Jammed-Up Day

PG is having a jammed-up day.

It began with a long out-of-office meeting and continued with a wide range of must-do tasks that took longer than he anticipated (of course).

He has not abandoned TPV or its lovely visitors.

He needs to complete one more must-do task, then he’ll put up some posts albeit probably fewer than he usually does.

The Brontës: the unfortunate and unlikely tale of the world’s “greatest literary sisters”

From History Extra:

Charlotte Brontë steps into her father’s study. In her hand, she holds a book – a hardback volume bound in cloth, with the words ‘Jane Eyre’ stamped on the cover. “Papa, I’ve been writing a book,” she announces, rather understating the true matter of her achievement. In fact, her novel is completed, published, and is selling at almost record speed. “Have you my dear?” the unsuspecting Reverend Patrick Brontë replies, without looking up. As Charlotte continues, the clergyman slowly realises that his daughter has become a literary sensation, in secret, right under his nose. After some time, Patrick calls in Charlotte’s younger sisters, Emily and Anne: “Charlotte has been writing a book – and I think it is better than I expected.” It is good that he approves of Charlotte’s tale, because he’s about to learn that his other daughters have similar stories to tell…

This conversation, recounted by Patrick years later to Charlotte’s first biographer, occurred at the beginning of 1848. It was a tumultuous year for the Brontës, with glorious highs and tragic lows. But at this point, the Brontë women were happy, little knowing that they were on the brink of legendary – if short-lived – careers. They have since become famed the world over for their intense, dramatic and tragic novels, for which they had plenty of inspiration in their own lives…

. . . .

The tragedies started early for the Brontës. In 1821, when Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was not yet two, they lost their mother to illness. Four years after that, their two eldest sisters both died of tuberculosis in as many months. Five Brontës remained: their father Patrick, an Irish-born, Cambridge-educated vicar, the girls, and their brother Branwell, who was a year younger than Charlotte. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell, also lived with them in the parsonage of the industrial town of Haworth, Yorkshire. The unassuming grey-stone building, in its bleak setting between a graveyard and the vast expanse of the moors, became a much-loved home, to which the sisters always felt a painful pull.

. . . .

Over the next few years, the sisters took up various, generally short-lived, teaching positions. “All three girls hated being teachers and governesses,” says Barker, largely as “they couldn’t spare the time to write about their imaginary worlds, and Charlotte in particular resented the servility of the position.” Anne was the only one to maintain a long-term post, as governess to the Robinson family from 1840-45. Shortly after Anne joined the Robinsons, Charlotte spearheaded a scheme to open their own school. For this they needed a more sophisticated education so, in February 1842, Charlotte (aged 25) and Emily (23), went to a school in Brussels.

. . . .

They pushed through their homesickness to make the most of the opportunity, only returning at the end of 1842 after Aunt Branwell died. Afterwards, Charlotte returned to Brussels alone. She became forlorn and depressed, and also fell in love with her tutor. The painfully one-sided attachment would continue long after she left Brussels at the end of 1843. Back in Haworth, lovelorn Charlotte set about sourcing pupils for the school, but none were found and the entire dream was dropped, with surprisingly little regret.

. . . .

In autumn 1845, Charlotte found some of Emily’s poems and read them, uninvited. Emily was enraged by the intrusion, but the incident gave head-strong Charlotte an idea – if the sisters could gather a collection of poems, they might be able to publish in secret and, if successful, they could become professional writers. They would never have to teach again, nor would they have to worry so much about Branwell’s ability to provide. After calming Emily, Charlotte, who as Barker explains “was the only one ambitious for fame,” convinced her sisters of the plan.

Link to the rest at History Extra

My First Year as a Mother, I Only Read Women Authors. Here’s What I Learned.

When I was six months pregnant, I moved across the world, and I found myself thinking a lot about containers. First, in order to move I had to put everything I owned, including books, into containers. Then those containers had to be loaded into a shipping container that went across the Atlantic. My old life had to be folded and put away in the trunks of memory as I said goodbye to friends, quit a job I was sorry to leave, broke the lease on my one-bedroom apartment, and signed the paperwork for my spousal visa. And in the third trimester, it had become more and more obvious that my body was itself a container—one that was struggling to contain a writhing, wriggling being.

IMAGE: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The boxes carrying my things arrived at my new home a few weeks before my due date, and I put my books back on the shelf, not knowing how to organize them. When would I get to read again? As I waited for contractions to start, I read as fast as I could, soaking up the alone time. But it turned out having a baby didn’t mean I couldn’t find time to read. It just meant reading was different. I read on my Kindle app on my iPhone as the baby nursed. I spent long, lonely maternity leave days browsing the shelves at the local library, and then I read my picks while the baby napped.

But what should I read, now that I inhabited this strange, new life? The world was no longer defined by containers—I was outside of all the boxes now, wandering around in a cold new world and watching over a vulnerable, needy being who didn’t know or care what I was thinking about.

I decided to take on a year-long experiment of reading only women authors. My energy to read—and especially to be an engaged, opinionated reader—was dwindling. I wanted to find inspiration and understanding in the voices of other women. It was reductive, I knew, to imagine other women were the solution, but at the same time I craved reductive thinking. I just wanted things to be simple, and to work.

Early in the year, I found a book that let me look inside another new mother’s postpartum mind, and I recognized my own warped perceptions. The book was Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. “She had appeared as an animal,” Galchen writes about her newborn daughter. “A previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic. We were rarely apart.” Galchen’s book is in fragments, in dream-like observations and factually-presented metaphors that echoed my own disordered internal world. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a container again—a box labeled “Mothers like Rivka Galchen.” I was sure my experiment was working.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Here’s another PG experiment with a new (at least to him) WordPress block.

The two images and the text included with them are called a Media and Text block. PG likes the look and thinks it’s better than putting a big cover photo at the end of the post per one of Amazon Associates SiteStrip embeds.

Feel free to share your responses to intermingled media and images in posts. After viewing other websites that include visual media along with stories/articles, he was concerned that TPV was a little visually boring.

The downside to more image/text combos is that PG tends to wander off into OCD voyages to locate the perfect public domain/royalty-free image, so if he continues to use Media and Text blocks, he’ll do so on an intermittent basis. PG is inclined to match image sizes to text sizes a bit better if he continues to use this particular block (there goes that OCD again), so tweaking the size is likely to be an additional step.

Rapunzel, Draft One Thousand

From The Paris Review:

I call the Wig Man. He picks up. “My sister,” I say, “was diagnosed …” He interrupts me because he is driving and he is in a rush. “My store,” he says, “was looted last night.” “My sister,” I want to say, “…” He tells me he gathered all the hair that was left on the floor. “Glass everywhere,” he says. “I filled my Toyota Tacoma with all the hair that was left. I am driving home now,” he says. “Is you sister’s hair long?” he asks. It is. It is very long. “Because if it’s long what your sister should do before treatment begins is cut all her hair off and I will sew it, strand by strand, into a soft net. It’s called a halo,” he says. “I want to help your sister,” says the Wig Man. I imagine his Toyota Tacoma so stuffed with wigs that black and brown and blond hairs press up against the windows. Like animals trapped inside their own freedom. He starts to cry. I am certain he is driving across a bridge. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he says.

“Neither do I,” I don’t say.

Sewing a wig strand by strand is called ventilating. I watch a tutorial. With a needle you draw each strand through a lace net and knot it on itself. The needle goes in and then out like thousands of tiny breaths. Ventilating a wig takes the patience of the dead. Each knotted strand is like a person sewn into a free country. The knot is tight, and the net is manufactured. “Of course my life matters,” says Eli my six-year-old. “Why wouldn’t it matter?”

My sister decides not to cut her hair. Instead she lets it fall out, slowly and then suddenly. She yawns, rises, and climbs up the stairs. She leaves behind a trail of blondish gold thread, like a princess coming undone. I write six different essays on Rapunzel. All of them are terrible. I help my sister into bed, though she prefers I not touch her. On her nightstand are six glittering tiaras. She wears one to chemo. Another to breakfast. “Isn’t it strange,” I say, “that I write about fairy tales and you are a fairy tale princess?” She looks at me hard. “A sick princess,” she says.

Of all the fairy tales, Rapunzel gives me the most difficult time. 

. . . .

I never call the Wig Man back. Instead, my mother buys my sister four wigs made out of strangers’ hair. Two brown ones, and two blond. My sister refuses to try the wigs on so my mother tries them on instead.

. . . .

“Did you know,” says my sister, “that in Disney’s Tangled Rapunzel lives inside a kingdom called Corona?” “That can’t be right,” I say.

I cut off all my hair. A twelve-inch braid long enough for nobody to climb. I throw the braid in the trash and then remove it from the trash. It’s soft and dumb. “I can’t look at it,” says my mother. “Get it away from me,” says my sister. I put it in an envelope and send it to a dear friend’s brother, an artist who makes Torahs and animals and money out of human hair and skin. I mean it as an act of solidarity, but I get the feeling my sister and mother read it as an act of pointless sacrifice. To punish Rapunzel for betraying her captivity, the enchantress winds her braids around her left hand, cuts them off, then takes Rapunzel to a wilderness and leaves her there. “See,” I say to my sister. “It’s not so bad.” She looks at my short hair, and a small forest grows between us.

