Artists on Trial

From The Wall Street Journal:

Enjoying the novels of Ernest Hemingway can be a difficult thing to do after reading the man’s biography. “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are masterpieces of efficient storytelling that changed Anglophone writing forever. But their author was an inveterate liar, prone to hedonism and violence, vicious beyond belief to wives and friends, and culpably stupid on political subjects.

The case of Hemingway is an extreme one, but the truth is that most supremely gifted artists are not in possession of high moral character and have wrought immense pain in the lives of those closest to them. Their admirers learn to manage the tension between life and work as best they can. Some cases are easier to manage than others, depending on the nature of the work and one’s emotional and intellectual attachment to it. But in the end, work almost always trumps biography. I doubt there are many people inclined to relish the music of Richard Wagner who refuse to do so on account of his anti-Semitism and all-around repugnance. Lord Byron’s sexual propensities would be hard to describe in a respectable newspaper, but one learns to forget them while reading his poetry.

Is there much to say about the capacity of terrible people to produce works of great beauty? I have on my shelf a marvelous collection of essays by the literary critic Brooke Allen, “Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior” (2004). Ms. Allen holds up her subjects’ disgraceful conduct and splendid literary productions and registers little more than gentle surprise that one can produce the other.

But the young today, and especially the inhabitants of elite college campuses, are no longer content simply to contemplate the mystery that wonderful works of art can emerge from the crooked timber of humanity. The highly educated young are ready to judge—even if, in a world without mythology or religion, they lack clear principles on which to base their judgments. In “Drawing the Line,” Erich Hatala Matthes aims to give them those principles. He acknowledges the perils and excesses of a worldview in which past sins constantly threaten to nullify accomplishments and soil reputations, but he accepts its premises almost entirely. The didacticism of his subtitle—“What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies”—captures the spirit of the age. What to do with them!

Mr. Matthes, who teaches philosophy at Wellesley College, uses four chapters to ask four questions: Do immoral artist make worse art? Is it wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists? Should immoral artists be “canceled”? And how should we feel about immoral artists?

There are, to my admittedly hidebound sensibilities, basically two problems with the book. The first is that Mr. Matthes draws no distinctions between what constitutes “art” and what doesn’t. Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Paul Gauguin, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Roald Dahl, Caravaggio, Chuck Close—all are simply and equally “artists.” But they are not all artists except in the loosest sense. Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr are comedians. Michael Jackson was a stupendously gifted entertainer but not the creator of any transcendent or ennobling work of the human spirit.

The distinction matters. The only reason an aesthetic artifact deserves to remain in the public consciousness is that it possesses unique and abiding worth. We can argue about what constitutes that worth, but a catchy pop song with a forgettable tune and nonsense words, or a mildly humorous comedic routine memorable mainly for its idiotic vulgarity, is bereft of it. Enjoy it as much as you like. Or don’t. The argument that its creator’s deplorable personal deeds or retrograde social views should determine its longevity in our collective life is simply not interesting.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if the free link doesn’t work for you, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG says that the artist is not the work and vice-versa.

If they are the somehow linked, do we put the work of an artist who committed a serious crime in prison? Or do we destroy it completely?

How, exactly, does condemning art (and, presumably, putting it away someplace where no one will be offended by it) that gives many or some people pleasure make the world a better place?

Exactly how evil does the artist have to be in order to be banished from society?

In the United States, generations of people referred to African Americans by what is now described as the “N-word”. At the time and in the place where this practice was common, it was the standard term for African Americans. If a person at those times and in those places did not use the N-word, he/she/they would be perceived as making some sort of distinction between members of the race.

During PG’s lifetime, the word, “Negro”, has moved from a polite way of referring to an individual’s race into something that may lead to some degree of scorn for someone who utters the word.

A great many Americans also used slang words to describe other groups of people as well. Poles, Germans, Japanese and Jews come immediately to PG’s memory. Some of those slang words have moved into the impolite realm of language. PG is unaware of any that have reached the negative place occupied by the N-word, but time continues to march on.

In summary, a bad person can produce good art and good literature.

In PG’s youth, those who banned or attempted to ban books were regarded with scorn and disdain – narrow-minded, prissy neo-puritans.

“Banned in Boston” referred to the time period during which Boston officials had wide authority to ban works featuring “objectionable” content, and often banned works with sexual content or foul language. This even extended to the $5 bill from the 1896 “Educational” series of banknotes featuring allegorical figures which were partially nude.

Per Wikipedia:

Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, four cast members were placed under arrest.

. . . .

This movement had several unintended consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than other cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.

Prominent literary figure H. L. Mencken was arrested in Boston in 1926, after purposely selling a banned issue of his magazine The American Mercury. Though his case was dismissed by a local judge, and he later won a lawsuit against the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade, the effort did little to affect censorship in Boston. The interracial romance novel Strange Fruit, by Lillian Smith, was also banned by the Watch and Ward Society and in 1929 Boston’s mayor Malcolm Nichols and the city censor banned Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Strange Interlude.

During the same era there were also periodic “purity campaigns” on radio, as individual stations decided to ban songs with double-entendres or alleged vulgar lyrics. One victim of such a campaign was bandleader Joe Rines who, in November 1931, was cut off in mid-song by John L. Clark, program director of WBZ, for performing a number called “This is the Missus”, whose lyrics Clark deemed inappropriate. Rines was indignant, saying he believed Clark was over-reacting to a totally innocent song, but Clark insisted he was right to ban any song whose lyrics might be construed as suggestive.

The Warren Court (1953–69) expanded civil liberties and in Memoirs v. Massachusetts and other cases curtailed the ability of municipalities to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies. The last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. was fought over Naked Lunch, which was banned in Boston in 1965.

Banned books included those from Walt Whitman, Giovanni Boccaccio, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway (twice), William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and The Everly Brothers (for “Wake up, Little Susie”)

Inside the Realms of Ruin

From TechCrunch:

“The Ruin stirs, and the Five Realms rumble,” a now-archived web announcement read on Thursday morning. “You are cordially invited to join New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, David Yoon, and Nicola Yoon in Realms of Ruin, a collaborative fantasy epic filled with dark magic, intrigue, and unique characters — launched online in a thrilling new way.”

These celebrated young adult authors shared the announcement across social media, opening a Twitter, Instagram and Discord server for fans to discuss the buzzy new project that would propel the traditional publishing industry into the new territory of Web3, an evolution of the decentralized internet that emphasizes privacy, data ownership and compensation for work — maybe even fan-made creative works.

As the catalyst for this collaborative fantasy epic, these authors would post 12 initial origin stories about their fictional universe, to which they owned the copyright. Then fans would be tasked with writing their own stories, submitting them to the Realms of Ruin universe by minting them as NFTs on the Solana blockchain. If the authors were to enjoy a fan’s story enough, they could declare it part of the project’s official canon.

Within hours, fans confronted the authors in the Discord server with their concerns about the project. If the authors are inviting fans to write fan fiction about a universe they created, who owns the derivative works? Does minting those stories as NFTs affect the copyright of those stories? And how are these concerns exacerbated given that these authors’ target audience is too young to buy cryptocurrency on platforms like Coinbase and Gemini?

Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, aptly summed up the situation. “It’s a turducken of things people don’t understand,” she said. In other words, on top of the usual NFT concerns, the team would also be facing copyright questions and confronting the historical hesitancy from fan fiction writers over monetization of their works in a commercial environment.

Along with a team of nine developers, the six young adult authors spent two months working nights and weekends to bring Realms of Ruin to life. Within hours of its announcement, the project garnered so much backlash that they pulled the plug.

. . . .

Fan fiction is a tricky, yet fertile ground for legal questions about copyright and ownership.

Sometimes, top fan fiction writers can even parlay their online success into real publishing careers. If a writer can capture the interest of tens of thousands of readers online, it’s not unreasonable to believe that, with original characters and an original story, they could do the same on The New York Times bestsellers list.

One recent example of this phenomenon is Tamsyn Muir’s “Gideon the Ninth,” published in 2019, which The New York Times called “a devastating debut that deserves every ounce of hype it’s received.” But Muir isn’t secretive that she got her start writing fan fiction. Another unabashed proponent of fan fiction is N.K. Jemisin, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” awardee who is also the only writer to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row. From a revenue standpoint, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” series might be the best example of how a writer can start their career by posting derivative stories online — before the series was an international hit, it was Twilight fan fiction.

But monetizing fan fiction through online platforms is a trickier matter. For example, when Tumblr announced it would roll out Post+, a paid subscription product, the company used fan fiction writers as an example of a content creator who could profit from the product. This caused concern among writers who worried that putting a derivative work behind a paywall could land them in legal trouble.

. . . .

“My main concern was that [the Realms of Ruin project’s creators] were asking their audience to come in and write a bunch of stuff, and they would then select things to be canon in their world. And the tricky part of this is that they already made this world and copyrighted it,” said Manzano. She said it wasn’t clear if the fan fiction writers would be able to do anything more with their work or if they would be acknowledged or compensated for creating it.

TechCrunch’s source close to the project feels differently. Although the six established authors own the Realms of Ruin copyright (at least according to the archived version of the website), writers can be paid to participate in larger publishing projects where they don’t have ownership in the franchise. Over 850 “Star Trek” novels have been published, for example, but that doesn’t mean that those authors own the rights to “Star Trek.”

Harvard Law professor Rebecca Tushnet — who is a member of the legal team at the Organization for Transformative Works, which runs major fan fiction site Archive of Our Own — said that these questions would depend on what the actual contract is between Realms of Ruin and the writers.

“If they’re giving permission, there aren’t copyright infringement questions, there are ownership questions. And those would be navigated by contract. But the thing that you usually expect is that the people writing the fan works might have limited rights,” she told TechCrunch. Because the Realms of Ruin project was shut down before it officially launched, contract details weren’t available.

“The fan fiction part is probably the least interesting part about this,” added Tushnet. “It’s not unknown for authors to say, ‘I want to authorize you to play in my world, and you can even have some of the money.’ Kindle Worlds was an attempt at this, but it ultimately did not seem to be profitable, and Amazon shut it down.”

Fan creators are generally skeptical of projects like Kindle Worlds since they can seem like thinly veiled ways for corporations to profit off of these communities.

Link to the rest at TechCrunch

PG says that just because you can conceive and code something doesn’t make it a good idea.

Any time a person or entity is publishing something another person has written, there’s a legal issue over ownership of the copyright and what rights the copyright owner is granting or not granting to the publisher.

