The Miraculous Salman Rushdie

From The Atlantic:

Salman rushdie’s new novel, Victory City, purports to be the summary of a long-lost, 24,000-verse epic poem from 14th-century India. The hero and author of the poem is Pampa Kampana, who as a girl becomes the conduit for a goddess, channeling her oracular pronouncements and wielding her magical powers. She later causes a city to rise overnight from enchanted seeds, presides as its queen, and lives to the age of 247. The city she founds becomes a utopia—a feminist one, I’m tempted to say, because in its heyday women are equal to men. But really, when women flourish, everyone flourishes: male and female, native and foreigner, Muslim and Buddhist and Jain, gay and straight and bisexual. This liberal Xanadu goes on to become a great kingdom and turns distinctly illiberal. Pampa is forced to flee and hide.

The novel is titled Victory City not so much because that’s the city’s name—though briefly called that (Vijayanagar), it was soon rechristened Bisnaga—or because Pampa emerges victorious. She does not. The title comes from the last passage of her poem, written at the end of her centuries-long life. Casting her mind back over the rise and fall of her empire, she asks how its kings and queens will be remembered. Only through words, she answers—her words:

While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both.
Now they are neither.
Words are the only victors.

Just by dint of ending up in our hands, Victory City vindicates Pampa’s bittersweet faith in literature. In a sense, that’s true of everything Rushdie has published since 1989, when he went into hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, in this case condemning Rushdie to death. His books could so easily not have been written. But Victory City is especially precious. For one thing, it comes out a mere six months after a self-avowed admirer of Khomeini finally got to Rushdie, assaulting him on a stage and stabbing him repeatedly in the neck and torso. Rushdie lost the use of an eye and a hand. He may have still been working on this novel; he may have finished it already. Readers will easily spot general parallels between our hero and her creator—both are prolific world-builders; both must elude political assassination—but a few of them seem to reproduce with eerie specificity the events of the summer. We don’t know whether he added those afterward or life imitated fiction, as it sometimes does. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that Victory City is a triumph—not because it exists, but because it is utterly enchanting. Words are the only victors.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Mr. Rushdie’s latest book is published by Random House and the release date is five days after the date PG posted this item, so, of course, Random House has disabled the Look Inside feature for Amazon ebooks because, as everyone at Random House knows, no prospective purchaser of a book ever opens it up to check out the first few pages.

Randy Penguin will allow you to preorder the ebook on Zon, but doesn’t give you the ability to get an idea of whether you would like it or not.

Maybe the Book Doesn’t Need to Be “Disrupted” in the First Place?

From Counter Craft:

A dozen years ago, I was out of grad school and desperate for a job. (Ideally one I could slack off in while I wrote my novel.) I ended up in the offices of a tech startup that had big plans to use the emerging tech of ebooks to innovate, amplify, revolutionize, and fundamentally disrupt the entire concept of books! The exact name of the company doesn’t matter. There were plenty of them. “Enhanced ebooks” were buzzed about in every newspaper and VCs were tossing millions at anyone who could put “gamify” and “publish” in the same sentence. The future was here, and these radical techno-books would make Gutenberg look like a troglodyte.

How would books be revolutionized? That was less clear. Mostly the plan seemed to be adding pop-up videos and images to ebook files. You could be reading The Great Gatsby and click on the sentence “a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” and see what a green light looks like I guess.

It seemed silly to me. Beyond a few specific types of books—a high school history textbook, say—few people are looking to have their reading experience constantly interrupted by pop-up videos. It’s distracting enough reading with cellphone text notifications going off. The last thing I want reading a novel is to pause mid-chapter and watch a video clip.

Perhaps my face showed my skepticism. I didn’t get the job. But 12 years later—a lifetime in tech—and the book is in more or less the shame shape it was 12 years ago or 120 years ago. “Enhanced ebooks” went nowhere. Ebooks themselves certainly exist, but despite all the hype about new fancy features most ebook readers—themselves a minority of book buyers—want their digital books to resemble printed books about as closely as possible.

In the intervening years, I’ve seen countless versions of enhanced books hyped. Last year, there were articles about how “web 3” and crypto would completely change publishing by [something something string of jargon] block chain! All the magazines publishing daily articles on Web 3 and NFTs have stopped talking about them, seemingly in embarrassment as the crypto space has been exposed as a series of Ponzi schemes.

. . . .

So naturally everyone who, last year, was declaring crypto would revolutionize every aspect of life have pivoted to saying “A.I.” will revolutionize every aspect of life. And, like the tweet above, that means lots of predictions about how the book will be disrupted. (Commenters to the above tweet also suggested putting books in the “metaverse” so you can “live” books instead of read them, whatever that means…)

Link to the rest at Counter Craft

PG has a long-neglected post category on TPV for Enhanced Ebooks.

He created the category several years ago when there was lots of buzz from a variety of locations predicting enhanced ebooks would sweep over both traditional publishing and self-publishing.

PG just checked in the TPV archives and found he hasn’t applied the Enhanced Ebook post category for since 2019 and that tag was for a post titled, Why Did Interactive Ebooks Never Catch On?

He used the Enhanced Ebook tage 3-4 times in 2018 and decided he wouldn’t dig into the super-deep archives to check on prior instances of Enhanced Ebook posts.

PG posits a few reasons for the Enhanced Ebook flame-out:

  1. It’s a lot of work to write a book that consists of words on a screen and spending a lot more time doing whatever meaningful enhancing that might strike an author’s fancy is likely to take a lot more time to avoid the lame/fail tag, thus preventing the author from working on the words for her/his next unenhanced ebook.
  2. Talent in using a word processing program to put words on a screen and hard drive is quite a bit different than creating illustrations, find the clue games, etc., so the large majority of successful/semi-successful indie authors would have to recruit someone else to do that sort of thing. PG expects that, just like the author of the words, the author of the enhancing would generally like to be paid for his/her/their work.
  3. For a traditional publisher, enhanced ebooks look like another cost item on the profit/loss spreadsheet which the big bosses in Europe would never approve. Plus, nobody ever got fired in publishing for doing the same thing over and over.
  4. There is no accepted standard for enhanced ebooks, so what sort of devices/apps will need to be developed for enhanced ebooks and do you grandfather in PG’s 2015 Paperwhite ereader or an iPad that’s five years old, or various versions of Android, etc., etc.?

PG posits that creating a sophisticated and usable enhanced ebook authoring program and testing that program with all the electronic devices in use and developed in the future that people would want to use to create Enhanced Ebooks and also engineering the apps, etc., necessary for readers to have a decent experience reading it are not going to happen unless a brilliant tech zillionaire is willing to spend the money to create a sizeable company to build the necessary tools, infrastructure, etc.

Would enhanced ebooks compete with video? If so, there’s a huge number of organizations that are already pouring bazillions of videos online.

PG has gone on for too long about this subject and will stop before Mrs. PG asks what he’s doing in the basement this time.

Felix

PG was just going through the latest comments, noting some very good ones, when he realized that Felix Torres needed to be recognized and thanked for the large number of excellent comments he has contributed to TPV over a long period of time.

Thank you, Felix, for your intelligent contributions that have enriched our understanding of an enormously wide range of topics for quite a long time.

PG does not believe there is a Commenter Hall of Fame, but when one is created, Felix will surely be among its first honorees.

By recognizing Felix, PG does not in any way mean to downplay the contributions of the many other regulars that make TPV such a rewarding place to visit, but he thinks those Commenter will agree about the breadth, depth and number of the comments Felix has contributed over an extended period of time.

A Pause

PG is a bit under the weather today, but will come back with flames shooting out of his ears tomorrow.

Disney’s troubles show how technology has changed the business of culture

From The Economist:

“Why do we have to grow up?” Walt Disney once wondered. As it launches its centenary celebrations on January 27th, the Walt Disney Company has sustained its appeal to the young and young-at-heart. This year Hollywood’s biggest studio will invest more in original content than any other firm. It dominates the global box office, with four of last year’s ten biggest hits, and has more streaming subscriptions than anyone else. Its intellectual property (ip) is turned into merchandise ranging from lunchboxes to lightsabers, and exploited in theme parks that are churning out healthy profits even as covid-19 lingers. More than just a business, Disney is perhaps the most successful culture factory the world has ever known.

So the upheaval rocking the company today has relevance far beyond its empire. Uncertainty about the future profitability of Disney’s enormous entertainment portfolio has caused a rollercoaster ride in its share price. It threw out its chief executive in November and will soon replace its chairman. It also faces a rebellion from an activist investment firm that wants a board seat in what could turn into the biggest face-off since Michael Eisner, a previous ceo, was forced out in 2005. Disney’s trials are not just a boardroom drama. Similar crises are unfolding at other leading culture factories, from Warner Bros to Netflix. The reason is a technological revolution that is turning Hollywood upside down.

The continuing pre-eminence of a centenarian like Disney has confounded many predictions. Since the days of “Steamboat Willie”, Mickey Mouse’s first outing in 1928, there has been an explosion in the supply of video entertainment. Television, cable, home video and then the internet have offered increasing amounts of choice. Anyone with a phone can record video and make it accessible to billions of people, free of charge. More content is uploaded to YouTube every hour than Disney+ holds in its entire streaming catalogue.

Many predicted that this surge of niche content would bring down mainstream hit-makers. They were mostly wrong. Infinite choice in entertainment has ruined the companies which produced middling content that people watched because there was nothing else on—witness the collapse in broadcast-television ratings. But those at the very top of the business have thrived. When anyone can watch anything, people flock to the best. Global streamers like Netflix and Amazon have more than 200m direct subscribers, once an unimaginable number.

Those who have fared best at a shrinking box office are the owners of ip that is already popular. As people visit cinemas less often and competition intensifies, studios have pumped money into films people will turn out to see even when they go only three or four times a year. America’s ten biggest films last year were all sequels or parts of a franchise; Disney’s upcoming slate includes an 80-year-old Harrison Ford returning for a fifth outing as Indiana Jones. It has not been a golden age for cinema, but for those at the top it has been a profitable one.

Now technology is shaking things up again. Online distribution has enticed tech firms that make the hardware and software used for streaming. Silicon Valley is of a different scale from Tinseltown (Amazon’s growing advertising business is already three times bigger than Disney’s) and its moguls have no need to make money from streaming, which they see as an add-on to their main business. Hollywood initially wrote off the nerds. But the nerds have enough money to take creative risks. Last year Apple won the best-picture Oscar with “coda”, a comedy-drama partly in sign language, less than three years after it entered the film business. The more fine content these new producers make and sell below cost, the greater the risk that older studios will fall from the top tier of media into the perilous middle.

Link to the rest at The Economist and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG says all the traditional media companies are having their worlds rocked. And the rocking is far from over.

To Warn or not to Warn: The Controversy around Trigger Warnings in Literature

From Writer Unboxed:

My publisher engaged a sensitivity reader to evaluate the portrayal of a neurodiverse character in my summer 2023 release (The Beauty of Rain). I eagerly anticipated the reader’s feedback, whose notes on that aspect of the manuscript were ultimately helpful and unsurprising. Conversely, her recommendation that I add trigger warnings about suicidal ideation and prescription drug abuse did momentarily throw me.

Most everyone knows that a trigger warning is essentially a statement cautioning a consumer/reader that the content may be disturbing or induce a traumatic response. Although these labels are not as commonplace in publishing as they are in film, television, and music, in recent years they’ve begun to appear on a book’s digital detail page, its back jacket, or in an author’s note. The big argument in favor of such labels is that they give a reader the choice to avoid a book that contains material said reader might find harmful or that could unwittingly force them to revisit past trauma.

While I consider myself to be a compassionate person who would never purposely cause someone harm, my initial reaction was to reject the suggestion. Trust me, I know that sounds awful, but I worried that the warnings somewhat mischaracterized the tone and themes in my work. After all, if A Man Called Ove had included a suicidal ideation warning, many people might have missed out on an extremely life-affirming story. I discussed my concern with my agent and editor, both of whom also expressed doubts about the necessity of the warnings.

Coincidentally, around that same time I was doom-scrolling on Twitter and came across a New Yorker article from 2021 entitled “What if trigger warnings don’t work?” That piece discusses studies conducted with respect to the effectiveness of content warnings in academia (which are on the rise). The data suggests that such warnings not only don’t work, but they may inflict more harm by causing additional stress and reinforcing the idea that a trauma is central to a survivor’s identity (which is the opposite of PTSD therapy goals). On Twitter and in an Authors Guild discussion thread on this topic, more than one licensed therapist concurred with the article’s conclusions and believed trigger warnings had no meaningful effect.

You might think this data cemented my decision, but it merely piqued my interest in the topic. What better excuse to procrastinate writing my next book than to dive down the rabbit hole of articles and blog posts about the pros and cons of trigger warnings in literature?

It did not take long to identify some other commonly debated pitfalls, which include:

  • Spoilers: One simplistic and popular complaint is that a content warning may give away a plot twist and thus spoil the story for every reader, which is especially frustrating for those who didn’t want the warning. This camp argues that, prior to purchase, a sensitive reader can visit websites such as Book Trigger Warnings or Trigger Warning Database to verify whether a particular book contains personally troubling content without forcing the author to ruin the surprise or twist for every potential reader who picks up the book.
  • Trigger Identification: There are as many different triggers as there are readers, making it a practical impossibility to adequately warn every potential reader about every potential trigger. Similarly, readers with comparable experiences might have different reactions and preferences (for example, I was raised in a violent home but did not want or need a warning before reading The Great Alone). We can certainly group some content into broad common categories like domestic abuse, addiction, rape, etc., but what about a reader who might be traumatized by something more obscure (like a color or a setting)? It seems ambitious if not impossible to imagine one could create a list of all possible triggers. If we can’t screen every scenario, is it fair to screen any?
  • Genre expectations: In dark romance, for example, it is almost guaranteed that there will be some level of violence and crime (such as kidnapping the heroine or dubious consent). The same could be said of crime novels and thrillers (graphic violence, rape, murder, mental health matters). Should authors and publishers need to take additional steps to prepare a reader for something that is essentially foundational to that genre?
  • Censorship: Some teachers, librarians, and publishing professionals argue that content labels are a form of censorship, and that the line between labels and trigger warnings is thin. They worry an overreach or abuse of these labels could result in many books being segregated onto separate shelves. For example, YA books often tackle an array of topics from fatphobia to date rape. If the use of multiple warnings persists and leads to segregated shelving, those books might become less visible and accessible to the general public who might otherwise benefit from exploring those topics. This slippery slope could also ultimately affect what stories publishers choose to invest in and distribute, which would be bad for both authors and readers.