Other than Disney’s, in no version of Rapunzel is Rapunzel’s hair magical. It can’t bring back the dead, or heal a broken bone, or keep a woman young forever. It can’t light up dark water. It can’t be thrown like a lasso so Rapunzel can glide from mountaintop to mountaintop. It doesn’t, like his hair does for Samson, give her god’s power or the strength to kill a lion with her bare hands. It cannot keep a man from being shot for his blackness. It’s just hair.

“I’m sure Rapunzel is wonderful and not terrible,” emails a friend, “but also there’s something Sisyphean about Rapunzel …” 

. . . .

Rapunzel, my sister. I am using my sister’s cancer to write about the impossible because it’s impossible my sister has cancer.

. . . .

It is late afternoon and my sister is sleeping. In the dining room, my mother has lined up all the wigs on their Styrofoam heads. Like four extra daughters. She keeps walking by them and smoothing their hair with her hand. 

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

From Etymology of the Day:

Beginning as a slang term in 19th-century London, the stir in stir-crazy means “prison.” According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, stir may have originated as a variation on Start, a nickname criminals gave to Newgate, a notorious prison throughout London’s history. Stir, if this is true, broadened out from “Newgate” specifically to “prison” in general.

The Oxford English Dictionary first cites stir in Henry Mayhew’s 1851 journalistic investigation, London Labour and the London Poor. His interviewees mention folks “in stir” or “out of stir,” or, as Mayhew helpfully glosses, jail or prison.

By the early 20th century, stir had traveled to the United States, where crazy was added to describe “a prisoner who has succumbed to prison-induced insanity,” as slang lexicographer Jonathon Green defines it. He points out many colorful permutations: Stir-bug, stir-nut, stir-psycho, and stir-simple all referred to such prisoners who had gone stir-crazy, while stir-batty, stir-happy, and stir-looney were other ways to characterize the experience. US prison slang used stir for other terms throughout the 20th century, too, such as a stir hustler (“one who has mastered the ‘art’ of incarceration”) and stir lawyer (“a fellow prisoner who offers advice based on his own purported legal expertise”). Green also finds stir active more recently, used for “time served in prison” come the 2010s.

Link to the rest at Etymology of the Day

The Truth Is

The truth is that Trout, like Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and many others, writes parables. These are set in frames which have become called, for no good reason, science fiction. A better generic term would be ‘future fairy tales’. And even this is objectionable, since many science fiction stories take place in the present or the past, far and near.

Philip José Farmer

How do you feel about Latest Comments as periodical post?

In the latest release of WordPress, a Latest Comments block has been added. PG has dropped it in this post right below this explanation. It shows the latest five comments in reverse chronological order.

Among other things, this means that if someone leaves a comment to a post that appeared two days ago, that comment will show up as the Latest Comment, above a comment made earlier on a post that first appeared an hour ago.

PG doesn’t think this would be objectionable (although, like all comments, it is subject to potential abuse). As with anything that appears on TPV, PG can be informed of any concerns a visitor has about any content via the Contact link on the top menu bar. PG can disenfranchise chronic abusers whose words appear anywhere on TPV by eliminating their accounts or taking other steps to help keep them off the blog. It’s not perfect, but PG hasn’t noted any regular bad actors who have reappeared after being removed.

PG would be interested in opinions concerning placing one of these on TPV every day or two. Feel free to share your thoughts via the Comments to this post (at the very bottom of the post).

Here’s the Latest Comments WP block in action:

The 35 Most Iconic Caper Movies, Ranked

Perhaps a writing prompt or two.

From Crime Reads:

Here it is—the other half of our endeavor to evaluate movies about large-scale theft! This is the accompanying list to our recently released ranking of the 50 most iconic Heist movies. We wrote at the start of the Heists list, “We will be releasing an accompanying list of the Best Capers shortly after this one, so if you don’t see a film with a great heist in it, keep your shirts on, because it’s probably on the other list” and this is that list. Ta-da. These two lists were written at the same time, so this is not some sort of amendment to the first list. It is the other half you’ve been waiting for!

Why are there two lists? Because the Caper is a sub-genre of the Heist film with its own specific rules and mood. Looking at each category of films (Heist versus Caper) specifically allows for more thoughtful ranking experience, between them. The Caper sub-genre features films which are (overall) lighter and wittier than the standard Heist movie. While characters in Capers also frequently pursue large sums of shadily-acquired money or other items of value, these films are not necessarily about the acts of committing robberies, as Heist films always are. This is important, so I’ll repeat it: for a film to be a heist movie, items have to be literally stolen. In a caper, items may be stolen, but they don’t have to be; there can be swindling and cons and money-laundering and other forms of theft. Not all con movies are capers. For example The Hustler is not on here, nor is Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens, perfect examples of “Con” movies that are neither Heist nor Caper.

. . . .

What else really makes a Caper different from a Heist? Unlike the traditional Heist movie, which is usually a slick, deft, high-octane practicum, a Caper can be madcap, zany, as well as, on a different note, extremely romantic or flirty. The Caper is where you’ll find clever banter, silly sidekicks, gags, slapstick, and things generally going hilariously wrong. It’s also where you’ll find, more often than not, men in well-fitting suits who can’t be trusted or other sexy cat burglars, and tons of romantic tension. These movies are hardly gritty, they’re frequently not about the underworld. If they are, they’re funny as a result. Generally speaking, in terms of tone, if the Heist is a stomp, than the Caper is a romp.

When a movie is remade, sometimes it will move from Heist territory into Caper territory, or vice versa. Remakes like The Ladykillers, The Italian Job, and The Thomas Crown Affair occupy different categories than their originals and are therefore on different lists. As with the Heists list, keep in mind the criteria we’re using: we’re looking at the most iconic movies in this category, and we are ranking them from “worst” to “best.”

. . . .

26. The Truth About Charlie (2002)

I wish this remake of Charade, starring Thandie Newton and Mark Whalberg, lived up with what Thandie Newton deserves from this world, but it doesn’t. Cameos include Agnes Varda and Anna Karina, and those are very charming.

. . . .

21. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Michael Caine and Steve Martin are two rival con men in a race to see who can swindle an American heiress out of her fortune, in this rollicking comedy set along the French Rivera. Apocryphally, David Bowie and Mick Jagger were supposed to star in this movie which would have been… a different film entirely. A classic: put it on and you’ll put on the ritz.

20. Charade (1963)

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Charade, as much as I am often entertained by many Stanley Donen movies. Maybe it’s because I’ve just never gotten the appeal of late-career Cary Grant or because Charade is too slow for a film whose Saul-Bass-designed credit sequence promised would twist and whip along. If I enjoy it, I enjoy it for the presence of James Coburn and especially for the casting of Walter Matthau as an exhausted, sardonic American bureaucrat stuck in Paris, but anyway… Audrey Hepburn is about to divorce her husband when she finds out he’s been murdered. Turns out, he was CIA, but more than that—he was part of a group who secretly stashed stolen money during WWII, and after he dies, all his old buddies assume Audrey Hepburn knows the actual location of the treasure, and come after her. George Kennedy chews the scenery nicely as one of these visitors, a loud assassin with a hook for a hand.

. . . .

11. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

This remake of The Thomas Crown Affair ditches its predecessors grasp on neo-noir and swaps it out for sexy intrigue. One of two art-theft-related romantic suspense movies to come out in 1999, Thomas Crowne stars Pierce Brosnan as a wealthy playboy who steals art for fun, and Rene Russo as the cunning detective on his case. It’s suave and sexy without being too heavy. It’s actually probably the perfect film to watch right now. Such an escape.

. . . .

5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are teenaged con man/forger Frank Abignale Jr., and uptight FBI agent Carl Hanratty (respectively) in this perfect cat-and-mouse caper from Steven Spielberg, which is equal parts fun and devastating. Tom Hanks is overdoing it on the Boston accent, yes, but once you get past that, the relationship between hunter and hunted becomes almost as enjoyable as watching young Frank slip in and out of various snags. Also, why Christopher Walken didn’t win an Oscar for Supporting Actor is beyond me. Must of slipped right off his neck. (Actually, I confess, it’s not beyond me… that category was insane that year! Paul Newman for Road to Perdition? Chris Cooper in Adaptation? Ed Harris in The Hours? John C. Reily in Chicago? I just really wanted to make that joke.)

. . . .

2. How to Steal a Million (1966)

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole light up the screen in this perfect little caper, about a young Parisian woman who disapproves of her jolly father Hugh Griffith’s penchant for art forgery. He’s an impeccable imitator of the Great Masters, and makes a pretty penny from selling them, but when he loans a priceless statue forged by his father to a museum for an exhibition, he finds out that the statue will have to be examined in order for it to be given its $1 million insurance protection. Knowing that an examination will expose her family’s history of art crime, she decides to steal it back from the museum, somehow. Only, since she has had no interest in a criminal lifestyle until now, needs to enlist the help of sexy cat burglar Peter O’Toole to help. The heist they pull off is one of the cleverest ones I’ve seen onscreen. And the scene where Audrey Hepburn sees Peter O’Toole for the first time, when he’s peeking out at her over the frame of the painting he’s swiping, and his eyes are super blue and when he puts it down it’s revealed he’s wearing a tuxedo… no better meet-cute in the history of cinema.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Nobody ever agrees with ranked lists of “Best” whatever.

