to rapidly share and seamlessly connect ideas that advance research.

“This will continue a cycle of scholarship that furthers the press’ mission to create world-class academic and educational resources and to make them available as widely as possible. The platform will be further expanded and updated over time to provide the most effective and accessible service for users and customers.”

David Clark, for the nearly five years the managing director of Oxford Academic, is quoted, saying, “Scholarly publishing is becoming increasingly digital and this migration is an important step in realizing our potential as a digital-first publisher.

“By implementing new digital tools to access and share research faster, we’re increasing our reach as a publisher … I look forward to seeing the impact of the new Oxford Academic platform for authors, librarians and, of course, readers.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes this item would be deemed not newsworthy anywhere except in academic publishing.

The 12 Best Writing Organization Tools of the Year

From The Book Designer:

Writing a book is one of the most meaningful projects you can dedicate your time to. Your book has the potential to entertain and inform people far into the future. It also sets an amazing example for those around you, showing them it’s possible to dream of being an author and then realize that goal. Crafting a full book is difficult and requires organization and discipline for any writer, but for self-published authors, even greater levels are required.

Why? As a self-published author, you’re responsible for many more moving pieces than authors with a traditional publishing deal. The trade-off is far more creative freedom and a bigger slice of any sales revenue. But until you’ve released a book independently, you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work required in different areas.

Thankfully, a wide range of apps and other solutions exist to help keep your writing projects, not to mention your writing itself, organized and on track. From the simplest planning and tracking tools through to powerhouse writing software that does it all, there’s an option that’s suited to your needs.

Read on to discover our guide to the best writing organization tools to help you succeed.

1 – Your phone’s notes app (or a paper notebook)
Depending on which writer you ask, you might hear of a love or hate relationship with their phone. Some writers love the connectivity, information, and ease smartphones offer. Others have mixed feelings, seeing both the benefits and the downsides. As for writers who detest them, check out Cell by Stephen King!

If you carry a smartphone, consider using your notes app to organize your writing. You can use it to capture quick ideas and plans related to your writing that strike no matter where you happen to be. Most notes apps also allow for checklists, doodles, voice recordings, and other features.

For those of you who fall into the Stephen King camp regarding smartphones, carrying a small notebook is a good option.

Sometimes, the simplest ways of organizing your writing are the best. Try using your notes app for this purpose and see if you agree.

2 – Writer’s Companion
Perhaps you like the idea of using a simple tool like a notes app on your phone, but worry you won’t have all the features and functionality you need. You might prefer something similar but more directly suited to writers.

If that’s the case, check out Writer’s Companion. It’s an app for both iPhone and Android devices that allows you to plan books and build worlds. Writer’s Companion is available as a free edition or as a paid product with greater functionality.

The free version of Writer’s Companion allows you to work on up to 4 projects at a time and also provides limited worldbuilding functionality. If you opt for the premium edition you get unlimited projects, advanced wordbuilding capabilities, straightforward backups of your work, and the ability to use Writer’s Companion in dark mode.

Writer’s Companion is a great middle-ground between the simplicity of a notes app and a fully-featured planning tool. It’s affordable and worth exploring if you like organizing your writing from your phone.

3 – Todoist
While Todoist isn’t an app specifically created for writers, it is packed with functionality that will help you keep your writing projects on track. You can use Todoist by logging in through a web browser or downloading a mobile app. The service syncs between the two options so you can work wherever you happen to be.

Todoist allows you to create tasks and assign them to different prioritization levels, so you don’t end up wasting too much time on less important parts of your writing project. You can track your progress and visualize your performance. If you’re independently publishing a book you’ll probably collaborate with designers and book layout specialists. You can easily work with collaborators within Todoist. The app also allows you to easily convert emails into tasks so important action items don’t get lost in your inbox.

Unlike some other apps, Todoist helps organize more than writing, so it’s a great solution if you want a single tool to organize everything that goes along with a project.

4 – Trello
Trello is one of the easiest to use and most intuitive writing organization apps available. It’s based around a simple drag and drop interface that allows you to create boards and cards before dragging and dropping them as needed. If you’re familiar with the Kanban method of organization, you’ll feel at home in Trello.

Trello is available as a mobile app or as a service to log into via your web browser. Your Trello account syncs data between devices, allowing you to work seamlessly wherever you are. Although the card system used by Trello is very simple, it’s also powerful, allowing you to create tasks and assign them to different users, set due dates, and automate functions easily without any need for code.

You can also integrate Trello with many of the tools you already use, meaning this is a great choice of organization app to enhance your existing ways of planning your writing.

5 – Scrivener
Scrivener has a lot to offer in terms of organizing your writing effectively but does far more besides just that. Investing in Scrivener purely for planning purposes would not be a good choice, but if you would benefit from everything it’s capable of, it could make sense as your primary organization tool.

You can use Scrivener for almost anything imaginable related to writing, editing, and publishing. Its organizational features include corkboards to visually plan your books, information and notes related to your writing project, and stats and progress metrics.

Scrivener offers a free trial so you can get hands-on and see if it’s a good fit for your needs before making a final investment.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

Shakespeare, Pronouns, and the New World Order

From Daily Writing Tips:

One of my favorite go-to news sources is the BBC Daily News. Reading an account of a shooting in Norway not long ago, I came to this sentence:

King Harald, Norway’s monarch, said him and his family were horrified.

The BBC is an institution I have long admired. During the seven years I lived in London, my main source entertainment was the radio. I even named a child after a character on The Archers. I often consult the “BBC Learning English” site for explanations and examples of standard usage.

And then came that sentence about King Harald and his family.

The error was corrected before the end of the day, but the fact that it found its way onto a BBC page at all left me feeling shaken. I suppose it seemed as if the last bastion had fallen.

For a long time now, I have been hearing subject/object pronoun errors in British productions like Father Brown and Midsomer Murders and even in the speech of members of the royal family, but to see something like this appear even briefly on the BBC site gave me a jolt. (I can at least comfort myself with the thought that the person who wrote it probably won’t write a subsequent article to defend the usage.)

Another institution that has represented canonical literacy to me is Harvard. I’ve always imagined that even Harvard freshmen must be much better-read than most teens. Then I read an interview with author Geraldine Brookes in the New York Times (June 16, 2022). One of the questions the interviewer asked was “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

Her response:

I taught writing at Harvard last year and half my students had never read a Shakespeare play. That set my hair on fire.

She did not answer the question directly, but I infer that she means that the works of Shakespeare should be read before the age of 21.

That revelation did not disillusion me about Harvard, but about the feeder high schools that send students there. Ninety-three percent of the Harvard class of 2024 earned a place in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes. When I graduated from a small-town Arkansas high school (nowhere near the top) years ago, my class (most of whom were not headed to college) had studied four Shakespeare plays—one per year, from ninth to twelfth grade. And we could quote from all of them.

. . . .

Does it matter?
According to a recent survey, Harvard is one of only four of fifty-two universities on the US News & World Report list of the highest-ranking educational institutions that still require English majors to study Shakespeare. English majors. (That fact sets my hair on fire.)

Some of my readers may be thinking,

So? Why the fuss about Shakespeare or pronoun case? Everybody knows that Shakespeare is irrelevant, not to mention misogynistic, racist homophobic, classist, and anti-Semitic. And, as for Standard English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has decided that teachers should “stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm.”

The battles over Shakespeare and pronoun case are not mere academic quibbling. The BBC pronoun error made me realize that conflicts about language and literature are universal and that they mirror other clashes going on in the body politic.

Does having one standard English dialect for general use unify or divide?

Does rooting English instruction in a traditional literary canon enrich thinking and communication, or does it perpetuate a mindset unsuited to a modern secular and racially diverse society?

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Are Ebooks on the Decline Again?

From Book Riot:

It’s not news that ebook reading surged during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Library ebook borrowing, in particular, saw an increase in 2020 and 2021. Though ebooks have not eclipsed print for a long time, they still enjoyed an ounce of quiet popularity.

At the start of the year, however, it looks like that’s changing.

In 2020, ebook sales rose by 11%. But in 2021, sales declined by 3.7%. Ebook sales also plummeted from January to March this year, according to the Association of American Publishers. In January, it was a 10.1% fall from last year. In February, sales dropped by 6.9% as that trend continued. In March, it went down again as sales dipped by a whopping 12.2%.

Meanwhile, in the UK, ebook sales are down in 2021, the “lowest point since 2012,” according to The Bookseller. The UK magazine reported that 80 million ebooks were downloaded in 2021, which is a disappointment next to its 95 million in 2020.

. . . .

Ebook reading rose in the late 2010s when Amazon released its Kindle ereaders; ebooks back then were as low as $9.99. During that era, there were even predictions that ebooks would eventually kill print, shutter bookstores, and that ebooks would be the future of reading. But those forecasts missed the mark, obviously.

The interest in ebooks started to plateau when the drama between Amazon and the then Big 6 publishers happened in 2012. The publishers wrestled control of ebook pricing from Amazon, raising it so that people would have reasons to read in print. This led to a collusion with Apple, which got all of them sued by the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, the pricing scheme set by the publishers stayed on.

Since then, ebooks have enjoyed a decent popularity. Sales are down, and sometimes up. But they have never killed print. People moved on from the digital and went back to physical eventually, for the most part.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic froze everything, preventing people from easily buying physical books. This made many readers turned to ebooks once again. But as the world is opened up again in 2022, people are going out and dropping by the bookstores again. And so starts the dipping sales of ebooks.

. . . .

By the looks of it, the future of ebooks looks grim. However, one important thing unbeknown to many is that the AAP’s reports don’t include Kindle sales, “so the data might be skewed,” as Kozlowski put it. Amazon’s Kindle obviously has a larger market share than its competitors such as Kobo and Barnes & Noble, and so it leaves a lot of numbers on the table.

Mark Williams, the editor of the publication The New Publishing Standard that covers publishing news, said that AAP’s 2021 report fails to account for tens of millions of dollars in ebook revenue. “We simply don’t know the true scale of the impact ebooks have on the U.S. and global book markets, either in revenue terms or in consumer engagement, but we can say with absolute certainty that the AAP numbers only paint a partial picture,” he wrote in May 2021.

He also said that many of the uncounted participants do not report to the AAP, including Amazon Publishing, a slew of small presses, and thousands of self-published authors. That definitely leaves a lot of figures, and it suggests that ebooks may not be in a nosedive after all. AAP’s 2021 report, according to Williams, “warps the picture in favor of print.”

. . . .

So are ebooks losing their shine again? Are they in decline thanks to the “disappointing” sales, and maybe, because of the extreme dislike by many?

Data suggests that the ebook market may actually be a lot bigger.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes this is a near-perfect model of a clickbait title.

The traditional publishers who report ebook sales to the AAP (Association of American PUBLISHERS) say their ebook sales may be falling.

Traditional publishers have always held an irrational prejudice against ebooks even though ebook sales don’t entail a great many expenses that physical books require: printing costs (including set-up costs), warehousing expenses, shipping expenses, the fact the publishers need to sell pbooks at a wholesale price that allows physical bookstores to cover their expenses and persuade customers to pay a lot more than they would if they bought the very same content in ebook form from Amazon. (long sentence, PG acknowledges)

The cost of creating ebooks for traditional publishers includes overpriced real estate, starvation wages (by New York standards), but they don’t include the costs of a bunch of employees that deal with the complexities and inevitable inefficiencies and screw-ups of print publishing.

Once the ebook manuscript is received as a bunch of bits from an author, all that happens to it is digital – reviewing the digital manuscript to see if they want to publish it, editing it on computers, formatting it on computers and shipping those refined bits over the internet to Amazon and other e-tailers for publication. (PG understands that Ingram gets involved with distribution of ebooks and takes its percentage, which is Exhibit 2 demonstrating the overwhelming technology cluelessness of major publishing.)

Of course other publishers (located in much lower-cost locations without New York taxes, etc.) and self-publishers don’t have all those overhead and staff costs. They also don’t “have to” protect their relationships with traditional bookstores by selling at wholesale prices, etc., etc.

PG says the Association of American Publishers is reporting sales problems with overpriced ebooks, not ebooks that are priced intelligently. What does PG mean by overpriced?

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, published by Simon & Schuster and a New York Times Bestseller is priced at $14.99 for the ebook.

Per Amazon, used copies of the hardcover can be purchased for less than the ebook.