Fan fiction can be a lot of fun to read and write, but if you get your one blockbuster story idea and give it to someone else to publish someplace in cyberspace or meatspace, there are legal issues involving copyright ownership and what rights the author has granted to others. You don’t want anything hazy with respect to rights to something you’ve written. No hand-waving should be involved.

If you write something really good, haziness and hand-waving could quite possibly mean that everybody is giving a lot of their money to lawyers – many digits between the dollar sign and the decimal point. In some sorts of litigation, whoever runs out of money first loses.

Getting it right at the beginning is much, much easier and far, far cheaper.

Imagination

From Dave Farland:

Come Original

The first thing that I seek in a great story is originality. You may not realize it, but the most common problem with stories is that they’re tepid. The same ideas crop up over and over again. So I look for new and intriguing concepts, especially when I’m judging science fiction and fantasy.

. . . .

[S]tories come along in thematic clusters. For example, the quarter after the sheep Dolly got cloned, I had dozens of stories come across my desk about cloning. Now, were any of them publishable? Sort of. The writing was often good, the story fairly interesting. But I don’t think that I had a finalist about cloning that quarter. The idea felt tepid.

One quarter, I got several good stories that featured mind transference. The quarter before that, it was ghost stories. One quarter, I got no less than twenty stories written from the point of view of sperms making a heroic journey. (Life is hard when you’re dodging gobs of spermicidal gel, white blood cells hell-bent on destruction, and struggling not to get bounced out of the race by the sperms of Hitler wannabes.)

Stand Out

So when I see several iterations of the same idea, I have to ask myself, “What makes this story stand out? What makes it better than others?”

The truth is, that sometimes one of the authors stretches himself or herself further than others. They look for a new idea to couple with an old, twisting it, so that we get something that I haven’t seen before.

For example, in that quarter of Writers of the Future where I got several good ghost stories, one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s take, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a young girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world, that the girl can peer into.

So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before. Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it. So she scored higher on the originality scale, than did some of the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.

 Do you see how a story can manifest originality in a number of ways?

1. Premise

Your story may explore an idea that no one has ever written about before. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” for example, is a story about a man who engineers the DNA in his blood so that each cell becomes a miniature computer. The cells begin creating their own vessels to explore his body, and become sentient . . . and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s a great idea. Similarly, the concepts of mathematical sociology that lead to social engineering in Asimov’s Foundation series really intrigued me as a teen. In science fiction and fantasy, the unique idea shows the highest form of creativity.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

AG Submits Comments on Press Publisher Protections

From The Authors Guild:

The Authors Guild submitted comments to the U.S. Copyright Office recommending changes to copyright law and policy to stop internet platforms like Facebook and Google from monetizing news content freely, and to give newspaper and magazine publishers more power to negotiate with platforms that aggregate news content. The comments come in response to the Copyright Office’s “Publisher Protection Study,” which seeks to understand the effects of “news aggregators” like Google and Facebook on newspapers and magazines with the goal of issuing policy guidelines to protect the industry.

The Guild’s comments emphasized that the Facebook and Google “duopoly” over the digital advertising market has siphoned revenues out of the press publishing ecosystem, leading to mass closure or consolidation in the industry. According to the Pew Center, 2,100—or about one in five—newspapers or magazines have shuttered or merged into larger entities since 2008, with advertising revenues sinking from $55 billion per year in 2005 to just $8.8 billion in 2010. The comments also underscored the impact on writers and journalists, pointing out that full-time journalism jobs had dwindled by 26% since 2008 and per-word and piece-based freelance rates were vastly lower than they were 15 years ago.

. . . .

Apart from the clear economic harm to journalists, freelance writers, and press publishers, control of the news space by internet platforms have also dealt serious blows to democratic culture. As the last four years show, when the public relies on misinformation and fake news instead of real journalism—which, unlike clickbait, takes hard work, time, and resources to produce—the cost to society are immense. 

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Deceit

Deceit, distortion, misdirection, and concealment are all lies in altered masks.

Richelle E. Goodrich

The Static Hiss

From Writer Unboxed:

I don’t much listen to my car radio. With my phone connected via Bluetooth, I can listen to audiobooks, stream podcasts or enjoy my own playlists. Plus, the top hits of the Eighties and Nineties were great back then but I don’t want them on an endless loop in my head. If I stream a radio station it’s jazz, like Newark’s WBGO.

Still, once in a while I’ll want traffic news or weather or Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” because Steve Winwood always lifts me up. But when I switch to radio receiver what I get is static hiss. I punch the Seek button to find a station. The receiver jumps to the next signal, which might be Blondie singing “Heart of Glass” or it might be static hiss. Yes, I could have presets. I don’t, so I punch. Hiss. Punch. Hiss.

Static hiss is electronic interference to a radio signal. If the signal-to-noise ratio is low then the signal is overwhelmed and rather than music you get hiss. The interference itself comes from different sources. It can be neighboring radio signals, electrical switches, motors, computers, or thermal noise in circuits. There’s also electromagnetic interference such as lightning, explaining why static hiss gets louder when you see a zig-zag flash in the sky. There’s also cosmic background noise coming from the sun and even the center of the Milky Way.

The radiation that produces hiss is, in essence, louder than the radio signal that you really want. It is a signal but it’s random and erratic. Our brains do not process the hissing into anything meaningful. It’s just noise. We turn down the volume dial and punch the Seek button, looking for a stronger signal carrying more intelligible and interesting sounds. Hiss is natural. It’s part of the universe. It’s there in the background all the time but we find it irritating and quickly dismiss it.

Manuscripts are like a radio signal. Too often static hiss interferes with the story. Static hiss is anything we don’t need in order to understand and enjoy the tale we’re reading. It’s the stuff we tune out, if not immediately skip. Hiss. Punch.

Why do manuscripts, and published novels too, present material that we don’t want? Obviously, the author set down what seems important—but is it? Not always. Think about it this way: Is every page of every novel you read absorbing, exciting and memorable? Obviously not. While we don’t expect that level of memorability from every single printed page, we do hope always to get something interesting, or at least something we won’t skim or skip.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG loves the sound of “Static Hiss”. It occurred to him that it might be transferred to a character in ancient Rome named Staticus.

No One Likes a Copycat Au Pair

From Electric Lit:

I loved Ayşegül Savaş’s first novel Walking on the Ceiling and have been pressing it into everyone’s hands for the past two years. I approached her second novel, White on White, with excitement and some trepidation, wondering whether I would love it as much. Well, the answer is yes. How exhilarating to be swept off my feet once more, torn between wanting to savor every sentence while also wishing to rush through to the end! Savaş’s writing is unadorned and yet perfectly attuned to the poetry and strangeness of everyday life. It surprises you with kernels of wisdom, such as “We make ghostly twins to carry the weight of our desires.” The world she describes is both recognizable and slightly off-balance, and nothing is ever what it seems at first glance. It is writing that I devoured in a few sittings and then returned to over and over again. 

The premise of White on White is simple—a young student moves to a new city and becomes a confidant of sorts to the landlady, Agnes, a striking and magnetic artist, who very soon unsettles the narrator with her intimate monologues. Much of the novel is shaped by scenes in which the student listens to Agnes reflect on her art and recount memories of her marriage, children, and friendships with other women. At times I was reminded of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Both narrators spend a year in a new apartment that is flooded with light. The passage of time feels hazy and is often marked by the change in seasons. There is an undercurrent of tension, barely perceptible at first, that intensifies throughout and makes it impossible to look away.  

The excerpt below recounts Agnes’s years as a new mother and her relationship with her young au pair, beautifully exemplifying what I loved most about Savaş’s novel: the stories within stories, showing how what we remember from our past illuminates the way we see ourselves; the dissonance of memories within a family and how those breaks in understanding reveal an unwillingness or inability to see. At the end of this passage, the student feels that Agnes has “left out a part of the story.” One of the pleasures of reading White on White comes from exploring those omissions and being never quite sure what to believe. I reveled in this ambiguity: the constant shifts in perception, my expectations overthrown with each story. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The forgotten importance of the War of Jenkins’ Ear

From The Economist:

It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a bottle and presented to King George II of Britain as proof of Spanish barbarity. The ensuing conflict lasted from 1739 to 1742.

Yet as Robert Gaudi writes in his new history, the war’s causes went beyond a single outrage. Tension had simmered over a dispute about fees for Britain’s contract to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies. British ships ran contraband to and from the West Indies in defiance of bilateral agreements. And then there was the strange case of the Italian castrato opera star, whom King Felipe V of Spain whisked from London and made his personal divo in Madrid. One journal summed up the sentiment in Britain: “What are the taking of a few Ships, and the cutting off the Ears of the Masters of our Merchantmen, to the loss of our dear, dear Farinello?”

The war proved disastrous for Britain. It assembled an armada and intended to invade the Spanish ports at Cartagena (now in Colombia), and Santiago, Cuba. The Cartagena operation was a fiasco, bogged down by tropical weather, mosquito-borne disease and indecisive leadership. Bad planning and squabbling commanders meant that the Santiago campaign was over before it could even begin. Spain suffered defeats of its own, failing to take Georgia in the North American colonies. Led by James Oglethorpe, the British joined Native Americans and used ambushes to repel the larger Spanish force.

Among the engagements at sea was an action at Porto Bello, Panama, which yielded one of Britain’s few victories. Mr Gaudi, though, is less interested in the detailed narration of naval fracases than in sketching some of the vivid characters who fought them. The British succeeded at Porto Bello largely because of Admiral Edward Vernon, “boisterous and bellicose”, who became an instant national hero. (The song “Rule, Britannia!” was written in the afterglow of his achievement.) On the Spanish side was the pugnacious Don Blas, famous after an earlier incident in which, when he was only 15, his leg was amputated in the heat of battle.

Why does this forgotten war matter now? For two reasons, suggests Mr Gaudi. First, a different result could have changed the fate of North America. Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent. Second, the war nurtured the resentment of Britain that ultimately led to the American revolution. The British recruited 3,000 Americans to fight in the Cartagena campaign, but held them back from the vanguard out of mistrust and fear of desertion.

Link to the rest at The Economist (You may hit a paywall. PG apologizes.)

Plug-in Added

Google’s Site Kit reported that TPV was not loading as fast as it should, so PG added a plug-in that is supposed to fix that.

If anyone has been having problems with the speed with which the site has been loading or starts to have problems with site loading from here on forward, let PG know through the Contact PG link at the top of the page.

