The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

One of the blurbs offered for my book The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide generously states that I “put words to the wordless,” which honestly, was the most gratifying praise I could have received. It also partly explains why it took me so long to write my book—nearly ten years of countless revisions, exploring how to articulate my intuitive sensory existence.

For many empathic persons the world can be confusing and isolating; particularly for those who are unaware that they receive extrasensory information from the environment and unwittingly accept what they feel as their own. Or for those who are aware that they are empathic, yet feel a disconnect due to a lack of definition and understanding of what that means within society. Most dictionaries, in fact, place the origin of “empath” in science fiction and fantasy, which hints at the difficulties people with such sensitivities and abilities face in communicating how they experience the world.

How do you validate your sensory experiences of feeling emotions, thoughts, and physical discomfort of others when even the dictionary—the authority on language—only affords you an existence in science fiction or fantasy?

The effort of giving language, and thus form, to the nebulous-yet-visceral experiences of an empath undeniably challenged me. My intention throughout my writing process was to demystify the empathic experience for anyone, empath or not, and that meant I needed a way to let the reader into my world. The irony is not lost on me that “world building” is typically a task for fantasy and science fiction writers and not one for a nonfiction writer describing the physical world we all inhabit in the here and now.

And there’s the rub; empathic or not, we don’t all inhabit the same view or perception of the world. Once I recognized that the dictionary’s definition of an empath revealed more about the collective mainstream beliefs and biases than what an empath was, beyond labeling it a paranormal ability, my book’s structure emerged, as did my sense of purpose. I would be a guide to the reader, supported by ancient Greek poet Pindar’s prompt, which has been my personal touchstone and is quoted in the early pages of my book: “Learn who you are and be such.”

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

The Weirdest Schools in Literature

From Electric Lit:

Schools have their own set of rules and morality, rituals and language. What makes sense in an elite private Manhattan school—good grades, fancy clothes, the competitive sports of the wealthy (squash and tennis) can be entirely anathema in a progressive school where cooperation, eschewing of labels, and creativity are valued. In a small community, an outsider can never fit in or understand what goes on in the center. Sometimes the most ordinary school can be rendered creepy. The inhabitants—students and teachers—are stuck there after all until they graduate or retire. Throw in a charismatic leader, secret society, or strange ideology, and what you have is a cult.

. . . .

Many of us remember our high school years with the intensity as if they happened yesterday. I can barely remember anything that happened the year before the pandemic, but I can still smell my high school cafeteria at noontime. Bewildering things happen in schools all the time and there are often no other adult witnesses. The wildest things happen in schools: violence, sex, breakdowns and breakups, abusive teachers, bullying, tragedy, but comedy also. Boarding schools are especially ripe settings for novels and I’ve included four novels that take place in them. Carrie is the most American, most John Hughes of all the high schools on the list and Curtis Sittenfeld’s is perhaps the most benign. Ishiguro the most heartbreaking—the students are doomed from the start.

. . . .

The Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA) in Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

As grownups, we look back on our school years with bewilderment and sometimes bewitchment. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise has all the culty elements I appreciate in a novel: an ’80s school culture I recognize, teenage romance, artistic ambition, unreliable narrators, surprise twists, and a dangerously charismatic leader. The Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA) is a high school for talented drama students. The first third of Trust Exercise, features Mr. Kingsley, a charismatic teacher with an arbitrary set of rules and criteria for succeeding:

“His very way of gazing told them plainly how far they fell short….they felt their deficit all the more sharply because the unit of measure was wholly unknown.”

The last two-thirds spin the entire book on its head; the author pulling us through the high school gauntlet experientially: elliptical, circuitous, gaslighting.

. . . .

The Leoncio Prado Military Academy in The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargos Llosa, translated by Lysander Kemp

Originally titled La Ciudad y Los Perros, “The City and the Dogs”, this 1963 novel is set at the military academy in Lima that Llosa himself attended as a teenager and deals with the death of a student and the school’s subsequent cover up. This nonlinear story is told from multiple perspectives and was influenced by Faulkner who Vargas Llosa said he read with pencil and paper in hand trying to attempt to distill Faulkner’s style. The abuse and violence described was directly related to Vargas Llosa’s own 1950s experience as a student there in the 1950s and the publication of the novel so angered the administration that they went on to publicly burn 1,000 copies.   

. . . .