In my opinion, some of these arguments hold more weight than others. I haven’t had an epiphany when it comes to their efficacy, nor am I convinced that there is a clear right answer to this complicated question. That said, my research journey helped me focus on the decision I had to make and its effect on my writing goals. I write stories because I want to emotionally connect with others. Would I prefer to have as many readers as possible give my story a chance? Yes. But do I want to sell my books to everyone at any cost, including the potential emotional torment of another? No, of course not.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG wonders how humankind was able to evolve from pond scum into its present form without trigger warnings.

Somehow, the ancient Egyptians managed to build an amazing civilization without trigger warnings. (PG doesn’t read hieroglyphics, so he can’t be certain, but he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a hieroglyphic that looked like it might be a trigger warning.)

The Greeks and Romans built amazing civilizations without trigger warnings. He’s not aware of any Latin text that translates to: “This scroll contains references to alcohol consumption, violence using fantasy magic, and panic attacks.”

Nor did the great artists and writers of the Renaissance ever include trigger warnings.

Pieter Bruegel didn’t have trigger warnings for any of his paintings.

Nor did Leonardo da Vinci.

Nor did Stephen Crane:

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

Nor did Siegfried Sassoon:

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Northeaster

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Feb. 17, 1952, two men set off from Maine’s Monhegan Island in a 30-foot vessel loaded down with 5,000 pounds of crated lobsters. The old salts on the island had tried to dissuade Harland Davis and James Haigh from making the trip; the weather was iffy and a storm seemed likely. But the two men were eager to get the live lobsters to market and get themselves back to their wives and daughters on the mainland, and anyway the Sea Breeze had made the 11-mile crossing many times before without incident. This time, however, not halfway to its destination of Port Clyde, the vessel was engulfed by blinding snow and heaving seas and bludgeoned to the bottom.

Davis and Haigh thus became the first victims in Maine of the two-day tempest that Cathie Pelletier anatomizes in “Northeaster,” a historical re-creation of personal experiences so dramatic that they have lingered for decades in local and family lore. The 1952 storm wreaked havoc in New England, destroying wharfs, smashing boats, trapping tens of thousands of travelers and producing seas off Cape Cod so massive that two gargantuan tankers split in half. The daring Coast Guard rescue of the survivors aboard those sundered vessels, and the famous heroism of coxswain Bernard Webber, are detailed in “The Finest Hours,” a 2009 bestseller that was made into a movie of the same name a few years later.

Ms. Pelletier doesn’t depict scenes of exceptional valor; nor does she write of people who became household names. Her characters are ordinary people. Explaining her narrative choices, she twice evokes Will Durant’s description of civilization as a stream with banks: “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record,” while on the banks, unheralded, “people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry.” There’s no lovemaking in “Northeaster,” but there is a smattering of poetry, along with descriptions of homes and children and men and women whose lives were altered—and in some cases ended—when the storm picked up power off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Ms. Pelletier, a novelist and nonfiction writer from northern Maine, has drawn on contemporaneous testimonies and the remembrances of adult children, friends and relatives to draw detailed portraits of 10 people who were caught in the storm. To add texture and drama to these stories, she puts what must surely be speculative words (and foods) into the mouths of her subjects—to which we might say, well, fair enough, since “Northeaster” is not a work of academic exactitude but a kind of oral history.

. . . .

We meet Hazel Tardiff, a heavily pregnant housewife in the coastal shipbuilding town of Bath, who, as the weather shifts, places a dish of homemade pickle relish on the table and tells her daughter to call her husband and son to supper. We’re introduced to Sonny Pomelow, a 15-year-old Boy Scout from a hardscrabble family in the inland town of Brownville, who catches a ride with an ill-fated vehicle. We follow Paul Delaney, a 19-year-old Navy radio operator who borrows a car to take a girl to the movies in Bar Harbor and winds up marooned for three days under almost 12 feet of snow. We also get to know the doomed men on the Sea Breeze and see the anguish of their families and friends after the Coast Guard hauls their corpses from the frigid waters of Muscongus Bay.

Ms. Pelletier interleaves short chapters about her principal characters with dashes of historical bricolage and running accounts of what was unfolding elsewhere in Maine during the storm. In towns “famous for grievances,” residents had complaints: “Why wasn’t the daily newspaper on the front steps? Why weren’t the streets cleared? One man, in the first evening of the storm, called his town office to complain that he was not just starving, he was also out of cigarettes.” Eventually the snowfall was so intense that plows broke down and the highways had to be closed, sealing the Pine Tree State off from the rest of the country and stranding thousands of people at the Howard Johnson’s in Kennebunk, the only eatery on the Maine Turnpike.

There’s a problem, though, with the Durantist “river bank” approach to a disaster story like the one that is presented in “Northeaster.” It produces a mismatch for the reader. In life, each of us has an interior life that’s informed by our tastes and experiences; each of us has peculiar attributes that make us dear to the people who love us. But if we perish in a calamity, what’s interesting to strangers is the manner of our deaths.

So while Ms. Pelletier has taken great trouble to bring vibrancy to her subjects, her efforts do not always pay off. For instance, she tells how Sonny Pomelow liked to hang out with his friends in the red Naugahyde booths at the local Rexall drugstore, poring over hot-rod magazines and fantasizing about driving to California. Unfortunately, this kind of granular information can feel extraneous to the callous, thrill-seeking reader, for whom the teenager matters primarily because in the maelstrom of snow a plow train hit the car he was riding in and killed him.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

FBI director warns about Beijing’s AI program

From AINews:

FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned about the national security threat posed by Beijing’s AI program.

During a panel at the World Economic Forum, Wray explained that Beijing’s AI program “is not constrained by the rule of law”.

Wray says Beijing has “a bigger hacking program than any other nation” and will use machine learning to further boost the capabilities of its state-sponsored hackers.

Much like nuclear expertise, AI can be used to benefit the world or harm it.

“I have the same reaction every time,” Wray explained. “I think, ‘Wow, we can do that.’ And then, ‘Oh god, they can do that.’”

Beijing is often accused of influencing other countries through its infrastructure investments. Washington largely views China’s expanding economic influence and military might as America’s main long-term security challenge.

Wray says that Beijing’s AI program “is built on top of the massive troves of intellectual property and sensitive data that they’ve stolen over the years.”

Furthermore, it will be used “to advance that same intellectual property theft, to advance the repression that occurs not just back home in mainland China but increasingly as a product they export around the world.”

Link to the rest at AINews

Comment Spam Report

PG just deleted five spam comments on TPV.

If you question whether they were really spam, one was headlined:

HOW I GOT MY HUSBAND BACK WITH THE HELP OF DR NAKARA

and another had the following subject:

สล็อตเว็บตรง พวกผม

Update on Spam Comments

A few days ago, PG turned off the anti-spam tool for comments due to feedback he had received from some visitors to TPV that it was annoying.

He’s finding that the system was filtering out a lot of pure spam comments that are collecting in his approval folder. (TPV is set to require that a first-time commenter have one comment approved by PG before being able to have her/his/their comment automatically posted. Smart spammers know this and will post a relevant comment first, then turn on the spam, but it’s difficult to automate that.)

PG is going to wait and see over the next few days what the spam load is looking like.

If anyone sees what they regard as a spam comment that shows up under any of the posts on TPV, please let PG know via the Contact PG button at the top of the blog.

We Need To Talk About Professional Jealousy

From Electric Lit:

I never thought I’d be one of those people,” she said.

T Kira Madden and I were sitting in the private room of a fancy strip-mall restaurant in Albany, New York, and I was eating a very expensive salad. Earlier that afternoon, we had given a reading at a local bookstore with T Kira’s then-fiancé (now wife) H. The reading was part of the book tour promoting T Kira’s memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless GirlsIt had been a kindness on T Kira’s part, inviting me to read alongside her and H. The other writers who would be joining her later on the tour were far more advanced in their careers than I was at that time. But it was not an altogether surprising kindness. T Kira has always been one of the most generous literary stewards I know.

After the reading, T Kira invited me to join their families for dinner. Another kindness. I sat between T Kira and H., and we caught up in the way of friends who don’t see one another often enough. Eventually the conversation turned to the subject that had occasioned our reunion. As far as I could tell, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls was already a success. It had been reviewed widely and well, and had dominated my social media feed since its release. But when I asked T Kira how she was feeling about the book’s debut, she hesitated.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people,” she said.

“Which people?” I asked.

T Kira paused.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people tracking their book sales,” she said. “I never thought I’d be comparing my sales and reviews to other people’s. I never thought I’d be—”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew where it was headed.

“Jealous,” I said.

T Kira looked down. Her long hair hung over her soup bowl.

I chuckled.

“Oh, do I have a story for you,” I said.

I first met C Pam Zhang at a writers’ conference in Vermont in 2017, six months before my reading with T Kira. I had edited a story of Pam’s for a literary journal earlier that year, and I was excited when I learned we’d both be attending the conference that summer. We even conspired to enroll in the same fiction workshop. Pam is a brilliant writer, and her sly and observant sense of humor immediately endeared me to her. What’s more, we were at similar places in our careers then, both querying agents for manuscripts, Pam for her novel How Much of These Hills is Gold, me for a collection of short stories. Querying agents is a very specific flavor of hell, and it was comforting to feel like I wasn’t alone in the process, to know that Pam and I were in the same boat. Then, a month after the conference, Pam signed with an agent and sold her novel, while the prospects of representation for my own manuscript had all but evaporated. A month later, we applied for the same fellowship. Pam got it; I did not. A month after that, a pedigreed literary journal rejected one of my stories and shortly thereafter accepted a story of Pam’s. As her friend and as an editor who had supported her work, I was happy for Pam—I genuinely was—but tangled up in that feeling was something else, something that complicated it. It felt as though Pam had made it to dry land, and now there I was, alone in our boat, trying my best to row one-oared.

What is this awful feeling? I wondered.

Oh fuck, I realized. I’m jealous.

When I told T Kira this story, she nodded.

“But here’s the thing. It wasn’t jealousy,” I told her. “It was something very different.”

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes, “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading.” The first time I read that sentence, my immediate reaction was relief. Oh, thank God, I thought. I’m not alone in this experience. Professional jealousy does often feel like an occupational hazard for writers, but it has been my experience that as a community we don’t really talk about it. Sure, we may voice it jokingly—“I’m so jealous!”—or indirectly, by making some passive-aggressive remark about another writer’s success, but honest and vulnerable conversations about the experience of professional jealousy generally seem to be lacking. Among writers, the subject feels almost taboo. At least, that has been my experience.

.I do want to say that what we popularly refer to as “professional jealousy” might more accurately be termed “professional envy” by clinicians and emotions researchers. The distinction being that jealousy arises from the fear of losing something we have to another person, whereas envy stems from the desire for something another person has that we lack. I believe strongly in the importance of emotional literacy and granularity—the ability to accurately name and distinguish between emotions—but culturally we use the term “professional jealousy,” not “professional envy,” and in my conversation with T Kira jealousy was the word we used, so for the purposes of this essay, I’ll let it stand.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Commenting Problems

PG believes he may have fixed the commenting problems caused by an out-of-control comment spam plugin.

Feel free to let PG know in the comments or via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog whether you’re able to comment properly or not.

PG will attempt to intercept comment spam, but asks for patience if some gets through.

Why Dark Academia Is Perennially Popular

From Book Riot:

Dark academia has recently spiked in popularity, both as an aesthetic and a literary sub-genre. Surely part of that has to do with the pandemic’s disruption of the traditional modes of campus education. Plenty of literary elements come and go in waves — vampire stories, for example. Others seem like remnants of the past, like the biblical and religious stories I described in categorizing forgotbuster books. Dark academia will inevitably experience a dip in popularity, but I think it will remain a perennial favorite among readers and writers.

If we assume that Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is the text upon which the sub-genre and aesthetic are based, the category is in its infancy compared to the broader genres it’s related to, like horror and Gothic literature. So why do I think dark academia has staying power?

The Nostalgia for the First Day of School

Even once we finish our formal education, many of us still think about the cycle of the school year. We long to buy fresh notebooks as summer wanes. We might continue to call weeknights “school nights” when there is no school to attend in the morning. The lure of a new school year is part of the appeal of dark academia. The possibility of new teachers, new friends, and new knowledge is compelling.

One of the reasons I like to read is to simulate the kinds of feelings I’m unlikely to have again in real life. I’ll never feel the intensity of first love again, so sometimes a really emotional YA novel is what I need. I’m in a long-term relationship, so reading romance can bring me back to those flutters of the early days of getting to know someone. And it’s unlikely I’ll go back to school, but dark academia feeds those cravings for the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils.

Dark Academia and Escapism

Many of us voracious readers would read all day if it were an option. Likewise, if I didn’t have bills to pay, I would happily be a student for the rest of my life. I love the idea of devoting myself to studying my interests. In The Secret History, the cadre of students are dedicated to the study of Classics. I too was incredibly drawn in by my first Classics class in college, called “The Ancient Epic and Beyond.” It introduced me to some of my all-time favorite books, like The IliadThe Aeneid, and Moby-Dick. There’s a touch of irony in the fact that the professor who taught this class and brought these supposedly stodgy books to life was the one who recommended we read The Secret History when the semester was over.

