‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?

From The Los Angeles Times:

It was poised to be a blockbuster long before copies arrived in bookstores last week: a thrilling contemporary migration story following a mother and her son, desperate to cross Mexico and reach the United States.

Its publisher, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure advance after outbidding several competitors for the novel. It snagged a coveted selection in Oprah’s Book Club and had been shipped to key celebrity influencers, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Salma Hayek. A reported first run of 500,000 copies was printed. The film rights were sold.

But by week’s end, the novel “American Dirt” had garnered attention that its boosters likely didn’t expect: angry charges of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, insensitivity, and even racism against author Jeanine Cummins, who herself said in the book’s author’s note, “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants.”

Despite the backing of towering figures in American media, Cummins’ page-turning portrayal of a mother on the run is now at the center of the first bonafide literary controversy of the year, and is forcing a hard reflection on the state of Latinos in a cultural field that remains overwhelmingly white.

In the face of critiques, Cummins is pushing back in public. Her publisher released a statement encouraging discussion around the title, while some authors and booksellers have come to Cummins’ defense. In a culture that is used to debating black and Asian representation and stereotypes, the entrenchment around “American Dirt” is fueling even more complaints over the ease with which popular culture still employs Latino-related stereotypes in contemporary movies, television and fiction.

“American Dirt” is also highlighting factors that observers say have contributed a near shutout of contemporary Mexican and Mexican American voices from the top tier of the publishing publicity machine — the sorts of books that are guaranteed handsome sales by virtue of projection.

What went wrong?

As passages from the novel began emerging last month, Mexican and other Latino voicesbegan raising red flags. The author’s portrayal of Mexican culture was called outlandish, littered with stereotypes, stilted bilingualism and an awkward peppering of italicized Spanish phrases.

. . . .

“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews last week. It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?

. . . .

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events. The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

“They’re handling it like they handle a Marvel comics movie,” said Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer in San Francisco, who is finalizing an upcoming memoir. “But this industry will make you dance the minstrel salsa dance or the minstrel cumbia dance,” he added, in reference to the tenor of Latino-themed titles that are deemed palatable to wide audiences.

Indeed, the operation behind “American Dirt” made what many describe as cringe-worthy errors even before the book hit stores.

. . . .

More criticism followed among Latino writers, from the fringes to the center of the literary power establishment. Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, called the book the “worst possible” pick for Oprah’s nod. Francisco Goldman, the celebrated Guatemalan American novelist and journalist who divides his time between New York and Mexico City, said in an interview he was “shocked” by the “tone-deaf” publicity roll-out. “And these are supposedly sophisticated people.”

. . . .

Kate Horan, the director of the McAllen Public Library in Texas, posted portions of a letter she sent to the American Library Assn. and Oprah’s Book Club, declining to participate in a recorded “unboxing” event meant to push “American Dirt.” Horan said she felt compelled to turn down the offer from Oprah’s Book Club after seeing the reactions among Latinx writers she and her staff admire

. . . .

“When we took the book out, our hearts dropped,” Horan said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where the American Library Assn. is holding its mid-winter conference. “There followed many conversations with people in my community, and of course reading the book, I can only compare it to a telenovela. It’s so hyper stereotyped, that it’s harmful.” 

. . . .

By week’s end, as the U.S. commercial publishing industry was reeling from the expanding maelstrom over what its critics called a cartoonish melodrama about contemporary Mexico, Cummins still hit the road on a book tour. At an industry conference last week in Baltimore, she defended her right to write the novel from the perspective of the Mexican woman at the heart of her book.

Her character Lydia, 32, is middle-class, college-educated wife and mother who owns a bookshop in the resort city of Acapulco and survives a bloody massacre at a family quinceañera. With her journalist husband and other family members killed, the bookish protagonist and her 8-year-old son make a desperate run for the U.S. border, partly on the freight train La Bestia. Critics have mocked the narrative ploy as implausible for anyone of Lydia’s class stature, who can usually buy airline or bus tickets.

In Baltimore, Cummins said the migrants she met during her research for the novel “made me recognize my own cowardice” as she grappled with early failed drafts and doubts about authenticity. “When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice,” she said, according to a report for the trade site Publishers Lunch.

