NPD Books: US Market Underperforming in the Holidays

From Publishing Perspectives:

Following Monday’s report (December 5) on the Association of American Publishers‘ (AAP) September 2022 StatShot report, we look today at the new report on the United States’ market conditions in November from NPD Books‘ Kristen McLean.

As you’ll remember, the NPD BookScan track runs much closer to date than StatShot, and McLean is looking this time at the month of November. What she sees prompts her to write, “It’s now clear” that the 2022 holiday book sales season “is underperforming 2021—and not just due to a later start.

“In the latest retail numbers from our macroeconomic team, the 2022 Black Friday week underperformed compared to the past three years, only exceeding the sales revenue results during the same week in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic. While increases in foot traffic were reported widely in the press, that didn’t necessarily translate into more sales on either a revenue or a unit basis.”

. . . .

“Black Friday week marked the sixth consecutive week of in-store sales revenue declines for US discretionary general merchandise.”

. . . .

Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief retail industry advisor, a colleague of McLean’s, writes, “Black Friday appears to have brought more shoppers out to the stores, but that traffic clearly didn’t amount to more spending. Retailers and manufacturers need to find new ways to engage the consumer in making purchases, converting consumers from social browsers to active buyers.”

. . . .

Turning back to books, McLean writes in her report to the news media, “The book market was right in line with these trends. At the top line, the United States’ book market finished November at 6 percent below 2021, on a monthly volume of 61.8 million units. That’s 8.5 million units higher than October, but 10.4 million units under November 2021.

“In the book market, the overall numbers are still within historic norms, but key categories like adult nonfiction and juvenile fiction are definitely underperforming so far this season. Nothing seems to be breaking out this year compared to what we’ve been seeing in adult fiction.”

. . . .

“As I said in last month’s update, I believe the lower level of spending this year is fundamentally about consumer economics and sentiment. I also still believe the most likely scenario for the total market finish is exactly where we are now: 6 percent below 2021.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Elizabethan era is not yet at an end

From The Economist:

The death certificate is clear. The form gives all the usual information about the deceased. In one box it gives her marital state (widowed); in another her home postcode (sl4 1nj). In another, beneath the brisk “When died”, it offers: “2022 September Eighth, 1510 hours”. And in another still, with slightly excitable capitalisation, her occupation: “Her Majesty The Queen”.

The queen’s death certificate is right, and it is also wrong. Queen Elizabeth II did die at 3.10pm. But for the world, she continued to live. For over three hours, she was merely “extremely unwell” or “comfortable and at Balmoral”. Her death, for most people, only happened later, at a few minutes past 6.30pm, when a footman walked from Buckingham Palace holding a black-edged sign; when the bbc went black; when the national anthem played. A queen has two birthdays; she also has many deaths.

According to the law she has none: “the King never dies”, as the legal maxim has it. A monarch’s heart might stop; the monarch’s heart does not. The king is dead; long live the king. But the law is not life and a king is more than a man in a crown. Britain did not abruptly change from being Victorian to Edwardian on January 22nd 1901; Charles III did not instantly feel like Britain’s new king at 6.30pm on that Thursday, but like a man playing a part. Kingship comes not in a moment but by the slow accumulation of kingly things.

This has begun. The nation’s pronouns have already changed. Her Majesty’s Government is now His; criminals are now detained in His Majesty’s prisons, not Hers. In Qatar, God is called upon by English footballers to save their gracious king, not their queen. On military buttons and police badges and the breasts of Beefeaters, CIIIR will gradually start to replace EIIR. Shoals of coins bearing the words “Charles III Rex” started to fall from the Royal Mint in October. A king is being made into a coin; a man is being made into a monarch.

The corollary of this is that a queen is being undone. Elizabeth’s “E” will be unpicked from the embroidered tunics of the Beefeaters and replaced with Charles’s “C”; her crest will cease to appear on ketchup bottles as the royal warrants that signify suppliers to the royal household expire; worn banknotes bearing her face will be gathered and shredded on a rolling basis. In the Inns of Court in London, the signs for Queen’s Counsel barristers have been repainted, a fresh coat of cream covering the old qcs. In a constitutional monarchy queens do not so much die as erode.

History, the novelist Hilary Mantel once said, “is not the past…It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Is Mick Herron the Best Spy Novelist of His Generation?

From The New Yorker:

Mick Herron is a broad-shouldered Englishman with close-cropped black hair, lightly salted, and fine and long-fingered hands, like a pianist’s or a safecracker’s. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and he is shy and flushes easily, pink as a peony. He does not drive a car and he does not own a smartphone, and, in the softly carpeted apartment in Oxford where, wearing woollen slippers, he writes spy novels—the best in a generation, by some estimations, and irrefutably the funniest—he does not have Wi-Fi. He used to be a copy editor. He has never been a secret agent, except insofar as all writers are spies and maybe, lately, so is everyone else.

Spy fiction got good and going in the years before the First World War, and took flight afterward. In 1927, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “Ashenden: or, The British Agent,” about a writer who is recruited into British intelligence by a handler called R. During the war, Maugham had been a spook; he was recruited after “Of Human Bondage” came out. Writers make good joes (as Herron might say): they’re keen observers, and they tend to know languages. (Maugham had French and German.) “If you do well you’ll get no thanks,” R. tells Ashenden, “and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help.” Editors say the same thing to writers.

Maugham’s best-known successors—Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré—were spies, too. Greene worked for M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service; Fleming for Naval Intelligence; and le Carré for both M.I.6 and M.I.5, Britain’s security service. Like le Carré, whose wordcraft about spycraft included “mole,” “spook,” and “Moscow rules,” Herron’s got his own lingo, about “the hub” and “dogs” and “tiger teams” and “milkmen.” But Herron, as he himself might put it, has never been to joe country and lives nowhere near Spook Street.

For the longest stretch of Herron’s professional life, he worked in London in the legal department of an employment-issues research firm, copy-editing journal articles, handbooks, and case reports about employment discrimination and wrongful termination. Nights, he wrote detective fiction, and even got some published, but no one bought it. Then he had a breakthrough. “People say write what you know,” Herron says. “So I wrote about people who are failures.” Bob Cratchitting away at job-discrimination case reports, Herron came up with the idea of Slough House, a place where M.I.5 puts bad spies out to pasture. “Sack the useless, and they took you to tribunal for discriminating against useless people,” one character explains. “So the Service bunged the useless into some godforsaken annex and threw paperwork at them, an administrative harassment intended to make them hand in their cards. They called them slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers.” James Bond they are not.

The Slough House novels have been adapted as an Apple TV+ series called, like the first of those novels, “Slow Horses.” It’s slick and sleek and as star-studded as a summer sky. The first season came out last spring, and the second begins this month. Mick Jagger, a Mick Herron fan, recorded its bluesy theme song, “Strange Game.” Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Diana Taverner, Second Desk at M.I.5, with Jonathan Pryce as her long-retired predecessor, David Cartwright, whose grandson River Cartwright, played by the Scottish actor Jack Lowden, is a slow horse trying to kick over the traces. The cast is headed by the inimitable Gary Oldman, as Jackson Lamb. Lamb is an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word “twat” all the time.

Even before John le Carré died, nearly two years ago, people had started calling Mick Herron his heir, which is, as publicists say, very selling, but also something of a burden. Herron suspects that le Carré would find his work facetious. Still, that’s not to say there aren’t similarities. A decade ago, Oldman was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of le Carré’s George Smiley in an adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Oldman says Jackson Lamb is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although, arguably, everything has.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

The Word of the Year goes Goblin Mode

From Book Browse:

A year ago, the lexicographic grandees at Oxford Languages dutifully stuck out their arms and chose “vax” as the 2021 Word of the Year.

But this year, the venerable publisher behind the Oxford English Dictionary has — like the rest of us, apparently — gone full goblin mode.

“Goblin mode” — a slang term referring to “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations” — has been named Oxford’s 2022 Word of the Year.

Link to the rest at Book Browse

3 Action-Reaction Misfires That Flatten Your Writing

From Writers Helping Writers:

Cause and effect. Stimulus and response. Action and reaction. Everything in a story depends on what the characters do about whatever the story pushes them up against.

Stiff, disconnected, or missing character reactions snap the chain of cause and effect that constitutes your story. When readers can no longer see how and why the characters are doing what they’re doing, they lose the thread.

Let’s talk about the three most common action–reaction misfires I see in manuscripts.

1. Missing or insufficient reactions
2. Jumbled responses
3. Purposely obscured stimuli

Missing or Insufficient Reactions

When characters fail to react to what’s happening around them, it’s as if nothing is happening at all. A snappy line of dialogue goes nowhere if it doesn’t get under someone’s skin. The first glimpse of a long-sought clue builds no excitement if nobody notices it. A punch in the nose might as well not have landed if it doesn’t start or end a disagreement.

When characters don’t react to the conversations and events around them, readers will assume they don’t care. If the characters don’t care, why should readers?

Keeping your characters engaged in the story keeps readers engaged with it too. When writing viewpoint characters, you have access to both internal and external responses. For other characters, you’re limited to whatever visible manifestations of those responses that the viewpoint character or narrator can perceive.

Internal Responses

All but the last type of internal response, thought, are involuntary reactions.

1. Involuntary sensations—These include physical sensations such as feeling a lump in the throat or a stomach full of butterflies.

2. Reflex reactions—These are the so-called knee-jerk reactions, such as jerking away from the source of pain.

3. Emotions—Before you can reveal emotions using any of these reaction modes, you as the writer must know what the emotion or blend of emotions actually is.

4. Thoughts—What’s the uncensored commentary running in the privacy of the character’s mind?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Homeland Security Theater

From Public Books:

Thwarting the social instabilities and political divisions created by bots and other manipulators of information requires creative countermeasures, including aesthetic ones. This belief describes the game plan of the Department of Homeland Security, which is betting that aesthetics can help safeguard a democracy that has come to seem increasingly fragile.

“The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency produced this graphic novel to highlight tactics used by foreign government-backed disinformation campaigns that seek to disrupt American life and the infrastructure that underlies it.” So opens every graphic novel of the Resilience Series produced by CISA, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Real Fake, the first installment in the series, was released to coincide with the 2020 US election. It starts with a gamer, Rachel, getting ticked off when she encounters doctored videos designed to manipulate voters; it ends with “the takedown of those international troll farms.” Along the way, Rachel teams up with a clandestine organization “defending the truth and democracy online” to ensnare malefactors, including one hapless West African man who is left to languish in a dark jail despite having no awareness of how his computer skills were being used for a disinformation campaign.