Alice Sebold apologizes to exonerated man who spent years in prison for her rape

From CNN:

Author Alice Sebold apologized to a man who last week was exonerated of her rape, a crime she wrote about in her memoir “Lucky,” but the writer also appeared to place as much blame on a “flawed legal system” as she did on the role she played in his conviction.

“First, I want to say that I am truly sorry to Anthony Broadwater and I deeply regret what you have been through,” Sebold, the author of “The Lovely Bones,” wrote in a statement posted on Medium.com.
Broadwater, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted of the rape in 1982 and spent 16 years in prison. He was denied parole at least five times because he wouldn’t admit to a crime he didn’t commit, according to his attorneys. He tried at least five times to get the sentence overturned, he told CNN.

Last week, a New York State Supreme Court judge exonerated Broadwater and vacated his conviction and other counts related to it. The Onondaga County district attorney joined in the motion to vacate the conviction.

Broadwater was convicted on two pieces of evidence — Sebold’s account and a cross-racial identification — the author is White and Broadwater is Black — and the analysis of a piece of hair that was later determined to be faulty, his attorneys wrote.

In “Lucky,” Sebold wrote that after she failed to identify Broadwater in a police lineup, “a detective and a prosecutor told her after the lineup that she picked out the wrong man and how the prosecutor deliberately coached her into rehabilitating her misidentification,” according to the attorneys’ affirmation that led to Broadwater’s exoneration.

The unreliability of the hair analysis and the conversation between the prosecutor and Sebold after the lineup would probably have led to a different verdict if it had been presented at trial, the attorneys said.

Sebold described the rape, which occurred when she was a freshman at Syracuse University in 1981, in brutally honest detail in “Lucky.” It was published a year after Broadwater was released from prison.
Her publisher Scribner, and its parent company, Simon & Schuster, will stop distributing the book in all formats “while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised,” said Brian Belfiglio, Scribner vice president of publicity and marketing, in a statement to CNN.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG hasn’t been in a criminal courtroom in a very long time, but he can’t imagine any prosecutor he ever dealt with way back when doing what Ms. Sebold says the detective and a prosecutor did in her case.

Here’s a link to a post Ms. Sebold made discussing this subject.

Congo’s government has banned songs that annoy it

From The Economist:

“I consider myself to be like a mosquito,” says Bob Elvis, a musician, from his studio in downtown Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I may be small but I can annoy you all night long, by singing, biting and not leaving you alone.”

Mr Elvis’s latest rap song, “Letter to Ya Tshitshi”, has rankled the president of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, so much that it was banned days after being released. The song addresses Étienne Tshisekedi, the president’s dead father, a firebrand opposition leader, by his nickname. It laments his son’s incompetence.

In the video, Mr Elvis raps to a photo of Mr Tshisekedi senior, surrounded by flickering candles. He repeats the refrain “since you left” and describes the country’s woes, from the scarcity of clean water to the abundance of corruption, electoral fraud and conflict. “Since you left, war in the east goes on,” he raps. “We are fighting for the rule of law.”

The Censorship Commission banned another six of Mr Elvis’s songs as well as a track called “What we have not done” by mpr, a hip-hop group. This song is about the failings of every Congolese president since independence. The ban on mpr’s track was rescinded a day later when fans kicked up a fuss.

Mr Elvis has not been so lucky. Broadcasters that play his forbidden tracks risk having their licences revoked. Other musicians have been targeted, too. A rapper from southern Congo, Sébastien Lumbwe, known as “Infrapa”, fled the country two weeks ago after being harassed by officials over his songs, which poke the government. “It is part of a pattern of shrinking civic space,” says Jean-Mobert Senga of Amnesty International, a watchdog. “It goes against President Tshisekedi’s commitment to respect human rights.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

Where Is My Thinking Machine?

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazement and alarm have been persistent features, the yin and yang, of discourse about the power of computers since the earliest days of electronic “thinking machines.”

In 1950, a year before the world’s first commercial computer was delivered, the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing published an essay asking “Can machines think?” A few years later another pioneer, John McCarthy, coined the term “artificial intelligence”—AI. That’s when the trouble began.

The sloppy but clever term “artificial intelligence” has fueled misdirection and misunderstanding: Imagine, in the 1920s, calling the car an artificial horse, or the airplane an artificial bird, or the electric motor an artificial waterwheel.

“Computing” and even “supercomputing” are clear, even familiar terms. But the arrival of today’s machines that do more than calculate at blazing speeds—that instead engage in inference to recognize a face or answer a natural language question—constitutes a distinction with a difference, and raises practical and theoretical questions about the future uses of AI.

The amount of money chasing AI alone suggests something big is happening: annual global venture investing in AI startups has soared from $3 billion a decade ago to $80 billion in 2021. Over half is with U.S. firms, about one-fourth with Chinese. More than six dozen AI startups have valuations north of $1 billion, chasing applications in every corner of the economy from the Holy Grail of self-driving cars to healthcare and shopping, and from shipping to security.

Consider another metric of AI’s ascendance: An Amazon search for “artificial intelligence” yields 50,000 book titles. Joining that legion comes “The Age of AI and Our Human Future.” Its multiple authors—Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state; Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google; and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing—say their book is a distillation of group discussions about how AI will “soon affect nearly every field of human endeavor.”

“The Age of AI” doesn’t tackle how society has come to such a turning point. It poses more questions than it answers, and focuses, in the main, on news and disinformation, healthcare and national security, with a smattering about “human identity.” That most AI applications are nascent is evidenced by the authors’ need to fall back frequently on “what if” in an echo of similar discussions nearly everywhere.

The authors are animated by the sense many share that we’re on the cusp of a broad technological tipping point of deep economic and geopolitical consequence. “The Age of AI” makes the indisputable case that AI will add features to products and services that were heretofore impossible.

In an important nod to reality, the authors highlight “AI’s limits,” the problems with adequate and useful datasets and the “brittleness,” especially the “narrowness,” of AI—an AI that can drive a car can’t read a pathology slide, and vice versa.

However, AI’s narrowness is a feature, not a bug. This explains why hundreds of AI startups target narrow applications within a specific business domain. It explains why apps have been so astonishingly successful (consumers have access to more than 200 million apps, most of which are not games). Many are powered by hyper-narrow AI and enabled by a network—the Cloud—of unprecedented reach.

The book’s discursive nature illuminates, if unintentionally, a common challenge in forecasting AI: It’s far easier today than in Turing’s time to drift into the hypothetical.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Writing Down the Bones

From Nilichoandika:

Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg was published the year my elder sister was born. I read it . . . thirty five years since it broke into print

. . . .

1. Claim your writing. This is something I struggle with. Hearing someone say they loved my book, or a character so much that they want to talk about him/her or even that they hated my work- and with the star rating index, anything short of a 3-star review is enough to have me put my music player on shuffle. She shares how important it is to claim the good and bad- to accept that you wrote it.

. . . .

4. Don’t marry the fly. I laughed so much reading this chapter because I have felt it as a reader. Sometimes when I read a book and I am following what is happening, there are certain sentences or details that throw me off- and often I feel like the author lost me, or that the author’s trend of thought changed and Natalie explains why this happens. Simply put she says, “If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander.” In another sense, details are important but if you focus on one detail so much you may lose the reader.

Link to the rest at Nilichoandika

Books are everywhere

Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

Virginia Woolf

A Czech Second-Hand Books Boom

From Publishers Weekly:

The Czech digital seller of second-hand books Knihobot reported sales of some 18 million Czech koruna (US$792,000) for the entire year of 2020, but in October of this year alone, it generated sales of 10 million koruna (US$440,000).

This month, having raised its monthly sales to a level above the 2020 total, Knihobot is looking to expand its services to neighboring Slovakia, according to company officials.

. . . .

“Knihobot is an online platform and e-shop that helps with the circulation of books,” she says in describing the company’s brand.

“That means we’re helping people to sell their books and to find new ones. We arrange everything around the selling, storage, and even the transportation from your home to Knihobot’s storage.

“After the book is sold, we pay a commission to the original owner.”

Hladíková’s outlook in the near term is optimistic: “For this year,” she says, “we’re projecting a number of 70 or 80 million karuna. We’ll see.”

This upturn in Knihobot’s business may not indicate that Czech readers are losing interest in buying new books.

The latest available data from the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers (SKCN) suggests that in 2019, the country’s book market expanded by 3.5 percent to some 8.6 billion Koruna (US$379 million), reporting an annual increase for a fifth year.

. . . .

Asked whether it’s possible that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged more readers to buy second-hand books, perhaps instead of using public libraries, Hladíková points to a number of factors that might explain Knihobot’s strong financial performance in past months.

“There are many reasons for this change of behavior” among consumers, she says.

“Sustainable consumer approach, a wider range of books because you can buy new and older publications in one place, better prices, and the rising online presence of second-hand bookshops overall.”

. . . .

Asked by Publishing Perspectives about the rising interest in used books and its potential impact on publishers’ and authors’ revenues, Czech publishing industry representatives have been reluctant to comment.

A Warsaw-based academic publishing executive speaking on condition of anonymity, however, tells us, “When you look at the size of the publishing market, second-hand  book operations don’t represent a big share of the industry—but it’s another factor that is trimming [publishers’] profit margins, which already are quite slim.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

7 Books About Life After a Civil War

From Electric Lit:

I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.

I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.

. . . .

Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.  

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasm

Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”

The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Best We Could Do
Dark Tourist

Face Surveillance Was Always Flawed

From Public Books:

In 1879, Alphonse Bertillon joined the Parisian police department. At the time, people who committed multiple crimes were having a good run of it—branding had been banned and fingerprinting had not yet been widely adopted. Officers’ memories, as Richard Farebrother and Julian Champkin have detailed, were the main remedy against repeat offenders, who gave false names, claimed it was their first offense, and were able to avoid serious consequences. The only alternative for 19th-century law enforcement: sifting through stacks of notecards cataloging prior arrests, which were completed idiosyncratically and organized haphazardly.

Struck by the system’s inefficiency, Bertillon created a cunning new method to identify alleged offenders. He envisioned “giving every human being an identity, an individuality that is certain, durable, invariable, always recognizable, and which can be established with ease.” Photography had just begun to arrive on the scene, and Bertillon recognized its potential for cataloging people who had been arrested. He pioneered the idea of seating accused people in the same chair, set a standard distance from the camera, and photographing them at standard angles. In so doing, Bertillon invented the mugshot.