PG suggests that Simon & Schuster could sell way more ebooks if they dropped the price to $4.99 instead of trying to help Barnes & Noble make money selling hardbacks. If Big Publishing priced ebooks for optimum sales and profits, there wouldn’t be any “decline” in ebook sales to write clickbait stores about.

A weird state law lets Virginians sue books. Politicians are using it to dictate what we can read.

From FIRE:

Book bans seek to enlist the power of the state to dictate what each of us and our families may or may not read — and thus are sharply at odds with the First Amendment and our pluralist democracy.

That’s the message delivered by FIRE and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation in an amici curiae brief filed today with a Virginia state court tasked with determining whether two award-winning books, Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury,” are legally obscene.

In May, two Virginia politicians filed a petition against the books in Virginia Beach Circuit Court, seeking declarations of obscenity that, pursuant to state law, would prohibit bookstores from selling either work. Their request invoked a rarely-used state law that allows Virginians to sue books and to compel their publishers and authors to defend them in court. After a retired state judge found “probable cause” that the works are “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors,” the petitioners sought temporary restraining orders to bar commercial distribution of the book.

In today’s brief, FIRE and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation argue that neither book comes close to constituting obscenity as defined for minors under longstanding state and federal precedent. The books “will not appeal to or have value to every audience,” we recognize, but the First Amendment only requires that the books have “value to an audience” — and both plainly do.

Moreover, FIRE and Woodhull argue, book bans are antithetical to the First Amendment and the pluralist values it protects:

Some readers will choose not to purchase or read the books at issue in this case. Some retailers and some librarians will decline to place them on the shelves. Our Constitution reserves these choices for individuals and forbids them from the state. In our pluralist democracy, the First Amendment prescribes a remedy for audiences offended by protected speech: those who seek to avoid “bombardment of their sensibilities” may do so “simply by averting their eyes.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 21 (1971). Declaring books obscene because they include discussions or depictions of sex would reprise a discredited era of censorship repudiated by decades of Supreme Court precedent.

Drawing a link between the “current national push to ban books discussing sexuality, identity, and other controversial topics” and the “increasing comfort with censorship that amicus FIRE has fought against for over twenty years on campuses nationwide,” our brief makes the case for freedom of thought.

Link to the rest at FIRE and here’s a link to a page where you can read the FIRE Brief.

FIRE stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE summarizes its mission as follows:

FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

PG hasn’t agreed with 100% of FIRE’s positions, but he does agree with a great deal of what FIRE advocates and the causes it takes to court.

Writing Elusive Inner Moments

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of the most important moments in our lives could not have been captured on video.  They happened inside.  Those moments define us even more, perhaps, than life’s observable milestones: graduations, marriages, births, trophies, moving, funerals.

I’m talking about the moments that define who we are and whom we are becoming: realizations, revelations, decisions, turning points.  When we relish our triumphs or recognize our follies we, for a moment, pin ourselves to a cork board.  When for a split second we see ourselves objectively, as others must, our experience of our own being is stone solid.  We know at those moments exactly who we are.

When we affirm a conviction we become even more ourselves.  On the other hand, when we change our minds we become someone different.  The self is not static.  It’s dynamic, meaning changing.  Our inner shifts are steps in an journey without end: our search for meaning and purpose, our quest for ourselves.

Call it the human condition but whatever it is, we humans feel a strong need to capture, mark and name those critical moments in our experience.  We journal.  We think in questions and expect that there will be answers.  We hunt for words to express that for which there are no precise terms.

Moments of profound self-awareness are different for everyone, too.  That is as true for fictional characters as it is for our corporal selves.  To bring a character alive on the page, then, requires finding words to capture immaterial inner states.  When something big happens wholly inside, how do you get that across?

Approaches to the Invisible and Inchoate

Despite the difficulty, writers have for centuries found ways to pin down the wispy fog of self-realization.  That is especially evident when an effective story brings a character to what is often called the mirror moment, middle moment or dark moment.  It is not exactly the moment of all-is-lost—that’s a step late in a plot—but rather the time when a character is sunk in despair, hollow inside, lost in the dark with no lantern or map.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (2014) is a dreamy, magical novel set in a nowhere place in a nowhere time (although there are lightbulbs).  Denfeld’s protagonist is known only as “the lady”, who investigates prisoners on death row.  As the novel opens the lady visits a prisoner called York, who wants to die.  Finding the lady kind and non-judgmental, York opens up to her:

York talks and talks until his words sound like poetry even to him.  He tells her why he has volunteered to die.  “It isn’t just that it is torture,” he says, “being locked in a cage.  It’s never being allowed to touch anyone or go outside or breathe fresh air.  I’d like to feel the sun again just once.”

Her eyes show a sudden distance.  What he said is true, but it isn’t true enough.

“Okay.  I’m tired of being meaningless,” he admits.  “I’m done, okay?”

He talks about the confused mess inside of him.  He says everyone thinks sociopaths are super-smart criminals, but he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does.  Except there is like a switch in him, and when the switch flips, he cannot stop.

“If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says.  “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”

The lady nods.  She understands.

With each secret that he tells her, her eyes get darker and more satisfied…The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marveling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

A couple of things to note about York’s moment of bleak despair: First, it doesn’t come in the middle.  It’s only a few pages into the novel.  Second, he is given a mirror into which to look, which is the lady.  Third, what he sees in that mirror isn’t what’s squatting inside him, it’s what isn’t there.  No meaning.  No sense.  He doesn’t understand why he has killed.

The lady in Denfeld’s novel is, like the author, a death penalty investigator.  The lady delves into York’s life and, naturally, her own.  Over the course of the novel, the lady comes to understand York, learns the horror inflicted on him and his mother, and discovers meaning in what, for him, is his meaninglessness.

The mirror moment, in Denfeld’s novel serves as motivation.  The lady seeks to fill an empty void.  There is in that opening darkness a sense that there has to be light around somewhere, somehow.  The very fact that early on York can express his hopelessness—that he is conscious of his condition—allows us to hope that the lady can succeed.

Thus, the “dark” moment is not only about darkness but about knowing that there is nevertheless light, even if that light isn’t present right now.  A lost character isn’t completely lost, it’s just that such a character just doesn’t yet see a path forward and maybe despairs of ever finding one.  But knowing what should be there is, in a way, an affirmation that what’s lacking nevertheless is able to be found.

Empty isn’t empty, then, it’s rather just the feeling that comes with waiting—waiting when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for.

Another approach to the dark moment can be through analogy.  Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel Missing Person (1978—translated Daniel Weissbort) is a detective-with-lost-memory novel about Guy Roland, who lost his past during the war.  He doesn’t know why.  Having inherited a detective agency from his retired boss, Hutte, Guy follows the few slender and ambiguous clues to his identity in the agency’s files.

At a certain point, for Guy, the contradictory hints about who he might be becomes overwhelming.  Maybe the truth about himself will never be known.  For some people, it never is:

Strange people.  The kind that leave the merest blur behind them, soon vanished.  Hutte and I often used to talk about these traceless beings.  They spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked little.  Beauty queens.  Gigolos.  Butterflies.  Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.  Hutte, for instance, used to quote the case of a fellow he called “the beach man.”  This man had spend forty years of his life on beaches or by the sides of swimming pools, chatting pleasantly with summer visitors and rich idlers.  He is to be seen, in his bathing costume, in the corners and backgrounds of thousands of holiday snaps, among groups of happy people, but no one knew his name and why he was there.  And no one noticed when one day he vanished from the photographs.  I did not dare tell Hutte, but I felt that “the beach man” was myself.  Though it would not have surprised him if I had confessed it.  Hutte was always saying that, in the end, we were all beach men” and that “the sand”—I am quoting his own words”—keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.”

Modiano finds in the analogy of “the beach man” an apt expression of how his protagonist Guy Roland feels.  A man is present—the evidence is there in holiday photos—but is unknown.  He’s real but at the same time it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  If you’ve ever looked at old family photos, say of a wedding, and wondered who is that?—and who hasn’t wondered such a thing—then you have briefly felt the bewilderment of Modiano’s existential hero.

Writers of the pulp noir period were especially good at using atmosphere to evoke alienation, emptiness and despair.  Their method was to conjure a dread state by suggestion.  Everything in the environment points to the inner feeling but the inner feeling itself isn’t named.  In a black-and-white world full of silhouettes and shadows, we sense what’s there but not fully seen.  We feel bleak because, heck, the place we’re in is bleak.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

19 Best AI Writing Tools of 2022

From Renaissance Rachel:

We all write content online. Some of us only write social media posts, emails, or texts. Some of us write content for our websites, product descriptions, video content, ads, and even customer support.

AI writing software is a type of software that can generate content for you. An AI-powered writing assistant provides useful tools for writing articles, novels, blog posts, and more. Those are just some of the benefits of using ai writing tools.

AI writing is just another tool that you can add to your toolbelt.

You know they can be incredibly helpful if you’ve ever used an AI writing tool. But you also know that they’re not going to replace actual human intelligence soon.

No, AI is not going to steal your job. It’s a tool to optimize your work. Let AI technology make your life easier and more productive by including AI writing software in your content creation process. So if you’re thinking “Why should I use AI writing tool?” you’ve come to the right place.

. . . .

1. Rytr: Best for Beginners

Rytr is a content writing platform that uses AI to write content for you. Rytr’s algorithms are trained on historical data, so they can produce unique and compelling articles with the right tone and style, while also being grammatically correct.

Rytr’s AI writing assistant will have your article ready in less than an hour, without any need for human intervention.

In its current state, Rytr can produce text for a variety of topics and niches, including sports articles, business articles, reviews, blog posts, articles on technology, etc.

Features

  • Content generation is made easy and quick with character count, word count, and tone checker.
  • Plagiarism check ensures you have the highest quality of content.
  • Grammar check for your writing to make it professional-level.
  • Discover what works best for your idea by generating content from our vast library of over 2,000 ideas.
  • Personalize your content with a professional touch using Form Generator.
  • Rytr.me login to save your work

Pricing

Free Plan

Saver Plan: $9/month; $90/year (Get 2 months free!)

Unlimited Plan: $29/month; $290/year (Get 2 months free!)

Bottom Line

Rytr is an app that helps people write faster. It’s a great tool for bloggers and content writers who need to produce a lot of articles. Rytr also allows users to search for ideas for their articles or even write them in real-time.

The weak point is that Ryter doesn’t have “recipes” like Jasper has. Jasper allows to you have more custom control over the AI output. If you’re looking for a story writing ai, Ryter is great, but if you want more power, try Jasper.

2. Jasper: Best for Power Users

Formerly known as Jarvis, Jasper is among the AI writing software tools leaders. Jasper acquired tools such as Headlime and Shortly AI writing software. Both tools remain standalone products at the writing of this article; however, both plan to integrate fully with Jasper.

Create your blogs, articles, book, scripts, and any other content. Choose a subject area and form, fill in the details, and Jasper will write the content for you. It’s not always good content, but it helps me get past my writer’s block. Now that “content generation” the state of natural language generation in content marketing, Jasper.AI is an invaluable tool.

Features

  • Long-form document editor – a powerful tool that allows you to write full documents with AI-assisted outputs.
  • Plagiarism detector – write without worrying about accusations of stealing someone else’s content
  • Speed writing – hit start, and the software will create a masterpiece for your blog post or article within minutes!
  • Integration with SEO Surfer – a tool that helps you analyze keywords and optimize your content to rank in search engines
  • Automated article writing software – if you give it enough parameters, content creator AI can almost write your articles for you
  • Facebook community that offers support, job opportunities, and more
  • Multiple languages
  • Write novels, blog/articles, video scripts, and more with Jasper!
  • AI wizard can produce over one million sentences

Pricing

Jasper provides two pricing options: starter mode and boss mode. In my opinion, the main difference is that boss mode allows you to use the long-form document editor. In contrast, the starter mode provides writing frameworks for specific use cases.

Starter Mode: Starts at $29/mo for 20,000 words/mo.

Boss Mode: Starts at $59/mo for 50,000 words/mo.

SEO Surfer add-on: starts at $59/mo

While there’s no “official” free trial, you can get a 10,000-word credit using my referral link!

Bottom Line

I compared the quality of the output with Ryter, for instance, and it wasn’t any better for me. I’m paying $120/month for unlimited content generation in Jasper, but I can pay $29/month for the same thing in Ryter.