COVID-19 supplies the exigency for the next title in the series, Bug Bytes, which follows a different set of “digital patriots.” This team are battling conspiracy theorists who are torching cellphone towers in the paranoid belief that 5G technology is spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Graduate student Ava Williams deploys her combination of coding and investigative journalism skills to expose that bots, not real people, are behind the spread of disinformation.

CISA’s pivot to fiction is not an entirely novel move. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Army Cyber Institute have used comics about the zombie apocalypse and renegade hackers to educate soldiers, as well as citizens, about contemporary threats to the social fabric. Of course, a more candid and honest concern for the security of US infrastructure would register things like schools in disrepair, outdated power grids, and crumbling bridges.1 The Resilience Series’s focus on “foreign government-backed disinformation campaigns” as a key threat to American life belies the fact that ensuring infrastructural security requires regularly overlooking the insecurities (precarity, depressed wages, increasing debt, et cetera) that are structurally necessary to capitalism. In designing these graphic novels as civic primers in an age of insecurity, CISA and, by extension, the Department of Homeland Security have missed the mark.

The problem is not that panels about African troll farms (Real Fake) or homegrown antivaxxers (Bug Bytes) might make readers feel insecure—it’s that they don’t make readers feel insecure enough. Or, more precisely, these comics might be judged aesthetic failures because—due to their proximity to propaganda—they leave little space for the vulnerabilities inherent in the act of reading. So, while readers learn that meddling by foreign powers “is scary, especially in an election year,” the graphic fictions commissioned by US cybersecurity assume reading itself to be a process whereby information (as opposed to disinformation) is obtained, questions are answered, and doubts are resolved. According to this narrow understanding, reading operates as a form of securitization, which is to say that it is evacuated of its role in framing a critical orientation.

Put another way: the graphic novels discussed here seek to transmit “good” information so as to counteract the “bad” information their readership might encounter elsewhere. But the effort to combat propaganda with propaganda is beset by contradiction and irony—just the sort of ambiguity that reading purely (and narrowly) for information cannot adequately address.

CISA wants to train citizens to be critical readers of the information they consume—with an exception built in for its own content and forms. An admiring Forbes article on the collaboration between CISA and the publisher of the Resilience Series stressed that “anyone who consumes content online needs to be ready to question what they see, but most of us are ill-equipped to do so.” This initiative may indeed encourage us to question some of what we see—but it rests on the assumption that we will not question what we read from official sources.

. . . .

Who knew that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes book reviews? This bimonthly journal has, since 1945—when the devastating potential of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—been covering global security risks as part of its mission “to reduce man-made threats to our existence.” The organization also operates the Doomsday Clock, currently set at 100 seconds to midnight, to visually convey the imminence of the threat of human extinction from nuclear war.

Recently the Bulletin tackled a wholly different concern: aesthetics. We shouldn’t be surprised by the humanist sensibilities of atomic scientists or the relevance of artistic capabilities to national security. (Perhaps most famously, in this regard, J. Robert Oppenheimer showed an interest in French and English literature at Harvard before pursuing the course of study in physics that led him to Los Alamos.) After CISA subcontracted and disseminated its Resilience Series on the elevated threats disinformation posed to democracy, the Bulletin decided to assess how effectively an aesthetic strategy such as this might raise security awareness.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Is PG the only one who perceives those in charge of the The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are vastly over-thinking their publications?

And expanding their scope by worrying about whether the less sophisticated and cosmopolitan masses will pay any attention to a couple of not-read-very-often non-profit/government publications will actually pay attention if they incorporate better aesthetics or cartoons into those publications?

The About Us section of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says, among other things:

The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them.

Perhaps PG woke up on the cynical side of the bed this morning, but he perceives more than a little mission creep in the OP. Are atomic scientists spending time at work solving the challenges of climate change or disruptive technologies? If so, who’s minding the reactor?

Why Book Blogs Still Matter in an Age of Booktok

From Book Riot:

I’ve been on the bookish internet for more than 15 years, and in that time, I’ve watched platforms rise and fall. I remember talking about books on Livejournal, for Sappho’s sake. I started a book blog called the Lesbrary in 2011, because I couldn’t find an LGBTQ book blog that wasn’t 90% M/M books. Of course, I started an accompanying Tumblr for it at about the same time, because I spent most of my time there. Years later, I’d join BookTube, and years after that, I even gave BookTok a try for a bit before slowly backing away.

Over that time, I saw the bookish internet grow and evolve, allowing for more niche spaces (like a sapphic book blog, for instance), for different formats, for new personalities. I loved the passionate debates happening on Tumblr around representation, separating the art from the artist, and more prickly fandom disagreements…and then I loved those conversations significantly less when they popped up again and again, on Twitter and Tumblr and YouTube and TikTok, with absolutely no progress made over time.

All through these moments of dipping in and out of different bookish spaces online, though, I kept the Lesbrary. It began to seem more and more outdated. Who follows book blogs anymore? Who reads their online content anymore, instead of watching videos? (Hello, reader!) More significantly, I began to doubt whether there was a need for a sapphic book blog like mine anymore. More sapphic books are being published now than ever before, and more people are reading and promoting them. BookTok has a lively sapphic books section. I feel like I, in some small part, contributed to this environment, which I take pride in: if I can make the Lesbrary completely obsolete, I’ll be happy.

I haven’t packed up my blog and shuttered the windows, though. Because as I watched the same conversations play out over and over again on different platforms, I really started to understand how ephemeral most of them are. BookTube and BookTok are great for browsing and following, but they’re not easy to search. You might be able to find general topics (like queer books), but looking for something specific is trickier. The platforms just aren’t designed for that. TikTok especially is not meant to be a repository of knowledge, an archive of opinion. It’s a firehouse of content, and you’re meant to be keeping up with what’s new, not exploring what came before.

The newest platform is also usually populated with young voices, especially teenagers and people in their early 20s. Most of them have not lived through the Livejournal days, and they’re not digging into the WayBackMachine to see what was happening in their corner of the internet before they got there — I certainly never did. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does have some pitfalls, like repeating the exact same mistakes as the platform that came before, with the same arguments and schisms emerging.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

The Human Feeling of Being Free

From The Wall Street Journal:

While the power of the physical sciences to explain the operations of the world mechanistically is an irresistible force, the human feeling of being free remains an immovable object. It seems that only one can prevail, but neither looks as if it is about to yield.

More than a few scientists have blithely sauntered across this metaphysical minefield as though it were safe terrain. They claim that science has proved that free will is an illusion and say that’s all there is to it. Psychologist Kennon M. Sheldon is a different kind of trespasser on philosophers’ turf, arguing that free will is real after all. Yet his metaphysical claim, which occupies the early chapters of “Freely Determined,” is treated perfunctorily and is in any case irrelevant to what the rest of this fascinating book has to say.

Mr. Sheldon’s interest in free will is rooted in his work in Self-Determination Theory, which he calls “the world’s most comprehensive and best-supported theory of human motivation.” A core tenet of SDT is that “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their own behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.” When people feel autonomous, they are more content and successful. When they feel they have no control, they become morally cynical. After all, if we’re not in control of what we do, how can we be blamed for wrongdoing?

Most of Mr. Sheldon’s 10 chapters constitute a compelling and clear introduction to what SDT teaches us about nurturing a sense of autonomy. The theory gives us a rich and powerful understanding of motivation—how to harness it and avoid undermining it. Most notably, the theory points to the importance of intrinsic motivation: the desire to do something for its own reward, not for any instrumental benefit.

There are always some things we just have to do, like washing the dishes or filling out a tax form. But our lives tend to go better if, seeing ourselves as autonomous, we shape our actions around whatever appears to us to have intrinsic value. “The correlation between autonomous work motivation and subjective well-being,” Mr. Sheldon notes, “is much stronger than the correlation between income and subjective well-being.”

Intrinsic motivation, however, is under constant threat. Mr. Sheldon gives the hypothetical example of a law student initially motivated to fight for justice. But at law school she learns that people expect her to give priority to working for a prestigious firm and earning a high salary. She might well internalize this “status motivation,” incorporating it into her sense of self. Or she might simply feel that she ought to be motivated by the same things that motivate her peers. In either case, the fight for justice, which she intrinsically values, has lost its force.

Mr. Sheldon’s research into Self-Determination Theory helps him make a strong case for the importance of seeing our actions as the freely chosen result of our deepest motivations. Still, he should have resisted the tired self-help trope of over-egging the promise, saying “we can steer our ship of self into uncharted new waters, where joy and fulfillment await.”

When it comes to the metaphysical realm, Mr. Sheldon’s mistake is to think that SDT and the philosophical denial of ultimate free will are incompatible. That is only true of the most popular, if simplistic, threat to his model of human freedom: the extreme reductionism claiming that reality can be completely described in the language of physics; that consciousness is just the humming of the neural machine; and that everything is strictly predetermined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG was sorely tempted to comment, but resisted (not a first, but unusual nonetheless).

Yesterday

All is well at Casa PG. Yesterday was just a very busy one and PG couldn’t slide in any posts.

The Last Real American Dictionary

From Slate:

In the mid-’70s, top players in an emerging tournament Scrabble scene persuaded the game’s corporate owner to adopt a universal lexicon for competition. Players manually scraped five standard college dictionaries, recording every unique two- through eight-letter word (plus inflections) that met the game’s rules. When the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary was published, in 1978, players rejoiced. “You can retire the boxing gloves and put up your swords,” the Scrabble Players Newspaper wrote. “You now have an arbiter to settle all arguments.”

In the 44 years since, the OSPD has been revised six times, adding thousands of new words. A seventh edition was released earlier this month. It includes headline-grabbers like COVID, VAX, and DOX (and VAXX and DOXX), and a lowercase variant of JEDI. Also in: GUAC, INSPO, ZOODLE, and SKEEZY. “You’ve got some fun new words,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of Merriam-Webster Inc., which has published the OSPD since its inception.

Hidden by the buzz over the latest lingo, though, is an underlying truth about chronicling our ever-evolving language: The American dictionary business is slowly dying. Of the publishers of the OSPD’s five original source books, Merriam-Webster is the last with a staff of full-time lexicographers producing regular, robust updates, all of it now online. The others are either defunct or ghost works updated rarely and modestly by freelance lexicographers, and have either no web presence or a stagnant one; a recent print edition of one of them boasted “dozens” of new words and senses, which is not a lot of new words and senses. (Merriam does issue new printings of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the primary Scrabble sourcebook and the basis for its free online dictionary, with some of its new words, but the last full overhaul in print was an 11th edition, published in 2003.)

“The decline of the dictionary in the U.S., the lack of competition, means less of everything,” Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University who studies lexicography, told me. “When dictionary programs try to include more words and respond to the needs of niche markets, we all benefit. But when there’s no competition, no one needs to think about serving the Scrabble community or any other community.”