Ault School in Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Upper-class waspy prep schools are something I can’t get enough of. A club so elite they’d never accept me? Please, tell me more. I devoured this book when it came out. Being a Midwesterner myself, I also pined for the J Crew catalog-looking East Coast boarding schools and begged my mother to attend one. However, because we were not rich and I was a fairly terrible student, it was never going to happen. Prep is the quintessential fish out of water story: Lee is Midwestern, not rich, not schooled in the ways of the monied East Coast elite, but she wants desperately to fit in. She finds herself, at least initially, with the outsiders on the margins, but rejects them as she moves closer to the center. Ault School is full of the sort of arcane rituals one expects: names like Tig and Cross and Gates, summers in Nantucket, and the game of Assassin played throughout campus.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Jailhouse Lawyer by James Patterson

From Novel Suspects:

PROLOGUE

I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County. But I’ve talked to the people who were there. I’ve heard the story from all perspectives.

They all recalled that it was a bright day. The morning sun filled the courtroom with light, making the polished walnut benches and vintage millwork gleam.

The county inmates, garbed in orange scrubs, sat together in the front row of the courtroom gallery, bowing their heads to keep the sun out of their eyes. One young man covered his face with his hands.

The district attorney shifted in his chair to peer through the glass panes in the doors leading into the courtroom rotunda. His unlined face wore an anxious expression.

The court reporter’s heels tapped a nervous staccato beat on the tile floor. She turned and whispered to the bailiff, who stood beside the door to the chambers of Judge Wyatt Pickens.

“Well, where is he?” the court reporter said, just as the chamber door opened and Judge Pickens emerged.

The occupants of the courtroom jumped to their feet even before the bailiff’s voice called out, “All rise! The Circuit Court of Douglas County, Alabama, is now in session, Judge Wyatt Pickens presiding.”

The judge settled into his seat. He opened the laptop on the bench before briefly examining a stack of manila file folders. “You may be seated.”

As the courtroom rustled with the sounds of people shuffling back onto the benches, the judge looked out over the courtroom.

His eyes narrowed. “Where is the public defender?”

No one answered. The inmates in orange exchanged glances but maintained perfect silence. The district attorney tugged at his suit jacket and cleared his throat.

The noise caught the judge’s attention. “Mr. Carson? Where is the public defender?”

The young attorney stood and said, “I haven’t seen him this morning, Judge.”

Judge Pickens turned to the bailiff. “Harold?”

“Well, Judge, I’ve been here since about 7:30 this morning. Didn’t see him in the coffee shop or the lobby.”

Judge Pickens sighed. “This is our criminal docket day. We can’t proceed without him.” He turned to his clerk, a pretty woman hovering near the door to chambers.

“Betsy, if you would, please make a call over to the public defender’s office. See if you can raise him.”

“Yes, Your Honor.” She disappeared through the chambers door. The silence in the courtroom was broken by a female inmate.

“Judge? I seen him this week at the jail.” When the judge ignored her contribution, the woman slid back onto her bench.

Betsy reappeared. With an apologetic grimace, she said, “Judge, I just got the answering machine at his office.”

“Call his cell phone.” The judge’s voice was patient, but his face grew ruddy.

“I did, Judge. He didn’t pick up.” After a pause, she said, “I left a message.”

Judge Pickens drummed his fingers on the surface of the bench, the tempo increasing in speed and intensity. Then he stopped and slapped his palm on the wood veneer.

“Harold, you’re going to have to head over there and get him.” The bailiff bobbed his head. “Yes, sir, Your Honor.”

Outside the courtroom, Harold took the century-old courthouse’s marble stairs cautiously, gripping the brass handrail as he descended. He didn’t care to take a tumble. The bailiff wasn’t a young man, and his prosthetic foot made maneuvering the stairs particularly tricky.

He exited the courthouse and headed across the street to a two-story building that had been converted into the public de- fender’s office. The paint on the door designating Rob Ford public defender of the district was still shiny, as though it hadn’t yet had time to dry.

Harold turned the door handle, half expecting the entrance to be locked, but the door opened freely. The reception area was empty.

“Mr. Ford?”

There was no response. When the bailiff stepped inside, the door shut behind him. Harold made a face. It smelled like there was a sewer backup in here, and since the office was county property, Harold made a mental note to tell Judge Pickens so the judge could get the county commission on top of the problem.