More than a century later, face surveillance has gone digital. In January 2020, journalist Kashmir Hill revealed that a secretive start-up company called Clearview AI had scraped photographs from untold numbers of websites, collecting more than three billion pictures (now closer to 10 billion) to fuel face recognition technology used by law enforcement. The public was horrified. But the massive consentless collection of face data for carceral purposes is a foundational approach to face surveillance that originated with the two men who developed it, first as an analog technique and later as an automated technology.

As Bertillon’s story makes clear, the earliest applications of face surveillance were also not rooted in consent. Nearly 150 years ago, using images of faces to identify people who’d committed crimes was done without permission of those portrayed. Law enforcement officers were the primary users. And that tradition continued when Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Bledsoe automated face surveillance in the 1960s.

These essential flaws cannot be corrected with greater accuracy or oversight. Despite more than a century of time for potential introspection about face surveillance, it seems that law enforcement has not truly grappled with the collateral consequence of its expansion: the elimination of privacy for everyone. Instead, more law enforcement agencies are adopting face surveillance as you read this article. Face surveillance began as a carceral technology, and that application continues to ensure that the technology will be available, attractive, and financially advantageous to law enforcement and the companies who serve it.

Bertillon and Bledsoe’s work assumed that law enforcement personnel should have the power to surveil the faces of the people they were supposed to protect and serve. Today, law enforcement continues to buy into that belief. But Bertillon’s and Bledsoe’s stories reveal that face surveillance was flawed from the start and illustrate why those flaws persist.

Bertillon believed that “every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth.” His approach, as Kelly Gates details, was not actually intended to reveal the inner workings of the individual—unlike physiognomy, an old, racist pseudoscience that postulated that certain facial features predicted criminality. Bertillon’s use of scientific measurement seemed a stunning development. He coupled his mugshots with intrusive measurements of people who had been arrested, such as their arm length and head circumference, to create measurements collectively known as a Bertillonage. He was assisted by Amelie Notar, a woman with impeccable handwriting whom he met crossing the road and who later became his wife.

It seemed improbable that an arrested person would share the same Bertillonage with any other person (though that assumption was ultimately proven wrong). Bertillon’s mathematical approach to identifying people who had allegedly committed crimes was popular and effective. Ultimately, Bertillonage identified more than 3,500 repeat offenders in its inaugural decade.

Bertillon himself became quite famous. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to his own famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, as the “second highest expert in Europe”—after Bertillon, of course. But his methods proved fallible.

In 1903, a Black man named Will West arrived at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. As was the standard procedure, identification clerks took his Bertillonage and matched the measurements with one William West. Police expressed no surprise that Will West was a repeat offender, nor that he denied being one. But upon investigation, Will West was discovered to be an entirely different man serving a life sentence for murder in the same penitentiary. The two men had identical measurements, something Bertillon and other police had believed impossible.

The fallibility of Bertillonage is among the least problematic aspects of Bertillon’s legacy. When he was not photographing people who had been arrested, Bertillon was writing a book called Ethnographie Moderne: Les Races Sauvages—translated, Modern Ethnography: The Savage Races. Bertillon also concocted a handwriting test used in the Dreyfus Affair, a now infamous case of government anti-Semitism. His participation in the trial spurred his brother, married to a Jewish woman, not to speak to him for years.

By the turn of the century, Bertillon’s “science” had been discredited. But the mugshot lived on. And it fueled generations of corporations, governments, and researchers curious about mathematically measuring the faces of people accused of committing crimes.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was

From The New Yorker:

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.

When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was invece. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun vece—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicis, declined as vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vicis in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, recompense, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.

But let’s move back to the Italian term, invece, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating invece across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers

From SFWA:

You open the SFWA Bulletin to start reading an article about second person point of view (POV), and immediately you’re put off. You didn’t expect the article itself to use this POV, since most articles don’t. What a cheap gimmick, you think. You wonder whether you should stop reading at this point, because you’ve been told how you feel and what you expected in the span of a few sentences, and you’re growing increasingly uncomfortable—angry, even—with these assumptions made by the writer. She doesn’t know you! Why is she trying to put words in your mouth and thoughts in your head? Why is she presuming to control your actions?

But seriously, how did that make you feel?

Of all the points of view available to writers when choosing how to tell a story, second person seems to be the most maligned. Common objections include that it’s confusing, unsettling, and weird, that it breaks suspension of disbelief and forces the reader out of the story rather than drawing them in. Dig deeper and you may hear that it’s more than discomfiting, it’s downright presumptuous, even aggressive. The writer is forcing you to think or feel a certain way, crafting a costume and then jamming you, an innocent voyeur, inside, tying you up with strings and putting you on a stage to perform the story like a puppet rather than allowing you the comfort and distance of being in the audience.

In recent conversations about this topic, an interesting trend emerged: many marginalized writers, especially BIPOC ones, expressed that they had written second person POV stories and found the form quite natural, even desirable for their specific purposes. Why might that be, and what are those purposes precisely? As with most other aspects of society, much of this is rooted in how marginalized folks are already expected to adjust our needs and wants to what’s available, while those in the perceived “mainstream” expect what’s available to be created with their needs and desires already in mind.

. . . .

For many marginalized folks, as readers we often experience fiction as a window rather than a mirror. We are more likely to be accustomed to dealing with discomfort or a lack of familiarity related to the characters we’re reading about, their lives and thoughts and choices and so on. The mirrors that do exist may be flawed, warped like carnival glass, reflecting not merely an alternate form of a particular identity, but one that is rendered so imperfectly, regardless of intent, that its subject is barely recognizable. Many of us have become reconciled to the fact that fiction with experiential reality is a form of labor that becomes natural with time and repetition, by necessity. Without that skill, it’s challenging to, for example, navigate situations like basic educational systems and standardized testing due to their use of presumed “universal” touchstones that are only really “universal” to a select group.

Link to the rest at SFWA

Build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the most common missed opportunities I see when I’m editing novels involves mysteries.

Do you want to know what it is? Am I being mysterious?

Often, when trying to be mysterious, authors just end up being vague. It’s really hard to invest in a mystery when we don’t have enough information to understand what’s happening entirely.

Instead, it’s often better to let the reader into the mystery in order to build anticipation. Orient the reader around whether a character will succeed or fail.

. . . .

You’ll often see novels start off with something that nominally feels high stakes, like a character running through a dark forest as fast as they can… only the author doesn’t tell us why they’re running. The author wants us to wonder: why is this character running as fast as they can through the forest? Mysterious, right?

But it’s downright confusing to not be given more information that that, particularly in first person narratives when we’re tied to a character’s inner thoughts. We should generally know what the protagonist knows, and it feels vaguely hostile when the author is just holding out on us.

Then, in the climactic moment, we find out everything all at once in a chaotic jumble. The character slays what was chasing them and then we find out: Oh. Actually it was an evil moon demon and had the protagonist not succeeded they would have gotten ripped to shreds.

. . . .

Vague mysteries are missed opportunities to build suspense and anticipation.

What’s the better mystery: Why is this character running through the forest, or is this character going to avoid getting ripped to pieces by a nasty moon demon?

Had we known from the start that there’s a demon after the character, we would also learn the contours of what’s at stake. We would start imagining what might happen if they fail and get ripped to shreds. We would start investing in the outcome, and thus would feel more satisfied when the protagonist barely escapes.

When we only find out what was really happening after the fact, it invariably feels like a letdown. The reader’s reaction is more like: “Yeah… had I known the situation was life or death, I might have been worried. Instead I was just confused.”

The moment we learn what a character wants (to escape) and what’s at stake (if they fail they’ll get ripped to shreds), it’s almost like a clock starts ticking, and every bit of delay and extra effort the protagonist expends deepens the reader’s investment in what’s going to happen. It builds suspense for the eventual showdown.

In order for formula that to work: the reader needs to know what’s happening.

Beware rug-pulling

It’s even worse when the vague mystery is an excuse for a cheap attempt at pulling the rug out from under the reader.

In the “just kidding it was a game of tag” example, it erodes trust in the narrative voice for the mystery to be just a matter of the author leading the reader astray. After that moment, the reader will have a very hard time taking anything in the novel at face value, which is an exhausting way to read.

Authorial trust once lost is difficult to regain.

Be careful with movie and TV show mystery tropes

This is also another area where screenplay-izing your novel and relying on tropes in film and TV can lead you astray. I’m sure we can all think of countless hit TV shows and movies that start with a character running and we don’t know why. In visual mediums there’s more leeway to just show a character running and let the viewer see what shows up and let that be the surprise.

Novels are different. We’re more connected to characters’ inner consciousness, so it’s more confusing to not be let into the story to see their motivations. And in a novel, it’s hard to process as much information in a flash as we can with film and TV, so it feels overwhelming to find out everything all at once when the demon arrives.

. . . .

Motivation is everything in a novel, and this extends to mysteries too. If you can connect your mystery to the things your protagonist wants, the reader will be far more invested in the outcome and feel those stirrings of suspense.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Hubris

It’s hubris to think that the way we see things is everything there is.

Lisa Randall

Guess What’s Better Than a Book Blurb

From Publishers Weekly:

When I sold my 15th novel, The Enlightenment Project, and my publicist asked for a list of people I could ask for blurbs, I faltered. I explained that my husband had been quite ill, and that I had been out of the loop for a while—that anyone I asked would likely say, “Lynn who?”

My publicist persisted. “Tell me who you know.” I mentioned that Wendell Berry, the great poet and writer, had been my teacher and my mentor. “Perfect,” she said. “Ask him.”

So I did. I sent a typed letter, reminding Wendell rather shyly who I was. I addressed him as Dr. Berry, and apologized for the audacity of my request. Three days later I received a response—handwritten on a sheet of yellow legal pad, in pencil. Wendell has been known to write on a feed sack, but I believe such surfaces are reserved for poetry.

I sat at my desk, dog at my feet, and read the letter, my hand shaking, just a little, as a slow smile of joy spread across my face. Wendell began by telling me that what I called audacity, he remembered as “your good sense and a vivid spiritedness, that I saw in you when you were a student and remember very well. But I quit writing blurbs a long time ago, just because I didn’t have the time to make honest work of it. I am not sorry I quit, but I’m sorry to say no to you.”