For those of us who simply love to learn, the idea of an enclave where you are among your fellow people is alluring. Forget frat parties and menial work-study jobs (I put the stickers on the spines of library books), it’s all intellectual all the time. This is a fantasy, full stop. But literature can indulge our fantasies.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

So You Want to be a History Professor

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

A historian friend once told me that when he went on the job market, he put in three applications and received five job offers. That was in the early 1960s, during the heady years of post-war economic expansion and university expansion. Ten years later, both expansions abruptly ceased, and the academic job market crashed. It recovered somewhat after the mid-1980s, although with frequent downturns. In the past few years, it has crashed again to new lows.

Jon K. Lauck, a historian and editor in chief of the academic journal Middle West Review, recently surveyed the sorry state of the field. Of the 1,799 new historians who received Ph.D.s in 2019 or 2020, only 175 had landed full-time faculty jobs in history as of last fall — and it is not clear how many of those are tenure track. The number of undergraduate majors in history has plummeted. Lauck traces departments that are being hollowed out: The University of Kansas history faculty is down from 35 members in 2017 to 24; the Ohio State University system’s history faculty has fallen from 79 members to 62 since 2008; Iowa State University’s history department has been told by administrators that its faculty must shrink from 20 members to 8. All of this has consequences, as Lauck details:

These days, some of the conferences I used to attend and greatly enjoyed have been canceled entirely. History-journal editors also whisper about what they are seeing. Article submissions used to stream in at steady clip. Now the pipeline is but a trickle. Prominent history professors, who once anchored departments and enlivened the public sphere in and around college towns, now retire with little fanfare and nary a replacement. Their “line,” if it survives at all, is moved across campus, to computer science or physical therapy.

In my area, French history, the numbers tell the same story in miniature. Since 2010 I have been tracking the number of North American tenure-track jobs my advisees can reasonably apply for each year — searching the postings for everything from “history” to “Europe” and tracking down specialized jobs in modern and early-modern France. In 2010-11, there were 43 available tenure-track positions, and after a dip throughout much of the 2010s, it returned to 42 positions in 2017-18. But the next year it crashed to 18 positions, and during the pandemic year of 2020-21, it fell further, to just 8. This year, so far, there are 9 available positions (this figure only counts full-time tenure-track jobs at U.S. and Canadian four-year colleges).

The pattern also tracks with my experience as an adviser. Of my 10 Ph.D. students who defended their dissertations before 2016, all but one got a tenure-track job (and the one who didn’t limited the job search to a single metropolitan area for personal reasons). Of the eight who have defended since then, only one has so far gotten a tenure-track job. Five of these eight have landed very competitive postdocs, so the problem is clearly not with the students. But will jobs be there when the fellowships end? Will jobs come back to their former level? We can hope, but I don’t know anyone who would bet on it at present. I know the situation in history the best, but similar, and perhaps worse, trends are playing out in most of the other humanities and soft social sciences.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG expects a similar story could be told about literature professors as well.

Some quick and dirty research by PG revealed that college/university enrollment in the US peaked in 2010 and has been in general decline since. These statistics include two-year public schools – junior colleges – which suffered the largest decline.

However, since 2019, enrollment at all types of colleges, including nonprofit and for-profit schools have declined.

Dreamstime is now accepting AI generated content under specific terms

From Dreamstime:

Legal uncertainty is still surrounding the work obtained from AI text-to-image generators. AI software is trained on billions of images and afferent descriptions already on the web. Most popular image-generating softwares using artificial intelligence include Dall-E2, MIdjourney, GPT-3, Stable Diffusion by Nividia, Photoshop, Google tools, etc. Such software allows infinite creative combinations of images, all based on a written prompt. This new technology combines a neural network called CLIP which connects words to images, and a series of preexisting image-generation models, and it evolves at a speeding rate. This combination resulted in the kind of technology almost unheard of a couple of months ago, which startles through its technical capacity. Still, it also poses a series of ethical issues (DAll-E by itself is trained on 650 million previously existing and probably copyrighted images).

Questions are still surrounding this relatively new area of technology and art production: who has the copyright for the new images or videos obtained from text to Image generators? How can this new product of AI be used? Or what is the value of these visual works on the stock photography market?

. . . .

More and more companies are developing their own AI text-to-image tools or are starting to accept buying and selling images and videos produced by AI generators. The common understanding is to accept this new technology as a helping tool meant to enhance and enrich users’ needs in different areas, either in artwork creation or other specific demands for commercial use. Some stock companies are even starting to develop individualized partnerships with client companies and leading brands who ask for specific products.

In the world of art, some artists are welcoming AI-generated images, excited about the infinite possibilities it opens for artistic means (Matthew Stone in his last exhibition, Alexander Reben) although still based on the human imagination; other people who never created art before start using this tool and develop their own art (such are some new art presented by Bitforms Gallery in the group show “the first DALL-E-inspired art exhibition” between October 26th to December 29th, 2022).

Some AI generators like Midjourney are refining their technology to better assist users in their work by allowing a free-flowing of individual text prompts on public chat servers so people can get inspired by other prompts and images already created. This idea bouncing into a large pool of other users can potentially educate users on how to do their text prompting, teaching them to add more detail to their search and to look deeply at how the software works. This way, both the AI and the human creators are learning continuously.

Other stock photography companies are shaping new rules and copyright to accept and sell AI-generated material in a safe, legal and ethical environment. This new technology has enormous popularity and infinite commercial potential in addition to the artistic capacities and the considerable impact on human imagination, a kind of daydreaming.

One of the leading stock photography companies, Dreamstime, embraces new technology and ideas and explores incorporating AI image creation into its stock under clearly defined legal and ethical conditions. This frame of how to use artificial intelligence-inspired art is necessary to protect but also to help its users in their commercial or artistic pursuits.

. . . .

Dreamstime will start accepting AI-generated images and imagery that includes AI generated content under the following conditions:

Contributors must have all rights for the generated images (please note that some AI tools only give complete rights to imagery generated through them if you register for paid service).

Image description must state clearly that the image is generated with the use of an AI

One of the categories selected for the image must be Illustrations and Clip Art/AI generatedContributors will not upload images of generated people’s faces as it is impossible to provide a model release for them.

All other terms and conditions of our site must be met in addition to the above specific rules.

Link to the rest at Dreamstime and thanks to T. for the tip.

As attentive observers will have already noted, PG is interested in AI Writing/Art and related topics.

Feel free to forward anything you think might be of interest to visitors to TPV to PG via the Contact PG button at the top of the blog.

PG is particularly interested in any copyright litigation that pops up regarding AI Writing or Art.

Business Musings: Direct: The Year in Review Part 8

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

On January 6, 2023, Michael W. Lucas made a rather important announcement on his blog. He wrote, in all caps:

AMAZON IS NO LONGER MY BIGGEST INCOME SOURCE.

It’s not that he added a consulting business to his writing income, or started doing in-person speaking gigs. He didn’t get a day job. Instead, he’s been, in his words, disintermediating.

He’s been consciously moving his readers away from Amazon (and other sources of revenue) and moved those readers to his website. He posted his 2022 sales, in percentages, and noted that, for the first time, revenue that came through his website outpaced revenue that came through Amazon.

Full disclosure: He also announced that his income was down, but that he had expected that, after the online pandemic buying frenzies of 2020 and 2021.

What, exactly, did he filter through his website?

Here’s his breakdown (along with percentages).

Direct sales, 18.57%. Direct Patronizers, 6.34%. Sponsorships, 5.33%, and direct preorders, 2.38%. Taken all together, 32.62% of my income coming from sales through my web site.

Amazon provides 31.35%.

Yes, that is, as he says, a slim percentage difference. (The remaining 36% comes from places like IngramSpark, Kobo, and his old books still mired in traditional publishing.) It’s worth noting that over 10% of his income came from Kickstarter, which he does not count as website sales (appropriately because it takes a percentage and the people you bring to that site grows that site.). However, Kickstarter is a one-time fundraising platform, which provides another way to sell direct to the consumer, without a percentage taken from each book. As such, that means that more than 42% of Michael’s income has come from direct reader engagement.

He’s not the only writer who has made note of this. I’ve talked with several who are taking more and more control of their own product and sales. Dean and I had a dinner with two other couples at 20Books in which we discussed a Shopify store. We’d been doing WooCommerce and weren’t that happy with it. Because we’re early adapters, we’d had our initial WooCommerce store in (jeez, I think) 2013 or 2014. Long ago, when everything was clunky and hard.

Now it’s not.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on this site that scared the crap out of most of you. It was about Amazon’s year, and the fact that Amazon is rethinking much of the way that its website and sales platform works.  Amazon’s innovation enabled writers to self-publish and make a solid living (if not more), but that was more than a decade ago. Since then, Amazon has been changing the algorithms. It has new management, and it’s just not that interested in books. It will, at some point, maybe in the near future, cease being the biggest beast in the American bookselling sphere. (If you want to argue with me, do me a favor and read the other post first, then argue there.)

A number of writers responded in the comments and also to me personally, some denying that anything was happening (and of course, they thought I was making this all up).  Other writers responded with some great and useful comments.

After a decade of dealing with delusional self-published writers (after two decades of dealing with delusional traditionally published writers), I’ve learned to shut those poor deniers out. You can’t convince people who stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes, and sing every time you show them evidence.

But others? People who want to continue as writers and get the largest audience they can? Those folks are well worth my time. Many of them were panicked and wondering what was next.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

‘Kaleidoscope’ on Netflix: How to Choose the Right Order to Watch Episodes

From CNet:

There’s a lot that’s familiar about Netflix’s new limited series Kaleidoscope. It’s the story of a heist, and as such, it comes with many of the story beats you might expect: old grudges, team assembly, smaller missions that set up for the big one. But there’s one key way Kaleidoscope, which dropped Jan. 1 and is Netflix’s No. 1 TV show right now, differs from similar shows you might’ve seen. You can watch the episodes in any order. 

Without giving too much away, Kaleidoscope’s eight episodes revolve around a heist, covering a span of 25 years. Giancarlo Esposito plays Ray Vernon (aka Leo Pap), the ringleader of a group plotting a multibillion-dollar job while settling an old score. Every episode tells a chunk of the story, focusing on Vernon’s motivations, or the planning of the heist, or what unfolds in the aftermath. The segments come in whichever order Netflix decides to deliver them to you (with the exception of the actual heist serving as the final episode). 

. . . .

Kaleidoscope’s episodes are named for different colors, no doubt a nod to the series’ name, but also a way to easily track what order you’re watching and compare with friends. You aren’t obligated to watch the way Netflix suggests. Here’s what you need to know about how to watch Kaleidoscope. 

Do I need to pick an order?

Not necessarily. If you hit play on the show, you’ll see a quick primer on how it works, and then launch straight into the episodes. They can come in any order, with the exception of White, which is the heist itself, and is structured to be the series finale. That said, if you want to pick an order for yourself, you can. 

How do I watch it chronologically?

If you decide to watch Kaleidoscope chronologically, the episode order goes like this, starting with a young Vernon 24 years before the heist: 

  • Violet (24 years before the heist).
  • Green (7 years before).
  • Yellow (6 weeks before).
  • Orange (3 weeks before).
  • Blue (5 days before).
  • White (the heist).
  • Red (the morning after).
  • Pink (6 months after).

If you decide to go this route, however, know that any big finale twists will hit in the White episode. 

Link to the rest at CNet and thanks to F. for the tip.

What will the internet of the future look like?

From DW:

Companies worldwide are working on the next generation of the internet. The “metaverse” or “web3” could overhaul the web as we know it. But how do you avoid repeating the mistakes of today’s internet?

Are we on the cusp of yet another internet revolution? We are, according to technology experts gathered in Berlin for a conference organized by digital learning platform ada.

New technology could overhaul the web as we know it in the coming decade, they said — both when it comes to how it is built and how it looks.

On a technical level, tech idealists hope that blockchain technology will help build a new decentralized architecture underlying the internet. In this new “web3” era, the idea goes, users rather than a handful of tech giants would have control over their data, privacy, and what they create online.

“This reinvents how the internet is set up in the backend,” Portugal-based author Shermin Voshmgir said. “It is a complete paradigm shift.”

At the same time, companies around the world are working on technology to revolutionize the way we navigate the web.

Their vision: Rather than scrolling through websites or apps, people will soon stroll virtually through a three-dimensional version of the internet dubbed the “metaverse” — a digital landscape of sorts where users can work, buy things or meet their friends, and where physical and digital realities converge.

“It will be a walk-in internet, so to speak,” said Constanze Osei, who leads the society and innovation policy efforts for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland at US tech giant Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

But as companies like hers pour billions into developing that next generation of the internet, digital rights activists caution that the firms will eventually want to cash in on their investment — and that this could thwart efforts to give users more power over their digital selves.

“The metaverse could become the most invasive surveillance system ever created,” said Micaela Mantegna, an Argentinian lawyer and digital rights researcher.

. . . .

As early as the 1960s, researchers began connecting computers around the world. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the invention of the world-wide-web and web browsers made the network available to anyone who was able to afford an internet connection.

Since then, the web has upended every aspect of society, from the way people do business to how they find information or interact with each other.

“Everything has changed because of the internet,” said Miriam Meckel, CEO of ada and professor of corporate communications at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “And the internet itself has changed, as well.”

During the web’s first phase, people browsed the web from their desktop computers and navigated it mainly via search engines. That changed in the 2000s with the emergence of social media and mobile internet, giving rise to the online world as we know it today.

At the core of this “web2,” there are online platforms such as Meta’s Facebook and Instagram or, more recently, messaging services like Telegram.

Those platforms have helped dissidents in authoritarian regimes organize protests or give marginalized groups a voice. But revelations such as the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal have shown that they are also used to spread hate, amplify disinformation and sway democratic elections.

Meanwhile, a small number of Big Tech companies like Meta or Google’s parent company Alphabet have come to dominate their respective segments of the internet economy.