Note: Jasper no longer offers an unlimited mode, so while it’s excellent, you must limit yourself to a specific word limit per month.

HOWEVER. I keep using Jasper because of the recipes and commands that you can use. It makes for a very powerful workflow and I can do a lot with it. Jasper can do a lot of creative things including movie script writing, so if you want an AI script writer free from customization limitations, definitely check Jasper out. With the recipes and commands, Jasper is an AI writing software for better writing results.

I didn’t include Headlime and the Shortly AI writing apps as separate items in this article, because I researched their websites and didn’t see an indication of them continuing to enhance or build their product. There’s nothing worse than using outdated and buggy software!

Link to the rest at Renaissance Rachel

PG has been interested in AI for authors for a long time.

At first, the AI programs PG experimented with were pretty clunky. When he tried out a couple of the programs mentioned in the OP, he saw noticeable and relevant improvements. He expects to see similar increases in sophistication in the future. With 19 current contestants in the survival contest, some are almost certain to fail, but there will still be forward movement at an increasingly rapid pace.

Prolific romantic fiction writer exposed as a plagiarist

From The Guardian:

A prolific, self-published romantic fiction novelist has been exposed as a plagiarist after a reader spotted that she had switched the gender in a tale of romantic suspense to turn it into a gay love story.

Becky McGraw, a New York Times bestselling writer, was alerted by one of her readers about the similarities between her own novel My Kind of Trouble, in which Cassie Bellamy falls for bad boy Luke Matthews when she returns to her hometown of Bowie, Texas, and Laura Harner’s Coming Home Texas, in which Brandon Masters falls for bad boy Joe Martinez when he returns to his hometown of Goldview, Texas.

“She emailed to ask if I’d started writing gay romance under a pen name,” said McGraw, whose editor subsequently reviewed both books, and highlighted the similarities. These have also been extensively detailed online by novelist Jenny Trout; Trout has provided screenshots and extracts from both books, and writes that “Harner’s clever trick here was to pick a book that was not M/M [male/male], but M/F contemporary romance. As far as readers go, there isn’t a lot of overlap between the two genres.”

McGraw writes: “Since she’d gotten the call from Imelda, the closest thing to a mother that Cassie had known since her own mother died when she was ten, Cassie had been in that mode. Once she decided she needed to come back, the memories she thought she buried ten years ago would not leave her alone. Thoughts of Luke Matthews would not leave her alone.”

Harner, whose Amazon profile says she has written more than 50 novels and sold almost half a million books, writes: “Since he’d gotten the call from Isabella – the closest thing to a mother that he’d known since his own mom died when he was nine – Brandon seemed to be stuck on a never ending sentimental highway. Once he decided he needed to come back, the memories he thought he buried long ago wouldn’t leave him alone. Thoughts of Joe Martinez won’t leave me alone.”

“Her book was almost a word-for-word, scene-for-scene duplication of my book, except the characters’ names had been changed, and short M/M love scenes had been inserted,” said McGraw. “The only scene she didn’t include was the epilogue, which couldn’t be altered to an M/M scene. It involved the heroine in labour and the hero having sympathetic labour pains.”

McGraw is intending to take legal action against Harner, who has pulled the book from retailers since McGraw first posted about the situation on Facebook, along with her Deuce Coop series, which was revealed to be similar to Opal Carew’s Riding Steele novel, again a straight romance turned into a gay one. The similarities were laid out in a second blog post by Trout, who wrote that “it’s almost impressive how much Harner was still able to plagiarise from Carew here, given the fact that the characters are of mostly different physical and clothing descriptions”.

Responding to the Guardian in a statement, Harner said she realised she had “made mistakes”. “I own them, and I will deal with the consequences. In transforming two M/F romance stories into an M/M genre, it appears that I may have crossed the line and violated my own code of ethics,” she wrote.

“For those who know me best, you know that responsibility for my actions begins and ends with me. I will also add there are some personal and professional issues I’ve had to deal with in the last year that have stretched me in ways that haven’t always been good for me. I write about certain concerns related to military service for a reason; however, I am not offering that as an excuse. I just think whenever someone acts so out of character, it’s helpful to ask why.”

Harner added that she was “working to address concerns raised by two authors who have accused me of plagiarism”, saying that she would provide a more complete statement later this week. “Until then, please do not judge me too harshly.”

McGraw, however, urged other romantic fiction novelists to check Harner’s backlist to see if they recognise their work. “Considering that Laura Harner, AKA LE Harner, has ‘written’ in seven or eight genres in five years, started series in those genres, and published 75 books so far in that span of time, I’d say everyone in every genre needs to be concerned, both indie and traditionally published authors,” she said.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Female Quixote and Me

From Publishers Weekly:

Two days before the publication of my comic novel, The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire, I learned the setup driving the entire book had already been used by another writer—270 years ago. That meant my book, which recasts Don Quixote as a hoop-skirted, romance-novel-besotted woman questing for love in contemporary New York, was not quite as original an act of plagiarism as I had thought.

My delusion of literary innovation was shattered by Stefan Kutzenberger, an Austrian novelist and fellow Cervantes enthusiast visiting New York on a government-backed book tour. We were having a drink with a mutual friend when Stefan asked, “Did you ever read Charlotte Lennox?”

“No. Who is she?”

“She wrote a book called The Female Quixote.”

“Seriously?” I asked, breaking out my cellphone.

“Yes. Henry Fielding was a big fan.”

“1752!” I said, reading the pub date. “That’s amazing.”

I tried to remain calm. But the idea that Lennox had already deployed a similar Quixote clone left me rattled. Nobody wants to spend years on a book only to find out it has an ancient twin.

“Damn!” I said, laughing and complaining. “I can’t believe it.”

But really, it was easy to believe. Days earlier, when a friend asked how I’d hit on the idea for Lady Vanessa, I said, “I’m a big Don Quixote fan. Given romance fiction’s popularity, it just seemed like an obvious and interesting idea to explore. I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before.”

Famous last words.

I went home feeling curious and competitive. I read about my new but long-dead rival. Samuel Johnson was a friend and fan of Lennox. An essay on the web confirmed Henry Fielding “printed a very favourable review in the Covent Garden Journal, saying it was better than Don Quixote.”

Whoa. Quite a throw-down. I stopped reading about Lennox and downloaded The Female Quixote, or, The Adventures of Arabella.

After a cursory inspection of the novel, I can report it is funny but, unfortunately, very wordy. It is not “better” than the original. Most important to me, Arabella is very different from my Lady Vee. She is much younger: 17, not 48. She lives in a castle, not an Upper West Side co-op. She is paranoid about men ravishing her, whereas Lady Vanessa would like to be ravished. Arabella’s madness, at first blush, also lacks the over-the-top buffoonery of Don Quixote, which I hoped to emulate with Lady Vee.

Despite the differences, it was clear we were inspired by the same source material, 270 years apart. My mind raced. How had I missed The Female Quixote’s existence? Should I be more bruised or amused by my innocent ignorance, or by the fact that it took an Austrian novelist to enlighten me? And how had all the agents, editors, and blurbers who read Lady Vanessa failed to name-check The Female Quixote? The Cervantes scholar who’d raved about my book didn’t even mention it.

In the clear light of the next day, I realized I had it all wrong. It didn’t matter that I’d never heard of The Female Quixote. Charlotte Lennox wasn’t a rival; she was an ally! We loved the same book. Don Quixote inspired us to do the same thing in radically different time periods: recontextualize, reimagine, and reinvent.

I wrote Lady Vanessa because I love Don Quixote. I hoped to revisit the ideas Cervantes toyed with four centuries ago: censorship, the lines between fantasy and reality, literary clichés, and the power of books. I also hoped it would be entertaining.

I can’t speak for whatever drove Lennox, but we aren’t alone. The saints at Wikipedia have a list of Quixote-influenced books, amassing 27 entries. Some of literature’s greatest talents have spilled ink in tribute to the La Mancha madman: Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Borges, and Rushdie. Lennox is the second entry.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that ideas (like a female Don Quixote) are not protected by copyright law. Only the expression of ideas is protected.

Plagiarism may or may not be a violation of copyright law, depending on the extent and manner in which another’s work is used by a subsequent author.

From The Copyright Alliance:

There are many differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, yet it can be easy to confuse these concepts. While both plagiarism and copyright infringement can be characterized as the improper use of someone else’s work, they are distinctly different improper uses of someone else’s work. The biggest difference is that copyright infringement is illegal, while plagiarism is not. This blog post discusses additional differences between the two and provides examples of each type of improper use.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when a party attempts to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own, without properly giving credit to the original source. Plagiarism, while not against the law, is an ethical construct most commonly enforced by academic intuitions. Consequences of academic plagiarism may range from receiving a failing grade all the way to the revocation of a degree.

Plagiarism is not just limited to the academic setting. In the professional world, plagiarism has its own set of consequences, which may include sullying the plagiarizer’s reputation and in some instances termination and difficulty finding new employment. For example, in 2014 CNN fired a London-based news editor for repeated plagiarism offenses over a six month period, involving a total of 128 separate instances of plagiarism, mostly taken from Reuters.

Copyright, at its core, is the set of rights belonging to the creator or owner of a work of authorship that is original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This set of rights automatically vests to someone who creates an original work of authorship like a song, literary work, movie, or photograph. These rights allow a copyright owner to control who, when, where, and how their work is used, such as through the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

Copyright infringement occurs when a party takes an action that implicates one or more of the rights listed above without authorization from the copyright owner or an applicable exception or limitation in the copyright law, such as fair use. There can be significant legal consequences for copyright infringement, including injunctions, monetary damages, and in extreme instances criminal penalties.

. . . .

Plagiarism But Not Copyright Infringement: A student copies a few sentences of a 20-page book illustrating and describing species of birds to use in article on evolution submitted for her high school newspaper but fails to provide a citation or footnote explaining that the information came from the book. This student may have committed plagiarism by not properly attributing the information and making it seem like the information originated from the student. However, the student will most likely not be found to have committed copyright infringement because such an inconsequential amount was used in an educational setting in a manner that is unlikely to harm the authors market for the work that the use is likely a fair use.

Link to the rest at The Copyright Alliance

Is Decision Fatigue Standing Between You and Writing Success?

From: Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Steak or salmon?

Red or white?

Wash the car or mow the lawn?

Weights or barre class?

Do the laundry or empty the dishwasher?

Mustard or mayo?

Petunias or pansies?

Cheddar or Swiss?

So what?

What’s the big deal?

Why are you wasting my time with stupid questions?

I’ve got more important things to think about, you say, and then tell me to take a hike.

My polite response: Perhaps you might want to reconsider.

Decision fatigue.

Recent articles about the draining mental aftereffects of decision-making are, I think, relevant to some of the universal problems writers confront. Being, as former president, George W. Bush, once put it, “the decider,” takes brain power and has consequences.

You’re kidding me, right?

No. Not at all. Here are a few examples.

Doctors, brides, car buyers.

Judges, menu planners, college professors, and high school students.

According to recent studies, decision fatigue affects everyone from doctors who prescribed more unneeded antibiotics later in the day than earlier to car buyers who, after deciding on model, color, upholstery, and accessories, can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rust proof their new car.

Brides beware!

A clinical psych grad studying decision fatigue and ego depletion remembered how exhausted she felt planning her wedding. She recalled the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts.

What style appealed? Modern or traditional? Rustic or sophisticated? Feminine or tailored? Girly or grownup?

What kind of dinnerware? Matched sets or flea market eclectic? Corelle or stoneware? Plastic or china or melamine? Oh, and does it have to be dishwasher safe or are you willing to hand wash?

Plus flatware: What do you prefer? Stainless steel? Matte or mirror finish? Bistro ware? Your great aunt’s silver? Which needs to be polished.

Then: towels. What size? What color? How many sets? Hand and bath definitely, but what about washcloths? Do you use them? Or do you prefer sponges? Foam or natural? Matching tub mats? Or coordinating? And what about shower curtains? Not to mention soap dishes —plastic, wood, cork, silicone or ceramic?

Sheets. Fitted or flat? Cotton or linen or flannel? Plain or printed? Striped or floral? Plaid or perhaps something with a SuperMan or WonderWoman motif? Maybe an art deco vibe? Or an Andy Warhol pop art choice? Don’t forget Jackson Pollock!