Chronicling the evolution of American English is undeniably culturally significant—the words we use are who we are—but the nitty-gritty of word histories, etymologies, and pronunciations might seem academic or esoteric. After all, Google fulfills almost any quotidian lookup need. But the words in Google’s dictionary are licensed from Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s a British source, which matters in terms of focus. In the United States, the only active dictionary-maker besides Merriam is Dictionary.com, which was founded in 1995 and bought in 2018 by the mortgage loan provider now known as Rocket Companies Inc. Merriam, which dates to Noah Webster’s first dictionary in 1806, has been owned since 1996 by privately held Encyclopædia Brittanica Inc. Both dictionaries were acquired because of a rich guy’s quirky personal interest. Their business futures are anything but guaranteed.

Link to the rest at Slate

In Praise of the Worker-Owned Company (OR: What to Do About Simon and Schuster)

From The Literary Hub:

Well, Simon & Schuster is not going to be sold, for now. A federal judge ruled in October that Penguin Random House couldn’t buy the publisher, and since then, Simon & Schuster’s parent company has decided against mounting an appeal. That said, the future of America’s third-largest publisher still remains uncertain. Simon & Schuster’s owner seems intent on selling, with potential buyers reportedly including HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, or—gulp—an unnamed private equity firm. As a new author with Atria Books (a Simon & Schuster imprint) none of these options seem especially great. What will happen to Atria? To my wonderful editor? My first book?

Following mergers between major publishing houses in the past, corporate executives have cut jobs, folded imprints, and canceled author contracts. My novel is scheduled to debut next August. My wonderful editor assures me that things will be fine, and I trust him. He is, after all, wonderful. Unfortunately, these kinds of things aren’t up to him. Even the most wonderful editors get no say when it comes to major decisions regarding the future of the “Big Five” publishing houses.

In publishing, as with far too many industries, democracy is all but absent in the workplace. The people who do the day-to-day work of running Simon & Schuster—the editors, marketers, publicists, cover artists, copyeditors, accountants, and so on—don’t get a vote on whether their company should be sold, or to whom. We tend to think of this structure as the natural capitalist order—employees do the work, corporate executives and investors call the shots—but it doesn’t need to be this way.

Our nation’s third-largest publisher doesn’t have to be owned by a mass media conglomerate or a private equity firm. There exists another option, one that would bring much-needed democracy to publishing by putting decision-making power into the hands of the very people who know books best: let the employees of Simon & Schuster purchase Simon & Schuster. They do the work, after all. Let them own their company. Let them call the damn shots.

Worker-owned cooperatives are so rare in America that it’s difficult for us to imagine the sense of pride and ownership that comes when we work for ourselves, participating actively in major company decisions, sharing equally in profits and losses.

But the idea of employees buying and running their own company—even here in America, even in publishing—isn’t as utopian as it sounds: the workforce of WW Norton has successfully owned and managed the venerable publishing house since shortly after World War II, when Mary Norton sold her stock to the company’s editors and managers. They drew up a Joint Stockholders Agreement that still remains in effect, allowing active Norton employees to elect leadership, participate in decisions affecting the company’s future, and share profits. Anyone who leaves Norton must sell back their shares, ensuring that no outside market exists for ownership of the company. There is no risk of a hostile takeover, no fear of an unexpected sale. The employees are free and independent to do what they have done so well for decades: publish kickass books, from classics like the Feminine Mystique and Clockwork Orange to newly released knockouts like The Immortal King Rao and Activities of Daily Living.

By comparison, four of the Big Five publishing houses are subsidiaries of global media conglomerates which are, in turn, majority-owned by four billionaire families from Germany, Australia, and the United States. (Hachette Books, the outlier, is a subsidiary of a global media conglomerate that is minority-owned by a billionaire family). Simon & Schuster is owned by Paramount Global, which is operated and owned by a private “mass media holding company” called National Amusements, which is based in Massachusetts and owned by the billionaire Redstone family. Paramount Global, in an official 2020 press release, gave three reasons for selling the “non-core asset” that we writers and readers refer to as Simon & Schuster:

  1. to fund Paramount’s new streaming services
  2. to pay down debt
  3. to “fund the dividend”

It would be inconceivable for the owners of WW Norton to make such a decision, or even to face such a dilemma, precisely because Norton is owned by its employees. Presumably they would choose not to cannibalize themselves to make wealthy stockholders a little wealthier. Presumably they would not refer to themselves as a “non-core asset.”

But Simon & Schuster, with approximately 1,500 employees, is a far larger company than WW Norton. Could America’s third-largest publisher seriously operate as a cooperative? For inspiration, let’s zip across the Atlantic; the Mondragon Corporation, founded in Spain in the 1950s, is a federation of over 200 cooperatives and organizations that together employ over 80,000 people who collectively own and manage every aspect of their many businesses.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Color PG skeptical about this proposal.

The reason that Simon & Schuster is for sale is that its owner, Paramount Global, wants a big check. Paramount Global wants a big check because, after going through a hierarchy of companies, the wealthy family that ultimately owns and controls S&S wants a big check. In this case, the wealthy family is the Redstones.

PG doubts that the employees of Simon & Schuster collectively, have enough money to satisfy the Redstones. After all, traditional publishing is noted for not paying its employees very well. PG doubts the Redstones would agree to set up a payment plan with the employees. If the Redstones want to sell, PG suspects it’s because they want a big check.

Would a bank or another rich family want to buy Simon & Schuster? PG has his doubts because the traditional publishing business doesn’t earn much money any more. S&S is worth something, but likely not enough to induce anyone responsible to loan the employees the money to pay the Redstones. But, as usual, PG could be wrong.

On Writing Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

How do you sum up a whole book in a few words?

Your book is nearly ready to enter the world. You’ve got a title, a cover, even some endorsements. Then, something you’d almost forgotten rears its head: the jacket copy (or, as we call it in Britain, the blurb). It’s often an afterthought in the publishing process; the dowdy cousin to the dazzle of a cover design. But those few words can make a world of difference to a book’s fortunes. 

So how do you encapsulate your work in a way that is enticing? That creates instant appeal, a sense of place and character, mystery and intrigue, and makes anyone who picks it up think ‘I must have this book in my life, now’? (No pressure then). 

I have been a copywriter in publishing for over twenty-five years, and I know how hard it can be to find the right words. I began my career at Penguin Books, where there used to be an entire department dedicated to writing blurbs. There, in a quiet room lined with shelf upon shelf of books, we read, yes actually read at work, and learned how to distil thousands of words into just a few. Times have changed since those halcyon days, and we are folded into various marketing departments at what is now Penguin Random House. But is still our job to make every word count. 

. . . .

A professional copywriter is always thinking of their audience. At many publishing houses, blurbs are written by authors or editors or both. However, someone like me can bring a fresh eye to things. It’s hard to see the wood for the trees when a book has been part of your life for months, maybe years – some authors even say that writing the blurb is harder than writing the book. Here are some things I’ve learned: 

  1. Don’t leave your blurb until the last minute. Terry Pratchett recommended writing it as soon as possible because ‘getting the heart and soul of a book into fewer than 100 words helps you focus.’ I wrote one alongside my proposal. It forced me to think hard about the point of my book. 
  2. Identifying the core of your work can be an anchor for the rest of the blurb. The novelist Elizabeth Buchan, who used to write copy at Penguin, described it as ‘The backbone. In one sentence, what is it that makes that book that book? I wrote Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. Its backbone was: “living well is the best revenge”.’ Buchan’s line snaps with the tension of opposing forces. Where does that fizz lie in your book? 

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

To a Wreath of Snow

by Emily Brontë

O transient voyager of heaven!
O silent sign of winter skies!
What adverse wind thy sail has driven
To dungeons where a prisoner lies?

Methinks the hands that shut the sun
So sternly from this morning’s brow
Might still their rebel task have done
And checked a thing so frail as thou.

They would have done it had they known
The talisman that dwelt in thee,
For all the suns that ever shone
Have never been so kind to me!

For many a week, and many a day
My heart was weighed with sinking gloom
When morning rose in mourning grey
And faintly lit my prison room

But angel like, when I awoke,
Thy silvery form so soft and fair
Shining through darkness, sweetly spoke
Of cloudy skies and mountains bare;

The dearest to a mountaineer
Who, all life long has loved the snow
That crowned her native summits drear,
Better, than greenest plains below.

And voiceless, soulless, messenger
Thy presence waked a thrilling tone
That comforts me while thou art here
And will sustain when thou art gone

James Gillray

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘The Apples and the Horse-Turds; or, Buonaparte Among the Golden Pippins’ (1808) by James Gillray.

In 1779, Napoleon Bonaparte, having seized power in France, appealed to George III for an end to the eight years of war that had followed the French Revolution. Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, replied that France, if it really wanted peace, should restore its legitimate monarchy. Samuel Whitbread, an opposition MP, argued for talks with Napoleon, saying that power, however attained, must be respected.

The episode sparked an especially caustic illustration—what we would call a political cartoon—from the British satirist James Gillray (1756-1815). It showed Napoleon in a peculiar landscape setting. He seems to have rolled down from a dunghill mushroomed with French notables (Voltaire among them) and into a stream where “royal pippins”—a kind of apple here signifying real legitimacy—float alongside him. “We apples,” Napoleon says, though we can see that he doesn’t belong in their number. He is a foul intruder.

Napoleon was the butt of other Gillray drawings. As Tim Clayton shows us in “James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire,” the French emperor—and menace to peace—was depicted as a tinpot tyrant. In a Gillray illustration playing off “Gulliver’s Travels,” a puzzled George III peers through a telescope at a tiny Napoleon standing in an angry pose on the king’s outstretched hand. The French generally come in for rough Gillray treatment. In another drawing, Parisian revolutionaries appear as cannibals.

These works capture Gillray’s style, juxtaposing vulgarity with literary allusion and extravagant caricature with sharp draftsmanship. Mr. Clayton’s well-researched and lavishly illustrated study makes a strong case for Gillray as the creator of a genre of graphic art—and as a forceful commentator. The artist’s caricatures shaped how the public saw politicians and royal figures, not to mention socialites and literary celebrities. Today’s political cartoonists quite properly credit Gillray as a major forerunner.

. . . .

Avoiding grotesque invention, Gillray went beyond simple reality with (in the words of the 20th-century cartoonist David Low) “a discriminating exaggeration of truth.” Thus, in “The Lover’s Dream,” we see the Prince of Wales (in the 1790s) sweetly sleeping on a luxurious royal bed and dreaming of the queen swooping down, like an angel in a Renaissance painting, to pay his enormous debts. Mr. Clayton’s selection takes readers on a journey through Georgian politics and society with a guide who spared no one.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Comment Spam

PG has been receiving quite a lot of comment spam attempts lately. His back-end collects most, but more than a few have been getting through and have to be manually moderated by PG in the past several weeks.