He said that he hoped I was all right, and to please stop calling him Dr. Berry, as he was my old friend, Wendell. He sent me a signed copy of his book of essays, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, and I read it right there at my desk, happy just to hear his voice in his work, remembering when I had stormed the University of Kentucky, a 16-year-old freshman, seeking out every writing class offered.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

From The MIT Press Reader:

Robots have histories that extend far back into the past. Artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots all find expression from the human imagination in works and contexts beyond Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE) and the story of Pygmalion in cultures across Eurasia and North Africa. This long history of our human-machine relationships also reminds us that our aspirations, fears, and fantasies about emergent technologies are not new, even as the circumstances in which they appear differ widely. Situating these objects, and the desires that create them, within deeper and broader contexts of time and space reveals continuities and divergences that, in turn, provide opportunities to critique and question contemporary ideas and desires about robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

As early as 3,000 years ago we encounter interest in intelligent machines and AI that perform different servile functions. In the works of Homer (c. eighth century BCE) we find Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithing and craft, using automatic bellows to execute simple, repetitive labor. Golden handmaidens, endowed with characteristics of movement, perception, judgment, and speech, assist him in his work. In his “Odyssey,” Homer recounts how the ships of the Phaeacians perfectly obey their human captains, detecting and avoiding obstacles or threats, and moving “at the speed of thought.” Several centuries later, around 400 BCE, we meet Talos, the giant bronze sentry, created by Hephaestus, that patrolled the shores of Crete. These examples from the ancient world all have in common their subservient role; they exist to serve the desires of other, more powerful beings — either gods or humans — and even if they have sentience, they lack autonomy. Thousands of years before Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” to refer to artificial slaves, we find them in Homer.

Given the prevalence of intelligent artificial objects in Hellenic culture, it is no surprise that engineers in the later Hellenistic period turned to designing and building these machines. Mathematicians and engineers based in Alexandria began writing treatises on automaton-making and engineering around the third century BCE. These included instructions for how to make elaborate dioramas with moving figures, musical automata, mechanical servants, and automata powered by steam, water, air, and mechanics. Some of these devices were intended to illustrate the physical principles animating them, and others were scaled up and incorporated into public spectacle. Regardless of size, they were intended to evoke a network of emotional responses, including wonder and awe.

Robots were so prevalent in the imaginative and material culture of the Greek-speaking world that they were seen as emblematic of Hellenistic culture by others. Buddhist legends focused on north-eastern India from the fourth and third centuries BCE recount the army of automata that guarded Buddha’s relics, built with knowledge smuggled from the Graecophone world. In one version, which features both killer robot-assassins and robot-guardians, a young man travels in disguise to the land of the Yavanas (Greek speakers) to learn the art of automaton-making, a secret closely guarded by the yantakaras (automaton makers) there, knowledge that he then steals to make the artificial guards. We find stories of automatic warriors guarding the Buddha’s relics in Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindu, and Tibetan texts. Additionally, mechanical automata also appear elsewhere in the Chinese historical record: for example, at the court of Tang ruler Empress Wu Zhou (c.624–705 CE).

The trope of the guardian/killer automaton also appears linked to stories about the ancient world from medieval Latin Christendom — where, unlike much of the rest of Eurasia, people lacked the knowledge of how to make complex machines. In an Old French version of the Aeneid (c.1160 CE), a golden robot-archer stands sentry over the tomb of a fallen warrior queen, and in the history of Alexander the Great (c.1180 CE), the ruler encounters golden killer robots guarding a bridge in India and armed copper robots protecting the tomb of “the emir of Babylon.” Hellenistic handbooks on automaton-making, translated into Arabic in the ninth century CE at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, also influenced the design and construction of automata in Islamdom that were usually placed in palaces and mosques, and included musician-automata, programmable clocks and fountains, and mechanical animals. These makers in Islamdom innovated on the designs of the Alexandrian School and created increasingly complex machines; although some of the objects hearken back to much older forms. In the work of courtier and engineer al-Jazari (1136–1206 CE), for example, we find designs for wheeled cupbearers and servants, an echo of the wheeled servants attending to the gods on Mount Olympus.

Al-Jazari’s courtly mechanical servants and the killer sentries in imaginative literature share a link to surveillance, foreshadowing another purpose to which AI and robots have often been turned. Sentries and guards keep watch and discern friend from foe, while courtly servants operate in ritualized, hierarchical environments where people are under constant scrutiny. Objects like those of al-Jazari’s designs were found throughout Islamdom and the eastern Roman Empire, but were unable to be built or reproduced in the Latin Christian West until the late 13th century. However, they appear earlier in imaginative texts as luxury objects, in elite settings, as fantasies of perfect surveillance and perfectly obedient servants.

. . . .

Robots and AI have long been used both to foreground and to trouble the conceptual boundary between born and made, and the related boundary between life and not-life. Yet the contexts in which these stories appear supply different meanings to the same story. In the early Taoist text “The Book of Liezi”(compiled circa fourth century), the skill of the artificer is appreciated by the king and his court, but in other stories about learned men and their automaton-children, such as those attached to Albertus Magnus in the 14th and 15th centuries, and to René Descartes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the robot is destroyed by ignorant people out of fear. In E. T. A. Hoffman’s version of this tale, “The Sandman” (1816), the inability to distinguish made from born drives the protagonist, Nathanael, insane and, eventually, to his death.

Link to the rest at The MIT Press Reader

The MIT Press article is excerpted from The Lovemakers, edited by Aifric Campbell

The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot

From The Wall Street Journal:

If fame is the name of your desire, writing about literature is among the least likely ways to find it. From the 17th century until today, only four literary critics, John Dryden (1631-1700), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Matthew Arnold (1828-1888) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)—five if one includes that one-man Tower of Babel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)—have attained enduring reputations. All five also wrote poetry, but, apart from Eliot, it is doubtful if today any would be remembered for his poetry alone.

What these men have in common is that all were, in the old-fashioned phrase, men of letters. T.S. Eliot, who may have been the last of the breed, defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.” Literature, for the man of letters, who not only writes about it but practices it by himself writing poetry, fiction or drama, provides wisdom beyond all other wisdoms, surpassing science, social science, history and philosophy, while incorporating them all.

The man of letters, like the poet, has a responsibility to the language, for, to quote Eliot, “unless we have those few men who combine an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our own ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.” He is also responsible, as Eliot wrote in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923), for “the reorientation of tradition” in the arts, and, like the artist, is “the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real.”

The responsibility of the man of letters is finally for the culture at large. His duty, as Eliot wrote in the 1944 essay “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe,” is “neither to ignore politics and economics, nor, certainly, to desert literature,” but to “be vigilantly watching the conduct of politicians and economists, for the purpose of criticising and warning, when the decisions and actions of politicians and economists are likely to have cultural consequences,” for “of these consequences . . . the man of letters is better qualified to foresee them, and to perceive their seriousness.” As he views politics as being too serious to be left to the politicians, the man of letters feels education is hopeless without a clear ideal of the educated individual. “I hope,” Eliot wrote in “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” “that we shall not consciously or unconsciously drift towards the view that it is better for everyone to have a second-rate education than for only a small minority to have the best.” Which is, of course, where we are today.

. . . .

In his late 20s Eliot would write of Henry James, whom he much admired, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” Cosmopolitan in interest and outlook though he was, Eliot went on to become an Englishman to the highest power: He applied for British citizenship, at the age of 39, in 1927, the same year he was confirmed in the Church of England. So rigidly English did he seem that Virginia Woolf called him “the man in the four-piece suit.”

The young T.S. Eliot was also a careerist, fully aware what would bring him the prominence and ultimately the fame he craved. Eliot wrote to J.H. Woods, one of his teachers at Harvard, that there were two ways to succeed in the literary life in England: one being to appear in print everywhere, the other to appear less frequently but always to dazzle. Eliot arranged to do both, publishing his dazzling poems at lengthy intervals, propelling himself to prominence with the prolificacy of his brilliant criticism and commentary.

. . . .

How prolific, and to what impressive effect, is now revealed in “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot,” a handsome trans-Atlantic co-publication of Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, London. An eight-volume hardcover collection, “The Complete Prose”—edited by many hands under the guidance of Ronald Schuchard, a professor of English emeritus at Emory University—is elaborately but relevantly footnoted, a work of learning and scholarship. The separate introductions to its eight volumes, running to roughly 250 pages, constitute a splendid biography in themselves. This edition of the prose makes plain, as nothing before it quite has, that T.S. Eliot, as the introduction to the seventh volume has it, “lived life large—larger than we have known.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Iconic downtown Ann Arbor bookstore will close early next year

From Michigan Live:

Crazy Wisdom Bookstore is closing permanently early next year due to the “relentlessness” of running a retail business, its owners said.

“Our own family has grown up, and we’re in our 60s, and we’re ready to look out upon a new and different horizon,” Bill Zirinsky and Ruth Schekter, bookstore owners, wrote on Facebook. “The bookstore had a very profitable year (due to having closed the tea room at the onset of the pandemic), and that’s not a bad way to go out.”

. . . .

“We know that Crazy Wisdom has been a unique destination and special bookstore in our region, and treasured by its friends and customers,” the owners wrote. “We and our longtime managers and staff, past and present, have so much gratitude for having had the privilege over these decades to serve people in our region who are searching in their lives – spiritually, psychologically, holistically, and in terms of sustainable and conscious living.”

The building itself, which Zirinsky and Schekter own, is not for sale, they said, adding that they are, however, open to selling the bookstore or renting the space.

Although they have no “preconceived ideas” about who a potential buyer might be, they do want someone with “financial werewithal,” Zirinksy said.

“That allowed us to sustain the store for over three decades, and to create a physically appealing environment in a historic building downtown, and to expand into having live music, poetry readings, fairy teas, storytelling nights, and so on,” Zirinsky wrote in an email to MLive. “But one would also want that buyer to be a reader, a lover of the written word, a wordsmith. And to appreciate the fine aesthetics of the store’s jewelry and craft items, and its non-linear loveliness.”

Link to the rest at Michigan Live

For visitors from outside the United States, Ann Arbor is the home of the 200+ year-old University of Michigan, a selective public university with over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a faculty and staff of about the same size, including 20,000 employees at the University’s hospital.

Per the 2020 US Census, Ann Arbor had a population of about 124,000 people. (PG has no idea how many students were or were not included in this count.)

Suffice to say, the University and those associated with it are most of what’s going on in Ann Arbor on a daily basis.