“By the end, you could have talked me into anything,” she told her fiancé, “because I just didn’t care any more.”

. . . .

Shortcuts don’t cure decision fatigue

Decision fatigue routinely warps the judgment of everyone — doctors, judges, car buyers, brides — and, I wonder, writers? Few are even aware of decision fatigue, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

Decision fatigue is different from ordinary physical fatigue. You’re not consciously aware of being tired, but you’re low on mental energy because the more choices you make throughout the day, the more difficult each one becomes.

Your brain, deprived of glucose, eventually looks for shortcuts, usually in either one of two ways, neither of them helpful.

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)

The other shortcut — the one that caused my friend to break into tears at a large toy store, is paralysis. It’s the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid making any choice at all.

Which leads to questions about the connection between writer’s block and procrastination.

Writers are the ultimate deciders.

Writers make choices from an almost infinite palette of possibilities. Basically, we spend our working lives making decisions about everything from what genre we want to write to the almost infinite number of choices about plot and characters.

The genre—

What, exactly, do you want to write? Mystery, thriller, superhero, romance, women’s fiction, historical fiction, cozy, sci fi, fantasy?

Gotta pick one.

Or maybe two if you have a mash-up in mind.

The title—

Too long? Too short? Or just right?

Anne’s post offering 5 tips for choosing a title points the way.

Plot, characters and POV—

Unreliable narrator, first person, second person, or omniscient third person?

Who’s the good guy/gal? How about the hero? Who’s the villain? And what about the side-kick? Or the incidental character who turns out to play an important role?

Not to mention the thousand (at least) details about what they’re wearing, where they work and what they eat.

Plus what they look like.

Blonde, brunette or redhead?

Touches of flattering silver or drab shades of grey? Dyed or natural? Highlighted? Straight or curly? Long, short or bobbed? Permed? Ironed? Bald? Comb-over? Fro? Mohawk? Pony tail? Pig tails? Dreads? Crew cut? D.A.? Elvis-style pompadour?

And that’s just hair!

What about everything else that brings a character to life and makes him/her memorable?

Blue eyes or brown?

But don’t forget green or hazel. Beady eyes? Almond shaped, wide-set, or small?  Near sighed, far sighted, color blind? And what about that squint? Suspicious? Untrustworthy? Or is that just the bright sun in his/her eyes? 20/20? Contacts or glasses? Goggles, a microscope, a telescope, or a jeweler’s loupe?

Fat or thin?

Tall or short? Bulging biceps or beer belly? Runner slim or linebacker bulky? Svelte and sexy or pleasingly plump? Stringbean skinny or XXL?

Big city, small town?

Mountains, beach or desert? House, mansion, apartment, penthouse, refuge camp, log cabin? Hotel, motel, tent, palace, homeless shelter, distant planet, undiscovered galaxy?

Jobs and careers?

Funeral director or Hollywood stylist? Cyborg or medieval knight?

Or? Or?

Need I continue?

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions

From Quanta Magazine:

Humans often make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to each choice — say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5 — and select the top scorer. But our decision-making system is subject to glitches.

In one recent experiment, Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favorite. When Glimcher would remove all the choices except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn’t chosen their favorite.

Economists have spent more than 50 years cataloging irrational choices like these. Nobel Prizes have been earned; millions of copies of Freakonomics have been sold. But economists still aren’t sure why they happen. “There had been a real cottage industry in how to explain them and lots of attempts to make them go away,” said Eric Johnson, a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University. But none of the half-dozen or so explanations are clear winners, he said.

In the last 15 to 20 years, neuroscientists have begun to peer directly into the brain in search of answers. “Knowing something about how information is represented in the brain and the computational principles of the brain helps you understand why people make decisions how they do,” said Angela Yu, a theoretical neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Glimcher is using both the brain and behavior to try to explain our irrationality. He has combined results from studies like the candy bar experiment with neuroscience data — measurements of electrical activity in the brains of animals as they make decisions — to develop a theory of how we make decisions and why that can lead to mistakes.

Glimcher has been one of the driving forces in the still young field of neuroeconomics. His theory merges far-reaching research in brain activity, neuronal networks, fMRI and human behavior. “He’s famous for arguing that neuroscience and economics should be brought together,” said Nathaniel Daw, a neuroscientist at Princeton University. One of Glimcher’s most important contributions, Daw said, has been figuring out how to quantify abstract notions such as value and study them in the lab.

In a new working paper, Glimcher and his co-authors — Kenway Louie, also of NYU, and Ryan Webb of the University of Toronto — argue that their neuroscience-based model outperforms standard economic theory at explaining how people behave when faced with lots of choices. “The neural model, described in biology and tested in neurons, works well to describe something economists couldn’t explain,” Glimcher said.

At the core of the model lies the brain’s insatiable appetite. The brain is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. It consumes 20 percent of our energy despite taking up only 2 to 3 percent of our mass. Because neurons are so energy-hungry, the brain is a battleground where precision and efficiency are opponents. Glimcher argues that the costs of boosting our decision-making precision outweigh the benefits. Thus we’re left to be confounded by the choices of the modern American cereal aisle.

Glimcher’s proposal has attracted interest from both economists and neuroscientists, but not everyone is sold. “I think it’s exciting but at this point remains a hypothesis,” said Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Neuroeconomics is still a young field; scientists don’t even agree on what part of the brain makes decisions, let alone how.

So far, Glimcher has shown that his theory works under specific conditions, like those of the candy bar experiment. He aims to expand that range, searching for other Freakonomics-esque mistakes and using them to test his model. “We are aiming for a grand unified theory of choice,” he said.

. . . .

The brain is a power-hungry organ; neurons are constantly sending each other information in the form of electrical pulses, known as spikes or action potentials. Just as with an electrical burst, prepping and firing these signals take a lot of energy.

In the 1960s, scientists proposed that the brain dealt with this challenge by encoding information as efficiently as possible, a model called the efficient coding hypothesis. It predicts that neurons will encode data using the fewest possible spikes, just as communication networks strive to transmit information in the fewest bits.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientists showed that this principle is indeed at work in the visual system. The brain efficiently encodes the visual world by ignoring predictable information and focusing on the surprising stuff. If one part of a wall is yellow, chances are the rest is also yellow, and neurons can gloss over the details of that section. But a giant red splotch on the wall is unexpected, and neurons will pay special attention to it.

Glimcher proposes that the brain’s decision-making machinery works the same way. Imagine a simple decision-making scenario: a monkey choosing between two cups of juice. For simplicity’s sake, assume the monkey’s brain represents each choice with a single neuron. The more attractive the choice is, the faster the neuron fires. The monkey then compares neuron-firing rates to make his selection.

The first thing the experimenter does is present the monkey with an easy choice: a teaspoon of yummy juice versus an entire jug. The teaspoon neuron might fire one spike per second while the jug neuron fires 100 spikes per second. In that case, it’s easy to tell the difference between the two options; one neuron sounds like a ticking clock, the other the beating wings of a dragonfly.

The situation gets muddled when the monkey is then offered the choice between a full jug of juice and one that’s nearly full. A neuron might represent that newest offer with 80 spikes per second. It’s much more challenging for the monkey to distinguish between a neuron firing 80 spikes per second and 100 spikes per second. That’s like telling the difference between the dragonfly’s flutter and the hum of a locust.

Glimcher proposes that the brain avoids this problem by recalibrating the scale to best represent the new choice. The neuron representing the almost-full jug — now the worst of the two choices — scales down to a much lower firing rate. Once again it’s easy for the monkey to differentiate between the two choices.

Link to the rest at Quanta Magazine

PG recognized that this article is a bit dated, but he found the topic fascinating. Humanoid robots making complex decisions seem to be a bit more difficult than he would have thought.

The Face That Replicates

From The Paris Review:

Sylvia refused to wear her glasses, which is why she saw me everywhere on campus. It seemed like it was every day that she’d come to our dorm’s living room and tell me about the not-Katy. “I yelled at her again,” she sighed, flopping onto the worn couch. “It wasn’t you.” It never was.

There wasn’t only one not-me. There were several other girls on our small liberal arts campus who had dirty-blond hair and shaggy bangs, girls who wore knee-high boots and short skirts, low-rise jeans and V-neck sweaters and too many tangled necklaces. In 2005, I didn’t stand out. I still don’t. My face, I suspect, is rather forgettable. I’m neither pretty enough to be remarkable nor strange enough to be interesting. This is true for the majority of people, though I have wondered if I have “one of those faces” that is particularly prone to inducing déjà vu. Some people seem like permanent doppelgängers. I became hypervigilant, on the lookout for not-mes that were also, sort of, me.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that I became obsessed with these look-alikes during this particular time period, in those heady and exciting early days of social media. Although the idea of doubling and mimesis dates back to the ancient Greeks and flourished in the popular imagination in gothic horror, my experience with doppelgängers still feels distinctly contemporary to me, an anxiety that arose with the camera in the nineteenth century and was then compounded by social media and its endless catalogues of faces. Although Facebook back then was limited to college students, it was still a place where one could get lost. You could lose hours searching, as I did, for people with your exact same name and friend requesting each and every one of them. You could meander through the uncanny haze of “doppelgänger week,” a destabilizing moment in the early 2000s when my classmates’ pimpled, imperfect, earnest faces were suddenly replaced by thumbnails of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Halle Berry. It was more than just embarrassing. It was a massive Freudian slip, a sudden reveal of latent desires and delusions. We wanted to replace our faces with better, more beautiful ones—but not completely. We wanted to represent ourselves with images that weren’t us, exactly, but that were close.

. . . .

One of my favorite doppelgänger stories is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which I read around the same time that my not-me began appearing in the edges of Sylvia’s blurry vision. This Poe tale is about a boy named William Wilson who meets another William Wilson and is dogged, throughout his life, by the disturbing presence of this other William Wilson. As the story progresses, we learn that this weird fellow is not actually our narrator’s evil twin, as we might have expected. He’s better than our narrator. He stops our narrator from doing a number of bad things before the original William succeeds in reasserting his uniqueness—by an act of murder, naturally.

William Wilson is not a funny story, exactly. But it’s full of little ironies that start to feel like jokes, from the name (William, son of Will, a pseudonym that’s also an echo) to the weird origins of the text itself. First of all, the story is a homage to a story that Washington Irving wrote called “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.” Poe even wrote to Irving, sending him a copy of his tale, and asked him for a blurb to help sell the story. Later, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that one of them, “Howe’s Masquerade,” was very similar to “William Wilson,” so much so that “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” A few years later, in 1846, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his own similar novella, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which he later rewrote and republished in 1866.

This type of doppelgänger story continued to multiply. Vladimir Nabokov called The Double a “perfect work of art” in his classroom lectures, though of course the story was ripe for rewritings—hence Nabokov’s own beleaguered and haunted narrators. The novels Despair and Lolita feature not quite doppelgängers but pairs of men behaving badly. In the twentieth century, we became adept at capturing, manipulating, and presenting precise visual copies of individuals through photography, film, and digital manipulation. Humans no longer had to use a hall of mirrors (or a skilled portrait artist) to see themselves doubled, tripled, quadrupled. We also became better at selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Dolly the sheep emerged from an adult cell in 1996, and attendant anxieties and sensational interest in the literal copies spiked Eventually, the concept of the double in art was superseded by the clone, as we slouched closer and closer to literal self-replication.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The lasting anguish of moral injury

From Knowable:

On a Sunday evening in September 1994, David Peters drove to a church service in Beckley, West Virginia, as the sun set over the horizon. He was 19 years old, just back from Marine Corps boot camp. He hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car all summer.

The road curved, and Peters misjudged the turn. Rays from the dipping sun blinded him. The car hit the median and headed straight at an oncoming motorcycle. And then, Peters says, “Everything went crash.”

His friend, sitting in the passenger seat, seemed fine. Peters got out of the car. The driver of the motorcycle was alive, but the woman who’d been riding behind him was now laid out on the pavement. Peters quickly realized she was dead.

Now an Episcopal priest in Pflugerville, Texas, outside Austin, Peters says there have been periods during the last 28 years when he’s found the knowledge that he killed someone almost unbearable. “I felt like I wasn’t good anymore,” he says. At times, he even wished he were dead. Years after the accident, he purchased a motorcycle, thinking “that’d be sort of justice if I died on a motorcycle.” 