PG will opine that Charade should be ranked much higher, however.

There are photos for each movie at the link. Plus a list of Iconic Heist movies – The Thomas Crown Affair is #9.

Scientists put visions of letters in blind people’s brains

From Massive Science:

Surrounded by the buzz of medical equipment, a blind man raises his hand to a touch screen. Pop! A vision of the letter “N,” placed in his brain, flashes through his mind. He traces his finger across the screen, replicating the vision with perfect form.

It sounds like science fiction. But in a recent study at Baylor College of Medicine, researchers made the blind see. A team led by neurosurgeon Daniel Yoshor “drew” letters of the alphabet on blind people’s brains by giving them specific patterns of electrical zaps. These patterns caused the participants to “see” the letters in their mind’s eye. The results could improve medical devices for people who have experienced other types of sensory or motor loss

. . . .

The researchers accomplished this by giving patterns of small electrical stimulations to the visual cortex. The visual cortex is one of the hubs in the brain that responds to what we see. This region contains a spatial map of our field of view, meaning particular sets of cells respond to visual information coming from particular locations in our line of sight. Turn on a light on the left side of your field of view, and one set of cells will respond by shooting off an electrical signal. Turn on a light on the right side, and a different set of cells will respond.

Yoshor’s team took advantage of this map in a clever way. Because the cells in the visual cortex respond to patterns of light in space, the scientists could reverse the process — give a tiny electrical zap to a particular group of cells and cause someone to perceive a spot of light at a specific location. They performed brain surgery on blind adults to implant a small electrical device with several points of contact to the visual cortex. Each point could be activated individually or in combination with others to stimulate the brain in precise patterns. By carefully controlling the combinations of activated areas, the researchers could cause someone to “see” a specific shape, such as a letter of the alphabet.

Link to the rest at Massive Science

US Book Publishing Remains Resilient: Print and Ebook Sales Are Growing

From Jane Friedman:

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US print unit sales are up by 3.6% so far versus 2019

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US ebook sales are up by 4% versus last year—an excellent result

US traditional publishers report 4.3% growth in ebook sales through May 2020, after years of decline. All of that growth is the result of the pandemic; during the first three months of 2020, NPD showed ebook sales down 18% versus 2019. Publishing Perspectives offers more detail on ebook sales trends, with category-specific information.

Bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales are down

The US Census Bureau publishes preliminary estimates of bookstore sales, and even though print unit sales are up according to NPD BookScan, the government report shows bookstore sales declining by 33 percent in March, 65 percent in April, and 59 percent in May. The most obvious explanation for why book publishing continues to perform well as an industry: print sales have drifted to online channels, such as Amazon or Bookshop, and to big-box stores.

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt says that its sales are down about 20 percent overall from last year.

. . . .

What might happen next?


According to Kristen McLean at NPD Books, it won’t be demand that determines the industry’s future. Rather, she says it will be driven by:

  1. The stability of the channels which are currently selling and delivering books. Will stores stay open? Will the supply chain (printers, print-on-demand facilities, other delivery channels) remain resilient?
  2. The length and depth of the economic crisis which has been unfolding. Will governments help consumers, businesses and others?
  3. The pre-existing (financial) health of the businesses in the traditional book industry. Do they have the capital and the resources to get through this?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Ms. Friedman has always impressed PG as an intelligent, articulate and insightful expert on the book business. However, the questions she includes at the end of her post from Ms. McLean are not those that come to PG’s mind after reading the OP.

Are traditional bookstores important any more?

Book sales seem to have done well during at least the early part of the pandemic, but traditional bookstores have, by and large, been pretty much shut down. How many of these generally thinly-capitalized businesses will be closed permanently is an open question.

But if traditional publishing sales have held up, perhaps Amazon really is the future for readers and publishers will be fine when competing head-to-head with indie authors on Amazon’s pages.

Anything troubling about strong sales of traditionally published books in Big Box stores?

PG only has current knowledge about the Big Box stores he slips into and out of, trying not to inhale too much. His experience is that Big Box stores had been reducing the amount of floor space devoted to books over the several months prior to the arrival of the current plague. He can’t say he’s paid much attention to that element of Big Box retailing recently.

However, Big Box stores routinely sell books at significant discounts from list price. The same book at the local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore will cost much more.

PG suspects that at least some serious readers may have previously ignored the book displays in the Big Box stores on their way to fill up their carts with large quantities of diapers, soup and chocolate-chip cookies.

If book sales at Big Box stores are strong during this current time period, are serious readers going to stop buying nicely-priced books at the local Big Box and pay more at their local B&N when Covid fades into history? Or will readers default to Big Box to pick up a current best-seller? As mentioned previously, it won’t take much of a permanent decline in business to close a lot of bookstores for good.

How many people will keep buying lots of stuff (including books) from Amazon?

PG believes that more than a few readers who regularly purchased books from their local bookstore prior to Covid have continued to buy books – from Amazon. (Yes, PG knows there are other online bookstores, but he’s looking at the big picture here.)

Just like the Big Box customer, some readers who have done serious book shopping on Amazon for the first time will have become accustomed to the experience and enjoyed it. Instead of asking their good friend at Friendly Books Bookstore for book recommendations, some of these readers have discovered AlsoBoughts and intelligent Amazon customer reviews. Since Amazon always pays attention to what its customers purchase, the Amazon computers will regularly be suggesting other books the reader might enjoy and getting smarter with those suggestions.

Better prices online are also a big plus, particularly if the family income has taken a hit from Covid and its consequences.

Some readers will recognize that nobody ever got Covid (or any other transmissible disease) from buying an ebook online. Plus ebooks are cheaper and you can get them right away, any time and anywhere.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about how many people were coughing, sneezing and caressing the books in the romance section before you arrived at your local Barnes & Noble. Plus+Plus, nobody will see you browsing through the steamy titles on Amazon.

What is the new normal going to look like?

PG believes we don’t really know what the mid-term and long-term economic results of Covid shutdowns will be. A great many people, at least in the United States, are operating on credit cards, savings, the occasional government Covid check and some sort of income generated via reduced hours, one of two working spouses still working, etc.

The big economic question for PG (who is a lawyer, not an economist) is how many businesses will reopen when the shutdowns end, how many will be closed for good and what will those businesses that do reopen look like. Half of their employees temporarily laid off until business picks up? How many will never be asked to return? Some business locations reopened and others permanently closed?

What will the new normal look like and how long will it take to arrive there?

Closer to home, PG is, unfortunately, quite confident that there will be significantly fewer retail locations in the business of primarily selling books. If the local bookstore closes, how many people will decide not to travel farther to the next-closest bookstore?

Uncrowned Queen

From The Wall Street Journal:

Margaret Beaufort was never queen, even uncrowned, but her only child became Henry VII when he defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, and Nicola Tallis, a British scholar and the author of a book on Lady Jane Grey, may reasonably style Margaret the mother of the Tudor dynasty. Margaret was married to Edmund Tudor when she was only 12. She was both a mother and a widow at 13.

Margaret’s own lineage was more distinguished than her husband’s. The Tudors were minor Welsh nobles, but she was descended from John of Gaunt (Shakespeare’s “time-honoured Lancaster”), the third son of Edward III. In “Uncrowned Queen,” Ms. Tallis makes much of Margaret’s “royal blood,” but it was tainted, for Gaunt had several illegitimate children by a mistress, each surnamed “Beaufort.”He did at last marry their mother, after his wife’s death, and they were legitimized thereby, but they were also, by some accounts, barred from the royal succession. Henry VII would win the crown by conquest; his hereditary right was dubious.

Margaret had two husbands after Edmund Tudor: a duke’s son and an earl. Both matches were prudent; she needed a husband to protect her extensive property during the War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster vied for the English throne. Ms. Tallis insists that the marriages were successful in other ways, too, even affectionate.

. . . .

Margaret was now engaged in plotting rebellion—and the return of her son. It is clear that she was an active conspirator, and one can only wonder at Richard’s continued tolerance of her. Henry’s invasion followed, and the decisive moment at Bosworth came when Margaret’s husband, Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, switched sides and secured his stepson’s victory.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

What You’ll Be Reading in Fall 2020 and Beyond, According to Publishing Industry Insiders

From The Observer:

The coronavirus crisis has affected business on a global scale, and its impact has been felt throughout the world of publishing. But while most bookshops—both independent and chains—have been hard hit or had to shift their business model online, publishing itself remains buoyant.

This is partly due to the fact that although some release dates have been altered, and supply chains have had hold-ups, members of the public are turning to books for solace and entertainment during a trying time. “If there’s any good news to share at this moment, it’s that readers are coming to books. And books seem to be providing an escape of sorts,” Paul Bogaards, executive vice president of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group tells Observer.