The author, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, identified as white as recently as 2016. On Wednesday, Cummins, whose grandmother was from Puerto Rico, said she was “a Latinx woman” while addressing the negative reactions to the book among Mexican, Central American and Chicano readers who have vigorously questioned her authorial integrity. “Not everyone needs to love my book,” she said.

On Friday, Cummins turned up her defense during an interview with NPR: “I am a white person. … I am a person who has a very privileged life. I am also Puerto Rican. … That fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.”

But her critics weren’t buying it.

Gurba and others accused Cummins of profiting off Latina identity and transforming her own ethnicity over time to suit professional interests. “She became a person of color for the sake of financial convenience,” Gurba told The Times. “I call that POC, a person of convenience.”

Another set of earlier photos of Cummins with barbed-wire decorated fingernails brought even more criticism. “Every day I see something new that pertains to this, that it seems like it can’t get worse, and it gets worse,” said YA author Rivera.

Cummins’ somewhat apologetic author’s note also fanned the flames. In it, she says she wished someone “slightly browner” than her had written her book. She also argued that her effort seeks to counter depictions of immigrants as a “faceless brown mass.” Goldman, reached in New York, called the phrase an admission to the book’s “pornographic feedback of violence.”

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said Thursday. “How mediocre, third-rate and sleazy it is for a fiction writer to appropriate violence and suffering that way.”

In her note, he added, Cummins also writes, “we seldom think of [migrants] as human beings.”

. . . .

The controversy doesn’t look to go away soon. On Saturday, a group of writers including Lovato, Gurba and others said they sent a letter to Macmillan promising more “action” if the publishing house doesn’t respond more directly to their critiques. Industry players are abuzz with the topic, book agents said, as a string of “American Dirt”-inspired Twitter parodies by brown writers took flight, mocking the publishing industry’s devotion to tired Latino tropes involving gangs and grandmothers.

Eddie Schneider, vice president of JABerwocky Literary Agency, and who represents author Rivera, said Flatiron Books made a string of mistakes in rolling out “American Dirt” and isn’t correcting them. On Thursday, the publishing house defended the title in a statement to The Times.

“I’m baffled I haven’t seen any apology yet,” Schneider said. “Maybe not for the book, but certainly it seems like an apology is in order for the insensitivity of the roll-out.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times and thanks to Karen and Elaine for the tip.

PG says that indie authors must admit that, for executing a really big book release, nobody can match the world-class talent and savvy that a major New York publisher brings to the task.


PG took Mrs. PG out for lunch today. She’s working on edits of her next book and required a break.

Over lunch, we talked about Grammarly. Mrs. PG has used Grammarly for several of her books and finds the program very helpful with her edits. In the past, Grammarly has caught problems that her human editors have missed.

However, as anyone who has used Grammarly understands, it tends to be over-inclusive when flagging errors, highlighting grammar and spelling that is not erroneous.

The reason for Grammarly’s bias toward over-inclusion is obvious. The programmers assumed that users would prefer that Grammarly catch potential errors that weren’t necessarily mistaken rather than to have Grammarly miss an error to the detriment of an author.

However, when working through a book-length manuscript, Mrs. PG finds some of Grammarly’s most common overinclusions can become a bit annoying.

In PG’s day-to-day use, he hasn’t had any complaints about Grammarly, so he’s never looked under the hood to locate levers and configuration options beyond what he did when he installed the program.

So, PG invites one and all to share their Grammarly likes, dislikes, tweaks and workarounds. Perhaps PG can make some changes so the program writes posts for TPV all by itself.

Is the program something you use all the time? If you don’t use it all the time, for what sorts of writing is it helpful and for what sorts of writing do you find it unnecessary or more trouble than it’s worth?

Have you tweaked or modified the program or its settings in ways you’ve found helpful? Do you ever use Grammarly in a manner that you don’t think the designers/engineers of the program anticipated? If so, how have you used it and why?

Is there an alternate to Grammarly that you like better? If so, what is it and why?

Any and all Grammarly-related comments will be appreciated.

Are You Ready For The Next eBook Boom?