PG tweaked his comment spam blocker earlier today, but may have made it too difficult according to one visitor. After reading the visitor’s concerns, PG just dialed the settings back a bit.

If anyone has comments on PG’s comment spam blocker (Akismet), please feel free to leave them in the comments or send PG a private message via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog.

Forbidden Notebooks: A Woman’s Right to Write

From The Paris Review:

Forbidden evokes, to my English-speaking ear, the biblical fruit whose consumption leads to shame and expulsion from Paradise. Eve’s story is not irrelevant to a novel like Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook, in which a woman succumbs to a temptation: to record her thoughts and observations. Valeria Cossati’s impulse to keep a diary leads not so much to the knowledge of good and evil as it does to the self-knowledge advocated by Socrates and serving as a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry ever since. In Valeria’s case, it also leads to solitude, alienation, guilt, and painful lucidity.

The Italian title of Forbidden Notebook is Quaderno proibito—literally translated, “prohibited notebook.” Forbidden and prohibited may be interchangeable in English, but the latter lacks the romance that might soften the former (as in “forbidden love”), and connotes instead legal restrictions, interdictions, and punishment. The word prohibited comes from the Latin verb prohibere (its roots mean, essentially, “to hold away”), which was fundamental to legal terminology in Ancient Rome. It is the word de Céspedes chooses to describe Valeria’s notebook, and to interrogate, more broadly, a woman’s right, in postwar Italy, to express herself in writing, to have a voice, and to hold opinions and secrets that distinguish herself from her family.

The act of purchasing the eponymous notebook, along with the ongoing dilemma of how to conceal it, drives the tension as the novel opens. Having purchased it illegally and smuggled it home, Valeria hides it in various locations—in a sack of rags, an old trunk, an empty biscuit tin. But she always runs the risk of it being discovered by her husband and grown children, all of whom laugh at the mere idea that she might want to keep a diary.

As soon as she buys the notebook, Valeria is anxious and afraid, but she is also armed—for although acquiring a diary throws her into crisis, the quaderno is both an object and a place, both a literary practice and a room of one’s own. In lieu of walls and a door, pen and paper suffice to allow Valeria, albeit furtively, to speak her mind. Thematically, I would call this book a direct descendant of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking treatise and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It’s just that Valeria does not consider herself an author but rather a traditional homemaker. Her writing is surreptitious, and she must lie to tell the truth.

De Céspedes was herself a writer and a diarist; Forbidden Notebook fuses these forms and disciplines. The diary was for her (as it is for so many writers) preparatory ground not only for her artistry in general but for a series of searing first-person female protagonists who are at once invented and real. Melania Mazzucco quotes from de Céspedes’s diaries in her introduction to the 2021 reissue of Dalla parte di lei (From her side). Already in that novel published in 1949—which is also concerned with women’s rights and roles—de Céspedes is experimenting (as the title clearly suggests) with an intimate first-person female narrative. Three years later, in Quaderno proibito, the diary commands center stage.

The private becoming public, the individual subject dividing, and the writer becoming her own reader and vice versa—the diary, an elusive, elastic container, straddles all this and more. Diary writing may be the most private of forms, but when placed within the context of a novel or when it serves, as it does here, as the structure of the novel itself, this form of confession—dating back, at least in the Western tradition, to Augustine—contradicts its very nature.

From Petrarch to Gramsci to Woolf to Lessing, all diaries and notebooks, whether intended for publication or not, whether invented by their authors or not, whether framed as (or within) novels or not, are dialogues with the self. They are instances of self-doubling and self-fashioning. They are declarations of autonomy, counternarratives that contrast with and contradict reality. The form of the fictionalized diary has always been especially appealing in that we get to know the character not only as a person but also as a writer. This additional authorial persona is especially provocative in light of the fact that female consciousness has struggled to find its place in history and in the literary tradition.

In her diary de Céspedes confides, “I will never be a great writer.” Here I take her to task for not knowing something about herself—for she was a great writer, a subversive writer, a writer censored by fascists, a writer who refused to take part in literary prizes, a writer ahead of her time. In my view, she is one of Italy’s most cosmopolitan, incendiary, insightful, and overlooked.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

On the Gift of Longhand

From The Millions:

My 99-year-old great-aunt Nina gave me her husband’s fountain pen when I was visiting her in Greece this summer. A widow for 20 years, and despairing with what feels to her like a punishing longevity, she is divesting herself of important keepsakes, as if to expedite her reunion with her dead husband Kostakis. Nina wanted to give Kostakis’s pen to me because I am, as she puts it, the only Lazaridis left.

I told Nina that, beyond the honor of being entrusted with the pen, I would take pride in using it in my work. What mattered most to her was that I accept it as an emblem. Together with his pocket watch, which she also gave me, it was my uncle’s trademark, as much symbols for him as the orb and scepter of a monarch.

I’m a longtime longhand writer. I’m old enough to remember writing by hand when it was the only choice. Then I fell to the seductions of these newfangled things called laptops, like so many others. I was delighted by the convenience and by the final-draft look of even the messiest prose. But I switched back to longhand several years ago, and now it’s the only way I write my drafts. When I returned to pen and paper, I did so with the zeal of a convert. Not content to have just one or two good pens, I’ve amassed a small collection of mostly fountain pens. I’m catholic in my tastes, and cherish my Paper Mate Ink Joy, Pilot G-1, and Pilot Varsity, along with two ‘40s-era Parker 51s, one of which belonged to my father. But it’s the fountain pens I really prefer to use when writing first drafts.

Writing with a fountain pen is longhand taken to the next level. You can’t just pluck off the cap and go. Before you can write even the first letter, you have to unscrew the top of your ink bottle, unscrew the end of the barrel on the pen, fiddle with each pen’s particular filling mechanism, blot the ink on the blotting paper. And once you actually begin to write, you have to pay attention to the wet ink—especially if you’re a lefty like me—and take note of its gradually fading color as a signal that you are about to run completely dry and need to start the filling process all over again.

When you write with a fountain pen, you experience writing as a truly physical activity, one that affects all your senses. There’s the sort of chalky, silty smell of the ink; the scratch of the pen dragging across the page; the feel of the barrel and the cap you screw on at every pause in writing lest the ink dry faster; the glint of the wet ink that goes to matte while you examine your words. The only sense you don’t experience with a fountain pen is taste—at least I’d hope not. Having to attend to all these sensations, I think you can come close to the sort of improved mental processing neurologists ascribe to walking. And you can do it without even leaving your desk.

The pen Nina gave me is a Sheaffer Snorkel pen. Kostakis kept it on his desk in its original case, which announces it as “Sheaffer’s new Snorkel pen.” New in 1952. I’m used to the various filling mechanisms of a range of fountain pens, from eyedropper to squeeze chamber to disposable cartridge. But I’d never seen anything like the Snorkel, whose mechanism works like a miniature version of its name that pushes out from beneath the nib as you turn the knob built into the pen’s back end. You dip only the snorkel into the ink, let it suck up the liquid for a few seconds, and then retract it. The theory is that the nib itself stays dry and your fingers never risk the ink stains that I, for one, regularly accumulate during a day of longhand writing. Apparently, when the pens were first introduced, school children discovered how to use the Snorkel in reverse and shoot jets of ink out at each other. The mechanism was quickly redesigned. I know from the graffiti carved into door jambs of my family’s ancestral home that my uncle Kostakis was unruly as a child. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t try to shoot ink from his pen in 1952 as a 40-year-old man.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG has found that he is increasingly more clumsy writing with any sort of pen in longhand.

He’ll take the random note now and then, but he had to hand-write a check a couple of weeks ago, a task he wanted to do correctly, and it was a real chore. The result looked like it had been written by a ten-year-old.

Generally, he deposits any checks he receives electronically and pays all his bills the same way.

PG thinks he has mentioned this before, but one of the wisest things his mother did when he was in what would today be called middle school was to make him take a typing class. For reasons unknown, he took to typing right away and was the fastest typist in his (small) class.

Thereafter, when everyone else was turning in hand-written assignments, PG’s were typewritten. This fact alone probably improved his grades.

Of course in the prehistoric age of typewriters, if you made a mistake, it was a pain to correct it. For those youthful visitors to TPV, PG will describe the process.

  1. Ideally, you would catch your mistake pretty quickly, which wasn’t that difficult if your eyes were on the paper you were typing because your fingers already knew where every key was. (Hunting and pecking has always been low-tech.)
  2. In that case, when you made an error, you stopped typing, rolled the paper up a bit in the typewriter, then painted over the mistake with a long-forgotten liquid called White-Out, blow on the liquid until it dried out, then rolled your paper down to the line you had erred on, used the backspace key so the typewriter carriage was in the proper position for you to type the correction, then went on your merry typing way.
  3. Yes, anyone reading the paper could see the White-Out, but teachers wouldn’t reduce your grade for the project because a typed paper was a zillion times easier to read than a handwritten one, even if the girl who had the best handwriting in the class had written it. (In PG’s youthful world, girls always had better handwriting than boys. Sexism had not yet been invented.)

The next step forward with typewriters was the IBM Selectric with which you couldn’t jam up the keys like was easy to do with all previous typewriters, manual or electric. The Selectric was nice, but you still had to do the White-Out thing if you made a typo.

Then came the Correcting Selectric. This sped up the correction process substantially because you didn’t have to wait for White-Out to dry. The Correcting Selectric had two ribbons instead of one. The first ribbon was the black one which had always done the typing since dinosaurs roamed the earth. The second ribbon was a white one which you could use to correct a typo.

The way the white ribbon worked is that you would back up to the place where you had made the typo, then you pressed a key that engaged the white ribbon and retyped your typo. The result was that you had a white-colored typo instead of a black typo. Then, you backed up to the beginning of your covered-up typo and typed over the error with your correction. No White-Out or blowing the White-Out dry was necessary.

One final digression.

Legal secretaries were one or more steps above all sorts of other secretaries. (Secretaries did the typing, except for PG who often did his own typing for anything more than an easy-to-dictate letter.)

The reason that legal secretaries were super-human was because most attorneys would not allow any corrections on a will and, sometimes, on other sorts of documents as well. If a secretary was typing a will and made an error in the last paragraph on a page, the entire page would need to be re-typed.

The reason for this ancient imperative was that a typed correction to a will might give rise to a question in the mind of one or more of the heirs that someone with evil intent had changed Uncle Harry’s will after he signed it, most likely after the old bachelor had died.