That’s not to say the industry hasn’t had to adapt to changing circumstances. Unsurprisingly, throughout the crisis reading tastes have altered in response to events both globally and closer to home. “On a week to week basis, we’ve seen different categories of books doing well,” explains Bogaards. “One of the early trends was a spike in children’s books, workbooks, craft and game books. There was also a micro-trend which saw a spike in bread-baking books, which coincided with an 800 percent rise in yeast sales!”

. . . .

“As we got deeper into the pandemic, people started coming back to fiction,” explains Bogaards. “But they were coming back to fiction they were familiar with. Some of it was driven by viewership—for example Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In terms of hardcover fiction, familiar brands like John Grisham, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Steven King,” also proved popular.

Readers also favored backlist books (those titles published 12 months ago and more) rather than opting for newer releases. “Backlist books accounted for a higher percentage of sales than previous years, while new releases (front list titles) sales were roughly 1 percent to 20 percent lower than backlist sales,” Priya Doraswamy, a literary agent at Lotus Lane Lit, tells Observer.

. . . .

James Daunt, CEO of Barnes and Noble saw a similar trend, “We had significant bestsellers in non-fiction, and especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, books that deal with questions of race. Also books about empathy and understanding,” he said.

This increased desire for diversity in our reading may be a sign of a longer-term shift, according to Daunt. “We’ve been locked for a long time in a very static group of ‘brand name’ authors, James Patterson, John Grisham and others. And what’s astonishing is how little they’ve changed—the author can die, but brands can still carry on. For example, Virginia Andrews became Virginia Andrews ™. A lot of this is fuelled by sales in supermarkets and on Amazon. I think that may begin to change—we may start to see a more concerted effort to introduce new authors.”

. . . .

“We’ve seen a lot of submissions [from literary agents] by diverse authors, and that’s been a welcome change,” says Bogaan. “And we’ve made some acquisitions, which has been heartening.”

Link to the rest at The Observer

Plague Authors are Crushing It

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I recently heard someone refer to writers who have released books during the Covid era as “plague authors.” As a member of that illustrious group myself, I found that term spot on. No sugar coating, no euphemism, just telling it like it is. And my friends, let’s be clear: releasing a novel into a world where people are generally consumed bv much larger, more important, legit concerns than whether you can tell a good story is no easy feat.

While all the rational people out there are watching the headlines, figuring out appropriate precautions, muddling through complicated thoughts about politics, the economy, religion, health, and life as we know it, we plague authors are all like, “but, my book….”

And yet. 

I’ve made sure to tell everyone I know that my second novel, That’s Not a Thing, came out on April 14, 2020, which was the height of the pandemic in my home state of New York. The book, which is a love story set in New York City, felt like the perfect love letter to my floundering city. Even so, I wasn’t sure how or whether to promote it or if I should simply crawl under a rock and wait out the madness. 

Luckily, some of my sister authors had the good grace to release wonderful fiction during this same period, which has so greatly helped me to temporarily escape my own fears about the pandemic, my professional success, the germs on my groceries, the education of my four children, and what type of protective gear I would require before ever stepping foot on another airplane.  

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

Book Clubs and Other Cannibalization Scares

From Publishing Perspectives:

Out of the blue recently, I received a message by email, one that reminded me of Book Club Associates, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Stan Remington was the head of Book Club Associates, the biggest and arguably almost monopolistic direct-mail bookselling group in Britain and Australia.

“I’m writing on behalf of my father, Stan Remington, who is delighted to see you have set up your own publishing operation.

“He is still reading around three books a week and living in Oxfordshire. He keeps a keen interest in the world of publishing if only from the sidelines. He fondly remembers so many business lunches at Oxford. And what they led to.”

Well, I’m glad and proud that the lunches led to much new business for Oxford University Press.

In the days of retail price maintenance in the UK, Book Club Associates was the only significant place to buy bestsellers cheaply and have them delivered to your door. A reader had to commit to buying a certain number of titles every year. It worked. At its peak, more than a million households in the United Kingdom subscribed and the program’s database held the names of as many as 4 million book purchasers.

My lunches with Stan were focused on establishing whether Book Club Associates could enhance the sales of Oxford University Press books, which were rather different in content and status from the usual book-club fiction fodder. We did come up with some pretty good ideas in his and my opinions. But some at the publishing house thought we might be lowering standards or cannibalizing existing sales.

That was the first time I came across the concept of cannibalization in publishing.

The argument went that any book we sold through the book club would be one fewer we sold through bookstores, and at much lower revenue and margin. In other words, we’d be cannibalizing our own business. In the phrasing of Evelyn Waugh’s Mr Salter to his boss in Scoop (Chapman & Hall, 1938): “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

. . . .

Mass-market book clubs are a thing of the past in the English-speaking world, defeated by changing technology and business models, but their contribution to reading, writing, and publishing should not be underestimated. How we’d like to enjoy a bit of their form of cannibalization today.

. . . .

Cannibalization can be defined in many ways. According to my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1988) cannibalization means to take parts from one unit for incorporation in, and completion of, another of a similar kind. The first citation is 1944 and it relates to the breaking up of old aircraft and using the parts in new ones. Far from being a pejorative, it would seem that cannibalization was a forerunner of today’s environmentally friendly recycling movement and to be encouraged.

So my publishing tip of the month is to stop worrying about one channel for selling books potentially cannibalizing another. Instead, embrace every opportunity to reach a new audience or serve an author by saying yes first and worrying about the consequences later.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG will limit himself to two points:

A. During a meeting with a group of very good and well-compensated marketers many years ago, discounting from list price to access a new sales channel was under discussion. Someone (not PG), said something to the effect that we would be cannibalizing our own product if we did that.

The response from one of the more experienced people in the meeting was quick and concise, “If we don’t cannibalize our sales, someone else will.”

Meaning that if the price of a product was perceived by consumers as being too high, a competitor would offer a lower price and steal business.

If you successfully set an optimum price for a product, you will maximize both sales and profitability. The highest price you think the market will bear is seldom the optimum price.

B. The fact that this ancient misconception is still floating around the publishing business and requires mild correction by the author of the OP is an indication that really talented marketers coming out of college or graduate school have been and will continue to almost universally choose to use their talents in places other than traditional publishers.

Alternate employers will pay higher salaries for talent, provide an environment in which that talent will blossom and grow, and increase compensation quickly to retain the truly talented as they develop their talents.

PG finds it difficult to believe a marketing major from a quality business school would ever consider working for a traditional publisher.

Yet another reason why the field is ripe for smart indie authors.

The Forever War Over War Literature

From The New Republic:

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Jim Webb might have seemed like a weird candidate to give the keynote speech to a roomful of antiwar activists, journalists, creative writers, and academics in New York City. Remembered today as a rigid one-term Democratic Virginia senator who rode an anti-Bush wave to Capitol Hill during the worst years of the Iraq War, Webb had taken a wall of shrapnel in Vietnam, shielding his Marine Corps platoon mates from a fragmentation grenade. But by the opening of the Asia Society’s May 1985 conference on literature of the Vietnam War, he’d also become well known for the bombs he lobbed.

In 1979, Webb had penned a 7,000-word essay in The Washingtonian titled “Why Women Can’t Fight,” which got him briefly shadow-banned from the Naval Academy, his beloved alma mater. The year before that, when a California radio interviewer had joshingly asked Webb if he’d be catching a local appearance by antiwar actress Jane Fonda that weekend, Webb turned silent for a long time. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he replied, eventually. “I wouldn’t go across the street to watch her slit her own wrist.” (Among those listening were future Reagan White House personnel chief John Herrington, who would later enthusiastically recruit Webb into the administration.)

Webb was also a triple novelist, best known for the visceral 1978 Fields of Fire, the saga of a motley Marine platoon in Vietnam that he’d penned in law school, after being angered by his classmates’ reflexive antiwar politics. Now, a decade after the war had ended, Webb had been gifted an opportunity to blast the other war novelists, poets, memoirists, and critics—many of them veterans of the conflict, like him—that he thought had glutted the national conversation with anti-government narratives and leftist navel-gazing. “American society is too often narcissistic and riddled with vicious domestic debate,” he argued. “At the same time, during the war it was romantic about the Vietnamese Communists and completely ignorant, for the most part, about the implications of a North Vietnamese victory.”

He continued, decrying what he called the “Academic-Intellectual Complex.” Literary and journalistic awards, he insisted, “are lavished on those who discover new ways to question or attack government policy, to tell us where our government is failing us,” but “sometimes it takes more courage to confront the hostility of one’s peers than it does to attack that amorphous dragon called government policy.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. Webb’s speech hit the conference like a “lightning bolt,” one attendee wrote. John Del Vecchio—a self-described “token conservative” on war literature panels, whose debut Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, had been nominated for a National Book Award two years before—got stuck in Manhattan traffic on his way to the conference and showed up late. He walked in and “found the room already divided … leftist writers bunched over there, conservative writers bunched over here. It was quite a scene.”

. . . .

Perhaps broader America was ready to move on from the war, but many of its participants and chroniclers were not. “All wars are fought twice,” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would write decades later. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

This was a battle for memory. It would prove a defining one, worth revisiting today, as my generation of forever-war literati fights similar battles and, in many ways, stakes out similar paths.

. . . .