From The Digital Reader:

The legacy book publishing industry is fond of telling itself comforting myths.

For example, one myth that just crossed my desk was the idea that younger readers preferred print books over ebooks. This is comforting to the legacy industry because it reassures them that their bad business decisions (high ebook prices, to be exact) will not continue to haunt them.

Alas, like many myths, there is little to back it up.

I was reading that Vox retrospective on the ebook revolution (the one that Teleread commented on, and Good e-Reader plagiarized) when I came to this quote from Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly.

And in part, Albanese tells Vox in a phone interview, that’s because the digital natives of Gen Z and the millennial generation have very little interest in buying ebooks. “They’re glued to their phones, they love social media, but when it comes to reading a book, they want John Green in print,” he says. The people who are actually buying ebooks? Mostly boomers. “Older readers are glued to their e-readers,” says Albanese. “They don’t have to go to the bookstore. They can make the font bigger. It’s convenient.”

Yeah, that claim is not true at all.

. . . .

Younger age cohorts are not only more likely to have read an ebook, they are also buying more ebooks – and I have the data to back that up.

For starters, the most recent reading survey from Pew Research Center showed that the 18-29 age cohort, which includes the tail end of the millennial generation, was the most likely to have read an ebook in the past 12 months.

. . . .

eBooks.com has revealed that their best customers are still in college. and that “62% of ebook purchases are made by people aged between 18 and 45”.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader and thanks to Nate for pointing it out to me

Somehow, PG missed the Vox article that Nate mentions. Or perhaps he dismissed it like he does with almost anything Vox publishes. There’s a sense of born yesterday that often makes him think that nobody needs to know anything in order to write for Vox.

At any rate, assuming that Vox got the quote correctly from the Publishers Weekly writer, it makes absolutely no sense at all:

And in part, Albanese tells Vox in a phone interview, that’s because the digital natives of Gen Z and the millennial generation have very little interest in buying ebooks. “They’re glued to their phones, they love social media, but when it comes to reading a book, they want John Green in print,” he says. The people who are actually buying ebooks? Mostly boomers. “Older readers are glued to their e-readers,” says Albanese. “They don’t have to go to the bookstore. They can make the font bigger. It’s convenient.”

Let’s unpack this one component at a time:

  • Gen Z and the Millenials are packed with digital natives.
  • The natives are glued to their phones 24/7 to check on Instagram, TikTok, text messages from friends, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.
  • The natives are typing on their phones 24/7 to create Instagram, TikTok, text messages, etc., etc., etc. for their friends.
  • These sorts of behaviors occur everywhere, including at school, watching TV, at the movies (despite announcements telling them not to use their phones – the ushers in the theater never do anything about it because they’re texting all the time, too), on the street, at fast food restaurants, in the bathroom, at the prom, etc., etc.
  • The worst thing someone can do to a digital native is to take away their smartphone, limit their hours or otherwise interfere with 24/7.

However, when digital natives desire to read something longer than a text message, they want a physical book, a lump of dead wood that won’t fit into any pocket, something that is unlike anything else they encounter in their 24/7 lives (including the ebooks they use for their classes at school)

This is breaking news, a previously undiscovered trend for a Vox writer because s/he hasn’t touched a physical book in years. “People will be so excited to discover that books on paper are a new thing.”

And, of course, it’s a well-known fact that Gen Z has lots of extra cash sitting around with which to purchase hard-copy books (instead of new apps for their phones).

Plus, Barnes & Noble must be where Gen Z trend-setters have decided to congregate now. You’ll probably have trouble getting in without a reservation.

What’s in one’s own image (right)?

From The Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice:

In Western culture, one of the earliest myths dealing with what would subsequently become a literary topos is the one concerning Narcissus. Narcissus was known for both his great beauty and the disdain he showed to those who loved him. In the version of the myth as told by Ovid, Narcissus’s behaviour (particularly towards Echo) prompted Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, to punish him by luring him to a pool. There, Narcissus saw his own image reflected in the water and fell in love with it, without realizing that it was just his own reflection. Unable to fulfil his love, Narcissus eventually melted away from the fire of passion burning inside him.