Peters may have experienced what some psychologists and researchers have begun to call “moral injury,” a concept introduced by a psychiatrist to describe the devastation he witnessed in Vietnam War veterans and others who believed they’d been ordered to act in ways that violated their personal moral code. The term encompasses a constellation of signs and symptoms that go beyond mere guilt and shame and can be so severe that people lose a sense of their own goodness and trustworthiness, leading to drastic impacts on daily functioning and quality of life. 

Moral injury results from “the way that humans make meaning out of the violence that they have either experienced or that they have inflicted,” says Janet McIntosh, an anthropologist at Brandeis University who wrote about the psychic wounds resulting from how we use language when talking about war in the 2021 Annual Review of Anthropology

Although research on moral injury began with the experiences of veterans and active-duty military, it has expanded in recent years to include civilians. The pandemic — with its heavy moral burdens on health care workers and its fraught decisions over gathering in groups, masking and vaccinating — intensified scientific interest in how widespread moral injury might be. “What’s innovative about moral injury is its recognition that our ethical foundations are essential to our sense of self, to our society, to others, to our professions,” says Daniel Rothenberg, who codirects the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University.

. . . .

Moral injury was first described by Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist in Boston, who defined it as a sense of “betrayal of what’s right, by someone who holds legitimate authority (in the military — a leader), in a high-stakes situation.” In his 1994 book, Achilles in Vietnam, Shay quotes a soldier whose platoon fired on people at the beach one night, having been told by commanders that their targets were unloading weapons. But when daylight came, the soldiers realized they’d killed a bunch of fishermen and their children. “So it starts working on your head,” the soldier told Shay. “So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was OK.” Incidents like this, Shay argued, are not just upsetting, but also damaging.

As the years passed, some researchers felt that Shay’s definition focused too narrowly on betrayal by leaders or country. In 2009, Litz and colleagues expanded the definition to include more personal types of moral injury, such as the lasting impact of “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” 

In a 2019 study, researchers devised a list of potentially morally injurious events to civilians by reviewing previous literature and research, as well as consulting experts and people who suffered from memories of morally distressing events. The researchers came up with 31 events that seemed to distress people enough to lead to moral injury, including a car accident while texting, sexual assault, working within a corrupt organization, witnessing abuse of power at work, cheating on a romantic partner and stopping providing for dependent children. But not everyone reacts to troubling events in the same way, and not everyone who experiences a particular event will suffer a moral injury, says study coauthor Matt Gray, a clinical psychologist at the University of Wyoming. What really makes a difference, he says, is “people’s moral framework and their appraisal of their actions or inactions.”

Because such actions and encounters can be traumatic, people with moral injury may appear to have post-traumatic stress disorder. But a diagnosis of PTSD does not capture the entirety of this kind of suffering, Shay and therapists who came after have found.

. . . .

Many researchers view PTSD and moral injury as distinct conditions, although they overlap in their symptoms and the types of events that trigger them. PTSD is characterized by anxiety that develops after a serious physical threat of injury, sexual violence or death. But that triggering event doesn’t necessarily have to be morally injurious — it could be a natural disaster, say. For moral injury, on the other hand, the triggering event is always morally injurious but it may or may not involve a physical threat; it could be something like causing financial distress to others due to a gambling addiction.

Both conditions can involve intrusive memories of the traumatic event, avoidance of reminders of the event, lack of interest in pleasurable activities and detachment from others, Litz and colleagues wrote recently in Frontiers in Psychiatry  (some researchers have categorized the overlapping symptoms differently). But moral injury is more likely to lead to other symptoms, Litz says, including alterations in self-perception, loss of meaning and loss of religious faith. 

The two conditions may have different effects on the brain. In a 2016 study, active-duty military personnel seeking trauma treatment were asked to lie in a darkened room with their eyes closed for 30 minutes, after which they underwent a brain scan. Those who had been traumatized by a physical threat exhibited elevated resting neuronal activity in their right amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional responses, particularly fear. But those who were haunted by something they did or witnessed had more activity in their left precuneus, a part of the brain that is related to sense of self.

. . . .

Over time, the moral injury research lens has expanded to include nonmilitary populations such as police officers, teachers, refugees and journalists. One 2019 study, for instance, surveyed teachers and other K-12 professionals in an urban Midwest school district, where some schools were white and affluent, some were racially and economically mixed, and others were largely made up of impoverished students of color. The less affluent and the more segregated the students, the more likely the teachers were to experience moral injury, writes the study’s author, Erin Sugrue, a social worker at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “Professionals in these schools may experience moral injury as they come into close contact with the impact of racism and income inequality, two inherently immoral social forces, on the daily lives of their students.” 

During the pandemic, researchers have turned their focus to the medical front lines. One recent study led by Jason Nieuwsma, a clinical psychologist at Duke University School of Medicine, analyzed data from a March 2021 survey of health care workers. They reported potentially morally injurious experiences that included hospital policies that prohibited dying patients from receiving visitors, watching some people refuse to wear masks to protect those who were more vulnerable, and being too overworked to provide optimal care. One wrote: “My line in the sand was treating patients in wheelchairs outside in the ambulance bay in the cold fall night. I got blankets and food for people outside with IV fluid running. I was ashamed of the care we were providing.”

. . . .

Roughly half of the health care workers reported they were troubled by witnessing others’ immoral acts, and just under a fifth (18.2 percent) reported that they were troubled by having acted in ways that violated their own morals and values. “It begs the question of whether that experience will persist over time,” Nieuwsma says. “It’s something health care systems need to pay attention to.”

. . . .

To distinguish between normal moral stress and abnormal distress at levels that may require therapeutic intervention, Litz and Patricia Kerig, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah, propose a moral continuum. At one end is the kind of moral frustration one might experience over an upcoming local or national election, events that are not immediately personal. Then there are more distressing events involving a personal, moral transgression (like if you behave hurtfully to someone you love or steal someone else’s idea). A person may lose sleep over such issues, but they are not disabling and do not define the person in question. At the far end of the spectrum is the type of debilitating moral injury that consumes a person with intense guilt or shame.

Link to the rest at Knowable

Not precisely what PG usually posts about, but he found this article fascinating. It also reminded him of some interesting characters in literature. Crime and Punishment and Heart of Darkness are two books which, for PG, include such characters.

Lowering my expectations

I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent — and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.

Malcolm Gladwell

The whole thing about perfectionism

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism. The perfectionism is very dangerous. Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is. And there were a couple of years where I really struggled with that.

David Foster Wallace

ProWritingAid vs. Grammarly

From Crunchhype:

ProWritingAid VS Grammarly: When it comes to English grammar, there are two Big Players that everyone knows of: the Grammarly and ProWritingAid. but you are wondering which one to choose so here we write a detail article which will help you to choose the best one for you so Let’s start

What is Grammarly?
Grammarly is a tool that checks for grammatical errors, spelling, and punctuation.it gives you comprehensive feedback on your writing. You can use this tool to proofread and edit articles, blog posts, emails, etc.

Grammarly also detects all types of mistakes, including sentence structure issues and misused words. It also gives you suggestions on style changes, punctuation, spelling, and grammar all are in real-time. The free version covers the basics like identifying grammar and spelling mistakes whereas the Premium version offers a lot more functionality, it detects plagiarism in your content, suggests word choice, or adds fluency to it.

Features of Grammarly

  • Spelling and Word Suggestion: Grammarly detects basic to advance grammatical errors and also help you why this is an error and suggest to you how you can improve it
  • Create a Personal Dictionary: The Grammarly app allows you to add words to your personal dictionary so that the same mistake isn’t highlighted every time you run Grammarly.
  • Different English Style: Check to spell for American, British, Canadian, and Australian English.
  • Plagiarism: This feature helps you detect if a text has been plagiarized by comparing it with over eight billion web pages.
  • Wordiness: This tool will help you check your writing for long and hard-to-read sentences. It also shows you how to shorten sentences so that they are more concise.
  • Passive Voice: The program also notifies users when passive voice is used too frequently in a document.
  • Punctuations: This feature flags all incorrect and missing punctuation.
  • Repetition: The tool provides recommendations for replacing the repeated word.
  • Proposition: Grammarly identifies misplaced and confused prepositions.
  • Plugins: It offers Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and Google Chrome plugins.

What is ProWritingAid?

ProWritingAid is a style and grammar checker for content creators and writers. It helps to optimize word choice, punctuation errors, and common grammar mistakes, providing detailed reports to help you improve your writing. 

ProWritingAid can be used as an add-on to WordPress, Gmail, and Google Docs. The software also offers helpful articles, videos, quizzes, and explanations to help improve your writing.

Features of ProWriting Aid

Here are some key features of ProWriting Aid:

  • Grammar checker and spell checker: This tool helps you to find all grammatical and spelling errors.
  • Find repeated words:  The tool also allows you to search for repeated words and phrases in your content.
  • Context-sensitive style suggestions:  You can find the exact style of writing you intend and suggest if it flows well in your writing.
  • Check the readability of your content: Pro Writing Aid helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your article by pointing out difficult sentences and paragraphs.
  • Sentence Length: It also indicates the length of your sentences.
  • Check Grammatical error: It also checks your work for any grammatical errors or typos, as well.
  • Overused words: As a writer, you might find yourself using the same word repeatedly. ProWritingAid’s overused words checker helps you avoid this lazy writing mistake.
  • Consistency: Check your work for inconsistent usage of open and closed quotation marks.
  • Echoes: Check your writing for uniformly repetitive words and phrases.

Link to the rest at Crunchhype

Diagnosing Writer’s Block

From Writer Unboxed:

Raise your hand if you’ve ever visited one of those well-known medical “information” websites, only to become convinced within minutes that you have a rare, incurable cancer. (Raises hand.)

There have been times when I’ve wished that there was a WebMD for writers, where I could type in symptoms like “this scene feels slow” or “I don’t know how to ratchet up the stakes” and be offered a list of possible diagnoses, followed by a step-by-step list of cures.

When I struggle to write, it usually feels less like a roadblock and more like a slow wade through a river of molasses. Delicious? Maybe. Good for you? Decidedly not. It feels like the opposite of the flow state, or that feeling of being fully and energetically immersed in the act of writing. Instead, each word starts to feel like a slog, each sentence like I’m painstakingly carving them out of stone.

But I’ve only recently realized that this feeling isn’t something that’s wrong with me, but rather that writing starts feeling agonizing when something isn’t working in the writing itself. Figuring out exactly what that is, of course, is a challenge that depends a lot on the author’s own style and quirks. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to get to where I can recognize the symptoms of “something isn’t working here.”

There are an endless number of reasons that writer’s block (“writer’s river of molasses” just doesn’t flow as well, pun intended) can crop up. This post only deals with one of those reasons: when you know something isn’t working, but you aren’t sure what.

There are a few tests that I’ve landed on as helpful tools for figuring out what that something is. They are geared toward fiction writing, but your tests will probably look different at any rate. While they’re in no particular order, I hope they can at least serve as a starting point.

Take a break.

How is “take a break” a test? Sometimes I look at a scene for so long that I lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes I’m just having a day of brain fog. I’ll take some time away from the story—sometimes just for a few hours, but often for a few days—and when I return, the words come easily.

But when I say “take a break,” I really mean take a break, not “work on something else,” not “write a different scene” or “do research” or “outline the rest of the book.” Stop, entirely, and give your brain a chance to recover. I know our society rewards constant work, but every time I’ve grumpily, reluctantly taken a few steps back from writing, I’ve returned with a clearer head, feeling better about everything. Sometimes I can see clearly what’s not working, and other times I don’t even remember what was bothering me, and other times I can at least think more clearly about what might not be working.

I know I said these tests were in no particular order, but I would recommend trying this one first because sometimes, as the IT team at one of my old jobs used to say, the problem is PICNIC: “problem in chair, not in computer.” If you feel stuck, sometimes what’s wrong is in our heads, not in our stories.

Revisit the purpose of the scene.

Once I’ve taken a break and returned to find that I’m still stuck, I’ll start the actual diagnostic tests. I start at the spot where I’ve gotten stuck with the smallest unit of space in a story—the scene—and I ask myself whether it is working as intended: What is the goal of this scene from a story perspective? Does it push the plot forward? Is at least one character being forced to grow or change? If I can’t provide a clear, tangible answer to any of these questions, then I know this is likely where the problem lies.