More power to the users

To shift power back to individuals and communities, people like author Shermin Voshmgir have proposed rebuilding the web with decentralized public blockchains — databases that are searchable by everyone and shared on computers around the world.

Such a “web3” would be collectively controlled by users rather than a few powerful gatekeepers, the idea goes — making it easier, for example, for creatives to make money with the work they publish online. 

Now, the multi-billion question is: Will this plan succeed?

Not everyone is convinced: Jürgen Geuter, a Berlin-based internet theorist known online under the pseudonym “tante,” doubts that a decentralized architecture alone is enough to shift power back to users. He pointed to cryptocurrencies, a field where already today, a few companies are making millions by developing the software necessary to access the underlying decentralized network.

“Technology is never neutral,” Geuter said.

Web3 versus the Metaverse?

To prevent the metaverse from being controlled by just a few influential players, experts say users should be able to interact with each other no matter where in the metaverse they are or how they’re using it. That would also be a change from today’s web, where apps are mostly “walled gardens” that do not allow users to send messages or money between different apps, for instance.

“There is an understanding that things need to change from web2,” acknowledged Meta’s Constanze Osei. She pointed to a new initiative announced in June, with which her company, along with other tech giants and standards-setting bodies, want to discuss interoperability standards. But some big players such as US tech giant Apple are notably absent from the effort.

At the same time, there is a certain irony in the fact that the world’s largest tech giants say they want to invest in building a new internet architecture that could, eventually, curb their market power.

And some observers warn that once the companies will try to capitalize on that investment, some of the ideals of a decentralized web3 architecture could end up as collateral damage.

“The corporate version of the metaverse will be an evolution of capitalism,” Argentinian lawyer Micaela Mantegna said.

What’s more, she added, the immersive nature of the metaverse could exacerbate some of the problems that plague today’s web2, from disinformation to online harassment. Some users have already reported being sexually harassed in early versions of the metaverse.

And Mantegna warned that, as technology evolves, the devices used to access the metaverse could at some point begin monitoring sensitive information like the brain activity of users.

Link to the rest at DW

PG has never been sexually harassed anywhere online. Of course, he denominates himself as Passive Guy, but that could just be a front.

Perhaps PG is the world’s most intelligent octopus (figuring out how to avoid shorting out the keyboard was his biggest initial blogging challenge.)

PG could be a member of the Russian Mafia. Addio compagno. Mi dispiace che sia dovuta finire così. До свидания.

PG could be the first inhabitant of a new gender called Abstruse. We Abstrseans greet other by saying, “Go away, you fool!” or “Pork loins for everybody!” We say goodbye with a hearty, “Sneezer!” or, more formally, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”

Actually, PG likes to regard himself as the most advanced AI program on the planet. Mrs. PG disagrees, but would prefer a bit more intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

10 Novels Based on Folk Horror

From Crime Reads:

Rotten Wood. Henchman’s Coppice. Ashes Hollow. These place names in the English county of Shropshire, along with the evocative Hawkyard, Starvecrow and Hungry Hill, hint at long-forgotten events that left an indelible stain. A dark past is literally written onto the map of this land.

In my latest novel, The Last To Know, American journalist Rose Kynaston goes to live in the Shropshire village of her husband’s youth. She steps out of a 21st century world of international travel and broadcast news, into a timeless landscape of legend and folklore.

Rose interprets the place names around her new home as a warning; The Long Drop, The Grim’s Holm, Hurtwood House. To her, the locals seem complacent in the face of these signposts to a murky past and present dangers. Perhaps, as indigenous folk, they have hard-won wisdom about the unique ways of the land? Perhaps, as an outsider, Rose needs to be broken in.

I don’t want to give the impression that my American Rose is some kind of bastard love child of Kate Bush and the Blair Witch. But like other suspense writers who dip their nibs into the cursed waters of folk horror, its elements may be sprinkled into a contemporary novel to create an atmosphere of dread.

. . . .

The resurgence of the genre shows that folk horror is apt for our times. Identities are fluid. No bad deed goes unpunished. The civilized world is only a heartbeat away from primal and uncanny threats.

The genre is also nostalgic for a rural England that is as far from Downtown Abbey as you can get in a four-horse carriage. This England is afeared of change. In times of crisis, we return to the old ways, which offer a reassuring connection to a simple past. But at the cost of old evils. There is a sense that all progress is a chimera, that our modern sophistication is itself a form of naivety.

Step into the forest (or the marshes or the moors) and I am no different to my ancestors. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant in the presence of something older, deeper, unknowable but unquestionably there. I may glimpse a movement in the trees and wonder if it’s real. Then I realize that of course it’s real; it’s me that is ephemeral. Only I am in doubt.

It is deeply unsettling for modern people to encounter forces out of our control. We believe we control nature itself; fertility, aging, health. We have a choice over where and how we live. Via technology, we have all human knowledge at our fingertips, so we rarely need to wonder. And yet our biggest questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Why do bad things happen? How do I know who to trust? What makes someone evil?

. . . .

Likewise, these ten novels dig into folk horror and human psychology to ask one question; Is it real or isn’t it?

Starve Acre, Andrew Michael Hurley

“Guilt is a kind of haunting,” says Hurley about his novel, which features a Robin Goodfellow-style demon. Supernatural elements encroach on the characters, moving from the edge of scenes into the foreground, in a novel that explores grief over the loss of a child.

Little Darlings, Melanie Golding

Lauren Tranter’s belief that her newborn twins have been stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings is dismissed as post-natal psychosis, in this artful extrapolation of a new mother’s rational—and irrational—fears.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

PG hadn’t heard about Folk Horror until F. sent him some information.

 Tea Leaves: Year in Review 2022

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

I started this year’s Year in Review blogs with traditional publishing partly because that Department of Justice anti-trust case produced such juicy tidbits that I couldn’t ignore them, and partly because I have always started with traditional publishing. Back in the day, I saw all of us (writers, readers, and publishers) as creatures that emerged from traditional publishing.

Now, I see a lot of writers who didn’t start in traditional and have no desire to go there. I’ve met a lot of young readers who really don’t care what the newest hottest book is. Heck, I’ve met a lot of young people who have no sense of the latest music (something that was a big deal when I was young) because they have access to all music. They can easily find their niche, and go back to Patsy Cline if that niche is country or maybe find a song by Maren Morris and have them on the same playlist.

Reading the opinion in the attempted merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, a merger that the courts ultimately blocked, giving a big (if twenty years too late) win to the Department of Justice, made me realize just how different the various areas of publishing are now.

It also gave me a glimpse into the future, with more clarity than I think I’ve had on the entire industry maybe ever.

Last year I wrote a post in the Year in Review called “The Split.” I finally had numbers that showed just how different the traditional publishing industry was from what most places call the self-publishing industry. Self-publishing is no longer accurate, as we’ll see below, and I’m not sure it’s ever been accurate. It’s more of an indie publishing industry. Some writers do publish their own work, but others have created large businesses that publish the work of many writers.

I wrote a second Year in Review post in 2021 about the splits in indie publishing, and I still stand by that analysis. In that post, I identified five different areas of the part of publishing I’m calling indie. (I still haven’t found a good name for it all. Neither, it seems, has anyone else.)

While I separated them into five areas last year, I’m only going to explore four areas this year. They are:

  • Actual self-publishing. It’s a one-person operation, with the occasional contract labor to help with things like covers (although we’ll see in a future post how that has gotten even easier) or copy edits or anything else the author wants to farm out.
  • The Individual Data Managers. People who like playing with algorithms and use the amazing amount of data that’s at our fingertips now to enhance book sales. Sometimes those sales are for the writer’s individual work and sometimes those sales are for books the writer/manager owns a percentage of. I love many things about these folks, but my favorite part—at least for the purpose of this post—is that traditional publishing could’ve used someone like this for decades…and never bothered to hire them. Right now, given the changes at Amazon and elsewhere, this isn’t as successful a route as it was even a year ago, but the more things change….
  • Small Publishers. This is a catch-all category, but suffice to say that these are publishers who started as writers but have a full-fledged somewhat traditional publishing business. Traditional in the sense that they license rights from other writers, publish the books or stories on all platforms, and pay the writer for that privilege. The payments are not standardized in this category as they are in true traditional publishing (New York based) but that’s irrelevant. These publishers exist and will become more important as the years go by.
  • Small Entertainment Companies. Last year, I described them as companies that “started out as something reading- or writer-oriented.” Then they became something that was not like anything we’d seen before, and eventually sold for millions to larger corporations. I’m not describing them further, because the more I see what’s been going on in 2022, the more I think this category is growing and changing and becoming something that’s about story in all of its forms. We might discuss this in a later Year in Review post as I discuss the influence AI products are making on creativity in general.

Last year, this analysis of the publishing industry seemed pretty thorough to me, although I knew I was missing something. Then, throughout the year, I looked at writer after writer after writer who refused to believe the information coming out at the S&S/PRH/DOJ trial, and continued to move forward into traditional publishing, no matter what. I couldn’t see what drove the writers there, except for old-fashioned beliefs.

I think those old-fashioned and engrained beliefs are there. But those writers were seeing something that I had missed.

They were seeing the “top-selling books” market. I analyzed that a bit in the previous year-in-review post, the one about bestsellers. The DOJ, in making its case against the merger, isolated this market for me, and made me understand that it will always be with us.

Writers, particularly writers without any business acumen or future vision, will always try to get into this market. I hate calling it “top-selling books” because that’s not accurate at all. (See that bestseller post.) I’m not even sure there’s a good label for this category.

Books That Get A Big Traditional Advance? Books That Get Special Traditional Treatment? Books Traditional Publishing Has High Hopes For?

Let’s skip the label, since it’s so hard to make an accurate one, and go with the definition from the opinion in the S&S/PRH/DOJ case.

These are books that get advances of $250,000 and above. From pages 34-35, those books “are expected to sell well, are more likely to include favorable terms like higher royalty rates, higher levels of marketing support, ‘glam’ packages (e.g., for hair, makeup, and wardrobe services), and airfare for authors.”

Further:

Publishers print more of the books they think will do well; circulate more advance copies of such books to reviewers or influencers to create excitement; push for interviews with more media outlets; and schedule book-tour appearances in more locations….Anticipated top-selling books get more attention from marketing and sales teams.

All of this I knew, of course. I’d seen it. I’d benefitted from some of it (although not a glam package, thank heavens). I also know how worthless most of this is in 2022. The “top-selling” market isn’t top-selling anymore. The numbers have gone way down.

But if a writer consumes a lot of traditional media and looks at the traditional promotions in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as those rotating ads on the online book retailers, then they’ll see certain books get promoted time and time again.

I always assumed that those writers didn’t know that there were other better ways to get their books to readers. I thought those writers were ignorant. I still think many writers who go into traditional publishing are ignorant, willfully so.

But there’s another category of writer that I was having trouble accepting. I missed the writers who have different goals than I do. The DOJ defines these writers as “distinct sellers.” There are three points to that definition and two are more or less irrelevant to our examination here. (Those points are based on the idea that self-publishing is ineffective because writers can’t pay themselves an advance or market their books properly. Not kidding. See this post.)

I had missed that these writers have different goals than I do. The goal that caught me was the one described on page 33 of the opinion.

…authors of anticipated top-selling books…(1) care more about their publishers’ reputation and services, which ensure wider distribution of their books…

To which we can add “in the old-fashioned traditional media and marketplace.”

If it’s really important for a writer to get the full 1970s star author treatment, however reduced it is in 2022, then that writer will always go to traditional publishing, or more specifically here in the U.S., to the Big 5.

Think of it this way: The Big 5 have become network television. Once upon a time in the U.S., we had three TV networks. In the 1970s, top shows on one of those three networks could get an average of 20 million households watching every single week. (A household was generally considered to be four people, which meant that the viewership was around 80 million people at a time when the U.S. population was around 203 million people.)

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

7 Books That Celebrate Underappreciated Crafts

From Electric Lit:

In 1937, on the bank of the river Ravi in Lahore, the 10-year-old protagonist of my novel realizes that he is affected by smell in a way that others are not. On that day, he is inducted as an apprentice to his uncle at the family’s perfume shop, and so begins the formal education of Samir Vij. Set against the backdrop of the 1947 Partition, he falls in love with Firdaus Khan, an illuminator of manuscripts; their days filled with perfume and paper, olfactory and amorous impulses. 

The Book of Everlasting Things is at its heart a love story, but it’s also very much about characters who continue to practice traditional crafts—perfumery, distillation, calligraphy and illumination, paper-making, Ayurvedic medicine, carpet weaving, leatherwork and tanning—in a changing world. Perhaps it is my own training as a traditional printmaker that inevitably directs my attention to these now-rare, highly intricate, labor-intensive disciplines that have sadly been swallowed by the modern and automated. And so, in an effort to celebrate underappreciated art forms, ancient traditions, and unique occupations, I present a list of books that have informed the texture of my writing.

The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

The Earthspinner deftly revisits the themes that Roy’s novels are well known for—history, memory, myth, and love. Elango is a Hindu rickshaw driver and potter whose dream is to create a terracotta horse, and whose crime is falling in love with Zohra, the granddaughter of a blind, Muslim calligrapher. A neighbor, Sara, becomes both witness and chronicler of his days, as she entwines herself into his life as his apprentice. One day, a lost dog, Chinna, appears, adopting the potter. With the completion of the terracotta horse, a community is enraged, and the pair of lovers flee into exile. Told in alternating first and third person, moving between India and England, the novel harnesses the elemental power of rain and fire, the strength of the earth, and the bodily nature of craftsmanship.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

New Year’s Eve, as described in fiction, is a grim affair

From The Economist:

New year’s eve is a moment of release, when the dry husk of the old year is discarded. Coming so soon after the expensive rituals of Christmas, it can provoke tired cynicism, but people of all ages still embrace the excuse to drown in sentimentality (or alcohol). It is an opportunity for fireworks, countdowns, bad dancing, claustrophobic parties and ropey television, or simply to pass out under a giant pile of coats.