As contentious as Webb’s talking points were—his conference speech also inveighed against Soviet access to Vietnamese ports in the Pacific—the literary broadside had conveyed one hard truth. His call that Vietnam literature written by Americans should be less “narcissistic,” that it should consider the peoples, histories, and cultures impacted by foreign soldiering and not just dwell on the myopic American experience, resonated like mortar fire through the remainder of the conference.

. . . .

War literature tends to grow and evolve in this manner. First, war writers—like young writers of any subject—need time to mature their thoughts and art. (Slaughterhouse-Five took Kurt Vonnegut over 20 years to write, and rewrite, after surviving the firebombing of Dresden; Karl Marlantes took 30 years after he returned home from Vietnam to complete Matterhorn.) Similarly, the macro stories that Kakutani called for require distance to play out. Their chroniclers need clarity to wrest narrative from ruin. (Psychological trauma may have been considered a fringe idea during World War I, but it’s the bedrock of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–nominated 1991 historical novel of the Great War. Likewise, Corporal James Jones may have only had a small, frontline window into the Pacific theater in 1944, but after years of methodical research, he was able to blend his own experience and his broader understanding into The Thin Red Line.)

. . . .

“Are we going to learn, are we going to grow, are we going to repeat it again?” Ron Kovic had asked his fellow veterans and artists at the 1985 Vietnam conference. “What kind of country is this, if we would ever let it happen again?” Alas, in 2020, we have disheartening answers to those questions. The fierce resolve of “never again” turned to ash in a post-9/11 swirl of reckoning, vengeance, and yellow-ribbon patriotism. The battle for the memory of these brushfire wars has already been raging. American Sniper: for or against? In war, the only thing worse than picking a side is evading the choice.

. . . .

Our “long war” is not over. It just continues to morph into some other phase, on new fronts. Modern war writing is also shaped by the fact that our wars are now being waged by an all-volunteer force instead of draftees. If there’s one unifying principle to the work generated today, it’s a scream, a desperate howl, to pay attention to the foreign wars, to remind readers that they matter and belong to us all, even as our society gets better and better at shutting them out of our daily lives. Accordingly, the publishing world tends to treat war lit as a necessary curiosity, no matter how good or artful. (“Modern war writing is a strange thing to praise,” Sam Sacks wrote in a representative 2015 Harper’s essay, “because such praise ennobles the account while deploring the event.”) The acrimonious debates over ideology in 1985 now simply yield separate literary realities, like cable news channels: There’s war literature for liberals (moody meditations on combat like Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds) and war literature for conservatives (action-packed thrillers like those written by Brad Thor). It’s a rare work indeed that offers crossover appeal.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

PG has read a lot of 20th century history which, of course, often includes wars of various sizes, shapes and outcomes.

However, in his more limited experience with war fiction, he has observed that fiction and autobiography/biography are often blended together in sometimes obvious and on other occasions less-obvious ways.

That said, PG’s favorite book about war was written by a woman, Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth.

As many visitors will recall, Ms. Brittain’s book has been the basis of a motion picture and a BBC video series.

Note: When you click on the following YouTube video, you’ll be taken to a screen that says the video is unavailable for embedding, but you can watch it on YouTube. If you don’t mind going to YouTube, click on the link and you’ll be taken to the intended start point in a longer episode of Testament of Youth – BBC version

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

PG included this as part of a very long post earlier this month, but decided it deserved a repeat on its own for any who missed the first one or gave up partway through the earlier post.

From Harper’s Magazine:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.



Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Link to the rest at Harper’s Magazine

Ernest Hemingway’s Footsteps Through Havana

From Smithsonian Magazine:

When Ernest Hemingway penned his novel The Old Man and the Sea at his farm outside Havana, he likely had no idea the success it would receive, garnering him both a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1953 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 1954.

When it was announced, 65 years ago on October 28, that he had won the Nobel, Hemingway thought other writers were better suited to the award. “As a Nobel Prize winner I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen,” he told the New York Times, just two hours after the official word from Stockholm. “Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize. I would have been happy—happier—today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen, or to Bernard Berenson, who has devoted a lifetime to the most lucid and best writing on painting that has been produced, and I would have been most happy to know that the prize had been awarded to Carl Sandburg. Since I am not in a position to—no—since I respect and honor the decision of the Swedish Academy, I should not make any such observation. Anyone receiving an honor must receive it in humility.”

. . . .

The writer first found his way to Cuba with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in April 1928. It was a simple layover in Havana en route from Paris to Key West, but the city captured his attention enough for him to return to the country multiple times and eventually purchase his own residence there in 1940 (this time with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn). His farm was built by Spanish architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886 and sits about 15 miles outside Havana, with a guesthouse and a view to downtown.

La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway preferred to drink his mojitos.
(Creative Commons)

“I live in Cuba because I love Cuba—that does not mean a dislike for anyplace else,” Hemingway once told Robert Manning at The Atlantic. “And because here I get privacy when I write.”

Hemingway loved Cuba so much that he dedicated his Nobel Prize to the country, noting (according to the Independent) that “This is a prize that belongs in Cuba, because my work was conceived and created in Cuba, with my people of Cojimar where I’m a citizen.”

Finca Vigía

Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in Cuba. (Creative Commons)

Hemingway and his third wife, Martha, bought this 1886 house in 1940, after Martha discovered it in local ads the year before. The author lived here for 20 years, penning The Old Man and the Sea and finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, among other works, from within its walls. He and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh (who moved in after Ernest and Martha divorced in 1945) abandoned the house in 1960, following Castro’s rise to power. The house is now owned by the Cuban government and operated as a museum. Everything has been meticulously preserved as it was when Hemingway left—bottles still sit on a serving tray, thousands of books still line the shelves and magazines are still spread out on the bed. It’s all authentic to the day the author and his wife left. His fishing boat, Pilar, is preserved at the house as well, tucked inside a shelter on the property.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba 1946 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chinua Achebe

From The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell us something about the Achebe family and growing up in an Igbo village, your early education, and whether there was anything there that pointed you that early in the direction of writing?

CHINUA ACHEBE

I think the thing that clearly pointed me there was my interest in stories. Not necessarily writing stories, because at that point, writing stories was not really viable. So you didn’t think of it. But I knew I loved stories, stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder sister—such as the story of the tortoise—whatever scraps of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different, but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with his family to his ancestral village.

When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp . . . Fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal.

Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

INTERVIEWER

You were among the first graduates of the great University of Ibadan. What was it like in the early years of that university, and what did you study there? Has it stuck with you in your writing?

ACHEBE

Ibadan was, in retrospect, a great institution. In a way, it revealed the paradox of the colonial situation, because this university college was founded towards the end of British colonial rule in Nigeria. If they did any good things, Ibadan was one of them. It began as a college of London University, because under the British, you don’t rush into doing any of those things like universities just like that. You start off as an appendage of somebody else. You go through a period of tutelage. We were the University College of Ibadan of London. So I took a degree from London University. That was the way it was organized in those days. One of the signs of independence, when it came, was for Ibadan to become a full-fledged university.

I began with science, then English, history, and religion. I found these subjects exciting and very useful. Studying religion was new to me and interesting because it wasn’t only Christian theology; we also studied West African religions. My teacher there, Dr. Parrinder, now an emeritus professor of London University, was a pioneer in the area. He had done extensive research in West Africa, in Dahomey. For the first time, I was able to see the systems—including my own—compared and placed side by side, which was really exciting. I also encountered a professor, James Welch, in that department, an extraordinary man, who had been chaplain to King George VI, chaplain to the BBC, and all kinds of high powered things before he came to us. He was a very eloquent preacher. On one occasion, he said to me, We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know. I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

I once heard your English publisher, Alan Hill, talk about how you sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to him.

ACHEBE

That was a long story. The first part of it was how the manuscript was nearly lost. In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

I once heard your English publisher, Alan Hill, talk about how you sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to him.

ACHEBE

That was a long story. The first part of it was how the manuscript was nearly lost. In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored. I said, Maybe he doesn’t like it. But then why would he call me if he doesn’t like it. So it must be he likes it. Anyway, I was very excited. When I got back to London, he said, This is wonderful. Do you want me to show it to my publishers? I said, Yes, but not yet, because I had decided that the form wasn’t right. Attempting to do a saga of three families, I was covering too much ground in this first draft. So I realized that I needed to do something drastic, really give it more body. So I said to Mr. Phelps, OK, I am very grateful but I’d like to take this back to Nigeria and look at it again. Which is what I did.