As he walked across the reception room, Harold heard the crunch of broken glass under his shoe leather. He looked down and saw a shattered picture frame, facedown on the floor. Bending over with a grunt of effort, he picked up the frame and examined it. It was a family portrait: the public defender, his wife holding an infant, and two young children, a boy and a girl.

The bailiff lifted his head and called out again, “Rob? You in here?

The judge is waiting on you.”

He set the frame faceup against the wall, then walked a narrow hallway where a closed door bore a plastic nameplate, designating it as the office of Robert Ford, public defender. Harold rapped on the door with two knuckles.

“Rob? We’ve got a courtroom full of folks waiting across the street.” The smell of sewage was stronger outside the office door. The bailiff’s head bobbed as he swallowed. His hand shook when he turned the doorknob.

Link to the rest at Novel Suspects

Has Amazon Changed Fiction?

From The New Republic:

In 1993, a young Jeff Bezos was contemplating a career change. He wanted to leave his executive job at the high-speed–trading investment firm D.E. Shaw & Co., and while he was mulling his next move, he happened to pick up a copy of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about an aging butler who looks back on his life, surveying a landscape of missed opportunity and remorse. The novel’s rueful atmosphere inspired Bezos, or so the story goes, to come up with a “regret minimization framework” for his own decisions. In that spirit, he founded an online bookstore in 1994, books being an ­ideal commodity for an experiment in what is now called e-commerce. His then wife, MacKenzie Scott, was an aspiring author, who had worked as a research assistant for Toni Morrison and would publish her first novel in 2005. In this telling, the world-spanning behemoth corporation that is Amazon is the result first and foremost of literature.

Mark McGurl’s new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, makes the argument not only that books are at the company’s root, but that Amazon itself is a form of literature, an epic narrative of domination that subsumes all of its users as bit characters. It is a force that shapes the creation of all published culture, “offering itself as the new platform of literary life,” McGurl writes. The ways in which the company does this are now so omnipresent as to be subconscious, a fact of culture not worth mentioning, like water to fish. By 2019, Amazon’s digital storefront controlled as much as 72 percent of adult new book sales online and half of all new book sales. Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular e-reader in the world, and, by one estimate, its Kindle Direct Publishing contains over six million e-books. Amazon owns both Audible, the largest audiobook service in the United States, and Goodreads, the pernicious book-review social network that has a reputation for negativity. If that weren’t enough, it also operates 16 of its own imprints for physical books, including a literary-styled imprint, Little A.

Like it or not, we live in the Amazon Era of literature, according to McGurl, just as writers of the late eighteenth century worked in the Age of Johnson; those of the early twentieth century found themselves in the Pound Era; and postwar writers entered the Program Era, which McGurl defined in his previous book as the age of MFA-honed fiction. As well as an economic force, Amazon is an aesthetic one. Literature that is not adapted to its structures, which control the principal ways that books reach readers, will have a difficult time surviving. McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan. Unfortunately, that style reads a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.

.McGurl, a professor of literature at Stanford, focuses less on the innovations of particular works of art than on historical shifts that occurred while art was being made. His 2009 study, The Program Era, took a disinterested approach to fiction, analyzing late–twentieth-century authors as the products of the MFA writing programs they passed through. Among the authors this system produced were Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Tama Janowitz. For all their differences in style and approach, McGurl found “the dominant aesthetic orientation of the writing program has been toward literary realism.” Working in cloistered university departments, with teaching as one of the few ways to earn a living, Program Era authors tended to focus on self-expression, the pursuit of a unique personal voice over large-scale political commentary. The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right.

In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.” Discovery happens primarily through feeds of information: We find new authors or journalists to follow from Twitter retweets; new television shows to watch on the Netflix homepage; and new things to buy—whether novels or blenders—through Amazon, where we might be tempted by its suggestions of other related or highly reviewed products. Each platform presents its own kind of filter for what we are most likely to discover, an organizing principle that determines what gets recommended next. Twitter rewards self-contained brevity and incendiary provocation, just as Instagram prioritizes bright colors and stark contrasts, the hallmarks of the digital minimalist aesthetic, and TikTok promotes songs with danceable snippets.