PG includes this information because college and university towns are generally known as places where people purchase a lot of books. Traditionally, these have been wonderful places to operate a bookstore.

Amazon’s $4 Billion Holiday Fix: Half-Empty Trucks, $3,000 Bonuses

From Bloomberg:

Most cargo ships putting into the port of Everett, Washington, brim with cement and lumber. So when the Olive Bay docked in early November, it was clear this was no ordinary shipment. Below decks was rolled steel bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, and piled on top were 181 containers emblazoned with the Amazon logo. Some were empty and immediately used to shuffle inventory between the company’s warehouses. The rest, according to customs data, were stuffed with laptop sleeves, fire pits, Radio Flyer wagons, Peppa Pig puppets, artificial Christmas trees and dozens of other items shipped in directly from China—products Amazon.com Inc. needs to keep shoppers happy during a holiday season when many retailers are scrambling to keep their shelves full.

By chartering the Olive Bay and dispatching it to a relatively sleepy port a few miles north of hometown Seattle, Amazon did an end-run around the shipping snarls that have stranded holiday inventory in Los Angeles and other ports. Besides Everett, the company has also docked at the Port of Houston. Such extreme measures have given Amazon executives confidence they’ll have adequate inventory to meet yet another record-breaking holiday shopping season, when Adobe projects U.S. consumers will spend $207 billion online, up 10% from last year. Many retailers have exhorted consumers to shop early to avoid disappointment. Amazon’s unflinching message: Bring it on!

In addition to chartering ships like the Olive Bay, Amazon hired 150,000 U.S. seasonal workers to help pick, pack and ship items, boosting pay and offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000. It’s dispatching half-full trucks to get packages to customers on time. The logistical effort’s projected $4 billion cost threatens to wipe out the company’s profit during its most important three months of the year. But for Amazon, which burnished its reputation serving as a lifeline during the Covid-19 outbreak, the holiday season is an opportunity to extend its advantage over rivals.

If the company succeeds in meeting its promises to customers this year, that will be thanks to Amazon-chartered ships taking products from factories in Asia, Amazon Air cargo jets crisscrossing the U.S., Amazon-branded vans departing from hundreds of local delivery depots and the hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors at each step along the way.

“There are structural advantages you have in redundancy if you’re Amazon,” says Jason Murray, a former Amazonian who led teams working on logistics software. “Amazon has its own transportation network, it has access to all the carriers. Multiple ships, multiple factories.”

This logistical prowess hasn’t been lost on the merchants who sell products on Amazon’s sprawling marketplace. For years, they resisted using the company’s global shipping service because doing so means sharing information about pricing and suppliers, data they fear the company could use to compete with them. But container shortages in the leadup to the holiday season persuaded many of them to overcome their qualms and entrust their cargos to the world’s largest online retailer. “Amazon had space on ships and I couldn’t say no to anyone,” says David Knopfler, whose Brooklyn-based Lights.com sells home décor and lighting fixtures. “If Kim Jong Un had a container, I might take it, too. I can’t be idealistic.”

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

E-Commerce Needs Real Store Locations Now More Than Ever

From The Wall Street Journal:

After losing ground to e-commerce, bricks-and-mortar stores are back in style.

Retailers this year are expected to open more stores than they close for the first time since 2017, according to an analysis of more than 900 chains by IHL Group, a research and advisory company. Most of the growth is coming from mass merchants, food, drugs and convenience chains.

Department stores and specialty retailers, which experienced the biggest shakeout over the past five years, are still closing more stores than they are opening. But the pace of closures has slowed from record levels.

Behind the shift are changing views about the value of physical stores, industry executives and analysts said.

Stores have become integral in fulfilling e-commerce orders. They serve as distribution hubs and convenient places for shoppers to pick up and return online purchases—services that will be key this holiday season as orders once again threaten to overwhelm shipping carriers.

As the cost of acquiring customers online has skyrocketed, stores also are a less expensive way to attract new shoppers. And as landlords have become more willing to accept shorter and more flexible lease terms, retailers are less likely to wind up locked into unproductive locations, the executives and analysts said.

“Five or six years ago, there was lots of discussion about whether e-commerce would gobble up bricks-and-mortar retail,” said Toni Roeller, senior vice president of in-store environment and visual merchandising at Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. Instead, she said, the online and store experience became more closely linked, which translated into a need for more stores.

The stores that retailers are opening today are different. Some are smaller, and more of them offer experiences beyond browsing.

Dick’s is adding to its fleet of more than 800 stores by opening newer concepts that include House of Sport, Public Lands and Golf Galaxy stores that have interactive features such as batting cages, rock-climbing walls and putting greens. It also has added some of those features to its namesake Dick’s stores.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Will Publishing Sales Grow Again?

From Publishers Weekly:

When the Association of American Publishers released its final industrywide sales report for 2020 last month, it showed another basically flat year, with sales of $25.71 billion, down 0.2% compared to 2019. The small decline was in keeping with the overall pattern over the past five years. Between 2016 and 2020, overall publishing sales rose only in 2019, up 1.7% over 2018, and 2020 sales were down 3.9% compared to 2016.

The trade segment, the industry’s largest, has been the steadiest performer over the past five years, with sales up 3.1% in 2020 compared to 2016. The adult category was the main driver, with sales rising 4.9%, while sales in the children’s/YA category fell 0.8%. The decline in children’s/YA is slightly deceiving, since 2016 was an exceptionally strong year for children’s/YA fiction, where sales were $3.96 billion—a total that has not been reached since. The religious presses category had the largest increase over the period, overcoming an 8.4% decline in 2020 that was largely due to the lockdown of bookstores and religious institutions.

The higher education and professional books categories had the biggest sales declines between 2016 and 2020; the professional category had a particularly difficult 2020, with sales falling 14.5% compared to 2019. Sales in the higher ed category have declined steadily since 2016, and publishers have been trying to adjust to increased student purchases of digital materials, which tend to be less expensive than print. Pre-K–12 instructional sales had hit $4.38 billion in 2019 before falling 12.3% in 2020 due to the pandemic, which shrank textbook purchases and accelerated the shift to digital materials. The growing importance of digital content has led a number of former textbook publishers to refashion themselves as learning technology companies.

In addition to greater sales of digital materials, the pandemic led to a 19.2% increase in online sales in 2020 over 2019, to $9.5 billion overall. The AAP also noted that 2020 was the first time that the online channel, dominated by Amazon, accounted for more than 50% of trade sales.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

2030 audio market projection hits $50 billion

From The New Publishing Standard:

In a presentation for the US Audio Publishers Association in September 2021 TNPS suggested a more likely valuation of $37 billion, while acknowledging that could be conservative.

Then came the Spotify and Storytel US acquisition news and TNPS made clear our $37 billion forecast for 2030 was looking “tame”.

The latest forecast, from Denmark-based podcasting platform Podimo, projects a 2030 audio market valuation of $50 billion, and here at TNPS we’re not seeing that is unrealistic in the light of recent developments.

It was back in July 2019 that TNPS reported, to the amusement of many in publishing, that Mofibo founder Morten Strunge had raised $6.7 million in seed funding for a beyond-crazy idea that money could be made out of podcasts, which everyone back then regarded as the poor man’s audiobook, only good for giving away free to try upsell the real thing.

. . . .

The genius of Podimo lies not just in giving consumers quality content, but in rewarding creators through its “user-centric” revenue-sharing model.

In a press release Strunge explains:

Our model provides premium content and a seamless user experience through AI-driven personalized recommendations and video trailers. As a full-service content production house, we can enrich existing IP in new and exciting ways, as well as produce our own IP, challenging what listeners can expect from short and long-form audio now, and in the future.

While Strunge doesn’t offer any detail on his projection, he asserts the podcast and audio market will,

grow beyond 50 billion USD over the next 5-6 years.

Strunge went on:

…With more and more audiences discovering compelling, short-form, spoken word audio every day. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and with our strategic focus on content in local markets’ native languages, we feel well-positioned to grab a substantial part of this market.

With a solid foundation, we can accelerate our investments into premium original and exclusive content from today’s most exciting and important voices, bringing in more users and bigger payouts to creators, while applying our learnings to new market expansion.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Gratitude

Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.

William Faulkner

Reflect

Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.

Charles Dickens

Heavy Lifting

From The Offing:

My mother said we have to wait until it’s late outside, and her sister Gina agreed. I knew they wouldn’t do anything until people dragged themselves off their porches and closed their doors, but I wondered if there ever came a time when no one in the projects was peering out a window or rushing back from a graveyard shift. Gina prayed out loud that my brother wouldn’t come home anytime soon. Just in case, Mom decided to keep the gun downstairs.

I figured he’d say it didn’t belong to him. Bernard was seventeen and seemed to do everything for his friends, and not the ones he’d known all his life, but this new bunch he hung out with all hours of the night. I pictured my brother pacing the living room and trying to buy some time with an apology or a pitiful excuse. Mom said if he came home soon or not, it didn’t matter. “One way or other, that thing is out of my house tonight.”

An hour earlier, she’d gone upstairs and into Bernard’s bedroom. She picked up a plate of old fries and a sticky mug and left, then changed her mind and went back. She dumped a pile of crumpled sweatshirts and jeans from the corner into the hamper. After she hung up his bomber jacket, she started in on the sweat socks littering the bottom of his closet. She spotted the corner of a towel and tugged on it, but it was stuck on something. She went in further and pulled. The towel fell away. Her hand trembled as it moved down the length of a double-barreled shotgun.

Mom tried her best to keep Bernard out of trouble. When she grounded him, he had to hunker down in his room or on the porch. Sometimes, she let him go next door and hang with his best friend. But lately, he found every excuse not to be home, and she missed him. At night they had watched movies like Boyz in the Hood and Total Recall and talked long after the credits rolled. But now Gina drove her through our neighborhood after dark sometimes, and they searched the streets for him. They had no idea that if he saw the red Subaru first, he’d duck behind his boys. Of course, I didn’t know either, but years later, my brother told me he’d become good at hiding. Bernard tucked his hard-earned money into an old pair of Nikes, stashed his new clothes and sneakers at his friends’ houses, and kept his beeper deep in his jacket pocket.

I stood downstairs in front of the coat closet with my mother and aunt on either side of me. We were close to the kitchen, and I heard my clothes spinning in the washing machine; they were almost done. I’d come over for a short visit, but now I’d sit tight. My mother needed me, even if I could do little to help. I opened the closet door. Mom picked up the gun and looked at us. “This damn thing feels heavier than the whole world.”