When I was in England, I had seen advertisements about typing agencies; I had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed. So, foolishly, from Nigeria I parceled my manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world—wrapped it up and posted it to this typing agency that advertised in the Spectator. They wrote back and said, Thank you for your manuscript. We’ll charge thirty-two pounds. That was what they wanted for two copies and which they had to receive before they started. So I sent thirty-two pounds in British postal order to these people and then I heard no more. Weeks passed, and months. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Finally, I was very lucky. My boss at the broadcasting house was going home to London on leave. A very stubborn Englishwoman. I told her about this. She said, Give me their name and address. When she got to London she went there! She said, What’s this nonsense? They must have been shocked, because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa—well, there’s really nobody to follow it up. The British don’t normally behave like that. It’s not done, you see. But something from Africa was treated differently. So when this woman, Mrs. Beattie, turned up in their office and said, What’s going on? they were confused. They said, The manuscript was sent but customs returned it. Mrs. Beattie said, Can I see your dispatch book? They had no dispatch book. So she said, Well, send this thing, typed up, back to him in the next week, or otherwise you’ll hear about it. So soon after that, I received the typed manuscript of Things Fall Apart. One copy, not two. No letter at all to say what happened. My publisher, Alan Hill, rather believed that the thing was simply neglected, left in a corner gathering dust. That’s not what happened. These people did not want to return it to me and had no intention of doing so. Anyway, when I got it I sent it back up to Heinemann. They had never seen an African novel. They didn’t know what to do with it. Someone told them, Oh, there’s a professor of economics at London School of Economics and Political Science who just came back from those places. He might be able to advise you. Fortunately, Don Macrae was a very literate professor, a wonderful man. I got to know him later. He wrote what they said was the shortest report they ever had on any novel—seven words: The best first novel since the war. So that’s how I got launched.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

From Public Books:

Sci-fi veteran William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, presents two timelines, one in a postapocalyptic 2136 and the other in our own present. Or almost. In the latter timeline, Clinton beat Trump and Brexit was quashed, a veritable utopia by 2020’s standards. If you judge a world on how highly it values democracy, justice, or the health of the planet, ours does not come off well. What if, Agency suggests, ours is actually the worst of all possible worlds?

Well, maybe not the absolute worst, but certainly there are nefarious forces at work and people keen on making this world as difficult as possible for as many people as possible. And as the America of our actual timeline prepares for another very plausibly disastrous presidential election, this trend seems as though it will continue indefinitely. In this context, Agency and Charles Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown, ask vital questions about world-making and the agencies behind it. Whose world is this? To what ends do the powerful wield their power? And how many people are they willing to throw under the bus in order to keep their kleptocratic mitts on it?

While Agency illuminates the kleptocratic tendencies already at work in 2020, Interior Chinatown brings to the fore the intersections of those tendencies with race, immigration, and class. As our reality becomes ever more Gibsonian in its capacity for science fiction–y dystopias, Yu’s novel contends not only with the status of science fiction (SF) but also with the viability of genre storytelling writ large, a category that would include police procedurals, martial arts films, period dramas, and cartoons. Can such genres encapsulate the loss, or historical preclusion, of individual and collective agency, particularly when it comes to Asian Americans and immigrants? Building on his foray into TV writing (Yu has written and produced for HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Legion, among others), Yu has crafted his beautifully written Interior Chinatown in teleplay format. (It’s even typeset in that annoying Courier font.) In it, aspiring protagonist Willis Wu plays Generic Asian Man Number Three on the cop drama Black and White, hoping to one day land the ultimate role to which an Asian man can aspire in this universe: Kung Fu Guy.

In his short stories and in his brilliant first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu has always engaged with immigrant and Asian American experience and, in particular, with how these populations are excluded from the stories we tell about the future. Asian Americans, Yu writes, are “brochure Americans,” not the kind you picture when you close your eyes and think “American.” Interior Chinatown confronts this same racism in the binary world of Black and White’s plots and story arcs. The show can only tolerate an Asian American guest star for so long before the writers kill off the character: “There’s just something about Asians—their faces, their skin color—it just automatically takes you out of this reality.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

Five Novels Challenge Assumptions About Women in Midlife

From The Wall Street Journal:

Older heroines make a splash in this summer’s beach (or lockdown) reads.

A generation of readers is looking for characters who, like themselves, are seeking fulfillment as they age. Book buyers, the bulk of whom are women, want to see themselves in print in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and a new batch of fiction is obliging them.

“A lot of editors and readers are drawn to women who change after the long years of motherhood,” said Sara Nelson, vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp. “A very reader-friendly generation is looking for their life-changing experiences to be reflected back to them.”

There is no prototype for these characters. In Marcy Dermansky’s “Very Nice,” just out in paperback, a college-age woman pursues a romance with a famous male novelist but runs into formidable competition in the form of her own beautiful mother. Meanwhile, “The Weekend,” an international bestseller by Australian novelist Charlotte Wood that comes out in the U.S. next month, features a particularly biting scene where an older woman thinks she is seducing a man while he makes fun of her.

Older heroines have been redefining their identities in books for a long time— Amazon has a bestseller list devoted to “divorce fiction”—but often it has been their younger years that have mattered most. These novelists want to go further in challenging assumptions about their aging characters, trading away some of their melancholy for humor and drama.

Here, a sampling of the latest novels focused on older women.

The Motion of the Body Through Space

Lionel Shriver

Serenata, a compulsive runner sidelined by wrecked knees, is an iconoclast who disdains many things, including her nonathletic husband’s sudden decision to run a marathon. “She herself was only 60, though hers was the first generation to append ‘only’ to such a sobering milestone,” Ms. Shriver writes.

The couple can still remember each other as young people, which allows for a bit of forgiveness as they start to fall apart. But in Ms. Shriver’s hands, no marriage is safe. Coast at your own risk.

“I liked the idea of a marriage suddenly being put in this state of peril and fragility right at the point where they need to be able to rely on each other,” said Ms. Shriver, 63. “It has a kind of drama to it. If you’re writing about a youthful romance, it’s not on the same scale.”

Once an avid runner who also suffered knee problems, Ms. Shriver is interested in the fight to stay fit into older age. “No matter how many press-ups you do, you’re still going to get old, and then you feel as if that decay is your fault,” she said. “Experiencing that decay is at its least bittersweet. At its worst it’s simply bitter.”

‘All Adults Here’

Emma Straub

Astrid witnesses a school bus run over an acquaintance. The jolt convinces her to face her mistakes as a parent of three struggling adult children. A 68-year-old widow who loved her husband, Astrid also comes out to her kids about her new girlfriend.

“How long have you been lying to us?” her son sputters. One of her daughters is laughing: “Honestly, I’m impressed.” A supportive grandchild tells her “NFG.” (Look it up.)

Ms. Straub, 40, had assumed she would center her book on Astrid’s daughter, roughly the author’s age. But she gravitated to Astrid instead, interested in the older woman’s perspective, her ability to see her own role in the way her grown children turned out.

The novelist, who owns a bookstore in Brooklyn, is aware of all the young heroines out there. But she also is inspired by writers like Elizabeth Strout, who, in “Olive Kitteridge” and the 2019 follow-up “Olive, Again,” imbued her characters with what Ms. Straub called “more humanity and respect than old people often get in life and in fiction.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Reading Every Unread Book on My Bookshelf During the Pandemic

From The Literary Hub:

If you climb out my kitchen window onto the fire escape, you look down on our building’s tiny, lush garden. An elderly Polish couple used to live on the ground floor, with their toy-sized fluffball of a dog. The husband never acknowledged my greetings, but he and his wife brought the garden lovingly to life every spring. Two years ago, when they moved out, the landlord’s son moved in and left the garden to its own wildness. It’s choking to death now on its own weeds.

I’m out there all the time since New York’s quarantine began three months ago and left me feeling skittish about city parks—even a view of strangled greenery feels at least a little like summer. There is a tangible feeling of the neighborhood viewed from the fire escape that doesn’t exist from our other windows, which face a drab, imposing luxury building. Out there, I can see the neighbors’ back gardens, too. I can see the roof deck two blocks away, where a young (usually shirtless) father brings his baby out to wave to neighbors. I watched new construction climb on the lot behind ours, its crew working throughout the pandemic. I saw their communal lunch hour become socially distanced, their Friday evening drinks (beer in Solo cups, still wearing hard hats) suspended.

As a child, I watched Rear Window and told myself that city life would be just like that; I would know my neighbors’ routines and foibles and secrets as well as I knew my own. I haven’t seen any murders from the fire escape, and I’ve restrained myself from peering into any windows. But only in this unusual season, out there more often than ever before, have my own daily rhythms come to match those of my neighbors. In the evenings, I climb out with a glass of wine for a muted happy hour, just before everyone floods their windowsills for the seven o’clock appreciation cheer. In the mornings I sip my coffee in the sunshine, nodding to the neighbors on balconies sitting hunched over laptops, answering emails. And always, at whatever time of day, I take the book I’m reading.

. . . .

I flew home to Los Angeles. The visit had been planned for weeks. My mother’s February visit to the ER resulted in her being rushed into emergency surgery, and a month later, she was still recovering.

The thing about my mother’s house is that books cover, and I mean this quite literally, every single available surface. Stacks clog the living room floor, spread across her bed like laundry dropped from an upturned hamper, Jenga themselves to precarious heights on side tables. When I visit at Christmas, I behave like a Victorian invalid: curling under cashmere blankets, accepting endless cups of tea, reading for hours on end.

But in March she was the invalid, and I was purportedly the nurse. I stocked her pantry, retrieved her medications from the pharmacy, frantically pounced on any stray bottle of cleaning product I spotted on her drugstore’s desiccated shelves. But I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus on anything but Twitter. I watched Governor Cuomo’s press conferences for no discernible reason, frozen in a benumbed slouch. I fretted that my flight back would be canceled, then read about super-spreading and felt like a villainous moron for having made the trip at all. I drank far too much of the wine my mother always lays in for my visits and tried to read a Russell Banks novel about the brutal callousness with which our society treats sex offenders. It was not a book for the moment. 