Platforms for literature subject it to the same homogenizing effects. One of McGurl’s most important test cases is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which serves as a marketplace of literature the way eBay is a market for stuff. Anyone can self-publish on KDP; it bypasses the publishing world’s usual hierarchy of gatekeepers: agents, editors, and imprint publishers. But the ultimate gatekeeper for KDP is Amazon itself, which rewards specific kinds of books and authors, promoting them through its recommendation feeds. Amazon Literature is serial, with authors publishing new material at high volume every few months instead of every few years. It’s repetitive, with the same tropes, plots, and resolutions happening over and over again, satisfying a readership always ready to consume more through a frictionless tablet device. It usually falls into broad genre categories. The epic, à la Game of Thrones, with its civilization-scale narratives, and the romance, like Fifty Shades, with its intimate scope and mandated happy endings, are major Amazon genres.

. . . .

“According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes. That includes what we think of as literary fiction, which has to pass through the same filters as everything else on Amazon in order to reach its (dwindling) demographic of readers. He relabels a certain category of highbrow contemporary American fiction as its own mini genre: the “beta intellectual romance.” Whereas the “alpha billionaire romance” genre (think Fifty Shades of Grey) tends to feature brusque, dominating men, the beta intellectual romance serves up a version of masculinity shaped by the basics of feminism and awareness of male privilege. The protagonists are sensitive to a fault.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to J. for the tip.

The OP reminded PG of how much he hated every college class taught by the English Literature department.

Yet one more in a long list of self-appointed curators of culture, the professor is saying, “Amazon bad” and unnamed people or organizations, likely including traditional publishers, “Good”.

PG speculates that the endowment of Stanford University and, thus, the welfare of the university as a whole, has benefitted far more from the donations by those people who like Amazon and donated its stock to the school than from the cumulative contributions from all English Literature Professors anywhere on earth as a group.

But there PG goes again, thinking that virtue is not its own reward and that it requires money from third parties to keep intellectual university employees from having to work at an Amazon warehouse.

PG would also be interesting in seeing a list of what 21st Century books and authors the Stanford professor finds up to snuff, especially authors who earn their living from their writing and the people who purchase copies of what they have written instead of needing a day job talking to rich 18-year-olds.

As indicated in the OP, Professor McGurl is pitching his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. The book is to be released in a few days and is published by Verso, “the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world.”

Here’s what Verso says about itself in Wikipedia:

Verso Books was originally known as New Left Books. The name “Verso” refers to the technical term for the left-hand page in a book (see recto and verso), and is a play on words regarding its political outlook and also reminds of the vice versa – “the other way around”.

Aren’t they cute?

Verso’s website includes a post titled Bestsellers of 2020

The first book listed is titled The End of Policing. When PG checked, its Best Sellers Rank was #170,723 in Kindle Store. The hardcover version was ranked 962,397 in Books.

The second book listed in Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers is Feminism for the 99%. Its Best Sellers Rank: #363,001 in Kindle Store and the paperback’s Best Sellers Rank: #56,308. PG didn’t see a hardcover version of this book.

#3 on Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers list is If They Come in the Morning …: Voices of Resistance (Radical Thinkers). This book has a Best Sellers Rank: #622,343 in Kindle Store and a Best Sellers Rank: #5,331,334 in Books.

Back to Professor McGurl’s literary output, PG discovered that his upcoming Verso release is not his first venture into trying to sell his writing to the public.

The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James was published in June, 2020, by Princeton University Press. This book has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,552,418 in Kindle Store.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing was published in 2009 by The Harvard University Press and has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #1,064,212 in Kindle Store.

PG expected that these two books must be hot-sellers in Cambridge and Princeton, but a check of the Harvard Bookstore bestsellers list didn’t show any of Professor McGurl’s books. When PG checked the Princeton University store, it was having a big sale on t-shirts, sweatshirts, vests and jackets, blankets and pillows bearing the Princeton logo. PG eventually Princeton’s books section, but a search for Professor McGurl’s name yielded no products for sale. The Princeton store did offer a cool bottle-stopper, however.

Even The Stanford Bookstore didn’t appear to offer any of Professor McGurl’s books although you can buy a cool Stanford Wrist Shimmer Pom there.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

George Bernard Shaw

The curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s real-life secretary

From The Economist:

On a brisk spring morning in March 1975, Chris Bazlinton, a tall, fair-haired, bespectacled 27-year-old, arrived at Baker Street station in central London. He’d travelled from his home in Essex in the hope of getting a job at Abbey National, a British building society. The interview went well: he was offered the public-relations role on the spot. “Oh, one more little thing,” the general manager said. “You will also have to act as secretary to Sherlock Holmes, answering the mail that comes in for him.” He paused, with a slight smile: “How do you feel about that?”