If we now move away from the realm of myth to that of law, a similar feeling—of attraction and yet unfulfillment—seems to be present when we review the type of legal protection available to one’s own image. In particular, it seems that this feeling is experienced where no self-standing image rights protection is available. In countries of this kind, in fact, different tools can be employed to repress unauthorized third-party uses of one’s own likeness, image, distinctive features, etc. Yet, none of them – even when combined together – seems to allow achieving the same results (and with the same apparent simplicity) that, instead, image rights as (predominantly) an expression of one’s own personality and identity provide.

The contributions that we host in this first special image rights issue move from, indeed, the attractiveness of the idea that the law should protect against the misappropriation and misuse of one’s own image. Yet, they also share a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo

. . . .

Any change, however, would need to be made, first, in a context in which several conflicting rights and interests are at issue, including third-party artistic and commercial freedom of expression (so that any intervention would need to be ‘surgical’ in both scope and objective). Second, as the articles on, e.g. deepfakes and revenge porn show, any such change would require considerations of different areas of the law and doctrines, as well as fast-paced technological developments. In a field, that of image rights, which puzzlingly remains substantially unharmonized at the international and EU levels, the challenges that, in particular, the latter pose show the need for effective enforcement tools and responses that, due to the very nature of such challenges, will also likely need to be increasingly transnational.Our contributions allow us to travel from the United Kingdom to California, to consider EU, US and Russian laws, to appreciate the interplay between technological, public policy and legal issues, to review image rights in relation to street photography, sexual images and deepfakes.

. . . .

[Analysis of a decision by an Italian court]

The Court of First Instance of Turin held that Audrey Hepburn’s image rights had been violated due to the unauthorized use and exploitation of her likeness for commercial purposes.

. . . .

The judgment considers the two fundamental provisions concerning image rights: Article 10 of the Civil Code and Article 96 of Law No 633/1941 (the Italian Copyright Act). The former protects image rights by solely describing the behaviour prohibited by law, yet without positively defining the concept of image or image right. In fact, the provision laconically states that ‘if the image of a person or his/her parents, spouse or children has been exhibited or published outside of the cases in which said exhibit or publication is allowed by law or [it has been exhibited or published] with prejudice to the decorum or reputation of the person himself or of the aforementioned parties, at the request of the interested party the judicial authority may order that the abuse is ceased, save for compensation for damages’(author’s own translation).

. . . .

It follows that the consent of the right holder is essential for the use of one’s own image or likeness, unless one of the exceptions provided by Article 97 applies. Notably, consent is not required ‘when the reproduction of the image [of a person] is justified by the notoriety or the public office covered by said person, by necessity of law and order, by scientific, educational or cultural purposes, or when the reproduction is connected to facts, events, and ceremonies of public interest or held in public. However, the portrait cannot be exhibited or put on the market if its exhibition or marketing causes prejudice to the honour, reputation or the decorum of the person portrayed’

. . . .

Luca Dotti and Sean Ferrer Hepburn are the sons of famous Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn. They brought proceedings . . . against Italian corporation 2223 S.A.S. di MB Management & Entertainment S.R.L. (the Defendant), for the unauthorized use of their mother’s likeness.

The Defendant had produced and commercialized nine types of t-shirts representing just as many images portraying the likeness of Ms Hepburn. More specifically, the t-shirts carried the likeness of a woman wearing a sumptuous black dress, a diamond necklace and a tiara in her hair, together with big dark sunglasses and a cigarette with a mouthpiece. All these elements stood to recall, to the general viewer, the character of the young and elegant Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’, played by Hepburn. Other images represented the likeness of the actress under a more ‘modern’ angle, by showing her covered in tattoos, or chewing a big bubble gum, or doing a vulgar gesture with her middle finger.

This unrealistic and inelegant interpretation of their mother’s likeness was considered by the Claimants as detrimental to her reputation and honour. Therefore, they sought a declaration of infringement of her image rights as well as compensation of damages, both for profit loss and the weakening of the commercial value of Hepburn’s image, as well as for the moral prejudice to her reputation.