As the result of such this evil act, Uncle Harry’s twenty-acre parcel of land, filled with rocks and copperheads and unlikely every to grow anything useful was bequeathed to evil cousin Lukas instead of virtuous cousin Lucille.

Hence, the no-corrections-of-wills rule was applied in a great many law offices.

One day, a dedicated word processor appeared, followed a couple of years later by a personal computer and the market for White-Out shrank into a faint shadow of its former self (although you can still purchase it on Amazon.)

What is crowdworking & crowdsourcing?

From CrowdWorker.com

2005 [was] the year that the term crowdsourcing was used for the first time. The editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson created the word as a combination from outsourcing and crowd when they were writing an article for Wired Magazine.

Although the term is rather new, the idea behind it isn’t. As early as in the 18th century an unknown amount of people has been used to solve a problem: In 1714 the British government wanted to find a way to measure a ship’s longitude. They used the easiest way to raise public interest: They offered money for the best solution from the crowd.

The wisdom of the crowd

Nowadays crowdsourcing is an accepted way to reach economical goals, but the methods have changed since the rise of the internet. The most famous example for crowdsourcing is Wikipedia. The platform is fed by the work of writers and editors who collect, update, and care for the articles that are available on the knowledge platform.

The principle is easy: More minds know more than a single one. So a mass of people combines their wisdom and experience to boost a project. It doesn’t matter if you are an individual, a public institution, a non-profit organisation, or a company – everyone can benefit from the crowd.

The benefits of crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing can help you with a lot of different work. You are looking for a new logo? Start a contest. You want to have software tested? Set up the conditions the crowd has to apply to and you can start. That’s the idea behind it.

If you draw a line from left to right that represents the crowdsourcing process, the requester or crowdsourcer is on the left side. The contributor or crowdsourcee is on the right side. He represents the crowd that takes over the request.

Crowdsourcing goes together with crowdworking

The Internet made collaborative work very easy. A lot of platforms showed up where crowdsourcer and crowdsourcee can meet. At this point the term crowdworking is often used to name all the people who work as crowdsourcees. People who contribute to certain crowdsourcing projects are called crowdworkers to specify the type of tasks they are executing.

Crowdsourcing can be started and executed everywhere, next to you or in another country or on the other side of the globe. Crowdworkers have in common that they use their free time to complete your work. Therefore crowdsourcing and crowdworking are two terms that go together very often when describing such a process.

Motivation for Crowdworking

The motivation to start crowdworking depends on a lot of different reasons: Some people do it for money, some out of altruism or fun, others want to gain reputation or attention. And some of them want to have insider information about new ideas, products and learn something new when working on the crowdsourcing tasks.

It is beyond dispute that crowdsourcing has started to change our working environment. It’s biggest benefit is the possibility to increase quality because you reach more different people than with traditional working methods. Be aware of the fact that detailed preparations have to be made. Crowdworking is only going to be a success if clear instructions to all participants are given. If there aren’t any, the quality of the work can’t be judged properly.

Link to the rest at CrowdWorker.com

Poetry

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during the moment.

Carl Sandburg

A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

From MIT Technology Review:

OpenAI has built the best Minecraft-playing bot yet by making it watch 70,000 hours of video of people playing the popular computer game. It showcases a powerful new technique that could be used to train machines to carry out a wide range of tasks by binging on sites like YouTube, a vast and untapped source of training data.

The Minecraft AI learned to perform complicated sequences of keyboard and mouse clicks to complete tasks in the game, such as chopping down trees and crafting tools. It’s the first bot that can craft so-called diamond tools, a task that typically takes good human players 20 minutes of high-speed clicking—or around 24,000 actions.

The result is a breakthrough for a technique known as imitation learning, in which neural networks are trained how to perform tasks by watching humans do them. Imitation learning can be used to train AI to control robot arms, drive cars or navigate webpages.  

There is a vast amount of video online showing people doing different tasks. By tapping into this resource, the researchers hope to do for imitation learning what GPT-3 did for large language models. “In the last few years we’ve seen the rise of this GPT-3 paradigm where we see amazing capabilities come from big models trained on enormous swathes of the internet,” says Bowen Baker at OpenAI, one of the team behind the new Minecraft bot. “A large part of that is because we’re modeling what humans do when they go online.”

The problem with existing approaches to imitation learning is that video demonstrations need to be labeled at each step: doing this action makes this happen, doing that action makes that happen, and so on. Annotating by hand in this way is a lot of work, and so such datasets tend to be small. Baker and his colleagues wanted to find a way to turn the millions of videos that are available online into a new dataset.

The team’s approach, called Video Pre-Training (VPT), gets around the bottleneck in imitation learning by training another neural network to label videos automatically. They first hired crowdworkers to play Minecraft, and recorded their keyboard and mouse clicks alongside the video from their screens. This gave the researchers 2000 hours of annotated Minecraft play, which they used to train a model to match actions to onscreen outcome. Clicking a mouse button in a certain situation makes the character swing its axe, for example.  

The next step was to use this model to generate action labels for 70,000 hours of unlabelled video taken from the internet and then train the Minecraft bot on this larger dataset.

“Video is a training resource with a lot of potential,” says Peter Stone, executive director of Sony AI America, who has previously worked on imitation learning. 

Imitation learning is an alternative to reinforcement learning, in which a neural network learns to perform a task from scratch via trial and error. This is the technique behind many of the biggest AI breakthroughs in the last few years. It has been used to train models that can beat humans at games, control a fusion reactor, and discover a faster way to do fundamental math.
The problem is that reinforcement learning works best for tasks that have a clear goal, where random actions can lead to accidental success. Reinforcement learning algorithms reward those accidental successes to make them more likely to happen again.

But Minecraft is a game with no clear goal. Players are free to do what they like, wandering a computer-generated world, mining different materials and combining them to make different objects.
Minecraft’s open-endedness makes it a good environment for training AI. Baker was one of the researchers behind Hide & Seek, a project in which bots were let loose in a virtual playground where they used reinforcement learning to figure out how to cooperate and use tools to win simple games. But the bots soon outgrew their surroundings. “The agents kind of took over the universe, there was nothing else for them to do” says Baker. “We wanted to expand it and we thought Minecraft was a great domain to work in.”

Link to the rest at MIT Technology Review

PG hopes he is not alienating too many visitors with his occasional forays into artificial intelligence. It’s a topic that he finds fascinating.

As far as relevance to TPV, PG has mentioned AI writing programs, which he expects to become more and more sophisticated over time. While PG will not predict the demise of authors who are human beings, he expects AI to continue to improve and expand its writing capabilities.

Who knows, perhaps someone will take the vast sea of written wisdom PG has produced and create an AI version of PG. Such an AI would have to possess a high tolerance for randomness, however. Much of the time, there is no recognizable logic happening in PG’s brain, so there might be insufficient scaffolding to support the development of any sort of intelligent program.

The Lawyers Know Too Much

The Lawyers Know Too Much, by Carl Sandburg:

The lawyers, Bob, know too much.
They are chums of the books of the old John Marshall.
They know it all, what a dead hand wrote,
A stiff dead hand and its knuckles crumbling,
The bones of the fingers a thin white ash.
       The lawyers know
       a dead man’s thoughts too well.

In the heels of the higgling lawyers, Bob,
Too many slippery ifs and buts and howevers,
Too much hereinbefore provided whereas,
Too many doors to go in and out of.

       When the lawyers are through
       What is there left, Bob?
       Can a mouse nibble at it
       And find enough to fasten a tooth in?

Link to the rest at Poets.org

Carver wins Moth Nature Writing Prize for ‘deeply funny’ work combining science and poetry

FromThe Bookseller:

Genevieve Carver has won The Moth’s Nature Writing Prize for “Postcards from a Fulmar”, a “deeply funny” hybrid of science writing and poetry.

The prize, run by the Moth magazine, is in its third year, and was judged by author Max Porter. It awards writing of the highest quality that reflects the writer’s relationship with the natural world.

Commenting on Carver’s work, Porter said: “It’s such an interesting and surprising hybrid, which manages to be deeply funny and very sad at the same time, an unusual feat in both science writing and poetry, even more unusual when the two are blended. The ironic and the tender are perfectly fused, and formal innovations are cleverly tethered to meaning. Both the birds and the language were thrillingly – and in unexpected ways – alive in this piece.”

Carver, whose poetry has been published in journals such as Mslexia, the White Review and the North, is currently Poet in Residence with the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences, where she’s observing and writing in response to their work studying bottlenose dolphin, porpoise and harbour seals in the Moray Firth, as well as the fulmar colony on the uninhabited island of Eynhallow in Orkney.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG didn’t know Schools of Biological Sciences had poets in residence. Let it be known that PG is available to be a poet in residence at a law school.

Are tattoos protected by copyright?

From Copyright Alliance:

Yes, tattoos can be protected by copyright.

Copyright can protect pictorial and graphic works so long as they are fixed in a physical object and display originality. Since tattoos are, by definition, fixed—Merriam Webster defines a tattoo as “an indelible mark or figure fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin or by production of scars“—the threshold question in determining if a particular tattoo is protected by copyright is whether the tattoo is sufficiently original. In the context of copyright, originality doesn’t necessarily mean “novel.” Instead, it requires that the expression be original to the author (i.e. it cannot be copied from someone else), and it must possess at least a minimal amount of creativity.

This issue becomes complicated in the context of video game depictions of tattoos. In 2012, Christopher Escobedo, a tattoo artist based in Arizona, sued THQ, Inc., the makers of the video game UFC Undisputed 2010, for its depiction of a tattoo that Escobedo designed and tattooed on the torso of Carlos Condit—who was at the time the “interim Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”) Welterweight Champion.” The case was ultimately settled out of court.

In 2016, tattoo company Solid Oak Sketches sued Take-Two Interactive for copyright infringement based on the company’s depiction of Lebron James’ tattoos in the game and cover art for the game. In March 2020, a federal judge ruled that Take-Two Interactive could not be sued for copyright infringement over the use of Lebron James’ and other players’ tattoos in its NBA 2K video game. The court reasoned that because tattoo artists know that the tattoos of famous athletes are likely to be displayed in public, they necessarily granted the players a non-exclusive license to use the tattoo as part of their likeness. In addition, the court found the use to be de minimis and transformative fair use.

Link to the rest at Copyright Alliance

9 British slang words you need to know

PG notes that the OP is dated in mid-2021, so he cannot judge the current state of British slang.

From EF.com:

If there’s one essential thing you need to get a firmer grasp on UK culture, it’s knowledge of the slang words Brits can’t stop using. Just imagine one day arriving in London and looking super strange because you can’t communicate with the locals. IMAGINE! Luckily, I’m here to teach you six common British terms you can’t live without.