Bazlinton thought his new boss might be joking, but grinned back. “I’d be happy to,” he said.

As Bazlinton would soon discover, the peculiar position of Sherlock Holmes’s secretary had been created more than four decades earlier, in 1932, when Abbey opened its grand, white-marbled headquarters on Baker Street. The art-deco building was so large that it had been assigned ten street numbers, from 219 to 229. Overnight, one of the most famous literary addresses in history – 221b Baker Street, home of Holmes and his partner, John H. Watson – became a real place for the first time.

Ever since Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, fans had been writing to him from all over the world, believing that the fictional detective was an actual person. At that time Baker Street didn’t go beyond number 85, so the mail went undelivered. Now Abbey was inundated with letters. Rather than ask the post office to stop bringing the correspondence, the company decided it wouldn’t be a bad bit of pr to be aligned with the brilliant sleuth.

Bazlinton was the seventh secretary to Holmes, serving until 1982. Over the course of seven years, Bazlinton estimates that he received nearly 6,000 pieces of mail and replied to each one. I tracked him down out of sheer curiosity: who would be a real-life secretary to a fictional detective?

To the many who wrote simply to praise the character’s remarkable powers of deduction, Bazlinton sent a standardised thank you, though he was careful to dispatch different versions when a whole class of children wrote to him. To people requesting photos of their idol he’d reply: “We couldn’t possibly send a picture of Sherlock Holmes, because that might cause him problems if he were recognised in the street. As a detective, he obviously has to remain anonymous.”

The volume of letters could be overwhelming, Bazlinton says, but he crafted a more tailored reply to the more “interesting” ones, punching them out on his manual Adler typewriter. When I asked him why he was such an assiduous correspondent on behalf of an imaginary person, he looked incredulous, almost like Holmes amazed that his dear Watson had yet again failed to detect the elementary: “Somebody had to answer.”

. . . .

In 1893 Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty fell off a cliff and perished in “The Adventures of the Final Problem”. (“I must save my mind for better things,” Conan Doyle opined to his mother.) Unlike most of us, however, the detective rose from the dead eight years later when, badgered by black-armband-wearing fans and the lure of lucrative publishing contracts, Conan Doyle resurrected his creation.

Holmes mania has barely waned in the ensuing century and a quarter. Around the world, enthusiasts pore over the fictional detective’s cases as if they really happened, playing the Great Game “as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s”, crime writer Dorothy Sayers once observed.

Sherlock Holmes has been adapted for television and film more times than any other literary protagonist, leaving Emma in the Highbury dust. In the bbc’s “Sherlock”, Benedict Cumberbatch trades a pipe for a nicotine patch and investigates terrorism in London rather than murder on the moors. Across reams of fan-fiction, the genius gumshoe has occupied different galaxies and space-time continuums. He’s switched genders and gender-identities. He’s sung and danced in a psychedelic Russian musical and been a dog, a mouse, a gnome and a deerstalker-clad cucumber (the latter in the Christian-themed animated kids show, “VeggieTales”). He’s also picked up family members, as in last summer’s Netflix film “Enola Holmes”, itself based on a series of young-adult novels that tell the tale of Sherlock’s little sister who joins the family business and strikes a blow against the patriarchy. A sequel is in the works.

Link to the rest at The Economist

What is Upmarket Fiction? And Book Club Fiction? Are They New Genres?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Most writers have probably heard of “Upmarket fiction.” But you may have questions about it. Like, when should you use the term? And how do you figure out if your novel fits in the category? Is it considered a genre, like Romance or Mystery? And is it the same as “Book Club Fiction?”

It’s not surprising if you have questions. Because bookstores don’t have a section designated “Upmarket.” And you’re not going to find it as a category on Amazon.

I don’t particularly like the phrase. It sounds kind of snooty, doesn’t it? But I love the books.

And they are a hot commodity in the publishing industry right now.  Agent Jessica Faust says “It’s a term we didn’t use 15 years ago, but one that’s hot today…I’m hungry for more upmarket fiction.”

I’ve had a number of readers ask me about it recently, so I figured I’d better do some research.

So What’s the Definition of Upmarket Fiction?