In response, the Defendant argued that the images at hand did not consist of a mechanical representation of the likeness of the actress but, rather, a new, different, original work, which could not in itself be considered a violation. The intent was not that of devaluing the likeness of the actress or her reputation, but rather revisiting the female image through an empowering representation. Furthermore, it claimed to have lawfully used the image since the interested person was a well-known public figure so that the use would fall under the exceptions in Article 97 of the Italian Copyright Act.

. . . .

The Turin court reaffirmed the approach of earlier Italian case law, also recalling that the public interest defence, which is to be applied strictly . . . ‘does not apply where images taken from a film are published and the publication takes place in a context other than that of the cinematographic work and its marketing’.

. . . .

Having ruled out the applicability of Article 97(1), the court considered Article 97(2) applicable instead. This provision states that, even where lack of consent could be disregarded due to exceptional circumstances, the use of one’s own image is still prohibited when the use is detrimental to the honour, reputation or dignity of the person portrayed . . . . Since the images on the t-shirts portrayed the likeness of Ms Hepburn with disregard to her real appearance and her elegance, the court found that the use at hand caused a prejudice to her reputation and dignity.

Link to the rest at The Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice (multiple citations to statutes, cases, etc., omitted for the benefit of non-legal readers)

PG suggests that, as a general proposition, indie authors should avoid using the images of famous people (even if deceased) on book covers, promotions, etc., unless they have been dead for a long time – Ms. Hepburn died on January 20, 1993.

If an indie author is publishing a book across a variety of different national borders via Amazon, even if the use of an image might pass muster under US law, the laws of other nations might give rise to claims for damages.

PG further suggests that if someone plans to sue an author for misusing an image for a self-published book, it is quite likely that this person/entity would also sue Amazon in the same proceeding.

Amazon’s involvement would trigger Paragraph 5.8 of KDP’s Terms and Conditions which reads as follows (Highlights are PG’s. He has also separated out some of the sub-parts of the original legalese into subparagraphs for ease of reading):

5.8 Representations, Warranties and Indemnities. You represent and warrant that:

(a) you have the full right, power and authority to enter into and fully perform this Agreement and will comply with the terms of this Agreement;

(b) prior to you or your designee’s delivery of any content, you will have obtained all rights that are necessary for the exercise the rights granted under this Agreement;

(c) neither the exercise of the rights authorized under this Agreement nor any materials embodied in the content nor its sale or distribution as authorized in this Agreement will violate or infringe upon the intellectual property, proprietary or other rights of any person or entity, including, without limitation, contractual rights, copyrights, trademarks, common law rights, rights of publicity, or privacy, or moral rights, or contain defamatory material or violate any laws or regulations of any jurisdiction;

(d) you will ensure that all Books delivered under the Program comply with the technical delivery specifications provided by us; (e) you will be solely responsible for accounting and paying any co-owners or co-administrators of any Book or portion thereof any royalties with respect to the uses of the content and their respective shares, if any, of any monies payable under this Agreement; and (f) you will not attempt to exploit the KDP service or any other Amazon program or service.

To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, you will indemnify, defend and hold Amazon, its officers, directors, employees, affiliates, subcontractors and assigns harmless from and against any loss, claim, liability, damage, action or cause of action (including reasonable attorneys’ fees) that arises from any breach of your representations, warranties or obligations set forth in this Agreement. We will be entitled, at our expense, to participate in the defense and settlement of the claim or action with counsel of our own choosing.

PG notes that that, in the event that someone felt an author had violated her/his image or publicity rights and was considering a lawsuit, author Jane Jones of Tincup, Montana, might not make a particularly attractive defendant from whom to collect a large amount of money.

However, Ms. Jones and Amazon combined would have the means to pay a very large judgment if the complaining party was successful in a lawsuit pursued jointly against both of them.

English’s Pronoun Problem Is Centuries Old

From The New York Times:

“Pronouns are suddenly sexy,” Dennis Baron declares at the start of “What’s Your Pronoun?” For “pronouns,” read one specific pronoun, or rather its long-lamented absence in English: the third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. And for “sexy,” read thorny. Pronouns now come up in lawsuits, school regulations and company codes of conduct. Colleges ask students to provide their preferred pronouns; online dating sites offer pronoun options. “It used to be nerdy to discuss parts of speech outside of grammar class,” Baron, a professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, writes. “Now it’s cool.”