In fiction, New Year’s Eve almost invariably proves a fiasco. Often it is tainted by doom or despair. In George Eliot’s novel “Silas Marner”, it prompts Squire Cass, a minor aristocrat, to host an opulent dance. His son Godfrey’s estranged wife, Molly, travels there, intending to expose his shabby behaviour, only to collapse en route and die in the snow. It is the date when Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl freezes to death in the street, ignored by revellers, and when the title character in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” weds the dogmatic hypocrite Angel Clare. In Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Looking Glass”, a young woman falls asleep on New Year’s Eve and perceives a future so haunted by death that, when she wakes, the dream seems to have cast a pall over her whole existence.

Less morbid, though still bleak, is the subgenre of modern novel in which a New Year’s Eve party exposes the fault lines in a marriage or in society at large. Margaret Drabble’s “The Radiant Way” features a couple for whom such a celebration becomes an unbearable chapter of “hints, glances, sliding words, oblique smiles, incomprehensible references”. In Brigid Brophy’s glistening, neglected book “The Snow Ball”, the hedonism of an end-of-year costume party amplifies the characters’ duplicity as well as their anxiety about it. Amor Towles’s “Rules of Civility” portrays Katey Kontent, a socialite, making merry at a jazz bar in Greenwich Village, where the prospect of New Year dangles “brightly coloured possibilities”—but also the sour truth that the race to grasp them is a ruthless competition.

Nick McDonell gives the occasion a sharply contemporary spin in “Twelve”, a portrait of Manhattanites cramped by privilege—one of whom, a drug addict, guns down half his social circle at a New Year’s Eve shindig. It is at a rather less edgy gathering to mark the same holiday that Lila, the bright star of Elena Ferrante’s passionate Neapolitan novels, looks at her neighbours and realises with disgust “how poorly made we are”. And there is surely no more hapless New Year’s Eve reveller in modern literature than the one Karl Ove Knausgaard pictures in his autobiographical novel “A Death in the Family”: a teenage plot to hide some cans of beer ahead of the night’s festivities turns into a roiling psychodrama about deceit, failure, rejection and David Bowie.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Review: The Soul’s Rebirth

From The Wall Street Journal:

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is an evergreen delight for a host of reasons, not least for its length. It’s the ideal, modest size. The book’s events—which track the elderly, prosperous, stingy Ebenezer Scrooge’s psychic transformation from grouchy bear to purring pussycat—unfold in the course of one night. And, likewise, the book can, and should, be consumed in a single night, preferably Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s clock and the reader’s were meant to align.

In the book’s fictional world, Scrooge’s stunted soul is redeemed after serial visits from four ghosts, each conveying messages of fear and censure. In another, factual world (the one you the reader inhabit), Scrooge’s night is best devoted to marveling at how compactly, how richly and deftly, Dickens lays out his tale of a pitiable man’s salvation. If everything goes well, the evening’s two prime participants, Scrooge and you, wind up at the same juncture: releasing tears of joy.

Scrooge is described as rocklike—a skinflint—but there is abundant water within this stone; tears flow generously in “A Christmas Carol.” The book might be subtitled “The Man Who Learned to Cry.” Scrooge’s first visitor is the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner, buried seven long years before. In clangorous fashion, dragging his chains, Marley’s ghost outlines Scrooge’s upcoming evening, in which he will suffer visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The book’s first sentences are: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” Categorical as this sounds, the reader in due course comes to grasp a startling, contrary truth: Marley is more alive than Scrooge. To lie eternally in a graveyard is to be less dead than to harbor a buried, unresponsive soul while yet breathing—embittered Scrooge’s fate.

Though “A Christmas Carol” is Dickens’s most celebrated creation, it was but one of five such novellas prepared for the holiday season, eventually assembled as the “Christmas Books.” It would be satisfying to report that “A Christmas Carol,” the majestic pinnacle of the five, culminated the series. But it was the first to arrive, and to read the set chronologically is to experience a gradual depletion.

Even so, today they compose a charming quintet, bristling with Victorian bustle, and in their gladsome heyday they were an exploding, near-annual phenomenon. Beginning in 1843, ending in 1848, each book arrived for Christmas. They were the new Netflix series of their time, a platinum LP, a YouTube viral sensation—they were precocious blockbusters, even if the term wouldn’t emerge until almost exactly a century later. The books were keenly awaited, speedily purchased, tirelessly discussed, variously performed. “The Chimes,” second in the series, generated five different stage adaptations within weeks of publication. “The Cricket on the Hearth,” the third, spawned an astonishing 17.

Unseen spirits abound in Dickens’s Christmas books. These are not disembodied feelings but determinate creatures, gesticulating at the rim of consciousness. While four ghosts are introduced to Scrooge by name, he is also granted a vaster vision, of an airborne world more frenzied and teeming than our own:

Scrooge followed to the window, desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms,

wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. . . . The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Similarly thronged is the atmosphere of “The Chimes”:

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed.

Hence, in both novellas solitude means company; nobody’s truly alone. Naturally, it’s tempting to regard such spirits as the native companions of the born novelist, who with each breath imbibes invisible, poignant stories.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Artificial intelligence will reach human levels

Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, and we will have multiplied the intelligence – the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization – a billion-fold.

Ray Kurzweil

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race….It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

Stephen Hawking

It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage, therefore, we should have to expect the machines to take control.

Alan Turing

We’re drowning in old books. But getting rid of them is heartbreaking.

From The Washington Post:

On a recent weekday afternoon, Bruce Albright arrives in the Wonder Book parking lot, pops the trunk of his Camry and unloads two boxes of well-worn books. “It’s sad. Some of these I’ve read numerous times,” he says.

Albright, 70, has been at this for six months, shedding 750 books at his local library and at this Frederick, Md., store. The rub: More than 1,700 volumes remain shelved in the retired government lawyer’s nearby home, his collection lovingly amassed over a half-century.

But Albright is on a mission. “I cleaned out my parents’ home,” he says. “I don’t want to do to my kids what my parents did to me.”

He’s far from alone. Books are precious to their owners. Their worth, emotional and monetary, is comparably less to anyone else.

Humorist and social critic Fran Lebowitz owns 12,000 books, mostly fiction, kept in 19th-century wooden cases with glass door sin her New York apartment. “Constitutionally, I am unable to throw a book away. To me, it’s like seeing a baby thrown in a trash can,” she says. “I am a glutton for print. I love books in every way. I love them more than most human beings.” If there’s a book she doesn’t want, Lebowitz, 72, will spend months deciding whom to give it to.

“I kept accumulating books. My life was overflowing with books. I’d have to live to 150 to reread these books,” says Martha Frankel, a writer and director of the Woodstock Bookfest. She amassed 3,600 — and that was just in the office that she closed in 2018 — “but the idea of getting rid of these books made me nauseous.”

America is saturated with old books, congesting Ikea Billy cases, Jengaing atop floors, Babeling bedside tables. During months of quarantine, book lovers faced all those spines and opportunities for multiple seasons of spring cleaning. They adore these books, irrationally, unconditionally, but know that, ultimately, if they don’t decide which to keep, it will be left to others to unceremoniously dump them.

So, despite denial, grief, bargaining, anguish and even nausea, the Great Deaccession commenced.

. . . .

“This is the most material flooding onto the market that I’ve ever seen,” says veteran Vancouver, Wash., dealer KolShaver, a sentiment shared by sellers across the country. For dealers who survived the pandemic, “the used-book business has never been healthier,” says Wonder Book owner Chuck Roberts, a 42-year veteran in the trade, strolling through his three-acre warehouse, a veritable biblio wonderland, jammed with volumes ranging from never-been-cracked publishers’ overstock to centuries-old classics bound in leather.

“We take everything and pretty much what no one else is going to take,” Roberts says, which is how his business accumulated an inventory of 6 million, with 300,000 more new used books arriving every month. Wonder Book practices “nose-to-tail bookselling,” meaning a home or use is found for each item one way or the other through multiple websites (national and international), three bricks-and-mortar stores, and school and charitable donations. Wonder Book’s damaged items on life support are pulped to produce 100,000 pounds monthly of recycled paper.

Despite the advent of the digerati and eBooks, hardcovers and paperbacks continue to flood the market for readers who prefer the look and feel of physical books, the weight in their hands, the pleasure of turning a page. Three-quarters of trade book revenue last year derived from hardcover and paperback sales, according to the Association of American Publishers. A boom in self- and hybrid publishing has allowed more people to call themselves an “author,” with a juggernaut of titles published annually in print, around 395,000 in 2021, a 15 percent increase in a decade, according to Bowker, which assigns ISBN numbers and bar codes to books.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Can AI Write Authentic Poetry?

From The MIT Press:

Time — a few centuries here or there — means very little in the world of poems.” There is something reassuring about Mary Oliver’s words. Especially in an era of rapid change, there is comfort to be had in those things that move slowly. But oceans rise and mountains fall; nothing stays the same. Not even the way poetry is made.

The disappearance of the author in 20th-century literary criticism can perhaps be traced back to the surrealist movement and its game of “exquisite corpse.” The surrealists believed that a poem can emerge not only from the unconscious mind of an individual, but from the collective mind of many individuals working in consort — even, or perhaps especially, if each individual has minimal knowledge of what the others are doing. Soon the idea of making art from recycled objects emerged. In the realm of literature, this approach took the form of found poetry.

To create a found poem, one or more people collect bits of text encountered anywhere at all, and with a little editing stitch the pieces together to form a collagelike poem. Examining this generative activity, it may be difficult to identify who if anyone is the “poet” who writes the found poem (or for that matter, to be confident that “writing” is an apt name for the process). Still, even if no one’s consciousness guided the initial creation of the constituent phrases, one or more humans will have exercised their sensitivity and discrimination in selecting the bits to include, and the way these pieces are ordered and linked to form a new whole. The author (or authors) at a minimum must do the work of a careful reader. Can the human be pushed still further into the background, or even out of the picture?

The most radical technological advance of the 20th century might seem to have nothing at all to do with the writing of poetry. If we make a list of the great leaps that led to modern civilization — control of fire, agriculture, the wheel, electricity, and perhaps a few more — the most recent addition is a machine that uses electrons to do computation. The first functioning digital computers were constructed midcentury by Alan Turing and a few others. Over the next not-quite-a-century-yet, computers became enormously faster and more powerful, began to process information in parallel rather than just sequentially, and were linked together into a vast worldwide network known as the internet. Along the way, these devices enabled the creation of artificial versions of a trait previously found only in biological life forms, most notably humans — intelligence.

In a certain sense, poetry may serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine — an early indicator of the extent to which AI promises to challenge humans as artistic creators.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is in the process of changing the world and its societies in ways no one can fully predict. On the hazier side of the present horizon, there may come a tipping point at which AI surpasses the general intelligence of humans. (In various specific domains, notably mathematical calculation, the intersection point was passed decades ago.) Many people anticipate this technological moment, dubbed the Singularity, as a kind of Second Coming — though whether of a savior or of Yeats’s rough beast is less clear. Perhaps by constructing an artificial human, computer scientists will finally realize Mary Shelley’s vision.

Of all the actual and potential consequences of AI, surely the least significant is that AI programs are beginning to write poetry. But that effort happens to be the AI application most relevant to our theme. And in a certain sense, poetry may serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine — an early indicator of the extent to which AI promises (threatens?) to challenge humans as artistic creators. If AI can be a poet, what other previously human-only roles will it slip into?

So, what is the current state of AI and computer-generated poetry? This is a less central question than might be supposed. Especially in this time of rapid AI advances, the current state of the artificial poetic arts is merely a transitory benchmark. We need to set aside the old stereotype that computer programs simply follow fixed rules and do what humans have programmed them to do, and so lack any capacity for creativity. Computer programs can now learn from enormous sets of data using methods called deep learning. What the programs learn, and how they will behave after learning, is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to predict in advance. The question has arisen (semiseriously) whether computer programs ought to be listed as coauthors of scientific papers reporting discoveries to which they contributed. There is no doubt that some forms of creativity are within the reach, and indeed the grasp, of computer programs.

But what about poetry? To evaluate computer-generated poetry, let’s pause to remind ourselves what makes a text work as a poem. A successful poem combines compelling content (what Coleridge called “good sense”) with aesthetically pleasing wordplay (metaphor and other varieties of symbolism), coupled with the various types of sound similarities and constraints of form.

In broad strokes, an automated approach to constructing poems can operate using a generate-then-select method. First, lots of candidate texts are produced, out of which some (a very few, or just one) are then selected as winners worth keeping. Roughly, computer programs can be very prolific in generating, but (to date) have proved less capable at selecting. At the risk of caricature, the computer poet can be likened to the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, pounding out reams of garbage within which the occasional Shakespearean sonnet might be found — with the key difference that the computer operates far more rapidly than any monkey (or human) could. To be fair, the program’s search can be made much less random than the monkey’s typing. Current computer poetry programs usually bring in one or more humans to help in selecting poetic gems embedded in vast quantities of computer-generated ore. An important question, of course, is whether an authentic creator requires some ability to evaluate their own creations. Perhaps, as Oscar Wilde argued, there is a sense in which an artist must act as their own critic — or not be a true artist at all.

One use of computers is simply to provide a platform for human generation and selection. The internet makes it easy for large groups of people to collaborate on projects. The kind of collective poetry writing encouraged by the surrealists has evolved into crowdsourcing websites that allow anyone to edit an emerging collective poem. Each contributor gets to play a bit part as author/editor. No doubt some people enjoy participating in the creation of poems by crowdsourcing. It’s less clear whether Sylvia Plath would have associated this activity with “the most ingrown and intense of the creative arts.”