. . . .

Safely back in Brooklyn, I decided that I couldn’t live that way for months, my thoughts never alighting on anything longer than a news graf. I needed to impose some discipline. I needed to escape from my own brain, and the only way I’ve ever understood how to do that (without recreational substances) is reading.

I make that distinction with only a slight wink: the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I’ve arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of “research” or “craft,” as if I only dip into someone else’s fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own. I gushed once, at a reading for my first novel, that I “would never love writing the way I love to read,” then felt my cheeks burn when the acclaimed novelist next to me arched one eyebrow.

. . . .

There have been various times, though, when I’ve found myself unable to read anything at all. Those are warnings, usually my first indication that I’m slipping into a blackness that will be slow to shake, periods when what I usually regard as an innate “moodiness” verges into something less manageable.

I sat in my living room in late March and knew that I wanted to guard against this. My fear, my paralysis, was no longer a question of my own projected failures and cultivated neuroses. It was, frankly, a logical response to the roiling world outside the apartment where I’d be hunkered down for the foreseeable future. I needed a reading project, I thought, and the libraries were closed. I stared at my bookshelves.

My books are arranged by color, alphabetized within each shade. The first shelf holds the blue spines, and as you move down the line you pass the reds, the yellows, the blacks and the whites and the shelf reserved for colorful, unclassifiable jackets. In quarantine, I decided, I would read through the shelves in order. I would read every single book I had never picked up. There would be no skipping allowed and no rereading of old favorites permitted. I would have to finish every book. I posted a picture to Instagram, just to make it official, and started the next morning.

. . . .

The “project” did not begin auspiciously. The very first book was A Death in the Family, by James Agee. It was quiet and gray and mournful. It was not what I wanted to read in the third week of March. I would never have picked it up of my own volition, but this felt like someone else’s volition. It was a relief, some organized authority telling me what to do amidst an apocalyptic lack of organization, even if that someone was an amorphous force I’d made up. My brother teased me—why wasn’t I allowed to “break the rules?” But I wasn’t.

I read Lucia Berlin, whose stories I had been “meaning to read soon” for four years. I read All the Light We Cannot See, a book I’ve discounted in the past surely just because I’m jealous of its eye-popping success, and found it an absorbing, delightful distraction. I read White Noise, which I’m pretty sure I had previously claimed to have read but absolutely never had.

In a serendipitous turn, I picked up The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Mother’s Day, when I was already thinking about my Australian grandmother. She moved to Los Angeles after the war to marry the young American naval officer she met in Sydney, a boy who had survived Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal. Richard Flanagan’s novel is a grueling read, moving from rural Tasmania to mainland Australia to a Japanese POW camp in Burma. But it made me feel, as I read, close to my grandparents again. They are both dead now, and neither one of them was ever greatly interested in telling me about their lives before they settled together in southern California. I asked my grandmother once what had drawn her to him, and she shrugged as she told me simply that he was the first boyfriend who survived. They were two unhappy people, irreversibly scarred by a war that began when they were little more than teenagers. But they stayed married until the day he died. I finished the novel just before Memorial Day.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

How to Survive a Pandemic, According to an Academic Publisher

From Publishers Weekly:

Like all businesses, Oxford University Press has responded rapidly to the changing market conditions and customer needs resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. The stages we’ve gone through will be recognizable by anyone in the sector: an initial rush to enable remote working, extensive financial scenario modelling, and then accelerating digital programs and sales in anticipation of a very different-looking post-pandemic world. It’s been demanding, but with lots of learning points along the way.

After reviewing the past four months of our activity and talking to colleagues at other houses about how they’ve responded, I recommend publishers and IP businesses take these five steps to stabilize their operations and position themselves for what comes next. Most of these are simply good business responses, but I hope they are helpful as a checklist.

1.Shorten your planning time horizon and carve out spare bandwidth. In publishing, planning horizons are generally 18–24 months. We’ve shifted ours to six. Which of your activities have the most immediate return? Could longer-term projects be put on hold? Carve out capacity (even if you’re not sure where to deploy it yet) by deciding what you can afford to stop. This shift in perspective will help you identify and redeploy resources to support short-term, opportunistic activities.

. . . .

4. Adopt a short-term omni-channel approach to exploiting your IP. Leaning more on licensing and digital sales distribution can generate fast, incremental income and yield new customers. We are often guilty of foregoing immediate sales because of a bigger potential sale down the line. But right now users want easy access to more digital content; they are more likely to select yours if it is available in the services and vendors they already use. If you’re holding off on activating indirect routes to market for your content to protect high-margin direct business, rethink that strategy. Consider experimenting with new aggregator relationships. Take more risks licensing your IP. It might be messy, but it will maximize short-term return when you need it most.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

For Eons, Iceland Has Endured Calamity Through Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

When the volcano Eyjafjallaljökull erupted in Iceland in 2010, the curator of the nearby Skógar Folk Museum took with him only one thing. He had 15,000 objects to choose from in the museum, and he paused, surrounded by the personal and material history of a nation. He walked out with a book in his hands.

The great question that has always loomed over Iceland is how anyone has survived there. It is a legacy not of Viking swagger but of literacy. We cannot fully know how Iceland will fare during the current crisis, although its civil sensibility—alert to data and determined to look after everyone—has left the country, six months into the global pandemic, monitoring just 12 cases. We do know that for generations, austere Iceland has had a surprising history of weathering calamity through books.

Iceland is home to 366,130 people, and when the world could still travel, it was attracting 2 million tourists a year. That is more visitors in a year than the sum total of all the Icelanders who have ever lived.

. . . .

Yet the Icelanders found ways to survive. Iceland is inhabited only along the edges, its highland heart too capricious and punishing to be livable. It has no metal, hardly any workable clay, lumber more often in the form of driftwood from Siberia than trees grown on its own volcanic soil. For a very long time, it was among the poorest countries in Europe. But Iceland invested a long time ago in language and literacy and books.

Poetry was sung across valleys from one shepherd to another. The island’s famed sagas, and much more, were written out as early as the 12th century. Manuscripts were copied at a prodigious rate. Around 1530, the first printing press on the island was shipped to a Catholic bishop. Catholic clergy were killed when Iceland converted to Protestantism in 1550; the altars of churches were burned. But the printing press was untouched, and afterward, the bishop at Hólar used it to produce the first complete Bible in the Icelandic language.

At least one was distributed to every church on the island. Published in 1584, that Bible was 600 pages long, printed in an edition of 500 books, each one valued at the price of three cows. Every parish in Iceland had to pledge to buy one. A few remain in their original houses of worship. This is the book that the curator of the Skógar museum elected as the only thing to save.

In that same century, Iceland instituted mandatory literacy. By the 17th century, every Icelander was guaranteed the right to an education, with a tutor sent to each farm for a month every year. By the end of the 18th century, according to the sociologist Richard Tomasson, Iceland was the only country in the world to have achieved near universal literacy.

. . . .

This is the wisdom of a country that touts a 100% literacy rate, publishes the most books per capita of any nation and reports that 10% of its citizens will not just write but publish a book in their lifetimes. Iceland refers to itself as a bokathjod, a book nation.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Crime Fiction Is Complicit in Police Violence

From Electric Lit:

Every genre has its preoccupation, and the central preoccupation of crime fiction is justice. But in this moment of political upheaval, where our notions of justice are subject to intense scrutiny, we must ask what role has crime fiction played in getting us here. 

In a traditional mystery, the plot begins with a crime and we follow a character seeking to find out what happened. We are satisfied when we finally find out who did it and the guilty party gets their comeuppance. This effective plot structure has time-tested stakes and conflicts. We can explore political issues that drive or motivate individual acts of violence or law-breaking. Cops, private eyes, FBI agents, amateur detectives, attorneys, forensic scientists and others can all get in on the action. 

Crime fiction has also been a site to explore the shadow side of the law: corruption, brutality, and misuse of authority. Many endings are not so neat, with ambiguities and gray-area solutions. 

Yet overall, the genre has validated the underlying assumption that police are the good guys, and if they’re not, they should be. There is no widespread critique or questioning of the whole paradigm of police and prisons as a system. And even less envisioning of any alternatives. 

The typical perspective of police procedurals has helped create the myth of police as heroes. White male police have dominated decades of crime literature, TV, and film, with Black people and people of color stereotyped as violent criminals. Since the first half of the twentieth-century, our popular culture has shown the world of crime from a white male perspective and has validated white male characters’ right to use violent and deadly force according to their own judgment.