After this slightly forced attempt at with-itness, “What’s Your Pronoun?” settles down into a scrupulous and absorbing survey. Its great virtue is to show that these issues are nothing new: Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze,” “thon” and “heer” have been circulating since the mid-19th century; others as far back as 1375.

Almost no one now defends the use of a generic “he” — but what to replace it with? Baron is surely right that no one cares for “his or her”: too unwieldy. As for the pronouns historically proposed to replace “he” or “she,” they failed to gain traction because “they look strange on the page.”

. . . .

Coiners of new pronouns might usefully counter that they want these words to look strange, so as to draw attention to the social construction of gender or the patriarchal roots of traditional pronouns. Fair enough, but the point about pronouns is that they replace nouns, and thus trade the specific for the generic — so they will probably catch on only when they are inconspicuous. In writing, a pronoun that draws attention to itself stops the reader’s eye and checks their pace at the wrong point in a sentence.

For Baron the solution is clear, and I used it (hopefully unobtrusively) in that last sentence: the singular “they.” He provides ample textual evidence, from Shakespeare on, that this is a perfectly respectable option — and so unconscious that even those who condemn it invoke it without noticing.

For the still unpersuaded, he points out that singular “they” is older than singular “you.” Only in the 1600s did singular “you” start pushing out “thou” and “thee.” Having the same pronoun for both singular and plural forms makes for potential ambiguity. So colloquial plural forms have sprung up, such as “y’all,” common in the American South, or the more recent “you guys” — an oddly gendered locution at a time when the generic “he” is becoming extinct. Still, we get by. No one considers ditching the singular “you.”

For Baron, the benefit of singular “they” is that it is often used by those in search of a nonbinary or gender-neutral pronoun, as well as those who give such issues little thought. While many language mavens are coming around reluctantly to singular “they” — in December Merriam-Webster anointed “they” its “word of the year” — some traditionalists still hold out against it. Their defense is convention. 

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Immortality, Inc.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amid today’s technological wizardry, it’s easy to forget that several decades have passed since a single innovation has dramatically raised the quality of life for millions of people. Summoning a car with one’s phone is nifty, but it pales in comparison with discovering penicillin or electrifying cities. Artificial intelligence is being heralded as the next big thing, but a cluster of scientists, technologists and investors are aiming higher. In the vernacular of Silicon Valley, where many of them are based, their goal is nothing less than disrupting death, and their story is at the center of “Immortality, Inc.” by science journalist Chip Walter.

Seeking to slow the aging process—if not halt it altogether—is far from a novel quest. In the 16th century, the explorer Ponce de León supposedly sought a fountain of youth in Florida, and the search for magical elixirs didn’t end when he failed to find it. Even so, the medical establishment has traditionally assigned only limited resources to aging, perhaps because, as odd as it may seem, death from old age is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the end of the 19th century, life expectancy in the United States was 48 years for whites and 34 for blacks. Aging, as a cause of death, took a back seat to tuberculosis, pneumonia and much else.

Americans began living longer in the 20th century, thanks to better sanitation and more effective vaccines and medicines. But growing old meant an increased vulnerability to other ailments, from heart disease to cancer. Progress in treating those conditions, in turn, has led to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s. And while average life spans have been getting longer in much of the world—though declining in the United States in recent years—the outer limits of longevity haven’t changed much.

That is the backdrop to Mr. Walter’s absorbing story, which he begins with a visit to Alcor, the Arizona-based organization that says it preserves corpses at minus 124 degrees Celsius “in an attempt to maintain brain viability after the heart stops.” (Current “patients” include baseball legend Ted Williams.) While this life-extending strategy, known as “cryonics,” is often ridiculed, the individuals profiled in “Immortality, Inc.” are high-status, highly regarded figures whose initiatives can’t be easily dismissed. What links them, writes Mr. Walter, is that “they are all troublemakers at heart.” They believe that the “conventional approaches” of most medical researchers and practitioners are, “at the very least, misguided.”