1. Bagsy

The equivalent to shotgun in US English, this is what you say when you’re claiming something before everyone else, like the front seat of the car or the last scone (if you don’t know what a scone is, Google it and then sit in shame for a while. Then find a recipe for scones and make some).

. . . .

7. Uni

Want to study at a university in the UK? Make sure you’re calling it by the right name. In Britain, college means something totally different to what it means in the US, where it’s another word for university. UK colleges are for students aged between 16 and 18, who graduate from there to go to university, which is shortened to just uni. If you don’t get it right, you might end up studying in the wrong place and with people 2 years younger than you. How embarrassing!

8. Gutted

Didn’t get into the uni you wanted to go to? You’re probably really disappointed and upset – otherwise known as gutted. Where this comes from is anyone’s guess, but it probably has something to do with the sad feeling you get in your gut when you’re upset.

Link to the rest at EF.com

PG notes that “Gutted” in the US has a somewhat different meaning and there’s little doubt in PG’s mind of the source of the term outside a major metropolitan area in the United States.

After you finish fishing in rural Missouri or Minnesota (and many other places), nobody “cleans” the fish they caught. They “gut” them. Ditto for the deer you just shot. (No, it’s not Bambi’s mother.)

Without going into excruciating detail, gutting a fish involves making a long cut on the bottom of the fish, then removing the fishy parts that are not, at least in the United States, regarded as edible.

Fish shouldn’t require a gut hook. Field dressing the deer you just shot is a little bigger job. Again, without going into detail, some hunters prefer a knife with a “gut hook” blade to speed things along.

To be clear, American English includes other meanings for gut that are a bit closer to the apparent British English usage. “That took guts.” or “That was a gutsy thing for her to do.” are a couple of examples of the use of the term referring to humans, not dead creatures.

10 English slang terms you need to know in 2022

From EF.com:

Only just getting the hang of last year’s slang? Well too late, forget it. A whole new host of (somewhat nonsensical) terms have landed and it’s time to add them to your linguistic arsenal.

With TikTok’s continued reign over our society, the app has begun to dictate a lot of the slang that ends up in our daily rotation. Although not all these terms and phrases are brand new, they’re certainly popping up everywhere – and will likely continue to do so in the year ahead. I’ve (once again) taken it upon myself to compile this new lingo into a handy list for your reading (and learning) pleasure.

1. Cheugy

This word (pronounced choo-gee) has swooped in to replace old fan-favorite “basic”. It refers to the painfully mainstream or, along the same vein, someone hanging onto things that were cool years ago but would now be deemed basic or “cheugy”.

2. Rent free

Can’t stop thinking about someone? Sounds like they’re living rent free in your mind. This is most often used when you can’t get something out of your brain – whether it’s a song, video, experience or person. They’re stuck in there and they’re not even paying rent for the space they’re occupying.

3. Vibe check

Is someone acting shady or negative? Sounds like they didn’t pass the vibe check. This describes when you check in on someone’s vibe and assess what it’s giving. Good vibes? You’ve passed the vibe check.

. . . .

5. Caught in 4k

Caught someone red-handed and have the receipts to prove it? You’ve caught them in 4k with solid, digital evidence. Another popular phrase on TikTok, it can often be accompanied by the camera emoji to really bring home the fact that you’ve been exposed.

. . . .

9. Ate that

This essentially refers to someone doing a great job. For example if someone is performing a very impressive dance, when they’re done, you might turn to your friend and say “they ate that”. It can also be abbreviated to “they ate” or even “left no crumbs” (since, as we established, they ate it all).

Link to the rest at EF.com

And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.

PG posted an item yesterday titled, “Coordinating vs. Subordinating Conjunctions,” which triggered some comments that he appreciated, including one that asserted, “English punctuation is a mess.”

So PG was moved to hunt a bit in search of some excellent quotes about conjunctions for inclusion in today’s crop of blog posts.

His favorite conjunction quote is this one, which, as a bonus, also counsels the avoidance of “trendy locutions that sound flaky.”

Do not put statements in the negative form. And don’t start sentences with a conjunction. If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do. Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all. De-accession euphemisms. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

William Safire

PG is certain that visitors to The Passive Voice will warn him if he strays into unqualified superlatives and trendy locutions or fails to de-accesion euphisms and choose diminutive words in the future.

I could be content that we might procreate like trees

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that we were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition; it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life.

Thomas Browne

He has willed – He wills incessantly

He has willed – He wills incessantly – that the modifications of the mind and those of the body shall be reciprocal. This is the conjunction and the natural dependence of the two parts of which we are constituted.

Nicolas Malebranche

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is ‘gaslighting’

From CNN:

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year – and this you can believe – is “gaslighting.”

The online dictionary chose “gaslighting,” which it defines as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage,” as its top word of 2022 because it has become the “favored word for the perception of deception.”

Gaslighting is usually more complex than an off-the-cuff lie and more nefarious, too: Gaslighting someone into believing they’re wrong is often part of a “larger plan,” said Merriam-Webster.

The term “gaslighting” encapsulates some of the other common terms we associate with misinformation – “deepfakes” and “fake news” among them, per Merriam-Webster.

. . . .

We owe the term “gaslighting” to the 1938 play and 1944 film “Gaslight” (itself a remake of a film from 1940). In both, a nefarious man attempts to trick his new wife into thinking she’s losing her mind, in part by telling her that the gaslights in their home, which dim when he’s in the attic doing dastardly deeds, are not fading at all.

Both the play and film were wildly popular, with a renamed version of the play running for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, and the 1944 film earning a best picture nomination and an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. Partly due to the film’s popularity, the noun “gaslight” became a verb, too.

In the context of the film, “gaslighting” refers to the “psychological manipulation of a person over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question” their reality, according to Merriam-Webster.

. . . .

“Gaslighting” has in the last few years become a ubiquitous term, particularly in the “age of misinformation,” Merriam-Webster said. In 2017, a CNN opinion writer said President Donald Trump was “‘gaslighting’ all of us” after he denied making several statements he’d made in public. CNN’s Chris Cillizza used the word again in 2021 to describe the way Trump downplayed the severity of the January 6 insurrection.

It’s also a legitimate and “extremely effective form of emotional abuse,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has resources for survivors on recognizing gaslighting. The New York Times also this year wrote about “medical gaslighting,” when patients, especially women and people of color, are dismissed by physicians who downplay the severity of their symptoms.

Link to the rest at CNN

Freedom to Read Advocates Warn of Proposed ‘Book Rating’ Bill in Texas, Rising Book Bans in Missouri

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Freedom to Read advocates are voicing concern over a new bill in the Texas state legislature, that, if passed, would require publishers to create an “age appropriate” rating system for books sold to Texas school libraries. But most worrisome, critics say, the bill as written would not only force publishers to develop a rating system, it would appear to give Texas state officials the power to direct publishers to change ratings that state officials disagree with and to bar schools from doing business with publishers that do not acquiesce. The ratings would also have to be “affixed to the cover” of each book.

The bill is still in the early stages. Filed this week by Republican Tom Oliverson on the opening day of the filing period for the upcoming legislative session, the proposed bill, HB 338, will compete with thousands of other proposed bills for legislative action when the Texas legislature begins work in January, 2023. For context, the Texas Tribune reported that Texas legislators filed more than 800 bills in the opening hours of the filing period. While most of these bills will not advance, Tribune reporters note, the first bills of the session can often “shed light on legislators’ priorities and what battles could be shaping up in Austin next year.”

Early stages or not, Oliverson’s proposed bill has freedom to read advocates bracing for a rough 2023 legislative session in Texas, a state where conservative lawmakers—including newly re-elected governor Greg Abbott—have been among the most aggressive supporters of book bans and educational gag orders.

In 2021, Abbott demanded that the state agencies overseeing education and library funding keep “inappropriate” books out of Texas schools, and went so far as to direct agency officials to open criminal investigations over offending titles. Furthermore, Abbott’s directive followed a headline-grabbing inquiry launched in October 2021 by Texas state representative Matt Krause that singled out some 850 books for scrutiny.

In a statement, officials at PEN America called HB 338 a “dangerous escalation” in the movement to censor books in schools and libraries.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

PG didn’t plan the juxtaposition of this item with the one he posted just before he posted this item, but the combination of the two OP’s struck him as interesting.

Let’s take the author of the Female Fear post and take her back to a time when she was 8-10 years old. PG would speculate that she might well be a sensitive girl at that time, perhaps subject to some anxieties.

How would such a sensitive child, female or male, react to a book featuring LGBTQIA+ material as are some of the books that parents and others find objectionable for an elementary school library? In past lives, PG has known more than a couple of children who would have been extremely upset about discovering this sort of book in the library. Violence isn’t the only thing that may upset a sensitive child.

PG is not suggesting that children’s librarians have to make certain the fears of the most frightened and neurotic child imaginable are not triggered, but PG suggests that they do need to put the welfare of children before any ideas that it’s important for children to learn about potentially upsetting issues during their childhood years.

But, as usual, PG might be wrong.

Female Fear Is a Rational Response to Violence

From Electric Lit:

In her debut collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, Jody Keisner meticulously unpacks her fears, revealing their complex interiors. Her subject matter is diverse, ranging from 1980s horror films to parenting to adoption to wildfires to reincarnation to autoimmune disease to murder. She weaves research throughout her personal stories, which has the effect of ensuring that readers learn something about themselves and what it means to be human.

The collection is set primarily in Nebraska, but Keisner’s observations move beyond the general sense of the Midwest. She brings us murky man-made lakes as places of refuge and homes made of earth that look like bunkers. The location that most reverberates is that of the family unit. Keisner has many identities—daughter, granddaughter, wife, and mother—and each role requires something different from her; as a mother, she finds that she is best equipped to contend with the question of fear and what to do with it. 

. . . .

Sari Fordham: I loved this book and was so taken by your candor throughout. The collection is about fear, but it takes a lot of bravery to write so honestly about such a disdained topic. Was there a story that you had to talk yourself into writing?

Jody Keisner: I had to talk myself into writing the first chapter, which eventually became the title of the book. I was ashamed of my seemingly irrational fear of intruders and my compulsive nighttime “checking” of locks, behind furniture, under my bed, etc. Before I began writing about my fear and better understood where my bizarre behavior came from, I viewed both as a weakness, a childish preoccupation. I didn’t want to expose this particular weakness to the public, and I also feared that writing about it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as if my essay would manifest as an intruder. (I know. I know.) Of course writing about it helped me to see that my fear and other women’s fears of being alone at night aren’t all that irrational or childlike. While our reasons are as varied and complex as our experiences, they are also largely related to our awareness of the threat of violence from men.