But can computers write poetry on their own, or even make substantial contributions as partners with humans? Not surprisingly, computers are better able to generate and select poems that impose minimal constraints — the less sense and the less form the text requires, the easier for a machine to generate it. A cynic might suggest that the extremes of 20th-century free verse set the stage for AI poets by lowering the bar. (I’m reminded of an old Chinese saying, “A blind cat can catch a dead mouse.”) If that classic line of surrealism, “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine,” strikes you as a fine contribution to poetry, then AI is ready to get to work — there are plenty more quasi-random associations to be found by brute search.

As another example, since the 1960s computers have been creating poems in the form of haiku in English. Defined in the crudest possible way, an English haiku consists of words that total 17 syllables. Rather than actually composing haiku, some computer programs simply look for found poems of seventeen syllables. One program retrieved this haunting gem from the electronic pages of the New York Times:

We’re going to start

winning again, believe me.

We’re going to win.

The current state-of-the-art AI poets can actually generate text, rather than just retrieve it. The techniques vary, but most are founded on a mathematical discipline not typically viewed as poetic — statistics. The “big data” available to current AI systems includes massive electronic text corpora, such as Google News (which at the moment contains upward of 100 billion word tokens, ever-growing). Recall those constraints that govern language — the rules of syntax, the semantics of word meanings, the sounds described by phonology, the knowledge about context and social situations that constitutes pragmatics. All of those constraints, plus the linguistic choices and styles of individual writers, collectively yield the actual text produced by human writers — which accumulates as electronic data available for AI systems.

Link to the rest at The MIT Press

48 million adult Americans struggle to read. Publishers must share the blame

From The New Publishing Standard:

In his 1962 State of the Union address, President John F. Kennedy talked about millions of “functionally illiterate” adult Americans.

Fast forward 2022, sixty tears on, and the number is 48 million, or 23% of the adult US population.

Publishers must share the blame.

The books publishers churn out can help or hinder literacy. But there are worryingly few books printed for literacy-challenged adults to catch up on their failed school years, and the prices are invariably the same as for books aimed at competent readers who likely have higher earning power.

Likewise there are far too few books aimed at the less-confident teen readers offering appropriately mature teen-adult storylines with English suited to a lower grade reader.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

It did occur to PG that publishers might not see an anxious audience ready to purchase books to help them become literate. They may be perfectly happy with cable television.

PG categorizes this as, “Something terrible is happening, someone else must help to resolve the problem.”

Of course, the author of the OP didn’t mention volunteering for a local organization that helps people learn to read.

David Copperfield

From Bookbrowse:

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead is largely based on Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) wrote 15 novels during his career, the eighth of which he ponderously dubbed The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Known familiarly as David Copperfield, the novel actually began with Dickens’ attempts, between 1845 and 1848, to write an autobiography. His friend and biographer, John Forster, recalled that Dickens ultimately abandoned the nonfiction account because writing it was simply too painful. Dickens, in fact, kept the story of his impoverished youth so private that most didn’t realize David Copperfield was autobiographical until Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens was published in 1872. Regardless of the emotional toll it took, Dickens considered it his “favourite child,” and it’s the first of his major novels written entirely in the first person.

The story is narrated by Copperfield as a successful adult, looking back at his life from birth to the current day. The novel’s plot divides broadly into two sections. The first concentrates on the privations of the main character’s childhood as his single mother marries a brutal man. Her death soon follows, leaving young David an orphan at his stepfather’s mercy. He is shipped off to a harsh boarding school before being forced to work at a warehouse, enduring hardship at all stages of his journey. He ultimately escapes to an eccentric aunt, who sets his feet on a more stable path.

The book’s second part follows David’s professional growth from legal clerk to reporter to, finally, successful author. More important to the plot, however, is the protagonist’s relationships with his contemporaries, particularly with his first love and, later, with a friend whom he idolizes. As the tale concludes, evil is punished and virtue rewarded, resulting in what some would call a fairytale ending. (It’s interesting to note that this is Dickens’ last book with a conventionally happy ending.)

Link to the rest at Bookbrowse

How Do We Know Ourselves?

From The Wall Street Journal:

The title of “How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind” suggests that Hope College psychologist David Myers will, in this brief book, focus primarily on the process of self-discovery. But a better title might have been “How Well Do We Know Ourselves?” The answer that emerges, over 40 charming and clear-eyed chapters that cover disparate areas of psychology including memory, relationships and personality, is: not very.

Consider a study on dissent. A huge majority of the participants—95%—predicted that they would immediately protest sexist comments in a hypothetical group scenario. In a second phase of the experiment, only 45% of the participants actually spoke up when they encountered the comments. In another study, participants were told to write blog posts as if they had a few months to live. The posts were significantly more negative than those of actual terminal patients. And those with the least self-knowledge are also the most sure of themselves. Lower scores on tests of humor, logic and grammar have been associated with greater overconfidence in those domains; in what’s now called the Dunning-Kruger effect (after its discoverers), Mr. Myers writes, “incompetence doesn’t recognize itself.”

We misjudge not only our individual selves but others of the species. People presume that small talk with strangers will be awkward, but research shows it psychologically benefits both parties. Passive Facebook use can erode our sense of well-being because we see positive posts as representative of peers’ seemingly superior lives. And when asked to enter and exit a room wearing a possibly embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirt, students later estimated that nearly half their peers noticed Barry, whereas the actual number was far lower. (In all cases, it’s worth noting, reality was brighter than expectations.)

Mr. Myers, the book’s bio reports, is the author of a widely adopted psychology textbook. This volume draws on the breadth and depth of such knowledge but remains light on its feet. Mr. Myers has a deft touch, dropping mentions of studies here and there to get the main point across, and mixing them with everyday observations and quotes from philosophers. The chapters are lessons but also essays. The acknowledgments thank his “poet-colleague and writing coach,” and the influence shows, with lines like “we have dignity but not deity” (on overconfidence) and “disparity dispirits” (on inequality).

Some chapters provoke mirth. The first, on implicit egotism, describes the “name-residence effect.” In one study, a disproportionate number of people nicknamed Tex moved to Texas, and Virginias moved to Virginia. Also, people with the last name Baker, Barber, Butcher or Butler were more likely to enter those professions than mere chance would explain. Another chapter covers “mondegreens,” misheard phrases or words. They’re common in hazily grasped song lyrics: “There’s a bad moon on the rise” becomes “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

Other times, Mr. Myers directly addresses weighty issues, such as politics. He describes the rise in political polarization, a result both of evergreen factors like confirmation bias and modern phenomena like cable TV. (“Our challenge is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals,” he writes.) He notes that many people who protest immigration are likely to be least affected by it; places with greater immigration show greater acceptance, perhaps because interaction reduces prejudice. But even when discussing narcissism among the powerful, his tone is never polemical.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

All Writers Are Spies

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I didn’t read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh until I was trying to land a job as an editorial assistant in the children’s book department at Harper and Row Publishers. I read my way through every novel they’d published in the previous twenty years. Harriet was at the top of the list.

I recognized my kinship to Harriet the moment she told Sport in the first chapter that she has to take notes on the people in the subway because she’s seen them, and she wants to remember them. How did Louise Fitzhugh know me so well? The answer, of course, is simple: she was a writer. All writers are spies, going about the very important task of gathering their material, and when they’re on the job, they’re unsentimental, focused, indefatigable. “Spies don’t go with friends,” Harriet tells Sport. The life of a spy is a lonely one. I was the only girl in a family of six. I knew about being different, being on the outside looking in. Writing things down in my journal was my way of making sense of the world, from the confusing behavior of my parents to the cruelty of certain people who called themselves my friends to the irritating torments of my brothers. My journal was the one place where I could be completely honest about my feelings.

I was more careful than Harriet. I never took my spy books out of their secret, locked place in my bedroom, so fortunately, I didn’t lose any friends over what I wrote there. However, as my notes grew into published stories, a few family members began to have their misgivings. Soon after my second novel was published, one uncle warned that “every time Elizabeth writes a book, it’s like dodging a bullet.”

But I connected with Harriet in other ways. I realize now that when I came to write my fantasy novel, The Castle in the Attic, fourteen years after I’d read Harriet the Spy, I was channeling a version of Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly. Harriet is devastated by Ole Golly’s departure. My character, William, feels equally desperate when he learns that his nanny, Mrs. Phillips, is moving back to England. Harriet works through her feelings in her notebook. William resorts to magic, but their motivation is the same: hang on to the one person who loves you despite all your faults. Do anything to keep her, and if she leaves you, do anything to bring her back, no matter the consequences.

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

The Bookish Internet Killed My Reading Life

From Book Riot:

Yesterday, I was standing in front of my desk, piled high with books I had checked out from the library or received for review, trying to decide what to read next. I shifted from foot to foot and gave myself a pep talk. “Pretend you are a normal reader. You’re just picking whatever book looks interesting. You can read whatever you want.”

-record scratch-

You’re probably wondering how I got here. Why am I not a normal reader? What does picking out something to read feel like such an intimidating task that I need to psych myself up and put myself in the right headspace? Well, we start with a kid who loves reading, and we end with an adult who has built their life around books to the extent that reading has become a minefield of expectations and guilt.

It all started with a book blog, which was supposed to just be fun. I was going to record everything I read and share it with people. But then I had a much better idea: I could create a book blog just for bi and lesbian books, since that’s what I wanted to read more of. I could talk about queer women books with people! How fun.

And when I started the blog, something miraculous happened: people started giving me free books. They were self-published ebooks sent from the author, but free books are free books! And well, if someone is going to write a sapphic book (still a rarity back then) and send it to me, the least I could do was read and review it. Besides, now I had a blog to maintain, which meant new content, which meant I needed to be reading more (bi and lesbian) books.

That’s when things started to go off the rails. Because suddenly, there was stress and guilt involved. When you have to read a book, it starts to lose its shine, and those ebooks started to pile up. I could no longer read every book I was sent, so I stopped promising that. Eventually, I started adding more reviewers to my team: they got access to these books for review, and I got additional content for the blog.

Somehow, though, I had managed to pile up more obligations while getting rid of those old ones. I was starting to get more books for review that I was really excited about, and even the occasional ARC (advanced reader copy) in the mail. I was reading more than ever, but my TBR pile grew even faster. And then, of course, I had to start a BookTube channel, because that looked like fun, which meant more content, which meant I needed to read more books. And then Book Riot was looking for more contributors, so I had to apply, and then I had to be producing enough bookish content for three platforms, and it’s hard to do that without reading more…

Meanwhile, my interest in reading — despite being surrounded by books I was excited about all the time — was beginning to wane. No matter how much I read, I was always behind. I didn’t want to read sapphic books, even though that’s what I most enjoyed reading, because that meant I had to write a review for it. But I didn’t want to read non-sapphic books, because what was the point?

That’s also about the time I realized that my reading was far too white, and I should really diversify it more, which led me down spreadsheet rabbit holes of planning the ideal TBR. Diversifying my reading also introduced me to so many incredible new-to-me authors, adding even more to my TBR list.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

“A Spy Among Friends” dramatises the treachery of Kim Philby

From The Economist:

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends,” E.M. Forster wrote in 1938, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The English author’s words are used as an epigraph to “A Spy Among Friends”, Ben Macintyre’s bestselling book of 2014 about Harold “Kim” Philby, as well as for a new television adaptation. Yet the British intelligence officer and double-agent made no such choice: he betrayed his country, his friends and his family for decades and without remorse.

Philby’s name is synonymous with treachery on a colossal scale. Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Donald Maclean—the other members of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring—committed many duplicitous deeds for their Soviet masters, but none can claim the title of Britain’s most notorious spy. Philby played his high-stakes game of double-cross so ruthlessly, so successfully and for so long that he acquired a different level of infamy after he was unmasked.

During the second world war, Philby worked in Section V of the Secret Intelligence Service, where he analysed intercepted German wireless messages alongside Graham Greene (who was already a celebrated novelist). Rising through the ranks, Philby was posted to Istanbul in 1947 and two years later secured the plum post of mi6 chief in Washington. For the best part of his career, he could do no wrong. Some of his colleagues believed he would come to lead the service. He was admired, respected and, above all, trusted.

The whole time Philby was working for his country, he was also jeopardising it. He was recruited by the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and remained fully committed to the communist cause for the rest of his life. The extent of his betrayal only became apparent after his defection in 1963. It is estimated that he passed on tens of thousands of classified documents to his Soviet controllers, information which resulted in sabotaged operations, nationwide scandal and the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Much has been written about the Cambridge Five in general and Philby in particular. Yet in “A Spy Among Friends” Mr Macintyre found fertile new ground to explore by focusing on the relationship between Philby and Nicholas Elliott, a longtime friend and fellow spy. For years, John le Carré contemplated writing a play about the pair; instead, he suggested that Mr Macintyre, who had published several books about double-agents and criminals, offer an account. The book draws on mi5 files and hitherto unseen papers and shines a valuable light on what Mr Macintyre considers “one of the most important conversations in the history of the cold war”—an exchange in Beirut during which Elliott obtained a confession from his old friend and arch-deceiver.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Happy Holidays

Mrs. PG has PG hard at work preparing for out-of-town guests and other accoutrements of the Christmas season.

PG seldom feels old, but hauling a variety of Christmas cheer burdens upstairs from their normal abodes can cause him to feel that way, especially in the spinal region, a carry-over from a motorcycle accident that occurred during his freshman year in college. He doesn’t think about college very much, except when his back gets sore.

PG just realized that the mental connection he has between the hallowed halls of ivy and a sore back may be a cause of his resistance to the many solicitations for donations that have issued from those halls over the centuries since he graduated.

Alma mater did nothing to cause PG’s accident, but it did occur on a street that bisected the campus, so PG thinks that Freud would have a good explanation for what happens when he receives yet another suggestion to send money.

And, of course, there were those student loan payments that followed him for a period of time after he graduated.

Reading After the University

From Public Books:

It’s no news that the university is in crisis. Foreign-language departments have perhaps been the most affected, but few humanities programs have gone unscathed. English departments form the subject of two new attempts to provide a backstory to our present disorder: Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University by Andy Hines and Professing CriticismEssays on the Organization of Literary Studies by John Guillory. Both depict literary study within universities as something strange and recent. And both situate the university in longer stories of racial capitalism and class distinction. Taken together, they provide a sobering analysis of the limited political potential of today’s English departments.