One key figure in the story is Bill Maris, a venture capitalist with a background in neuroscience. In 2012, dismayed by the lack of research into aging, he began meeting with some of his fellow Silicon Valley heavyweights, like Google co-founder Larry Page, who took an immediate interest. In short order, recounts Mr. Walter, they met with Arthur Levinson, an Apple board member who had spent 14 years as chief executive of the biotech trailblazer Genentech. Less than a year later, Mr. Levinson founded Calico, a company devoted to drug development and extending the human life span. Google kicked in $750 million, as did the pharmaceutical company AbbVie.

Mr. Levinson’s maverick mind-set shines through in a discussion he had a few years ago with several scientists and doctors. According to Mr. Walter, he asked them how much the average life span would increase if all cancer were eliminated. Most assumed about a decade. The answer, said Mr. Levinson, was just 2.8 years. The prospect of such a modest return helped inspire Mr. Levinson and his Calico colleagues to concentrate even more intensely on unraveling the mysteries of life-span biology. (One of their finds, so far, is a rodent native to Africa that shows “little to no signs of aging.”)

. . . .

“As recently as five years ago,” Mr. Walter writes, “the great pashas at [the National Institutes of Health] . . . looked upon aging research as largely crackpot.” He faults the Food and Drug Administration for refusing to classify aging as a disease. As a result, clinical trials—the foundation of medical research—can’t be conducted.

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

PG was going to opine but, surprisingly, decided not to do so.

Inside the Critics’ Circle

From The Guardian:

Although I’ve been reviewing books for half a century, this little treatise caused me to do some anxious head-scratching. Phillipa Chong, a tenure-hungry assistant professor at a Canadian university, here presents an earnest sociological analysis of an activity that for me has been sometimes a chore, always a test of punctuality and proficiency, on occasion a wickedly thrilling chance for retaliation, but mostly a source of pleasure. Reading the product of Chong’s jargon-clogged research, I found that I lacked all symptoms of the professional malaise that afflicts her informants, who suffer, she believes, from “epistemic uncertainty”.

I may be a shallow fellow, but I’ve never worried about what Chong clumsily describes as the “lack of groupness” among reviewers. Who cares that no certificates of “accreditation” enrol us in “the institution of literary criticism” or that we “inhabit nonprofessional spaces”? I also hadn’t realised that I was supposed to function as a “market intermediary” or – with luck – as a “cultural consecrator”.

And none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to “enact their duties”, which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for “satisficing in the face of practical constraints”? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a “cognitive heuristic” that defines an “acceptability threshold”.

Editors are employers and I’ve always been reluctant to question their reasons for commissioning me. Now I learn from Chong that they exercise “homophilous logics” resembling the algorithms that connect strangers on hook-up websites. This prompts her to liken assigning reviews to “making a good match”: well, then, next time a Jiffy bag arrives, I’ll regard it as the invitation to go on a blind date.

. . . .

“Well, I first try to read the book,” says one critic she quizzes. Another interviewee, mindful that sociology aspires to be a science, carefully spells it out: “I get the book in the mail. And I spend time reading it from beginning to end.” Chong, impervious to irony, describes this as the critic’s “review process”.

She seems not to notice that a third reviewer shrugs off her inquiry about his or her “physiological and emotional, or otherwise embodied, reactions”. “When a book is good,” this person replies, “a book is good.” A fourth reviewer almost audibly yawns when asked about his tendency to be lenient. “I’m from the midwest,” he says, “and I’m sort of a naturally nice person.” So much for the “culture of evaluation” Chong says we live in, which she aligns with the “audit culture” of high finance. “I am both expanding and contracting the generalisability of the framework,” she declares, unaware that the rickety scaffolding of theory has collapsed around her.

Applying the criteria of identity politics, Chong finds that her subjects are reluctant to “identify” as reviewers. “I’m primarily a book writer,” one reviewer defensively snarls; others announce “I’m mostly a writer” or “I mostly write”. Their epistemic qualms have a bottom line: reviewing is ill paid and Chong is bemused by the “nonmonetary form of profit” – AKA enjoyment – that we dedicated toilers derive from it. “What it means to be a writer,” she sighs, “is unclear.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

MERCUTIO: I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone, and hath nothing?