Most often, I’ve unintentionally slowed down the pace of the story by getting lost in the logistics of getting characters from Point A to Point B, or that I’ve simply started having too much fun watching the characters go off and do their own thing and I’ve forgotten who’s in charge here.

But with a tangible scene goal in mind, I can start to refocus my writing. I emphasize tangibility because I often found myself defining the “goal” as something like “introduce the protagonist’s strained relationship with her older brother.” This is not tangible. Tangible is “protagonist’s older brother bails on their plans again, and she decides she’s had enough of his irresponsibility.”

If I can’t come up with a tangible goal for the scene, that I take that as a sign that this scene can probably be chucked out or merged with another one.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How I Use Scrivener For Fiction And Non-Fiction

PG notes that the OP is taken from the transcript of the audio portion of a video. For those who have never given a presentation which is later transcribed, it’s always a humbling experience to see the sorts of filler words you use and other things you say without thinking. Conversational information dispersal and a formal prepared speech are two entirely different ways of speaking.

Here’s a link to the Scrivener website where you can download a free trial version.

From The Creative Penn:

I have now written over 30 books with Scrivener over more than a decade. I did use MS Word for some of my early books back in 2008/2009. But with my first novel, I had such difficulty using Word, that I needed to find a solution. Once someone told me about Scrivener, I started to use it and I have used it for every single book since — fiction and nonfiction. In this tutorial, I’m going to talk a bit about how I use it.

There is so much functionality in Scrivener, so I’m only going to touch on what I use, which is definitely not everything, but it certainly gets me by.

. . . .

You can use Template Projects or a Blank Project

So for fiction, there are a couple examples, for nonfiction, there are even more. So let’s go into the fiction first.

So if you like a lot of help with writing a document, then [Scrivener] can really be useful.

For example, if you go into characters and use the little plus button , it will give you, a character sketch, and then you can fill it in. And if you like filling in all this type of thing, you can do that.

I’m a discovery writer . . . so I don’t use this, but this can be really useful if you enjoy having the different help things there.

. . . .

You can write your scenes and then gather them together in chapters. You can do what you like there. Let’s just look at a nonfiction template before I get into showing you some of my own.

. . . .

Drag and drop — so you can write out of order

Now, one of the things I love about Scrivener is the ability to drag and drop.

So whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you can essentially move them around. So you just click on it and drag it. And what that enables is for you to write out of order. So again, whether that’s fiction or non-fiction, you can just move things around.

. . . .

Keep your research and notes within the project, but not compiled into the book

The main thing to remember with the document is that this folder contains the book. And then anything you put into [00:05:00] research, for example, is not included when you compile the book.

And again, you can type your research in, you can pull in notes.

. . . .

The Inspector includes synopsis, notes, snapshots, and more

The other important thing is the Inspector.

. . . .

So, first of all, on the inspector tab, you can do an overview, a synopsis. [00:06:00] So here William de Tracy, and the Knights. This book is set in the present, but the prologue is set in 1183. So essentially this is the synopsis overview.

And the reason why this is useful, if you are a plotter, is if you click on the manuscript at the top, you can see an overview of the whole book. And so this is where you can move things around. You can write different things.

So you it’s like the digital corkboard. Some people use a physical corkboard. Some people use a digital one. So that’s super useful.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

PG was first introduced to Scrivener a long time ago and spent a lot of time playing with it. For PG’s needs at the time, Scrivener wasn’t a good fit, but he liked the way the program was constructed and the people who were running the company .

He may download the trial program again to see how it’s evolved into the present day.

The Dreaded Synopsis

From Writers Helping Writers:

Many authors would rather write a whole new novel than cram the one they’ve already written into a five-hundred-word summary. If I wanted to write a short story, I would have written one. Right?

The reason we hate writing synopses is because they’re hard. The reason they’re hard is because, more than any other tool available to us, they show us what’s wrong with the novel we’ve labored over for months, if not years.

The synopsis is the equivalent of a house inspector—that man or woman who walks around with a clipboard and goes through the house you thought you were ready to sell, pointing out all the structural issues you either didn’t know about or pretended weren’t a problem: roof damage, termites, a saggy bearing wall, you name it. You can do all the fancy writing in the world. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with your novel, it will come out in the synopsis.

            That’s why we hate them.

            That’s why most agents ask for one.

Reading a synopsis is the quickest way to know if a novel will work or not. It’s also the surest way to find out if the author knows what they’re doing when it comes to things like structure, causality, story arc and characterization—you know, those critical developmental issues you hoped wouldn’t matter.

Guess what? They do.

If your plot is anecdotal, it will show up in the synopsis. If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal that they’re actively pursuing throughout the story; if there are no stakes, a weak antagonist, a plot that’s bursting with too much superficial business and no depth—yup, the synopsis will reveal all of that.

If you, the author, are willing to see it, the synopsis will be that heart-sinking moment of truth where you can no longer deny that this house is not ready to sell, not by a long-shot. It needs help. It might even need to be razed to the ground.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Have people stopped reading books?

From KBoards:

I started publishing ebooks at Amazon in 2011. That was before Select and you weren’t allowed to give books away. You had to charge at least $.99. I started making money since I had a backlog of books that I had written. The golden years came, and everyone was happy and made money. A few writers found a way to give away books and that helped them. Then Select let everyone give books away and our sales went up.

A point was reached when sales started going down. So, lots of people starting advertising to help their sales. That helped the ones that advertised so many people started doing it. Then sales started dropping again.

Each year sales continued to drop regardless of what we did.

The number of book stores and publishing companies went out of business. We weren’t the only one’s suffering.

That makes me wonder if people have stopped reading books or reading less.

Link to the rest at KBoards

PG notes there is quite a discussion responding to this post on KBoards.

PG’s opinion is that traditional publishing is mostly flat while indie publishing, while much more competitive than it was ten-fifteen years ago, is growing.

In 2010, Amazon announced that it was selling more ebooks than printed books. PG sees no reason to suspect that the ebook/printed book sales ratio for Amazon has become more and more larger for the ebook side of the house. He would be interested in seeing any credible estimates of Amazon’s ebook vs. POD sales numbers, however.

Another source estimated that there were about 9 Million ebooks in the Kindle store in 2021. That same source estimated that there were 12 Million ebooks in the Kindle store in May of 2022.

Wikipedia estimates that the United States has issued a total of 3,485,322 ISBN numbers for books. The UK is in second place with 185,721 ISBN numbers issued. That said, it is PG’s understanding that few indie authors publishing on Amazon bother getting an ISBN number, especially for their ebooks since ISBN service is used primarily by physical bookstores and libraries for ordering traditionally-published books.

PG’s bottom line is that the number of authors on Amazon is growing rapidly. The number of authors who earn a significant sum of money from their books on Amazon is growing, but less rapidly.

Traditional publishing numbers are pretty flat. PG hasn’t seen any inflation-adjusted numbers showing year-by-year sales of traditional publishers, however.

When Arthur Conan Doyle showed up at his own memorial service. (Maybe.)

From The Literary Hub:

On July 13, 1930, some six thousand people crammed themselves into London’s Royal Albert Hall. They had come to hear a missive from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritualist, physician, and creator of Sherlock Holmes—who had, as it happens, died six days previous.

The hall had been rented out by the Spiritualist Association to hold a seance for the writer, an event so enticing that hundreds of people had to be turned away at the door. On the stage, a row of chairs had been set out for the Conan Doyle family: Lady Conan Doyle, her sons Denis and Adrian, her daughter Jean, her stepdaughter Mary, and of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. His chair was marked with his name, presumably to avoid confusion.

The night began like any typical memorial service, with tributes from friends, passages from scripture read, and hymns sung. But soon it was time for 41-year-old Estelle Roberts—a well-known London medium, and one of Conan Doyle’s favorites—to take the stage.

“The mesmerizing presence that had so impressed Conan Doyle was not immediately apparent,” writes Daniel Stashower in Teller of Tales, his biography of the writer.

For some time, Mrs. Roberts did nothing more than rock back and forth on her heels, and soon the sounds of coughing and restless movement could be heard from the audience. At this, she appeared to gather her resolve. Shielding her eyes like a sailor on lookout, Mrs. Roberts swept her eyes over the gallery, tiers, and boxes. Her attention fixed not on the faces of the expectant crowd, but on the empty space above their heads. “There are vast numbers of spirits here with us,” she announced. “They are pushing me like anything.”

She communed with these spirits for about a half an hour before the audience became restless, and then, as people began to leave, she shouted out “He’s here!”

“The skeptics stopped in their tracks,” writes Stashower. “All eyes locked on the empty chair.” Time for the headliner, then.

“There could be no doubt who she meant,” writes Russell Miller in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, his biography of the writer.

Everyone switched their attention to the empty chair and Lady Conan Doyle jumped to her feet, eyes sparkling. The medium appeared to be following with her eyes an invisible figure moving towards her. “He’s wearing evening clothes,” she said, inclining her head as if to listen to something being said very quietly. Only those sitting nearby overheard the exchange that followed. “Sir Arthur tells me that one of you went into the hut this morning. Is that correct?” Lady Conan Doyle, beaming, agreed it was so. “I have a message for you,” the medium said. At this point someone signaled for the organist to strike up. Estelle Roberts could be seen whispering urgently to Lady Conan Doyle, who was smiling and nodding, for several minutes. She was still smiling broadly as the service broke up with a closing hymn and benediction.

The medium told reporters after the service that she had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle walk across the stage and take a seat in the empty chair before giving her a message for his wife and family. “It was a perfectly happy message,” she said.

Whatever it was, it was good enough for his widow. “I am perfectly convinced that the message is from my husband,” she said. “I am as sure of the fact that he has been here with us as I am sure that I am speaking to you. It is a happy message, one that is cheering and encouraging. It is precious and sacred. You will understand that it was secret to me.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Less Credit, Longer Hours: Illustrators’ Roles in Graphic Novels

From Book Riot:

While there are many brilliant single-creator comics and graphic novels in the world — think Neill Cameron’s Mega Robo Bros, ND Stevenson’s Nimona, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, among others — many graphic novels, both traditionally published and indie, have separate writers and illustrators. Sometimes, the writer and artist work as a long-collaborating team, like René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, the duo behind the Asterix comics. Some artists are approached directly by authors as the best fit for a planned work, as happened with The Adventure Zone comics, where illustrator Carey Pietch drew fanart of the series long before the McElroys began converting their popular podcast into graphic novels. In other cases, writers and artists are paired up by publishers for a specific project, something frequently seen in Marvel and DC comics, or sometimes in comics produced outside of the “Big Two’s” sphere, such as Frizzy, a new graphic novel written by middle grade author Claribel A. Ortega and illustrated by Rose Bousamra.

My own work in comics has followed the Goscinny-Uderzo model (although focused around metafictional faeries and anti-fascist magical girls instead of indomitable Gauls). I have three webcomics with my best friend and co-creator Emily Brady — I’m the writer, she’s the artist. We’ve been working on these comics since 2004, and one thing has been very clear to me since the beginning is that for all my procrastination, faffing around, and grappling with writer’s block, the writing side of comics takes no time at all compared to the huge number of hours required to produce the art. We have seven substantially-sized print volumes to show for our 18 years working on these comics, a very respectable number — but to people outside the visual medium of comics, used to working in the written-word-only side of publishing, seven books in nearly two decades looks like a small amount.

The number of hours it takes to produce a 200-page graphic novel is a point repeated by many comics illustrators who have spoken out about the unreasonable time expectations that artists often face when working for publishers, particularly those publishers who are primarily used to working on novels. In her article “Graphic Novel Production Schedules Are Too Short — and the Publishing Industry Should Care About It“, Nilah Magruder notes that “the average graphic novel is 200 pages, but it’s common for publishers to offer a year, sometimes even less’ — a huge ask which puts the illustrator in a perpetual state of crunch.

Magruder explains, “When I entered the children’s book industry, six months was the average timeline for illustrating a 32 page picture book. Let’s say I were to expand that 32 pages to 200 pages. The schedule to produce that gigantic book would be a little over three years,” which is a stark difference from the short timeline that so many publishers require.

Magruder’s article breaks down the amount of time and effort that it takes to produce a comic, something that many people without direct experience of working in this medium rarely consider. One comics professional I spoke to noted that “much like people who grimace when receiving a jumper Granny knitted for them for their birthday, [readers and publishers] never realise how much time and care has taken into making something.”