At the same time, amid this morass of dysfunction, both books soothe themselves with the fact that the university has no monopoly on reading. Students are never confined to the official syllabus. Some part of literature and literary study has always been eccentric to the university curriculum, and accounts of the “outside” of university-based practices, like the one Hines finds in a Black radical tradition that emphasized literature’s political potentials, could proliferate in many directions. Disciplinary outsides and eccentricities have tended to negatively inform professional literature scholars’ assertions that study of “their” objects requires specialist training in unique methods, or that university-based study of literature is the most inherently humanizing or importantly political reading practice. Guillory and Hines flip the script. By treating the professional literary academic as only one kind of reader, they suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.


Both books part ways with what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell describe as a liberal “crisis consensus” that envisions universities as inherently progressive institutions that need only be saved from the recent ravages of neoliberal privatization. Hines depicts the English department as having been an “institutionalized cultural space governed by whiteness and anticommunism.” In his telling, the postwar establishment of the new criticism, which foregrounded close reading of the text as a self-contained aesthetic object, helped ground the emerging postwar hegemony of US liberal capitalism, which imagined itself as an apolitical unity-amid-diversity in opposition to mandated Soviet conformity. None of this could have happened without demonizing left and communist Black intellectuals who treated culture as an engine of revolutionary transformation.

In turn, Guillory’s historical breadth—encompassing the rise and fall of rhetoric, belle lettres, philology, and more—supplements some of Hines’s archival work on the late 1940s and 1950s. Guillory understands the new criticism as just one piece of a massive sociological and methodological shift that made the literary object a “verbal work of art” and, built around it, the English department as a site of disciplinary expertise. By subordinating documentary or political aspects of the text to “an aesthetic ontology,” English professors granted themselves jurisdiction over literary inquiry, and thus a role within the university in servicing the expanding professional-managerial class.

In Hines’s account, the new criticism enabled the racialized exploitation and exclusion of some people to secure the freedom of others within the “state-academic apparatus.” “Black writers, Black leftists, and communist affiliates who sought to build institutions around the critical study of Black literature,” among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Melvin B. Tolson, fought the new criticism’s consolidation with US institutions, seeking instead an interracial coalition that would challenge American capitalism and “the ills of racial liberalism.” Their radical vision of future possibility was undermined by a “racist interpretation complex” that made “the imagining of such efforts, and the efforts themselves, appear improbable.” The causal claim is important here: it is the racist interpretation complex, backed by and embodied within the new criticism, that undermined the work of those committed to using the study of literature and culture in service of radical social transformation.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Items like the OP make PG very happy that he’s not in college today.

The ivory tower appears to have been taken over by crazy people in more than a few instances.

In past lives, PG has interviewed recent college graduates who had submitted applications to the Personnel Department at a large company (Human Resources hadn’t been invented yet.). He mostly looked for a reasonable level of general intelligence and looked for signs that the individual was not a crazy person.

As a youth, PG had learned that it’s a bad idea to have any commercial or personal relationship with a crazy person. Regardless of any other redeeming personality traits, it was best to steer very clear of crazy people.

The problem is that crazy people can be quite ingenious about a variety of things, including cloaking their craziness behind a non-threatening façade.

Of course, PG is not a crazy person, just someone with a few charming quirks.

Notoriously Long & Difficult Books

From The Daniel Boone Regional Library:

Moby-Dick, Or, The Whale by Melville, Herman

Les Misérables by Hugo, Victor

Ulysses by Joyce, James

Finnegans Wake by Joyce, James

Infinite Jest, A Novel by Wallace, David Foster

How To Read Infinite Jest, web resource

Mark Z. Danielwski’s House of Leaves by Danielewski, Mark Z.

War And Peace by Tolstoy, Leo

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

Atlas Shrugged by Rand, Ayn

Link to the rest at The Daniel Boone Regional Library

The Most Thought-Provoking Books of the Year, According to The Atlantic

From Book Riot:

‘Tis the season for “best of” book lists, and we’ve rounded up quite a few on Book Riot. The newest addition is the first “The Atlantic 10,” which the magazine defines not quite as the best books of the year, but the books that “impressed us with their force of ideas, that drew us in not because of some platonic ideal of greatness, but because they got our brains working and presented fresh angles on the world. In a phrase, they were good to think with.”

The editors introduce their picks as,

“Between the covers of these books, readers will find an enormously diverse set of subjects and an array of writerly moods, from the whimsical to the deadly serious. These are stories that plunge into the intimate world of farmworkers in Central California, the unlikely friendship between two Asian American college students, and the machinations of modern-day authoritarians. The questions these titles pose are varied and generative. How has Ireland evolved over the past several decades? What kind of art form is the video game? What role does racism have in the health and wellness of Black people? But what binds these books to one another is that, in 2022, they were the ones that gave us a new way of looking, that forced us to stop and consider—that, once the last page was turned, dropped us back into our lives as smarter people.”

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG nominates:

Books that ‘impressed us with their force of ideas, that drew us in not because of some platonic ideal of greatness, but because they got our brains working and presented fresh angles on the world. In a phrase, they were good to think with.

as the most-pretentious description of the time-hackneyed end of year “Best Books of 18xx/19xx/20xx” clichéd genre magazine article better described as the because-not-much-is-actually-happening-and-we’re-all-going-to-be-on-vacation-during-the-holidays filler article AKA “How are we going to publish a magazine in December that isn’t all advertisements?”

As for PG, he’s experiencing an array of writerly moods at the moment. He’s not certain how long this condition will last or whether he should contact his doctor and get some sort of anti-writerlymoods prescription called into the local pharmacy.

10 of History’s Most Successful Pirates (and What They Teach Us About Work)

From Lifehacker:

Pirate ships were the start-ups of their day. During the “golden age of piracy” (approximately 1650-1720), countless thousands of sailors and underground entrepreneurs tried their luck at high-seas robbery, launching criminal operations with very little capital and a massive potential for profit, just like that app you want to make. But like modern start-ups, buccaneering was risky—most pirates failed, and failure as a pirate didn’t mean going back to grad school; it meant a noose around your neck and a short drop. The few who found some success in this difficult, competitive field can teach us all something about how to run a better business or best the scurvy scalawags on your company’s Slack. Read on to learn from these real-life successful pirates.

Any list of pirate lessons has to start with the negative example of Stede Bonnet, the most ridiculous (but kind of amazing) pirate in history. Most “golden age” pirates got into their line of work because they didn’t have many other options, but not Stede Bonnet. The Gentleman Pirate was from a rich family, and lived the settled, comfortable life of a family man in Jamaica. But one day around 1716, for reasons lost to history, Bonnet left it all behind for the dangerous, violent life of piracy. He bought a ship, named it The Revenge, hired 70 experienced men to run it, and set out to sea.

It did not go well.

After a few small victories mostly thanks to his experienced crew, Bonnet was severely injured after attacking a Spanish Man-o-War. He then entered into a “partnership” with Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, a terrifying actual pirate. The team-up ended with Teach double-crossing Bonnet and stealing The Revenge and all the sweet, sweet booty they’d stolen together. Rather than returning home to lick his wounds, Bonnet vowed revenge against his former friend, got a new ship, and started doing more pirating. He seemed to be getting the hang of it too, until he was captured by pirate hunters, tried, convicted, and executed in 1718.

What we can learn: Your work friends aren’t really your friends.

If nothing else, Calico Jack was a progressive pirate. He’s not known for his huge hauls—Jack was a bit of a small-timer—but he’s remembered for two of his crew members: his lover Anne Bonny and her lover, Mary Read. Bonny joined Captain Jack’s crew after fleeing from her husband. Read was a pirate already, who disguised herself as a man in order to sail. Everything was pirate-y cool until 1720, when pirate-hunter Jonathan Barnet surprised the crew of Captain Jack’s sloop in Bry Harbour Bay in Jamaica. Rackham’s pirates were mostly drunk, but those who were sober enough to fight were led by Bonny and Read. They all got captured anyway. Calico Jack was tried and hanged, but Bonny and Read each pleaded “pregnancy” and were spared the noose. When asked about Rackham, Bonny famously replied: “If he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog.” Cold-blooded.

What we can learn: There’s a reason HR says managers can’t date their employees.

Link to the rest at Lifehacker

The Word of the Year goes Goblin Mode

From Book Browse:

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Book Browse

Yesterday

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

Comment Spam

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

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

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

Forbidden Notebooks: A Woman’s Right to Write

From The Paris Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

On the Gift of Longhand

From The Millions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Millions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final digression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is crowdworking & crowdsourcing?

From CrowdWorker.com

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

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

The wisdom of the crowd

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

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

The benefits of crowdsourcing

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

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

Crowdsourcing goes together with crowdworking

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

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

Motivation for Crowdworking

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

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

Link to the rest at CrowdWorker.com

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

From CNN:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at CNN

Another game falls to an AI player

From The Economist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

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

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

The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler

From Vulture:

Octavia Estelle Butler was named after two of the most important people in her life: her mother, Octavia Margaret Guy, and her grandmother, Estella. Her grandmother was an astonishing woman. She raised seven children on a plantation in Louisiana, chopping sugarcane, boiling laundry in hot cauldrons, and cooking and cleaning, not only for her family but for the white family that owned the land. There was no school for Black children, but Estella taught Octavia Margaret enough to read and write. As far as Butler could tell, her grandmother’s life wasn’t far removed from slavery — the only difference was she had worked hard enough and saved enough money to move everyone out west during the Great Migration, to Pasadena, California, in the early 1920s.

Octavia Margaret worked from an early age; she attended school in California but was pulled out after a few years to help earn money. When Butler was very young, her family used to “stay on the place,” meaning they lived on the property of the family they worked for. Her father, Laurice James Butler, worked as a shoeshiner and died when she was 3 years old. Later, her mother would rent a spot for the two of them in Pasadena and work as a day laborer for wealthy white women. Octavia Margaret’s dream was to have her own place where she could tend her garden. She was quiet and deeply religious, and she read Butler bedtime stories until she was 6, at which point she said, “Here’s the book. Now you read.”

In her family, Butler went by Junie, short for Junior, and in the world, she went by Estelle or Estella to avoid confusion for people looking for her mother. As a girl, she was shy. She broke down in tears when she had to speak in front of the class. Her youth was filled with drudgery and torment. The first time she remembered someone calling her “ugly” was in the first grade — bullying that continued through her adolescence. “I wanted to disappear,” she said. “Instead, I grew six feet tall.” The boys resented her growth spurt, and sometimes she would get mistaken for a friend’s mother or chased out of the women’s bathroom. She was called slurs. It was the only time in her life she really considered suicide.

She kept her own company. In her elementary-school progress reports, one teacher wrote that “she dreams a lot and has poor concentration.” That was true. She did dream a lot, and she began to write her dreams down in a large pink notebook she carried around with her. “I usually had very few friends, and I was lonely,” Butler said. “But when I wrote, I wasn’t.” By the time she was 10, she was writing her own worlds. At first, they were inspired by animals. She loved horses like those in The Black Stallion. When she saw an old pony at a carnival with festering sores swarmed by flies, she realized the sores had come from the other kids kicking the animal to make it go faster. Children’s capacity for cruelty stayed with her. She went home and wrote stories of wild horses that could shape-shift and that “made fools of the men who came to catch them.”

She found a refuge at the Pasadena Public Library, where she leaped into science fiction. She especially liked Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Zenna Henderson, whose book Pilgrimage she would buy for her friends to read. She was a comic-book nerd: first DC and then Marvel. When she was 12 years old, she watched Devil Girl From Mars, a black-and-white British science-fiction movie about a female alien commander named Nyah who has mind-control powers, a vaporizing ray gun, and a tight leather outfit with a cape that touches the floor. Butler thought she could come up with a better story than that, so she began to write her own: temporary escape hatches from a life of “boredom, calluses, humiliation, and not enough money,” as she saw it. “I needed my fantasies to shield me from the world.”

When she learned she could make a living doing this, she never let the thought go. Later, she would call it her “positive obsession” and would put it all on the line. Her mother’s youngest sister, who was the first in the family to go to college, became a nurse. Despite her family’s warnings, she did exactly what she wanted to do. That same aunt would tell Butler, “Negroes can’t be writers,” and advise her to get a sensible job as a teacher or civil servant. She could have stability and a nice pension, and if she really wanted to, she could write on the side. “My aunt was too late with it, though,” Butler said. “She had already taught me the only lesson I was willing to learn from her. I did as she had done and ignored what she said.”

Butler would grow up to write and publish a dozen novels and a collection of short stories. She did not believe in talent as much as hard work. She never told an aspiring writer they should give up, rather that they should learn, study, observe, and persist. Persistence was the lesson she received from her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt. In her lifetime, she would become the first published Black female science-fiction writer and be considered one of the forebears of Afrofuturism. “I may never get the chance to do all the things I want to do,” a 17-year-old Butler wrote in her journals, now archived at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. “To write 1 (or more) best sellers, to initiate a new type of writing, to win both the Nobel and the Pulitzer prizes (in reverse order), and to sit my mother down in her own house before she is too old and tired to enjoy it.” The world would catch up to her dreams. In 2020, Parable of the Sower would hit the best-seller list 27 years after its initial publication and 14 years after Butler’s death. After years of imitation, Hollywood has put adaptations of nearly all of her novels into development, beginning with a Kindred show coming to Hulu in December. She is now experiencing a canonization that had only just begun in the last decade of her life.