William Shakespear, Romeo and Juliet

How ‘Big Law’ Makes Big Money

From The New York Review of Books:

“There is an estate in the realm more powerful than either your Lordship or the other House of Parliament,” one Lord Campbell proclaimed to the peers in the House of Lords, in 1851, “and that [is] the country solicitors.” It was the lawyers, in other words, who kept England’s landed elite so very, well, elite: who shielded and extended the wealth of the landowners, even granting them legal protection against their own creditors. How did they pull off this trick? Through a nimble tangle of contracts, carefully and complicatedly applied, as Katharina Pistor explains in her lucid new book, The Code of Capital: by mixing “modern notions of individual property rights with feudalist restrictions on alienability”; by employing trusts “to protect family estates, but then [turning] around and [using] the trust again to set aside assets for creditors so that they would roll over the debt of the life tenant one more time”; and by settling the rights to the estate among family members in line for inheritance. Solicitors maximized their clients’ profits and worth through strategic applications of the central institutions at their disposal: “contract, property, collateral, trust, corporate, and bankruptcy law,” what Pistor calls an “empire of law.”

The landowners themselves may not have understood this morass of legal relationships, this web, in Pistor’s words, of “claims and counterclaims, rights and restrictions on these rights.” No matter: by lawyers’ legal codifications, their wealth was increasing. The sort of legal logic applied in nineteenth-century England grows only more complicated, and more profit-generating, when the asset in question is not a hectare of country land but stocks and bonds and shares—when an entire organization is coded as a legal person (who can own assets and who can sue) through incorporation. The very form of a corporation, “by encouraging risk taking, by broadening the investor base and thereby mobilizing funding for investments, and by creating the conditions for deep and liquid markets for the shares and bonds that the corporation issues,” maximizes profit. And though today we live in a nominally democratic society, Pistor argues that a “feudal calculus” extends to our age: superior legal coding—that is, fancy private lawyers. Using the central institutions of private law, they make certain assets more valuable, and more likely to create value. “For centuries,” she writes,

private attorneys have molded and adapted these legal modules to a changing roster of assets and have thereby enhanced their clients’ wealth. And states have supported the coding of capital by offering their coercive law powers to enforce the legal rights that have been bestowed on capital.

Corporate law is “no longer primarily a legal vehicle for producing goods or offering services but has been transformed into a virtual capital mint.” Nowhere is this more true than in financial services corporations.

. . . .

Since the 1960s lawyers associated with the school of “law and economics,” developed at the University of Chicago by Aaron Director and Ronald Coase, among others, have been explaining how legal devices are invented to enable transactions to be conducted more efficiently. The basic line of argument is clever but monotonous. In case after case, the true function of a legal construction is shown to be that it aligns incentives of various economic actors—businesses, consumers, workers, and governments—in efficient and productive ways. For example, although granting property rights secures a kind of monopoly for owners, it encourages investment because legal owners can expect to reap the long-run benefit of up-front expenditures.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

As far as the last paragraph about “granting property rights,” that’s what happens when you buy a house. Your “monopoly” on your house means you get to choose who lives in it. If a stranger walks into your house off the street and falls asleep on the couch and you don’t like him/her doing that, local law enforcement will come and arrest that person and remove them from your house because, as the owner, you have a monopoly right to exclude those who you don’t want sleeping on your couch.

For the record, PG is not now nor has he ever been a part of Big Law. The closest he has ever come to working with financial services corporations occurred a long time ago when he represented a small country bank in a single litigation matter (yes, he/they won), but that’s it.

On the other hand, a long time ago, he used to do a lot of consumer bankruptcies for indigent Legal Aid clients and financial services corporations were usually among the largest creditors who were stiffed in the bankruptcy court.

As far as the OP, Big Law and Big Clients, if you don’t want a complex economy and its accompanying benefits, there are a variety of places with much simpler economies and much greater poverty that may be available for you.

One more point – the various kinds of modern property rights established by law include copyrights, that allow you to prevent others from meddling with the invisible intellectual property that is represented by the books and stories you write.