Link to the rest at The Offing

Here, Here! vs. Hear, Hear!

From The Grammarly Blog:

If you want to voice your agreement with someone during a debate (especially if you’re a member of the UK Parliament), you will shout “hear, hear.” But as long as you’re shouting, no one will notice you’re wrong if you shout “here, here” because the words are pronounced the same.

The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of parliamentarism. The current incarnation of the country’s Parliament, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, has a history that can be traced through its predecessors, the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of England, all the way to the early thirteenth century. As is often the case with places and institutions that have a long tradition, we can find relics of the past that persist in modern times. For instance, MPs are still offered snuff before they enter the Chamber. There is still some use of Norman French in the legislative process. And MPs still shout “hear, hear” when they agree with something one of them has said.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

Brilliant Together: On Feminist Memoirs

From Public Books:

During my first year of college, in 1991, I experienced a feminist awakening, in my horror at the spectacle of Anita Hill’s public humiliation in front of the Senate and the nation. But I didn’t stop to consider how the compound factor of race made her situation both different and worse. The stories we heard from second-wave feminists—our mothers’ generation—were likely to include Gloria Steinem and Take Back the Night. They were less likely to mention Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective.

My cohort of women was born between 1965 and 1980, the Pew Research Center’s parameters for Generation X. We grew up with the advances won by first-wave feminists (the right to vote, for example) and by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s (widespread access to contraception, civil rights legislation that extended affirmative action to women, legal abortion, and large-scale public conversations about violence against women). The lazy, clichéd view of Gen Xers presumes us to be slackers, cynics, and reflexive ironists; we don’t even merit our own dismissive “OK, boomer” meme.

But we are also women in our 40s and 50s, the inheritors of feminism’s second wave and instigators of the third wave, and we are now in positions of power. With a fourth wave of feminism upon us, what should my generation of activists preserve from earlier stages of the movement, and what should we discard? How should feminist stories be told, and by whom? In particular, what elements of our foremothers’ second-wave feminism still feel essential to us in the 21st century, and how might we consider and address their failures, especially their failures of inclusion? How can we redefine the collective aspects of the feminist movement in a way that will endure?

One of the most important outcomes of the racial reckonings of 2020 is an influx of new feminist memoirs that reexamine the women’s movement from nonwhite perspectives—memoirs that deal explicitly with race and the failings of mainstream white feminism. And even before the events of last year, white second-wave feminists were beginning to engage more meaningfully with these issues, although an enormous amount of work remains.

Recent memoirs by Nancy K. Miller and Honor Moore, white women who are both public intellectuals and active participants in feminism’s second wave, make clear how the gains of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s enabled some women to rewrite their narratives. Instead of stories of birth, marriage, and death, they tell stories about friendship, intellectual and artistic development, relationships between mothers and daughters, political and cultural movements, and, above all, the struggle for women’s voices to be heard (and their bodies protected) in a patriarchal society.

Reading these stories now feels like tapping into a larger ongoing narrative, one that celebrates gains made while reminding us how fragile those gains are. Notably, both memoirs take on more than one woman’s story, suggesting that another way to rewrite women’s narratives is to bring them together, to see the power in what is shared. There is no single narrative of a woman’s life, no universal set of markers that defines women’s experience, and no one retrospection that can answer what feminism will become.

In her foundational Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), feminist literary critic and scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observes that writing the lives of notable women poses a challenge because their narratives don’t fit a heroic masculine mode of storytelling. Heilbrun argues that women can’t emulate or draw inspiration from biographies and memoirs that don’t exist:“Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. … Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”1 In the same way, feminist biographies and memoirs—and scholarship, journalism, and novels, too—can only make sense of their subjects by changing the way the story is told.

Feminism itself has never been an uncontested narrative. Debates over the definition of “feminist,” including the right to use this word regardless of political ideology, or the ability of women to support other women while distancing themselves from the label, take up a lot of space in public discourse. In a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert suggests that:

Whatever the history, whatever the nuances, whatever the charged sentiments associated with political activism, being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic. They should be able to vote. They should have equal protection under the law and equal access to healthcare and education. They should be paid as much as their male counterparts are for doing exactly the same job. Do you believe in these things? Then, you are a feminist.

Link to the rest at Public Books

If PG wanted to become a Public Intellectual, how would he go about doing it?

Is there an exam?

Do you major in “Public Intellectual Studies” in college?

Is it inherited? Do one or both of your parents have to be public intellectuals? Will a Public Intellectual grandparent do?

Is there a fee?

Do you get a Public Intellectual certificate to hang on your wall?

How about a Public Intellectual wallet card for when you’re not in your Public Intellectual Study?

Those visitors to TPV who are more informed about this topic than PG can feel free to enlighten him in the comments.

Talent

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

John Wooden

San Francisco TikTok creator makes 1934 murder mystery novel ‘Cain’s Jawbone’ sell out worldwide

From SFGate:

In 1934, English translator Edward Powys Mathers, renowned for his cryptic crosswords, came up with a new puzzle: a 100-page murder mystery entitled “Cain’s Jawbone.”

To solve it, readers must correctly identify all six murderers and their victims, but doing so requires rearranging the book’s pages, which are published out of order. Only three people have ever correctly figured out the answer: two in the 1930s, and one last year.

Then the relatively obscure book became a worldwide sensation after a viral post on the social media app TikTok.

“I decided to take this nearly impossible task as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder board,” San Francisco TikTok creator Sarah Scannell says in a video posted Nov. 14, which reveals the 8-by-5-foot “murder wall” she created in her bedroom composed of the pencil-annotated 100 pages taped up and connected by string.

Days later, the book sold out at retailers worldwide.

At press time, the TikTok has 4.6 million views, 1 million likes, 36,600 shares and 5,340 comments. On Nov. 18, the publisher of “Cain’s Jawbone,” Unbound, announced a reprint on Twitter, and pointed to the cause of the sales spike: “To all who found us through @saruuuuuuugh’s TikTok, welcome and thank you!” 

. . . .

The TikTok begins with Scannell grabbing “Cain’s Jawbone” from the wood shelves of San Francisco independent bookstore Green Apple Books before revealing the murder wall in her apartment (which is also mine, as I am her roommate).

. . . .

The book sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of the initial TikTok’s posting, Scannell said. It was relisted the next day with its price doubled and with shipping delays. Presently, it’s listed on the online behemoth as out of print, with limited availability. As of Friday, publisher Unbound surpassed 5,000 open backorders in the U.S., 2,500 in Canada and 3,000 from U.K. book retailer Waterstones alone — its own website sold out of its stock of 600 within 24 hours. Two days after the initial TikTok’s posting, Joey Goodman, who works at Green Apple Books, tweeted at Scannell to let her know that her TikTok “wreaked havoc” on online orders.

Link to the rest at SFGate and thanks to DM for the tip.

How authors are finding success on Kindle Vella

From MarketScreener:

Kindle Vella, Amazon’s mobile-first reading experience for serialized stories, lets readers follow stories they love. In the short time since Kindle Vella launched, thousands of authors have published thousands of stories, totaling tens of thousands of episodes across dozens of genres and microgenres.

Readers have a long history of loving serialized stories. Authors like Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy are among the many who wrote famous serialized stories. They offer short reading experiences that also provide connection to a larger, layered story or to an author for a long period of time.

Continuing in this classic tradition, authors are publishing serialized stories on Kindle Vella for mobile reading during short breaks in busy modern life. We talked to five authors of breakout Kindle Vella hit stories and discovered how they are finding success, reaching readers, and stretching themselves creatively with Kindle Vella.

. . . .

Callie Chase
Bug

“The key to success on Kindle Vella is writing the best story you can, with each short episode complete, engaging, and satisfying for a reader in line at the grocery store or school pickup,” said Callie Chase, who was looking for the right opportunity to publish her dystopian paranormal story Bug when she discovered Kindle Vella.

Chase had finished writing Bug, but Kindle Vella’s episodic storytelling format enabled her to introduce a cohesive cast of characters, tell the story from varying the points of view, and play with the story’s timeline, all while each episode could stand on its own. “Even if it’s been a week since they last read, readers can easily pick up where they left off,” she said.

Bug is one of the most popular stories on Kindle Vella, which launched for readers in summer 2021, and readers have consistently rated it a top story. Kindle Vella readers show their support by giving episodes a “Thumbs Up” and voting once a week for their favorite story.

Bug has received over 2,000 Thumbs Up and is currently No. 15 on the Top Faved leaderboard. To keep up this momentum, Chase has stuck to a strict publishing schedule, releasing episodes three times a week, always on the same day, so her readers know when to expect them. She includes this schedule in the story description to help catch the attention of new readers looking for something regular to read. She pre-schedules the publication of all her episodes to ensure she doesn’t miss a release.

Pepper Pace
The Galatian Exchange

Using social media and a newsletter to promote new episodes of The Galatian Exchange is crucial for science fiction author Pepper Pace, whose Kindle Vella story has reached No. 4 on the Top Faved leaderboard. The Galatian Exchange has also earned over 2,000 Thumbs Up from readers.

This type of interaction with readers is natural for Pace, who got started writing in online writing groups and enjoys online multiplayer role-playing games. “Being able to see the instant response to each episode of my series in the form of Thumbs Up and ranking makes the storytelling experience fun and exciting for me and my readers,” Pace said. “I enjoy being able to track my stories’ progress on the Kindle Vella Dashboard, which updates continuously as the day goes on. I can also see, with the number of unlocked reads, the number of new readers that I get.”

Link to the rest at MarketScreener

Here’s a link to Vella Top-Faved, the most popular Vella Stories as voted by Vella readers.

A Matter of Volume

From The Bookseller:

I used to imagine an Apple event where its c.e.o. Tim Cook would unveil a standalone audiobook app with exclusive audio-only titles available on subscription. He would then invite J K Rowling and Stephen Fry on stage to announce a new audio-first Harry Potter series. Sadly Apple TV+ and Steven Spielberg got in first.

My personal disappointment at Apple’s lack of ambition for audio should not detract from the fact that the storytelling bit of the market for listening remains in rude health. Nielsen’s latest Understanding the Audiobook Consumer shows a seventh year of double-digit growth, with sales about to crest £200m. In the US, figures from the Audio Publishers Association for 2020 show a ninth year of double-digit increase. Audible turned over £187m from its UK business in 2020, representing growth of 30%.