Intentionally or unintentionally, crime fiction has been a propaganda machine of fictional stories to back a central lie of our culture: that police are here to protect and serve everyone. In the current political moment, when this myth has been exposed, TV shows are being cancelled. Unscripted TV shows like the COPS and Live PD are being taken off the air, despite their success, because the producers know they are heavily edited narratives that manipulate viewers. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “How White Crime Writers Justified Police Brutality,” author John Fram traces how fictional police shows, from the ‘50s to the present, have had to be produced in partnership with police departments. Show creators were keenly aware that they would need to provide an overall sympathetic portrayal of the police in order to survive. Yet as Black people have been saying for a long time, the good guy vision of police is a cultural myth. And the latest police murders of Black people are not an aberration, they are a natural consequence of the systemic racism embedded in the institution. George Floyd’s death actually means that the system is working as it should.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The OP neglected to mention that, before crime fiction, police brutality and race-based violence were unknown.

While PG does not defend the improper use of force by anyone, police officer, bank robber, participants in bar fights, etc., etc., the author of the OP operates under an unspoken premises that a great many people of every race and ethnicity who write this type of article do:

  1. The author is the only one who sees things as they really are. Everybody else is an idiot who believes everything he/she sees on television or in motion pictures is true.
  2. The author never comes to conclusions which are incorrect based upon what the author has heard, read, seen in various places, etc.
  3. The author is the one of the very few who is in a position to sort others and their behaviors into clear-cut categories of good/not good.
  4. The author is a mind-reader, capable of discerning the thought processes of others, how and under what influences their thoughts are formed and identifying the flaws in those thought processes and their creation of which the individual with those thoughts is unaware.

Authors Guild Signs Letter in Support of Anti-SLAPP Statute

From The Authors Guild:

On July 14, the Authors Guild, along with many publishers and other media organizations, signed a letter to Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature urging them to pass a bill designed to update and strengthen New York State’s current anti-SLAPP statute. As the letter states, “SLAPP lawsuits are an intolerable form of private censorship. It is more critical than ever that New York, the media capitol of the world, provide robust protection against meritless claims designed to chill speech.”

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—or “SLAPP” suits—are baseless lawsuits intended to keep individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights to speak about and act on public issues. There has been a dramatic increase in litigation designed to chill constitutionally protected speech in recent years; within the past month alone, there have been two separate lawsuits brought to quash books critical of President Trump. Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to provide defendants with a mechanism to resolve lawsuits that implicate defendants’ First Amendment rights without incurring the kind of devastating legal fees that the plaintiffs of these baseless lawsuits can otherwise force defendants to incur. As the New York State Bar Association Committee on Media Law stated in its memo in support of the bill, “funds that would have gone to reporters, editors, and producers are instead spent in a defense of a lawsuit.”

New York’s current anti-SLAPP law is less protective of free speech than the laws of 30 other states and is in dire need of amendment to protect the state’s thousands of journalists and authors.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

PG is generally supportive of Anti-SLAPP protections.

He will point out that lawyers will be representing people and organizations on both sides of such litigation.

For any who take offense at that idea, PG will go back to his early years in the private practice of law in a low-income rural area.

Before the advent of Public Defenders, when a destitute individual was charged with a crime, providing that individual with an attorney was the responsibility of the judge presiding in that case.

PG’s first appointment was made by a judge who correctly concluded that PG had extra time on his hands and he proceeded on his first criminal case. The individual implied that he might possibly have done something he shouldn’t have done.

The practice of most criminal defense attorneys is to never ask a client if she/he is guilty of the committing a crime. A recommended approach is to ask the client what the police claim she/he has done, then ask about where the police went wrong, whether anyone can testify that the defendant was somewhere else at the time the alleged crime was allegedly committed, etc.

The overall idea is that, when the state focuses its powers and authority for the purpose of punishing an individual who is probably unfamiliar with the law and its complexity, the accused should have access to someone with legal expertise to provide assistance and require that the prosecutor prove the state’s case as required by applicable laws before the individual may be punished.

It is not unusual for a prosecutor to over-charge a defendant. The defendant may have done something wrong, but the prosecutor files a charge that is more severe than is likely supported by the facts or is not appropriate if the facts are different than the prosecutor or police believe they are.

PG could go on (there’s a first time for everything), but he’ll stop now.

over-egg the pudding

The title is a delightful Britishism PG stumbled upon earlier today while reading an article he deemed too obscure for even him to post (even for him to post?).

From The Phrase Finder:

To ‘over-egg the pudding’ is to go too far in exaggerating or embellishing something – to adorn or supply to excess.

. . . .

‘Over-egg the pudding’ is an English phrase and first appeared in the mid-19th century. It originated as a simple literal phrase alluding to the way that baked foods may be spoiled by using too many eggs.

The earliest examples of the phrase in print that I know of are from 1845 Robert Smith Surtees’ novel Hillingdon Hall, 1845:

‘We mustn’t over-egg the pudding,’ as the Yorkshire farmers say.

Francis Kildale Robinson’s A glossary of words used in the neighbourhood of Whitby, 1876:

He ower-egg’d his market.

As the first of these refers to ‘over-egg the pudding’ as a Yorkshire expression and the second relates to the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby, it’s reasonable to surmise that the pudding in question is a Yorkshire Pudding.

Link to the rest at The Phrase Finder

And regarding  A glossary of words used in the neighbourhood of Whitby, from Google Books:

Link to the rest at Google Books

The Allure of the Celebrity Outlaw

From The Wall Street Journal:

Near the midpoint of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director George Roy Hill’s 1969 buddy movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the outlaws barge into the office of a Wyoming sheriff. Anxious to evade the hard-charging posse tracking them after a pair of train robberies, the duo beseeches the lawman—who has a soft spot for the rogues—to intercede on their behalf with the federal government. Butch explains that they would happily serve in the Spanish-American War, adding gamely: “They don’t even have to make us officers.” But the sheriff demurs, insisting, in one of the film’s most quoted passages: “Now you shoulda let yourselves get killed a long time ago, while you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing ever hit this area, but you’re still two-bit outlaws. . . . Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody! And all you can do is choose where.”

Some readers of journalist Charles Leerhsen’s new biography of Cassidy will come to share the sheriff’s dim view of the sweep of Butch’s life and career, agreeing that he was scarcely more than a charming desperado. But Mr. Leerhsen himself drinks deeply from the watering hole of myth. The author of three previous books as well as the co-writer of Donald Trump’s “Surviving at the Top,” Mr. Leerhsen asserts that, contrary to the less-flattering portraits offered by scholarly “sourpusses,” Cassidy was “a good guy, a curiously good guy, a friend to you and the bane of your oppressors—a kind of hero, really, at a time when something like war was brewing between the haves and the have-nots of the intermountain West.” Alas, little in “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw” supports such a generous assessment.

Robert LeRoy Parker was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah Territory, the eldest child of young Mormon émigrés who had fled the grim industrial conditions of mid-19th-century England. As a boy, Bob seems to have tired quickly of his family’s destitution; according to lore, he committed his first theft—if one can call it that—at the age of 12, when he liberated a pair of overalls from a local store, leaving behind a signed IOU. By the early 1880s, he had earned a reputation as an excellent ranch hand, skilled with cattle and horses and apparently not above stealing the occasional animal, though never from his employer—“honor among thieves” was his credo, Mr. Leerhsen notes. It was also around this time that he adopted his alias, deriving, it seems, from a stint he pulled as a meat cutter coupled with an homage to an early criminal mentor named Mike Cassidy.

Butch graduated to bigger capers in the late 1880s when he fell under the sway of a bandit named Matt Warner. On June 24, 1889, Warner and Cassidy held up the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, Colo., making off with $22,350 (more than $600,000 today). For the next decade, Cassidy worked long stretches as a cowboy throughout the West punctuated by bank and train heists committed by his gang, the Wild Bunch, which in 1896 added a moody and laconic Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka “the Sundance Kid.” Hounded by lawmen, the two escaped to South America in 1901, joined by Ethel Place, Longabaugh’s girlfriend. They went straight for a time but found the bandit life difficult to resist. Shortly after waylaying a mining-company courier and making off with the payroll, the two were discovered in San Vicente, Bolivia, where, after a shootout with soldiers and local police, they took their own lives on Nov. 7, 1908. Butch was 42.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

While offensive TV shows get pulled, problematic books are still inspiring debate and conversation

As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogues looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”

“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.

Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.

. . . .

The great reckoning now sweeping across pop culture has been working through the stacks of literature for far longer. The effects of time are twofold: Most books have fallen into dust, along with the racist values they imbibed. And those few texts that survive have been subjected to rigorous — and ongoing — debate.

Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”

As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?

. . . .

Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.

. . . .

That is the nature of literature. The words on the page may be frozen, but we’re not. To engage with them carefully and with each other civilly is to reap a better understanding of who we were and are.

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Is PG the only one who is revolted by the constant use of the term, “problematic”?

YOU get an open letter!

From Nathan Bransford:

This week in open letters! I mean books!

This was the week of Open Letters to Solve Everything. First, a group of luminaries led by Thomas Chatterton Williams including J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Malcolm Gladwell published an open letter that bemoaned an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” and, though it wasn’t named as such, “cancel culture”:

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

The letter was swiftly ridiculed, the ridiculers were ridiculed, and then we got a new open letter by a separate group of luminaries who questioned the accuracy of the first letter’s claims and criticizing it for ignoring the problem of who has the power.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG wonders if open letters are the next big literary genre.

Far easier than writing something people will pay to read.