Rachael Smith (Wired Up WrongQuarantine Comix) said, “I think the time it takes to draw a page is often underestimated because of the relatively short time it takes to read one.”

“It’s hard to get rid of the idea that writing is skilled, ruminative hard work, but drawing is easy, messing about making pretty pictures, and therefore doesn’t need to be rewarded with any serious remuneration because you’re having fun all day.”

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Will “work from hotel” catch on?

From The Economist

As summer descends with a vengeance on the northern hemisphere, you may be fantasising about the promise of “working from anywhere”. A colleague’s PowerPoint presentation would go down better by the poolside, washed down with a mojito. For most office grunts such fantasies remain just that—“anywhere” boils down to the discomfort of the sweaty kitchen table, a noisy café or the office hot desk.

That has not stopped venues offering to combine the liberty of the home office (minus the offspring and the dirty dishes) with the climate control of the corporate hq (minus the boss looking over your shoulder). “Third spaces”, neither office nor home, are not a new idea. Soho House, a chain of fashionable clubs, pioneered 30 years ago the concept of work while mingling with other professionals in an elegant setting. Now hotels are getting in on the action. Your columnist, a guest Bartleby, tried out two recent London offerings.

She first headed to Birch, a hotel in a Georgian manor on 55 acres of Hertfordshire just north of the city. The venue invites you to “come work miracles” at its Hub co-working area, “set strategies” in spaces “ready to fit 5 or 50” or “connect and create” with classes in pottery, sourdough baking, “foraging with our farmer” and other structured activities. Men, women and gender-fluid people in their 20s and early 30s hunch over laptops and glasses of red wine on the terrace. Some digital nomads pay a monthly membership fee and enjoy special discounts to stay in the property and work remotely, but you can, like Bartleby, come as an overnight guest.

Her second destination was the Shangri-La hotel in the Shard, which now offers stays from 10am to 6pm. The pass grants access to a room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on central London, and to Western Europe’s highest infinity pool. It is aimed at those wishing to work and relax by offering a “change of scenery to inspire and invigorate”.

Both Birch and the Shangri-La have their virtues. Birch’s Wi-Fi was excellent and the workspaces had enough sockets to avoid undignified tussles for the last place to plug in your chargers. The “Gentle Flow” stretch class in which Bartleby enrolled, in the spirit of going native, was perfectly pleasant (notwithstanding the instructor’s insistence on starting with an astrological update and reciting a poem at the end). So were laps in the Shangri-La’s infinity pool and the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from her room on the 38th floor.

Yet problems soon became apparent. The first is price. An overnight stay at Birch sets you—or, if you are lucky like Bartleby, your employer—back £160 ($192). The Shangri-La charges £350 for a standard room. Cities have plenty of cheaper “third spaces” these days; a co-working space costs a fraction of that.

The second problem is: how productive can workers be with all the distractions that are designed to make work not feel like work? The spectacular view from the Shard is less conducive to dreaming up a sales pitch (or a column) than it is to daydreaming. At Birch, boardgames occupy every horizontal surface, ready to draw out the procrastinator in you. And once you are done stretching, that sourdough-baking class is a recipe to keep putting work on the back burner.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a photo of Birch. You can book your reservation Here. If you don’t wish to spend the night, they have a restaurant as well.

Definitely dissimilar to any B&B where PG has stayed in Britain, however.

One might think this means that imaginary numbers are just a mathematical game

One might think this means that imaginary numbers are just a mathematical game having nothing to do with the real world. From the viewpoint of positivist philosophy, however, one cannot determine what is real. All one can do is find which mathematical models describe the universe we live in. It turns out that a mathematical model involving imaginary time predicts not only effects we have already observed but also effects we have not been able to measure yet nevertheless believe in for other reasons. So what is real and what is imaginary? Is the distinction just in our minds?

Stephen Hawking

You Can’t Buy These Books

From The Nation:

In a remarkable brief filed on July 7 in their ongoing lawsuit, four titans of corporate publishing (Hachette, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Wiley) accused the Internet Archive of stealing, “mass-scale copyright infringement,” and “[distributing] full-text digital bootlegs for free.” Those are pretty wild allegations—especially considering that the Internet Archive’s Open Library operates on the traditional terms that libraries in this country have abided by for centuries. The Open Library loans books, which it owns, to one patron at a time, for a fixed period—just like any other library. Like any public library, the Open Library doesn’t charge money for this service. The main difference is that the Open Library loans e-books online. Each e-book is scanned from a paper copy, and the paper copy is stored away and doesn’t circulate; this practice is called Controlled Digital Lending, or CDL.

One book, lawfully bought or acquired, one scan, one patron at a time—no money changes hands. And yet the publishers’ brief does its best to cast the librarians of the Internet Archive as a gang of thieves and pirates.

In reality, the publishers’ attack on the Internet Archive is a Trojan horse for a very different, and radical, idea: that e-books are fundamentally—legally—different from paper books. If accepted, their argument would remove e-books from the many statutory protections upon which library rights positively depend. That outcome would leave libraries vulnerable to the draconian licensing deals under which e-books are increasingly offered. And libraries would have to pay and pay, in the absence of digital books that can be permanently bought and owned outright.

The publishers’ true goal appears right on page 6:

Controlled digital lending, as practiced by Internet Archive, collapses the boundaries between physical books and ebooks. CDL’s basic tenet is that a non-profit entity that owns a physical book can scan that book and distribute the resulting ebook as a proxy for the physical copy. But this ignores that ebooks are a fundamentally different product from physical books.

They may be a different product, but e-books are still books.

The real stakes in this lawsuit concern not digital piracy but the preservation of library rights; the real renegades here are not the librarians of the Internet Archive but the publishers, who are looking to take a machete to the Copyright Act in order to make their e-book products rental-only, so that libraries—along with you and me and everyone else—will have to keep paying for them forever. Libraries will no longer be independent entities, free to make their own decisions about what to lend; they’ll be limited to whatever publishers want to offer—or not offer.

“We need strong and independent publishers,” says Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, “and we need strong and independent libraries.”

Because the statutory protections for libraries were written decades ago, when technical constraints on copying and distribution were entirely different from what they are now, preserving traditional library rights has presented challenges in the digital age. These issues were always going to be revisited in the courts, one way or another. In fact, in 2011, in her seminal paper on the legal framework that came to be known as CDL, legal scholar Michelle Wu foresaw this very lawsuit:

[P]ublishers have used new technologies to exert control over works beyond the control they had over printed works. They are replacing ownership with licensing, where they can regulate not only the number of users but also the number of uses.… Given this trend toward greater control over material by publishers, it would be remarkable if the industry did not object to libraries’ digitizing printed materials.

Having anticipated the legal pushback from publishers, Wu observed that the spirit of the law is on the side of libraries: The Copyright Clause was adopted not only to protect authors but to promote the advancement of learning and public knowledge. “At the heart of copyright,” she wrote, “is the public good.”

In the years following the publication of Wu’s paper, a score of leading experts on copyright and libraries joined forces to create CDL, a whole legal toolkit for the traditional library lending of e-books developed with exactly these legal challenges in mind. The Internet Archive’s digital lending relies on CDL, and its reasoning is what is really being tested in the lawsuit.

Disingenuously, the publishers’ brief flatly misinterprets the long history and development of CDL: “Internet Archive…has searched for years to find a legal rationale for its radical infringements. Around 2018, it helped manufacture and market a theory called ‘controlled digital lending’ or ‘CDL.’”

“Publishers spend millions of dollars to make books available to the public,” according to their brief, and that is true. Publishers shepherd books into the world, providing a vitally important service for all. They have every right to profit fairly from their work. But they don’t have the right to change the laws protecting libraries.

Public-spiritedness, by the way, is a quality conspicuously missing from this document. Perhaps realizing they’d better choke out a statement of support for libraries in general, they were able to manage the following: “The Publishers deeply value libraries, recognizing that they foster public literacy, serve local communities, and increase the visibility of authors through book clubs, author talks, and other creative means of reader involvement. Libraries support authors by paying for print books and ebooks.”

They sure do! Libraries have become a huge cash cow for publishers, especially during the pandemic, when nobody could visit a physical library. They admit it themselves, in this very brief: “The publishers’ annual revenue from the library ebook market, which is shared with authors, has risen to hundreds of millions of dollars, simultaneously establishing an important market channel for many titles and serving a more digital public.”

I’m a writer, obviously, and I find it entirely startling that these powerful publishers have no discernible sense of responsibility to the public commons, nor of the symbiotic relationship that principled publishers in a free society should have with libraries. They’re supposed to be on the same side: the side of an educated, healthy and informed public. Publishers should be the champions of libraries, not their enemies.

Link to the rest at The Nation

PG says that, to the extent it ever existed, the ideal that publishers should consider the common good, encourage knowledge and art to be widely distributed within the general population, rich and poor, or cultivate new generations of readers has entirely disappeared with the consolidation of publishing into massive international conglomerates in which the managers of individual publishers are far down the hierarchy of corporate power.

Those up higher in these power structures understand messages in dollars, pounds and euros, not in airy-fairy ideals and principles of democratic concerns of the greatest good for the greatest number.

England’s National Centre for Writing: Emerging Translator Mentorships

From Publishers Weekly:

In the United Kingdom, the National Centre for Writing in Norwich has today announced (July 22) the available languages and mentors in its Emerging Translator Mentorships program for the 2022-2023 cycle.

In its 13th year, the program is intended to encourage “successive new cohorts of literary translators into English, particularly for languages the literature of which is under-represented in English translation.”

Languages and Mentors Named
  • Arabic – mentored by Sawad Hussain
  • Danish – mentored by Paul Russell Garrett
  • Hindi (The Saroj Lal Mentorship) – mentored by Daisy Rockwell
  • Indonesian (Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize) – mentored by Khairani Barokka
  • Italian – mentored by Howard Curtis
  • Japanese – mentored by Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Korean – mentored by Anton Hur
  • Norwegian – mentored by Rosie Hedger
  • Polish – mentored by Sean Gasper Bye
  • Québec French or First Nations languages – mentored by Sarah Ardizzone
  • Swedish – mentored by Nichola Smalley
  • Ukrainian – mentored by Nina Murray
  • Visible communities – mentored by Meena Kandasamy

As to the reference to “visible communities,” it’s “a mentorship open to UK-based literary translators who are either Black, Asian and ethnically diverse, or working from heritage, diaspora, and community languages of the United Kingdom.”

The slot for mentoring in Québec French or First Nations languages is open to literary translators working from either one or more of the following languages: Québecois French, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Cree, Innu, Inuktitut, Micmac, Mohawk, or Naskapi.

In a prepared statement, the center’s program manager, Rebecca DeWald, is quoted, saying, “‘We’re looking forward to offering 13 promising literary translators the opportunity to work with an experienced translator to hone their skills and expertise and build their confidence as key players in international literature.

“The selection of languages we’re supporting this year spans many Asian, European, and Afro-Asian languages, as well as, for the first time, First Nations languages spoken in Québec. In addition, we’re pleased to be able to offer a dedicated Ukrainian mentorship this year, and to feature Hindi for the second time, thanks to the Saroj Lal mentorship. We’re also excited to continue our biannual partnership with publisher Harvill Secker for this year’s Young Translators’ Prize in Indonesian.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Imaginary numbers are real

From Aeon:

Many science students may imagine a ball rolling down a hill or a car skidding because of friction as prototypical examples of the systems physicists care about. But much of modern physics consists of searching for objects and phenomena that are virtually invisible: the tiny electrons of quantum physics and the particles hidden within strange metals of materials science along with their highly energetic counterparts that only exist briefly within giant particle colliders.

In their quest to grasp these hidden building blocks of reality scientists have looked to mathematical theories and formalism. Ideally, an unexpected experimental observation leads a physicist to a new mathematical theory, and then mathematical work on said theory leads them to new experiments and new observations. Some part of this process inevitably happens in the physicist’s mind, where symbols and numbers help make invisible theoretical ideas visible in the tangible, measurable physical world.

Sometimes, however, as in the case of imaginary numbers – that is, numbers with negative square values – mathematics manages to stay ahead of experiments for a long time. Though imaginary numbers have been integral to quantum theory since its very beginnings in the 1920s, scientists have only recently been able to find their physical signatures in experiments and empirically prove their necessity.