Outside our own range in the UK, the growth in listening—be it from traditional audiobooks, podcasts or music—continues. Spotify’s revenue has more than doubled since 2016 (it surpassed Penguin Random House in 2017,) and today has announced a deal to buy Findaway, the US audiobook business; in December Amazon bought podcast platform Wondery for a reported $200m; while Storytel, Sweden’s answer to Audible, grew its half-year sales to £90m (and this week bought AudioBooks.com), with Bonnier-owned rival Bookbeat hot on its heels.

From a once smallish cottage industry that serviced libraries, those with reading difficulties and (with intermittent support from the high street) CD buyers, audiobooks are now central to a global storytelling industry whose potential risks stretching way beyond the publishing sector’s ability to service it. Storytel is the harbinger of things to come: in the summer it announced a deal with the Conan Doyle Estate for a new scripted audio series of Sherlock tales to be written by a team of writers under Anthony Horowitz. Tangentially, Apple has also got in on the act: watch its series “Calls” via Apple TV+ and tell me if that isn’t one of the most exciting audiobooks released this year?

The wider vision for audio is stymied by a number of things. It remains expensive to produce, and actors are a scarce resource (electronic voice is not yet the alternative it may one day be). Audible remains far too dominant, with Google, Apple and AudioBooks.com bit-part players. Audible aside, those with the biggest audience of listeners operate streaming models that the big UK and US publishers eschew. I’ve never taken the view that books should become a subscription service just because film and music have, but for those innovating in this space, it is their financial underpinning and how they recruit new customers.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The business phrasebook

From The Economist:

Reed hastings has built the culture at Netflix around it. Ray Dalio made it a founding principle at Bridgewater, a successful investment fund. “Radical candour” is the idea that bracing honesty is the best way to run a business: no one dances around the truth, and swifter feedback improves performance.

Most firms rely on a messier doctrine. People rarely say what they mean, but hope that their meaning is nonetheless clear. Think Britain, but with paycheques. To navigate this kind of workplace, you need a phrasebook.

“I hear you”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point
Actual meaning: Be quiet

“Let’s discuss this offline”

Ostensible meaning: We shouldn’t waste other people’s valuable time
Actual meaning: Let’s never speak of this again (see also: “Let’s put a pin in it”)

“We should all learn to walk in each other’s shoes”

Ostensible meaning: Shared understanding results in better outcomes
Actual meaning: I need you to know that my job is a living hell

“I’m just curious…”

Ostensible meaning: I’d like to know why you think that…
Actual meaning: …because it makes no sense to anyone else

. . . .

“Do you have five minutes?”

Ostensible meaning: I have something trivial to say
Actual meaning: You are in deep, deep trouble

“Let’s handle this asynchronously”

Ostensible meaning: We’ll each work on this task in our own time
Actual meaning: I have to go to my Pilates class now

“It’s on the product roadmap”

Ostensible meaning: It’ll be done soon
Actual meaning: It won’t be done soon

Link to the rest at The Economist

Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows

From Publishers Weekly:

When Penguin Random House announced in July that it would be publishing a memoir by Prince Harry, there was one name that was, conspicuously and appropriately, left off the press release. The man channeling the Duke of Sussex’s voice for the book, J.R. Moehringer, was nowhere to be found among the details the publisher released. But those in the industry know that Moehringer, one of the highest-profile ghostwriters working, will be an essential component in the royal’s book—even if his name never appears on the final product.

Ghostwriting, or “collaborating” as it’s now called, is nothing new. For as long as celebrities have been writing books, others have quietly helped them do it. It’s highly specialized work that requires a blend of skills; industry sources say the best collaborators are equal parts editor, reporter, writer, mimic, and shrink. And in today’s industry, where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever. It’s also the kind of work, very handsomely paid at the high end, which is appealing to a growing population: writers, journalists, and editors.

Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who’s spent her career representing ghostwriters (they’re the only clients at her company 2M Communications Ltd., which is over 20 years old), said that, in the past, “talking about ghostwriting was a bit like sheepishly admitting you’d done internet dating.” No longer.

The growing demand for celebrity books (coupled with the increasing presence in publishing of Hollywood-backed talent firms like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency), has created a greater need for high-level ghostwriters. Morel believes this has led to a turning point: “I always say it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best because there’s more collaborative work out there than ever, and it’s the worst because there are more collaborators out there than ever.” She cited a number of writers who have, in the past five to 10 years, turned to ghostwriting as other avenues have dried up—former midlist authors, former long-form journalists whose newspapers or magazines have closed, and former editors who’ve lost jobs to consolidation.

So how many high-level ghostwriters are there? When asked about collaborators like Moehringer, who’s rumored to command seven figures per project (and who’s written two critically acclaimed nonfiction books of his own and has a couple of Pulitzers for reporting), Morel noted they are “few and far between.” Insiders cited a handful of other authors with well-established literary pedigrees like Moehringer who occasionally moonlight as ghostwriters.

. . . .

Below the top tier of collaborators, there are a handful of well-regarded writers who make a very handsome living as ghosts. Morel estimated that the “best of the best”—meaning ghostwriters with a number of bestselling books by high-profile figures on their résumés—includes 20–30 people, “maybe up to 50.” One high-level industry professional, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that good ghosts can make anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000 per year. Morel said the average ghostwriting project for her clients pays $75,000–$100,000 and usually takes about six months. While projects differ, most ghostwriters tend to get paid a flat fee. (Some can, and do, demand a percentage of the advance, and/or books sales, but sources said this is less common.)

Gail Ross, a veteran literary agent at the Washington, D.C.–based Ross Yoon Agency, who estimated that half of the books she sells require a collaborator, wouldn’t endorse the notion that ghostwriters have necessarily grown in influence or stature in recent years. She claimed they’ve always been “very, very important.” But it is true, she went on, “that back in the day no one wanted to say they used a collaborator or ghostwriter, and now it’s totally respected. It’s also acknowledged by most people [who use collaborators] that it’s the only way they could get their book done.”

Will Lippincott, a senior agent at Aevitas Creative Management, said that in the past three years he’s done more business with “collaborative agents and their writers than in the prior 10.” Estimating that 25%–30% of his projects have “a collaborator attached at some point,” Lippincott said these specialists are either brought in at the proposal stage (and help the author craft that) or after the book is sold. He believes the work they do is “being valued at a higher level” than ever.

The rise of the term collaborator within publishing speaks to the respect ghostwriters command from others working behind the scenes. As one industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, the term ghostwriter “implies subterfuge,” which they called “problematic.” The work is, they went on, totally “above board” and there’s “no reason to hide it.”

“I love ghostwriters,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at CAA. Estimating that there are 50–100 top ghostwriters who do two-to-three books per year and “always work with the biggest names,” he said he believes the change in nomenclature speaks to a shift in understanding about what ghostwriters actually do. “In the past it was, ‘You talk and I’ll write.’ Now I think [collaborators] have more engagement with the process.” He added that, as an agent, he knows he needs great collaborators who are fully invested in order for projects to work. “We want them to like the idea and be invested in the creative process.”

. . . .

Morel said she often has to insist on a clause that allows her ghostwriters to be able to put their projects on their résumés. Because ghostwriters are often privy to private details about the lives of their famous subjects, NDA-style agreements are standard parts of their contracts. In short, it’s a bit like Fight Club—ghostwriters can rarely say whom they’ve worked with, much less what they’ve discussed with those people.

For many, though not all, ghostwriters, this is as it should be. One who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed a desire to have their work more out in the open. “I’ll generally ask for a ‘with’ credit and often get turned down,” they said. “I’d love to be on the cover of all of them. It would be easier for me to talk about the books and be out there promoting them.”

Hilary Liftin, a long-time ghostwriter who has 13 bestsellers to her name, said that when she started, it was assumed things written by ghostwriters “were somehow subpar or hackey.” While this has unquestionably changed within the industry, it may not be true for the general public.

Liftin prefers not to be mentioned on her book covers, but would like to see any negative perceptions about collaboration dispelled. “I don’t want to be on the jacket for aesthetic reasons and because I’m not trying to be a famous ghostwriter,” she said. “I say ghost because I like the word, but I do think as a professional you want to be visible, so I’m usually, but not always, on the title page.”

Another bestselling ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, said she sometimes feels that everyone knows about her career but no one wants to talk about it. Her comparison? “You know your parents are having sex,” she said, “but you don’t want to hear about it.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be

From Publishing Perspectives:

Our headline, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, is the title of a musically unexceptional but lyrically relevant stage comedy from 1959—if you can understand the cockney dialect and British allusions.

It was written by the brilliant Lionel Bart of Oliver fame.

I thought you might be interested in the following publishing “fings” which “ain’t wot they used t’be.”

. . . .

In 1975, when interviewing me for a job at Oxford University Press, the recently-appointed personnel manager asked me if I was, by any chance, of the “Jewish persuasion.”

He reassured me that it would be perfectly okay if I was, as they already had “one of them” on the staff.

Diversity is now a core objective of most publishers and while there may be quite a way to go, the profiles are significantly less white, less male, and less privileged than they were back then—which must be a benefit to business, customers, and society as a whole.

. . . .

On the production front, the 1970s were a time of change from hot metal, letterpress, and sewn-binding printing to phototypesetting–and now, of course, digital–litho, and “perfect” binding.

There were many pitfalls along the way as we learned the new technologies and then, decades later, had to unlearn them. The one thing I remember above all else was that a correction on a proof cost £1 (£7.50 in today’s money, US$10.06).

Getting it right first time was an economic necessity. It’s now desirable but getting it wrong is more affordable.

. . . .

There have been literary agents since the beginning of time but a major and largely unnoticed change has been the almost universal shift from the standard commission of 10 percent of an author’s earnings to 15 percent and sometimes more.

I can’t think of any other part of the book value chain that has managed to increase its share by 50 percent, although a few very big retailers have tried and are getting close.

In addition, literary agencies have morphed from being an individual’s business or a small partnership into intellectual property corporations in their own right with all the consequential changes in administration and culture.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG doesn’t recall if he’s mentioned this before, but, a very long time ago, when he worked at a large advertising agency in a large city, he went down to the printer to examine the first copy of his client’s full-page print advertisement which would appear in a bunch of magazines shortly.

He examined it right next to a big, hot newspaper printer. After he approved it, his escort told the pressman to wait until they got a distance from the printer before starting it. He couldn’t hear that particular machine start up because the noise from a lot of other huge printers was overwhelming.