A couple of months ago, I read this tweet asking how people made themselves feel safe at night if they lived alone. About a hundred people replied–mostly women–with answers ranging from knives under beds, chairs barring doors, dogs, guns, alarms, etc. I was surprised there were so many of us. For so long I had been ashamed of my “weakness.” Maybe my fear is more common than I realize.

SF: Oh, absolutely! I read the last chapter alone and in a sketchy Airbnb and I actually turned on a light before going to bed. While I knew driving to the Airbnb was statistically much more dangerous than staying in one alone, the idea of someone coming into the apartment felt much more tangible. You write: “Upward of 80 percent of American women will experience sexual harassment or assault during their lifetime.” How do you think this fact shapes female experiences? 

JK: Statistically speaking, we women are unlikely to be murdered in our homes at night or while out for a solo jog, two examples I explore in my book. But also statistically speaking, we are likely to be sexually harassed and assaulted during our lifetimes. Too many of us will be raped or suffer domestic violence. Women–and especially BIPOC and trans folks–grow up under the ever-looming threat of violence from men. Frankly, our society doesn’t seem as perplexed by this fact as it should be. To put it bluntly: if white boys and men endured as much violence or the threat of violence as girls, women, BIPOC, and trans folk do, would our patriarchal society do as little as they are currently doing to stop it? Women grow up surrounded by images of real and imagined violence against the female body, which can certainly make us feel as if the threat is greater than it actually is. Not that some amount of threat isn’t all too real, especially the threat of sexual assault. I really hope this changes, but right now, I’m teaching my two daughters to be resilient and aware.

. . . .

SF: Something I admired in this memoir is how you were able to place so many different stories in the same book, and how they all clicked together into a cohesive narrative. Could you talk a little bit about your writing process? 

JK: I write about what is on my mind at the time, what I’m obsessing over. Which is to say, in terms of structure and unity, the book was all over the place when I had a first draft. I printed out each chapter and laid them out on the floor and looked for thematic connections. I probably re-ordered the book a dozen times, which also meant I had to revise as much, so that certain narrative threads carried throughout the book. For instance, the Pain-Thing appears in the second chapter, “Recreationally Terrified,” and also appears in a few of the other later chapters. That is the result of revision and my realization that I kept returning to my fear of pain and my fear of my loved ones being in pain. Connecting themes and metaphors helps create a sense of cohesion, and so does making sure important characters – like my Grandma Grace – make appearances in chapters even when they aren’t the central focus. I was also told by an early reader that I had a big hole in my narrative, and eventually filled that hole with “Haunted,” which more thoroughly explored my childhood relationship with my father.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes that the book in question, published September 1st, 2022, currently carries an Amazon sales rank of #947,474 in the Kindle Store, despite lots and lots of blurbs in the book description.

He will rely on the female visitors to TPV to comment upon the market for books like the one described. He doubts that it is a guys’ book, but is happy to be corrected there as well.

Coordinating vs. Subordinating Conjunctions

From Daily Writing Tips:

When I received not one, but three emails telling me that I’d punctuated a sentence with because incorrectly, I decided I’d better write a post about adverbial clauses of reason.

Here’s the example that drew the criticism:

Incorrect: The famous author lives in a small town, because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city.

Correct : The famous author lives in a small town because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city.

Here are the objections I received:

1. Number five conflicts with my 11th grade English teacher’s rule. Separate the two halves of a compound sentence with a comma. Was she wrong?

2. I disagree with #5. Two independent clauses should be separated by a comma.”She doesn’t like the noise of the big city.” is an independent clause. Remove the word “because” and you have two sentences that can stand alone.

3. ERROR. “she doesn’t like the noise of a big city” is also an independent clause, and the comma is required. This is a compound sentence with “because” joining two independent clauses.

The readers are perfectly correct about the rule for punctuating a compound sentence. Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction are separated by a comma:

Polio would have stopped a lesser man, but Franklin was determined to follow his cousin into the White House.

The conjunctions used to join independent clauses in compound sentences are coordinating conjunctions. The most common coordinating conjunctions are: forandnorbutoryet, and so.

A coordinating conjunction used to join clauses has only one function: it joins clauses of equal importance. Removing the conjunction between two independent clauses will leave two simple sentences whose meanings remain unchanged. They can stand alone as complete sentences.

subordinating conjunction, on the other hand, has two functions: it joins, and it shows a relationship between the clauses that it joins. Removing a subordinating conjunction defeats the purpose for which it exists.

The subordinating conjunction because is used to introduce an adverbial clause of cause or reason. The fact that the author doesn’t like the noise of the big city explains why she lives in a small town.

Adverbial clauses of reason are also introduced by the subordinating conjunctions sinceas long asasinasmuch asinsofar as, and due to the fact that.

Reminder: When the adverbial clause comes first in the sentence, it is followed by a comma. When the adverbial clause comes after the independent clause, there is (usually) no need for a comma. For example:

Since you asked nicely, you may go to the library on Saturday.

You may go to the library on Saturday since you asked nicely.

Modern business style tends to reject lengthy conjunctions like inasmuch as and due to the fact thatBecauseas, and since are the least wordy choices. Some speakers object to using since to introduce a clause of reason because since is also used to introduce clauses of time. Ordinary attentiveness to revision ought to be sufficient to avoid ambiguity with since.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

U.S. Booksellers Embrace Books in Spanish

From Publisher’s Weekly:

A range of factors are leading U.S. bookstores to expand their Spanish-language offerings. Driven by language-immersion schools and bilingual families, many stores are now specializing in bilingual books for young readers. Others serve heritage-language customers who want to practice their Spanish, as well as language learners seeking cultural immersion.

Booksellers often flag their Spanish-language selections with bilingual shelftalkers, encourage handselling and promotion on social media, and ask book clubs for buzzworthy bilingual picks. At Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., a Latinx book club plans to read Desideria Mesa’s Bindle Punk Bruja and Tehlor Kay Meija’s We Set the Dark on Fire, and store owner Linda Sherman-Nurick sees potential in Spanish-language editions of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Not “a Nation of Immigrants”.

“Either because they are more comfortable reading in Spanish, or they want to read books in their original language as the author intended, or they are learning Spanish, people want access to good-quality Spanish-language books,” said Veronica Johnson, who operates Libros Bookmobile in Hutto, Tex. “Many Latinx folks are bilingual, and we want materials in both languages,” yet “even non-native speakers and non-Latinx folks ask for Spanish-language titles.”

While classics from Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda remain popular, readers are also gravitating toward Isabel Allende, Sandra Cisneros’s new Mujer sin vergüenza, and bestsellers like Erika Sánchez’s Yo no soy tu perfecta hija Mexicana. Several stores, including Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in Sylmar, Calif., reported strong sales of Los cuatro acuerdos by Don Miguel Ruiz.

At Palabras Bilingual Bookstore in Phoenix, owner Chawa Magaña said readers love well-known authors Laura Esquivel, Elena Poniatowska, and Samanta Schweblin, along with “Latinx authors who consistently translate their work from English to Spanish and make it easily available here in the U.S.,” such as Julia Alvarez, Pat Mora, and Yung Pueblo.

General-interest bookstores are increasing their Spanish-language offerings, too. Claudia Vega of Whose Books in Dallas said she’s “looking to expand our adult section” because bilingual kids’ books do so well. And at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, general manager John Duvernoy called Spanish-language fiction “our most reliable selling foreign-language section.”

Curious customers may not have an author or a title in mind, yet “they want titles to peruse,” said Susan Post, co-owner of BookWoman in Austin. Post singled out local favorites: Liliana Valenzuela’s bilingual poetry book Codex of Love: Bendita ternura, as well as Honduran Colombian creator Kat Fajardo’s graphic novel Miss Quinces.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

England: ‘A (Very) Short History’ Wins the £25,000 Royal Society Science Book Prize

From Publishing Perspectives:

At the Royal Society in London this evening (November 29), Nature writer and senior editor Henry Gee has been awarded the £25,000 ( US$29,927) Royal Society Science Book Prize for his A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters (Pan Macmillan, 2021).

. . . .

The jury chair, neuroscientist Maria Fitzgerald—the daughter of Booker Prize winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald—in offering the panel’s rationale, said, “This is history like you have never read before.

“Henry Gee takes us on a whirlwind journey through 4.6 billion years through the birth of the planet Earth, the emergence of life, and the evolution of man, a species that is not only aware of itself but also of what will happen next.

“As Gee races through millennia, momentous physical and biological changes are described with immense skill and dynamism combined with almost poetic imagery. The last chapter, ‘The Past of the Future,’ reminds us of our relative insignificance and that each species facing extinction does so in its own way. But ‘do not despair,’ he urges us: ‘The Earth abides, and life is living yet.’”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Writing the Science Right

From Science & Fantasy Writers Association:

Getting the science right in SF can make the difference between writing cute stories and great science fiction. If you are a non-scientist writing SF and want to know how to do that, then this blog post is for you.

Doing Background Research

If science is critical to the overall plot, research before writing. In the movie Armageddon, a Texas-sized asteroid is discovered eighteen days before it will destroy Earth. The movie’s drama hinges on that time pressure. However, an asteroid that size would have been discovered years earlier. Researching first avoids creating such critically flawed stories.

In most cases, however, the science is not plot-critical, and your research will be more efficient if you write your story first. Now, I understand that sounds crazy, but you are not writing a technical manual. What is important is how the technology is servicing the story. For example, if you want to show your commander is technologically smarter than the captain, when drafting you write:

“Commander, we need INSERT INEFFICIENT OR SLIGHTLY INCORRECT SCIENCE to fix the engines.”

“Captain, Couldn’t we INSERT BETTER SOLUTION?”

It doesn’t matter whether the engine needs rubies or milkshakes. Later, when you figure out what’s plausible, you would re-write this as:

“Commander, scan for diamonds.”

“Our scans won’t detect diamonds, Captain, but I am detecting diatreme volcanic vents. Diamonds often occur in kimberlite deposits at such structures.”

By drafting this way, we create a focused list of science questions to research.

Once you have specific questions, your purpose is to learn key vocabulary and get a broad overview. Given that more accessible information is less precise, you’ll want to do the research in stages. Museum information and online curricula for children are simplified and curated for accuracy. Wikipedia has variable quality but is good for high-level overviews. Avoid googling or using tech company brochures. Though attractive, these sources are often rife with inaccuracies or hyperbole. With your overview, you then have the tools to go deeper using science-journalism sources like PBS and Scientific American.

Beyond this, the best sources are those reviewed by scientists, e.g. public information sites from NASA, the CDC, or national professional organizations, like the American Medical Association. Finally, reviews in professional scientific journals including CellScience, or Nature are usually in-depth and balanced; and more accessible than the original articles. 