In December of 2021 and January of 2022, two teams of physicists, one an international collaboration including researchers from the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna and the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, and the other led by scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), showed that a version of quantum mechanics devoid of imaginary numbers leads to a faulty description of nature. A month earlier, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara reconstructed a quantum wave function, another quantity that cannot be fully described by real numbers, from experimental data. In either case, physicists cajoled the very real world they study to reveal properties once so invisible as to be dubbed imaginary.

For most people the idea of a number has an association with counting. The number five may remind someone of fingers on their hand, which children often use as a counting aid, while 12 may make you think of buying eggs. For decades, scientists have held that some animals use numbers as well, exactly because many species, such as chimpanzees or dolphins, perform well in experiments that require them to count.

Counting has its limits: it only allows us to formulate so-called natural numbers. But, since ancient times, mathematicians have known that other types of numbers also exist. Rational numbers, for instance, are equivalent to fractions, familiar to us from cutting cakes at birthday parties or divvying up the cheque after dinner at a fancy restaurant. Irrational numbers are equivalent to decimal numbers with no periodically repeating digits. They are often obtained by taking the square root of some natural numbers. While writing down infinitely many digits of a decimal number or taking a square root of a natural number, such as five, seems less real than cutting a pizza pie into eighths or 12ths, some irrational numbers, such as pi, can still be matched to a concrete visual. Pi is equal to the ratio of a circle’s circumference and the diameter of the same circle. In other words, if you counted how many steps it takes you to walk in a circle and come back to where you started, then divided that by the number of steps you’d have to take to make it from one point on the circle to the opposite point in a straight line passing through the centre, you’d come up with the value of pi. This example may seem contrived, but measuring lengths or volumes of common objects also typically produces irrational numbers; nature rarely serves us up with perfect integers or exact fractions. Consequently, rational and irrational numbers are collectively referred to as ‘real numbers’.

Negative numbers can also seem tricky: for instance, there is no such thing as ‘negative three eggs’. At the same time, if we think of them as capturing the opposite or inverse of some quantity, the physical world once again offers up examples. Negative and positive electric charges correspond to unambiguous, measurable behaviour. In the centigrade scale, we can see the difference between negative and positive temperature since the former corresponds to ice rather than liquid water. Across the board then, with positive and negative real numbers, we are able to claim that numbers are symbols that simply help us keep track of well-defined, visible physical properties of nature. For hundreds of years, it was essentially impossible to make the same claim about imaginary numbers.

In their simplest mathematical formulation, imaginary numbers are square roots of negative numbers. This definition immediately leads to questioning their physical relevance: if it takes us an extra step to work out what negative numbers mean in the real world, how could we possibly visualise something that stays negative when multiplied by itself? 

Link to the rest at Aeon

Don’t Blame Dostoyevsky

From The Atlantic:

Culture, too, is a casualty of war. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian writers called for a boycott of Russian music, films, and books. Others have all but accused Russian literature of complicity in the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. The entire culture, they say, is imperialist, and this military aggression reveals the moral bankruptcy of Russia’s so-called civilization. The road to Bucha, they argue, runs through Russian literature.

Terrible crimes, I agree, are being committed in the name of my people, in the name of my country, in my name. I can see how this war has turned the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy into the language of war criminals and murderers. What does the world see of “Russian culture” today but bombs falling on maternity hospitals and mutilated corpses on the streets of Kyiv’s suburbs?

It hurts to be Russian right now. What can I say when I hear that a Pushkin monument is being dismantled in Ukraine? I just keep quiet and feel penitent. And hope that perhaps a Ukrainian poet will speak up for Pushkin.

The Putin regime has dealt Russian culture a crushing blow, just as the Russian state has done to its artists, musicians, and writers so many times before. People in the arts are forced to sing patriotic songs or emigrate. The regime has in effect “canceled” culture in my country. Recently a young protester faced arrest for holding a placard that bore a quote from Tolstoy.

Russian culture has always had reason to fear the Russian state. In the saying commonly attributed to the great 19th-century thinker and writer Alexander Herzen, who was sent into internal exile for his anti-czarist sentiments—and reading “forbidden books,” as he put it—“The state in Russia has set itself up like an occupying army.” The Russian system of political power has remained unchanged and unchanging down the centuries—a pyramid of slaves worshipping the supreme khan. That’s how it was during the Golden Horde, that’s how it was in Stalin’s time, that’s how it is today under Vladimir Putin.

The world is surprised at the quiescence of the Russian people, the lack of opposition to the war. But this has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer. Whoever is in power is always right, and you have to obey whatever order comes. And whoever disagrees ends up in jail or worse. And as Russians know only too well from bitter historical experience, never say, This is the worst. As the popular adage has it: “One should not wish death on a bad czar.” For who knows what the next one will be like?

Only words can undo this silence. This is why poetry was always more than poetry in Russia. Former Soviet prisoners are said to have attested that Russian classics saved their lives in the labor camps when they retold the novels of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky to other inmates. Russian literature could not prevent the Gulags, but it did help prisoners survive them.

The Russian state has no use for Russian culture unless it can be made to serve the state. Soviet power wanted to give itself an air of humanity and righteousness, so it built monuments to Russian writers. “Pushkin, our be-all and end-all!” rang out from stages in 1937, during the Great Purge, when even the executioners trembled with fear. The regime needs culture as a human mask—or as combat camouflage. That’s why Stalin needed Dmitri Shostakovich and Putin needs Valery Gergiev.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

I am not going to lose Vietnam.

I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1963

We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

President Lyndon Johnson, 1964

We do this [escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression. We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Vietnam who have bravely born this brutal battle for so many years with so many casualties. And we do this to convince the leaders of North Vietnam—and all who seek to share their conquest—of a simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.

President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

We seem bent upon saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh, even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it. I do not intend to remain silent in the face of what I regard as a policy of madness which, sooner or later, will envelop my son and American youth by the millions for years to come.

Senator George McGovern, 1967

Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?

Anti-war protestors, late 1967.

It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.

AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoting a U.S. major on the decision to bomb and shell Ben Tre after Viet Cong forces overran the city in the Mekong Delta during the Tet Offensive, 1968

For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.

Newscaster Walter Cronkite, 1968, reporting on what he had learned on a trip to Vietnam in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President.

President Lyndon Johnson, 1968

I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1969

This war has already stretched the generation gap so wide that it threatens to pull the country apart.

Senator Frank Church, 1970

I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.

President Richard Nixon, 1973

During the day on Monday, Washington time, the airport at Saigon came under persistent rocket as well as artillery fire and was effectively closed. The military situation in the area deteriorated rapidly. I therefore ordered the evacuation of all American personnel remaining in South Vietnam.

Gerald Ford, (who, as Vice-President, succeeded Richard Nixon when Nixon resigned 1974), in 1975

Until Fiction Do Us Apart

From Publishers Weekly:

Most novelists will tell you it’s okay—even encouraged—to mine your darkest thoughts and bring them to light in your fiction. But what about the dark thoughts that involve the people you love most? And is it better or worse if you do it with humor?

I’m not particularly proud of the moment that sparked the idea for my eighth novel, Take My Husband. It was in the thick of the pandemic, and I was living under the same roof with my beloved and three 20-something children. For someone with an almost pathological need for alone time, it was rough going.

But my messy little office with its desktop computer, two printers, overloaded bookshelves, piles of pages, and compact coffee pot was my haven. To keep from being disturbed while writing, I put a polite sign on the door that read “Please Knock.” When that didn’t work, I added a second sign—this one in bold purple—that simply read “Knock.” When that proved inadequate, I got testy enough to make a third sign reading “Knock Means Knock.”

It worked. Sort of. I was toiling away on a new project—deep in the zone of intense concentration as I tried to untangle a beast of a paragraph—when my husband knocked once, swung the door open, and announced something about a new shipment of toilet paper at Stop & Shop.

That was the moment it happened. My muse barged into the room right behind my husband—without knocking or even clearing its throat—to deliver the idea to write a book about a happily married woman who wants to throttle the man to whom she had pledged her undying love.

No, I thought. Absolutely not. It’s too… mean. But it’s a comedy, insisted my muse. Still, I resisted, as it felt dangerously close to ridicule, which has never amused me, either as giver or receiver. In fact, throughout my long marriage to a very funny man, our teasing has always been of the gentlest sort.

Take, for example, the quip he made years ago when our youngest was reading aloud from one of those corny joke books they publish for children.

“What do you call a woman with a big head?” she had asked.

“Honey,” my husband responded.

I’m still laughing at this joke. And yes, I understand you had to be there. If you were, you’d know I have an unusually enormous head, while my high-IQ husband has a child-size skull. It’s been a kind of running joke between us over the decades of our marriage. The fat-headed girl meets the pin-headed boy, they fall in love, marry, and have three normal-headed children who like bad puns.

Now, I know deconstructing a joke is a comedy crime even more egregious than withholding a punch line, so I’ll just say this: my husband could have responded “Ellen” and it would have been funny. His term of endearment was a better choice, though, thanks to the built-in domesticity. Also—and this is important—it wrapped the tease in tenderness. My husband, bless his heart, would never want to hurt my feelings.

I would never want to hurt his, either. So this book idea was not for me. Still, my muse nagged, and I knew why. There was truth in it, and as a novelist, it was my job to hold that truth up to the light.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Henry Kissinger explains what he thinks makes great leadership

From The Economist

Leadership by Henry Kissinger

Whatever you think of Henry Kissinger, the 99-year-old former national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations has an elephantine memory and experience that makes it an important historical resource. In his latest book, Mr Kissinger, an unofficial adviser and friend to many presidents and prime ministers, considers how six leaders from the second half of the 20th century reoriented their countries and made a lasting impact on the world.

Mr Kissinger’s six are an eclectic bunch. Konrad Adenauer was the first post-war chancellor of West Germany. Charles de Gaulle saved France twice, first during the second world war, then at the time of the Algerian crisis. The author’s old boss, Richard Nixon, shook geopolitics with his opening to China before scandal brought him down. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for forging a lasting peace with Israel as Egypt’s president. Lee Kuan Yew made tiny Singapore one of the most prosperous places on Earth. And Margaret Thatcher reversed decades of British decline—while widening social and economic divisions—before being defenestrated by her party.

A project of this kind might have amounted to a series of brief eulogistic biographies of famous people. Much of the book will indeed be familiar to many readers—and at times the author’s willingness to glide over inconvenient truths is distasteful. He justifies Nixon’s covert bombing of Cambodia by the need to force the Vietnamese to negotiate. One of its consequences, the rise of the Khmers Rouges, merits a single sentence, which blames Congress for cutting off military aid to the Cambodian government. (Watergate, too, is downplayed.) De Gaulle’s extraordinary refusal to give credit to allies fighting and dying to liberate France nearly earns admiration. The controversy in which Thatcher almost revelled escapes all criticism.

The book is redeemed, and more, by the analytical framework in which each leader is examined, and by the author’s personal knowledge of his subjects. Moreover, the writing is always crisp and lucid, even when conveying arcane theories of international relations, such as the notion of “equilibrium” that defined Nixon’s foreign policy (and, by extension, Mr Kissinger’s).

Having seen so many leaders at close hand, Mr Kissinger understands the constraints they must acknowledge and bypass. Among these are “scarcity”, or the limits of their societies in terms of demography and economic heft; “temporality”, or the prevailing values, habits and attitudes of their times; “competition” from other states that have their own goals; and the “fluidity” of events, the pace of which can force decisions to be made on the basis of intuition and hypothesis. Leaders must traverse a tightrope from which they fall if they are either too timid or too bold.

In Mr Kissinger’s view, there are essentially two types of leader, the statesman and the prophet. Statesmen manipulate circumstances to their advantage, temper vision with wariness and work with the grain of societies until existing institutions need to be changed or confronted. Prophets are prepared, if not eager, to break with the past no matter the risk.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that when Nixon resigned in 1974, he was one of the most reviled individuals in the United States, primarily to his conduct of the War in Vietnam. Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson would have run as a close second to Nixon on the scale of reviled presidents.

When one reviews the mediocrities who were elected to the presidency during the latter part of the 19th Century, it is interesting that none were as reviled during or after their terms of office than Nixon was.