“I never bought into my invisibility or non-existence as a Black person,” Butler wrote in a journal entry in 1999. “As a female and as an African-American, I wrote myself into the world. I wrote myself into the present, the future, and the past.” For Butler, writing was a way to manifest a person powerful enough to overcome the circumstances of her birth and what she saw as her own personal failings. Her characters were brazen when she felt timid, leaders when she felt she lacked charisma. They were blueprints for her own existence. “I can write about ideal me’s,” she wrote on the cusp of turning 29. “I can write about the women I wish I was or the women I sometimes feel like. I don’t think I’ve ever written about the woman I am though. That is the woman I read and write to get away from. She has become a victim. A victim of her upbringing, a victim of her fears, a victim of her poverty — spiritual and financial. She is a victim of herself. She must climb out of herself and make her fate. How can she do this?”

. . . .

Butler was on the 6 p.m. Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh heading home from the Clarion Workshop for science-fiction writers. She felt proud of the past six weeks. She had just turned 23, and Clarion was the first time she was taken seriously as a writer. After graduating from high school, she had continued to live at home while attending Pasadena City College. She exhausted the creative-writing classes there and the extension classes at UCLA, where a teacher had once asked her, “Can’t you write anything normal?” She got into a screenwriting class at the Open Door Workshop through the Writer’s Guild of America, where she met the writer Harlan Ellison. She knew his work well, particularly his anthology Dangerous Visions, which was part of a literary, more socially minded turn in the genre. He later said she “couldn’t write screenplays for shit” but knew she was talented and encouraged her to go to Clarion, even giving her some money.

Clarion was the farthest Butler had ever been from home and required a three-day cross-country trip to get there. Adjusting was difficult at first. Western Pennsylvania was hot, humid, and lonely. The radio stations stopped playing at eight. When the other students socialized, she wrote letters to her friends and mother — six in the first week. Epistolary writing was a way to unload and unblock herself and, at least at Clarion, to feel less isolated. “Write me and prove that there are still some Negroes somewhere in the world,” she wrote to her mother early on. Ellison did tell her there would be one Black teacher there: Samuel Delany, who at 28 was a literary wunderkind. He’d published nine novels by then, winning the Nebula Award — the field’s highest honor — for Best Novel two years in a row. When Butler saw him for the first time, she told him he looked like a wild man from Borneo. (She probably shouldn’t have said that, she thought later.) When she felt particularly hard on herself, she would write letters to her mother she never sent. “I’m not doing anything,” she wrote. “I’m hiding in this blasted room crying to you. Which is disgusting.” Her mother had forgone dental work so Butler could attend. She wouldn’t complain like that.

Yes, she was still shy. She rarely spoke in class, and when she did, she put her hand over her mouth. (“She would never volunteer an answer,” Delany recalled, “but whenever I called on her, she always had an answer and it was always very smart.”) But Ellison’s session was a shot in the arm. Butler hadn’t turned in anything all workshop, and his one-story-a-day gauntlet invigorated her. She finished “Childfinder” at 4 a.m. — a story about a Black woman named Barbara who has the ability to locate children with latent psionic abilities and to nurture them. She sold the story to Ellison for his next anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, and an editor at Doubleday encouraged her to send along her book manuscript for Psychogenesis, a world she had been building out since her teens.

Ellison was a social force: vexing and impossible to feel neutral toward. He would tell Butler to “Write Black!” and “Write the ghetto the way you see it!” — advice that annoyed her. She also had a crush on him. In her journals, she gave him a code name, El Llano, something she did for all of her crushes (William Shatner was “Gelly”). She wanted someone who could help guide her career, and she had hoped Ellison could be her mentor, champion, and lover. “Llano could easily be that master,” she wrote. But she was wary of losing herself. “If I am not careful, he will take over without even realizing it. A master must teach me to use my own talent, not to lean on his. I love him, but this is not what he teaches. So I will continue to love him and teach myself.”

. . . .

The high of Clarion wore off quickly. Ellison had promised “Childfinder” would make Butler a star, but the publication of The Last Dangerous Visions kept getting delayed. She sent fragments of Psychogenesis to Diane Cleaver, the Doubleday editor she met at the workshop. Cleaver said it was promising but she would need the complete manuscript. Over the next five years, Butler didn’t sell any writing but wrote constantly. She had moved into her own place in Los Angeles, one side of a single-story duplex in Mid City. On Saturdays, she packed a draft of Psychogenesis into her briefcase and went to the library to do research. One day, she lost the briefcase in a department store; from this point on, she always made a backup copy of her work.

She tried to stick to a tight schedule. Every morning at 2 a.m., she woke up to write. This was the best time, before the day was filled with other people, when her mind could roam freely. Sunrise brought the life she did not ask for: menial jobs at factories, offices, and warehouses. She subsisted on work from a blue-collar temp agency she called “the Slave Market.” Her mother wished she would get a full-time job as a secretary, but Butler preferred manual labor because she didn’t have to “smile and pretend I was having a good time.” Her body hurt; she needed to go to the dentist. She took NoDoz to stay awake during the day. She was always crunching numbers: the price of paper, how far she could stretch a $99.07 biweekly paycheck. “Poverty is a constant, convenient, and unfortunately valid excuse for inaction,” she wrote in one journal entry.

The world of Psychogenesis had to do with psionics — telepathy, telekinesis, mind control — which was popular in the science fiction she was reading. The possibility that you could control the circumstances of your life with your mind held a strong appeal for Butler. She believed in its real-world application, too. She had begun taking self-hypnosis classes back in high school and devoured self-help books like The Magic of Thinking Big and 10 Days to a Great New Life. She particularly loved Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, a book of motivational practices cribbed from the French psychologist Émile Coué’s concept of optimistic auto-suggestion, which originated the mantra “In every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” She would learn to manifest.

One of Hill’s exercises was to go to a quiet spot and write down a sum of money you want to earn and how you would get it. You had to do it with “faith.” For a stretch of months in 1970, Butler would follow these instructions in the morning and at night. “Goal: To own, free and clear, $100,000 in cash savings,” she wrote. These mantras sounded a drumbeat throughout her early journals. She drew up contracts for herself with writing benchmarks — I will put together an outline; I will complete a short story — and signed them “OEB.” She copied out Frank Herbert’s quote “Fear is the mind killer” and wrote it again, breaking it up into stanzas. Writing was an incantation, a spell she could cast upon herself and the reader. “The goal right now is to achieve a scene of pure emotion,” she wrote. “I want the feeling to spark in the first sentence and I want my reader, my captive to read on helplessly hating with vehemence any interruption strong enough to break through to them. I shall succeed.”

Then, in December 1975, at 28, she sold her first book. After losing the Psychogenesis draft, she began writing another novel, Patternmaster, that takes place in the same universe. It was about a struggle for succession between two psionics, a young upstart named Teray and a seemingly unbeatable being named Coransee, both vying to become the next “Patternmaster” — that is, the leader of the telepathic race known as the Patternists. Butler sent the manuscript to Doubleday. By then, Cleaver had left, and Sharon Jarvis, the science-fiction editor, accepted the submission.

Link to the rest at Vulture

Alternative Book Review: Letter To A Protagonist

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

After reading Priya Malhotra’s gorgeous WOMAN OF AN UNCERTAIN AGE I felt compelled, rather than writing a review, to write a letter to the protagonist, Naina.

. . . .

When fifty-something Naina Mehta’s husband dies of a heart attack, she transforms herself from a suburban wife into a bold woman thirsty for new experiences. A far cry from the classic image of the aging Indian widow who dresses in subdued colors and focuses solely on her children and God.

Naina moves to New York City, takes up a low-paying job in a contemporary art gallery, and becomes besotted by Jai, her daughter’s boyfriend. But that’s only the beginning of her journey into this new world that allows her to explore the possibilities of being who she wants to be.

As Naina becomes more empowered, she dips her toes into the world of dating for the first time in her life. Maybe the possibility of love still exists for a woman of her age. But what happens if the man in question is Muslim and stirs generational wounds and the wrath of her conservative son?

Woman of an Uncertain Age explores the rocky, uncertain terrain of a middle-aged widow during a time when the parameters and ideas of midlife are being challenged. What does it mean to be a fifty-plus woman with grown children in such an environment? Especially for Naina, who comes from a culture where life is expected to follow a strict traditional course.

LETTER TO A PROTAGONIST

Dear Naina,

First of all, I’m sorry for your loss. I know it’s been quite a while since you lost your husband, but I think one can never just “move on” from such immense tragedy. It becomes part of you.

You’d be pleased to know that Priya did a remarkable job retelling your journey, her lush descriptions of your life, how you arrived in America from India, your arranged marriage, your life in New Jersey first of all, and your (brave!) move to Manhattan after the unthinkable happened, rather than doing the “expected” thing of resigning to being the dutiful widow, blending into the background, demure.

You might be less pleased to hear that Priya wrote your story candidly, unflinching, pulling no punches, and revealing far more about yourself than you would have wanted, considering you’re quite a private person.

The guilt you felt when you fell for your daughter’s boyfriend for instance.

The horror upon your daughter’s discovery, the heartwrenching months that followed.

But they were necessary revelations.

If we were to meet in real life, I assume you’d only tell me what I might want to hear, hiding the painful and embarrassing aspects of your journey (don’t we all do that, giving people the version we’d like them to hear?).

What kind of mother are you, Naina?

I must admit, I did question this, and it was tricky at times to refrain from judging you, but the fact that you could barely live with yourself because of what had unfolded, and the remorse which seeped from the pages made me want to climb in between the sentences to comfort you.

You are a flawed human being, a beautiful, wise, and inspiring one.

It was no surprise that you turned to online dating eventually, even though you never thought you’d do so. It was entertaining to read, some of the emails you received actually made me laugh out loud.

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

And the Fair Land

For all our social discord we remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators.

Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.

And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.

For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.

His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places—only to find those men as frail as any others.

So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?

Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.

But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere—in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

This editorial has run annually on Thanksgiving since 1961.

Reading After the University

From Public Books:

It’s no news that the university is in crisis. Foreign-language departments have perhaps been the most affected, but few humanities programs have gone unscathed. English departments form the subject of two new attempts to provide a backstory to our present disorder: Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University by Andy Hines and Professing CriticismEssays on the Organization of Literary Studies by John Guillory. Both depict literary study within universities as something strange and recent. And both situate the university in longer stories of racial capitalism and class distinction. Taken together, they provide a sobering analysis of the limited political potential of today’s English departments.

At the same time, amid this morass of dysfunction, both books soothe themselves with the fact that the university has no monopoly on reading. Students are never confined to the official syllabus. Some part of literature and literary study has always been eccentric to the university curriculum, and accounts of the “outside” of university-based practices, like the one Hines finds in a Black radical tradition that emphasized literature’s political potentials, could proliferate in many directions. Disciplinary outsides and eccentricities have tended to negatively inform professional literature scholars’ assertions that study of “their” objects requires specialist training in unique methods, or that university-based study of literature is the most inherently humanizing or importantly political reading practice. Guillory and Hines flip the script. By treating the professional literary academic as only one kind of reader, they suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.


Both books part ways with what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell describe as a liberal “crisis consensus” that envisions universities as inherently progressive institutions that need only be saved from the recent ravages of neoliberal privatization.1 Hines depicts the English department as having been an “institutionalized cultural space governed by whiteness and anticommunism.” In his telling, the postwar establishment of the new criticism, which foregrounded close reading of the text as a self-contained aesthetic object, helped ground the emerging postwar hegemony of US liberal capitalism, which imagined itself as an apolitical unity-amid-diversity in opposition to mandated Soviet conformity. None of this could have happened without demonizing left and communist Black intellectuals who treated culture as an engine of revolutionary transformation.

In turn, Guillory’s historical breadth—encompassing the rise and fall of rhetoric, belle lettres, philology, and more—supplements some of Hines’s archival work on the late 1940s and 1950s. Guillory understands the new criticism as just one piece of a massive sociological and methodological shift that made the literary object a “verbal work of art” and, built around it, the English department as a site of disciplinary expertise. By subordinating documentary or political aspects of the text to “an aesthetic ontology,” English professors granted themselves jurisdiction over literary inquiry, and thus a role within the university in servicing the expanding professional-managerial class.

In Hines’s account, the new criticism enabled the racialized exploitation and exclusion of some people to secure the freedom of others within the “state-academic apparatus.” “Black writers, Black leftists, and communist affiliates who sought to build institutions around the critical study of Black literature,” among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Melvin B. Tolson, fought the new criticism’s consolidation with US institutions, seeking instead an interracial coalition that would challenge American capitalism and “the ills of racial liberalism.” Their radical vision of future possibility was undermined by a “racist interpretation complex” that made “the imagining of such efforts, and the efforts themselves, appear improbable.” The causal claim is important here: it is the racist interpretation complex, backed by and embodied within the new criticism, that undermined the work of those committed to using the study of literature and culture in service of radical social transformation.

Hines’s interest lies in the political and economic circumstances that have shaped methodologies for literary study. His is a form of attention that has itself been denigrated by the new critical formalisms that interest him, which would insist that one “focus on the text” or “look at the literature itself.” You may object that these kinds of new critical approaches in their purest expression are not especially resonant anymore in the contemporary English department. You may even say that approaches indicting new critical work as apolitical formalism—a tradition of critique to which Hines adds—have been more characteristic of the discipline since the late 1960s.

This is where Guillory’s account comes in. His sociology of the institution explains why, long after new criticism’s fall from grace, the English department continues to be relatively homogenous. For despite Hines’s materialist interest in the political-economic backgrounds framing literary inquiry, he attributes more agency than does Guillory to the new criticism as an intellectual formation, describing it variously as a “crucial instrument,” an “integral part,” and as having “played an important role” in the establishment of English as a discipline of whiteness and anticommunism that rejects political approaches to literature as a betrayal of its true import. Unlike the revolutionary conceptions of culture that flourished in the people’s schools, in which writing could express and shape radical consciousness of the need for social transformation, “new Critical methods denied the possibility of criticism garnering any material force,” Hines argues. Does a critical tendency’s own self-conception undermine its material force, or do the material forces shaping study already relegate criticism to a particular role, at best a handmaiden or a message force multiplier?

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was tempted to go on a rant, but posted the adjacent Henry Kissinger quote instead.