You can find lots of lists of fiction genres, but you won’t see “Upmarket fiction” included. You may have seen somebody mention “Book Club” novels, but you won’t find that section in a bookstore, either.

According to what I’ve read, “Upmarket” and “Book Club” fiction are pretty synonymous terms, and you can use either when querying an agent.

They define fiction that fills the gap between genre and literary fiction.

These are meaty stories that book reading groups can discuss over a nice chardonnay. They have thought-provoking themes and memorable characters. But they’re not so dense that everybody has to lie about having finished them. 

. . . .

Some Examples of Upmarket Fiction

  • Mexican Gothic — Silvia Moreno
  • About a Boy — Nick Hornby
  • Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens
  • Squeeze Me — Carl Hiaasen
  • Like Water for Elephants — Sara Gruen
  • The Lovely Bones — Alice Sebold
  • She’s Come Undone — Wally Lamb
  • Pay it Forward — Catherine Ryan Hyde

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Stand Up to Censorship In Schools

From Publishers Weekly:

After mounting pressure, including a student protest, a school district in York, Pa., has reversed a controversial book ban. But the fact that this ban was implemented in the first place means the conversation about book banning is far from over. Titles that were targeted include I Am Malala, Hidden Figures, and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. The main thing those books, and almost all of the books that were banned, share in common: they are about, or written by, people of color.

As an African American woman in publishing, I fear for my voice and the voices of my authors. Will my authors be turned away in libraries and school systems? Considered “too political” by parents?

. . . .

Wise Ink is one of the few publishers led by a Black woman, cofounder Dara Beevas. Beevas, who has also written the Li’l Queens picture book series about real-life Black and brown queens, says, “For African American children, a lot of our stories are rightfully about our oppression. But there are other stories, too. And a lot of those stories are stories that I feel like have been suppressed on purpose.”

. . . .

Since last October, educational institutions have canceled diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in response to orders against teaching “diverse concepts” and the public backlash against critical race theory. This year, Texas passed a law aimed at restricting discussions of race and history in schools. Politicians and nonminority officials seem to be trying to eliminate Black history and discussions surrounding race altogether. Sure, students could have these discussions outside of school, but why exclude the one place they congregate for most of their day? Banning books and resources that are connected to people of color and racism not only ensures the embedding of white-centric thinking in a new generation of children, but it ensures censorship of minority stories and voices.

“Resisting telling the truth is not ever a path that is going to get us closer to the kinds of healing, the kinds of interdependence, the kinds of relationships that we want to be in,” Trina Olson, cofounder of Team Dynamics and coauthor of Hiring Revolution: A Guide to Disrupt Racism & Sexism in Hiring, states in the podcast she cohosts, Behave.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Perhaps because it’s from Publishers Weekly, but PG feels like the good people vs. bad people story around which the OP is centered seems a little too convenient when expressed in racial terms.

Racial discrimination is real in the US and elsewhere, but, for PG, critical race theory is much more about Marxist philosophy and contemporary political arguments and ignoring some very obvious and material facts about American history than it is about contemporary racism.

But he could be wrong.

How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer

From Forbes:

For the past eight years, Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli immersed himself in the world of independent bookstores. Concluding his study, he just released a working paper, entitled “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” that summarizes the findings from his extensive research, which included a series of interviews and focus groups, visits to bookstores in 26 states, and a detailed analysis of newspaper and trade journal articles.

While this working paper has immediate application to bookstore owners and managers, its implications go much further. It provides a road map for any retailer —independent or otherwise — into how to survive, even thrive against the competitive onslaught of Amazon.

“My research examines how industries, organizations, and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change,” Raffaelli writes. “In the context of retail, seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers. Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.”

Calling the resurgence of indie bookstores “novel” is putting it mildly. They were on the verge of collapse, with only 1,651 independent bookstores operating in 2009. Since then, the tide has turned and indies are on the rebound. The reasons why are detailed below.

Struggle for survival

Prior to 1995 when Amazon arrived on the scene, the number of independent booksellers reached historic highs, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). But five short years later, their numbers had dropped by 43%, decimated by competition not just from Amazon but big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders as well. From 2000 through 2009 the number of independents continued their steady decline.