If you still have questions, you can attempt to read the original scientific articles. These can be found using specialty search engines like pubmed.gov or georef. However, these are often too technical for laypeople.

If at this stage you still have questions, then you need to speak to a subject matter expert.

Where to find your experts

In addition to authors, SF conference panels often contain well-qualified scientists. These scientists are often open to being approached and will understand what you need. Remember, however, that expertise is field-dependent, and you should target people based on their area of science (also remember this when writing fictional scientists, e.g. don’t have the physician know how to rebuild a nuclear reactor). If your question is not in their field, they may direct you to someone else. 

Alternatively, you can contact experts referenced in the papers you read. While companies may be hesitant to reveal industry secrets, academics are often excited to talk about their science. Being approached by a SF writer is often novel for them, and many will be curious to speak with you. However, it is important to be:

  1. Brief
  2. Professional
  3. Ask for a short time commitment
  4. Offer phone or email so they can choose
  5. Provide succinct questions up-front. The majority should require yes/no or one-word answers. 
  6. State at the end if you offer anything in exchange

If you are a high school student, tell them. Speaking as an educator, that fact alone would almost guarantee a “yes.”

I ask for a phone call, as scientists will often say more than they type, and it gives me an opportunity to clarify things, but never record without asking permission.

Providing the questions shows this is not a big ask and gives them the opportunity to prepare, answer by email, or re-direct you to a better authority. 

Link to the rest at Science & Fantasy Writers Association

Converting Direct Speech into Reported Speech

From Daily Writing Tips:

This post is in response to a recent reader request:

I would be grateful if you could write about these two topics: Reported Speech and Indirect Speech.

To clarify, “Reported Speech” and “Indirect Speech” are the same thing.

I’ll assume that the reader intended to ask about the difference between Reported Speech and Direct Speech.

Direct speech consists of the exact words spoken by someone.

“I am glad to be here this evening.”

Indirect or Reported Speech consists of a report made of what was said by another.

The speaker said that she was glad to be there that evening.

Direct speech requires opening and closing quotation marks. Indirect speech is written without quotation marks.

Rules for reporting speech

The report of what someone has said begins with an introductory clause and a conjunction:

The speaker said that . . .
The witness asserted that . . .
Robert Redford was overheard expressing the opinion that . . .

First person pronouns change to third person:

“I am glad…” becomes She or he was glad . . .

The verbs of the original quotation will change according to the sequence of tenses.

Present tense is changed to past:

“I am glad…” becomes she was glad . . .

Future tense is changed to conditional:

“I think that you will be glad too” becomes He thought the audience would be glad too.

Words that signify proximity in time or place change to corresponding words signifying distance away: now, today, yesterday, last week, here, these become then, that day, the day before, the previous week, there, those.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

becomes

Lincoln said that the world would little note, nor long remember what speakers said there, but it could never forget what they had done there.

Sometimes explanatory words or phrases are added for the sake of readers who afterwards read the quoted speech. For example, the indirect quotation from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be clearer with the insertion of additional information.

Lincoln said that the world would little note, nor long remember what speakers said at the Gettysburg battlefield commemoration, but it could never forget what the Union soldiers had done there.

Two other types of quotations require special handling: direct address and questions.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Nobody Knows Marketing Like Romance Authors

From Jane Friedman:

KRISTEN TSETSI: What did you like to read when you first got into book reading, and how did you veer into reading—and then writing—romance, whether paranormal or, as a few of your novels are, darker?

KITTY THOMAS: I used to love the Goosebumps books as a kid. I wanted to be RL Stine. I was a snob about romance for the longest time, even in my Goosebumps days. Even in 8th grade, romance novels weren’t “real books.” I have no idea why. I guess internalized misogyny, which is really fancy talk for… the culture disrespects it because it disrespects the feminine. I picked up on that even though nobody sat me down and told me they weren’t real books. There was just this sneering derision about them. And a lot of eye rolling around Harlequin novels.

And I certainly don’t want to crap on Harlequin novels, but romance is so much bigger than one publisher, and yet they were all lumped in together as one thing.

As a side note, I was also a snob about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I didn’t realize it was poking fun at itself and such a smartly written show). Ultimately I became a romance author because I couldn’t find the TV remote to change the channel and got sucked in to the Buffy and Spike drama. (I think it was a rerun of season 4.) I was beyond upset that Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together. I mean it was A. Thing. with me.

So when Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together (I know, spoiler, but the show is SO old. You know, Old Yeller dies at the end, too), I ended up writing fanfic to soothe my battered soul over it. Then I realized that I actually DO like romance and that maybe the love story is all I really care about, after all. (Now romance is all I really read: paranormals, dark, romcoms, sometimes alien/sci-fi.)

So I started reading paranormal romance and then writing it. But Pauline Reage’s Story of O was what inspired Comfort Food, my first darker book. It just made me mad that all these erotic books had to moralize, and the couple couldn’t be together in the end because it was “wrong.” Screw that. When you’re an island unto yourself, who cares what society thinks?

What does paranormal romance (PNR) offer that traditional, human-on-human romance doesn’t, both to the writer and the reader?

I think PNR filled the gap for bodice rippers when those started disappearing off the shelves. Publishers decided that because of sexism bodice rippers were no longer socially acceptable. I totally love when an organization makes a blanket decision about what women shouldn’t be allowed to read because it’s sexist. Ummm, did they not pause to self-reflect and consider that maybe policing women’s fantasies and acting as though we can’t handle our own reading choices wasn’t itself sexist?

It’s not as though these books were written by and for men. They were written by and for women, and then roundly rejected by mostly male-led publishing companies.

Of course now there is dark romance, so in some ways that’s the new bodice ripper. But people still do like their vampires and werewolves.

What do you think the new trend (if that’s the right word) in romance might be? Or, maybe, what would you like it to be, if you could choose?

Well, one new trend I notice popping up is reverse harems. This is where you have a story with one heroine and multiple males. But it’s not a triangle. It’s not like she’s going to “pick one.” It’s “Why not have all of them?” And it’s not two guys and a girl. That’s menage. This is usually three or four, sometimes five males who are all in a relationship with the heroine. Though honestly I think three is the perfect number for these books. After that it starts to get unwieldy. Usually this is also a paranormal romance.

A common trope is werewolves who all share the same fated mate, though I’ve seen it done other ways. I’ve also seen it done without the paranormal element. I’ve got one called The Proposal in my dark wedding duet. The heroine has decided she’s tired of men stringing her along and wasting her time when she wants to get married and have kids, so she starts rotational dating. She’s chosen to remain celibate and just date a man harem until somebody gives her a ring.

Amazingly this actually works, but as she upgrades her man harem she doesn’t realize she’s dating three men who all know each other and have decided to just share her, like forever.

I don’t think I have to explain why this sort of thing is a fantasy for women. LOL! I trust the intelligence of your readers to work it out. Though the interesting thing is reverse harems aren’t erotica. They may have sex in them, but they are romance where by the end there is a functioning and happy polyandrous unit, so it’s not just about the sex. It’s also about the feelings.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

For PG, the romance category is terra incognita. Mrs. PG has written quite a number of Regencies in years past and prior to closing down his law practice, PG provided services for several romance authors, including some who were very successful, but PG is still a naïf where romance is concerned.

For the record, if PG were to rank his author clients based upon the level of business savvy he sensed during his discussions and email interactions with them, several romance authors would be at the top of his list. They ran their careers very effectively and asked PG questions that most published authors would not have considered.

He had no question in his mind that these women (he knows men write romance as well, but these were women) were operating with more business savvy than any of the numerous traditional publishing executives and lawyers with whom he had held business/legal discussions.

Incidentally, in the OP, PG enjoyed the term, “upgrades her man harem” quite a lot.

Amazon Advertising Strategies

Fewer posts than normal because PG has immersed himself in the Zon’s book advertising world.

First, some general observations:

  1. The Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) advertising reporting/monitoring system is past due for a significant upgrade. The online piece doesn’t really take advantage of the data PG is certain is generated during the book shopping and purchasing behaviors that Amazon monitors and collects, so reliable information on which to base advertising strategies is way too thin. KDP presents its authors with only the thinnest top slice of the useful information that would help indie authors and traditional publishers alike to connect with readers who would enjoy their books.
  2. The only other source of information on advertising performance is downloaded Excel spreadsheets that are next to useless unless one spends a lot of time constructing another spreadsheet that extracts and cumulates the useful bits. PG started to build one such spreadsheet a few years ago, but decided it wasn’t worth his time. Perhaps he’ll try again, but he suspects a database would work better than Excel for this job, but doesn’t want to relearn database configuration, etc., that he forgot ate least ten years ago.

End of gripes.

The last time PG looked at third party analysis tools to help with Amazon advertising, he liked Publisher Rocket, but wanted more. What he’s really looking for is a tool that does what PubRocket does, but combines that with a tool that sucks in all the info in Excel spreadsheets to provide a more complete picture of an author/publisher’s books in the context of the constantly changing world of the world’s biggest book store.

In the meantime, it has been a couple of years since PG took a look at books that claim to show an author/publisher how to locate and analyze key information that will help in the task of spending wisely and well in the world of Zon advertising.

PG was very taken with a tech company that offered a service to automate the management of ad spending on Amazon and included some good analytic data a couple of years ago, but encountered some glitches in the system that made it appear it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. He would be happy to hear about any experiences visitors might have had with anyone doing the same thing at present.

PG thinks a great many indie authors would like to find a tool/service that gives them actionable information concerning what works and what doesn’t for their books in the swirling cauldron of Amazon’s book promotion and sales world. There are lots of sources of good business rules to follow, but PG would like to see more detailed feedback than a royalty report that shows up after he’s tried one thing or another that may not be in anyone’s book of general rules.

Feel free to put experiences, observations, opinions, ideas, etc., into comments on this post. If it’s something that you feel you can’t talk about publicly, click the Contact PG link at the top of the blog to communicate privately. PG has been a lawyer for so long that he almost automatically treats anything anyone tells him in private as privileged and confidential and he’s not into sharing business or personal secrets he learns about with the wider world.

And, no, PG is convinced that no New York publisher uses anything like what he would like to see. The time between when a book deal is signed and when book returns start coming in from Joe’s Bait Shop and Book Store as well as Barnes & Noble (are they dead yet?) makes PG’s current rinky-dink Excel-based advertising analysis and ad spend tools look like Captain Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise (is he dead yet?).

End of rant. PG feels much better now. But he’s hungry.

Sometimes, you read a book

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

John Green

A Reader

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin

Monitoring the international publishing scene

From The New Publishing Standard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

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

Another game falls to an AI player

From The Economist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

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

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

A Case for the Midlist

From Publisher’s Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

(PG has runonitis today.)

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

From The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at The Guardian