And Amazon didn’t just take down the independents. The big-boxes struggled to survive too. Borders went under in 2011. Barnes & Noble dropped from 681 stores in 2005 to 627 at the end of 2019, after it was acquired by hedge fund Elliott Advisors. Elliott also owns U.K.-based bookstore chain Waterstones, with 238 stores, and has put management of both chains under the wing of James Daunt, who was an independent bookstore owner before becoming CEO of Waterstones in 2011.

Unlike the way typical chains – bookstores or any other retail category – operate where each store is laid out and stocked pretty much the same, every Waterstones’ store is unique. Each store looks, feels and operates like an independent, not a chain store.

Waterstones and other successful indie bookstores follow the 3Cs model outlined in Raffaelli’s working paper: community, curation, and convening. Bookstores use these 3Cs as leverage to beat Amazon at its bookselling game.

. . . .

Building a community with customers

The concept of community as described by Raffaelli extends beyond localism as a social movement and a way for shoppers to support their local economy. Community connects customers with content in the store to build truly meaningful relationships.

“We basically took our relationship to the community and redefined what the bookstore is,” a bookseller said. “It is about the community which surrounds the bookstore and those interactions between author and reader, and readers and booksellers, and readers with each other.”

No doubt, there is a special connection that booksellers and their customers feel for the content contained in books, but the same kind of passion for brands and products in other categories is evident in all great retailers as well.

Who runs or works in a fashion boutique but passionate fashionistas or in a home furnishings store but design and decorating enthusiasts? The same goes for garden centers, pet boutiques, gourmet shops, wine stores, toy stores, gift, card and stationery shops; the list goes on. Those retailers’ passion for their product category draws in equally passionate customers who together build a community through their shared passion.

“I am first a businessperson. But who would be in this particular business if we didn’t also love books,” said this bookseller.

And just like readers have a special connection to certain authors, customers feel a special connection to brands, designers, and the people who create the products they are passionate about.

A retailers’ passion for their products and their customers is magnetic. It is the spirit that binds all together into community.

While it is essential for retailers to build their community in the real world, they also must extend their reach digitally to build an online community as well through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“The key to independent bookstores’ growth in the digital era has been their strong and deep ties to neighbors,” writes Raffaelli. “A robust digital presence has reinforced those communal connections. The connection between the physical and online communities strengthens both.”

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG enjoys his participation in several different communities, but none of them are commercially-based.

As he has mentioned before, during his various forays into bookstores in recent years, he’s found little to attract or interest him.

For PG, Amazon is a much more information-rich locale for book shopping than any physical bookstore he’s visited during the last ten years.

On Amazon, instead of obtaining the opinion of a bookstore employee who is unlikely to know anything of note concerning the subject the book addresses, on Amazon, PG can read a lot of different opinions from people who have purchased and read (or returned) the book.

Of course, PG is aware of purchased reviews and employees of the publisher who jump on to write a glowing review. Perhaps if he were more interested in popular genre works, it might be easier to fool him with a phony review, but in PG’s routine reading choices, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with fake reviews. If he buys an ebook that doesn’t live up to his expectations, he’ll return it in a trice.

(PG notes the age of the OP, but more recent counterparts expressing the same ideas are easy to find.)

Outcasts and Desperados

From The London Review of Books:

The Man Who Lived Underground 
by Richard Wright.

When​ Richard Wright sailed to France in 1946, he was 38 years old and already a legend. He was America’s most famous black writer, the author of two books hailed as classics the moment they were published: the 1940 novel Native Son and the 1945 memoir Black Boy. By ‘choosing exile’, as he put it, he hoped both to free himself from American racism and to put an ocean between himself and the Communist Party of the United States, in which he’d first come to prominence as a writer of proletarian fiction only to find himself accused of subversive, Trotskyist tendencies. In Paris he was a celebrity. French writers and American expatriates flocked to the Café Monaco, where he held court a short walk from his Left Bank flat. ‘Dick greeted everyone with boisterous condescension,’ Chester Himes remembered. ‘It was obvious he was the king thereabouts.’

His place on the throne was shakier than he imagined. The novels he wrote in Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, failed to deliver on the promise of Native Son, the incendiary tale of a poor black chauffeur in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who achieves a grisly sense of selfhood after killing two women: his black girlfriend and the daughter of his wealthy white employer. But even that novel’s reputation declined, thanks in large part to another black American in Paris. In 1949 James Baldwin described Native Son as a modern-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy’, arguing that Bigger Thomas ‘admits the possibility of his being subhuman’ and that Wright was no less guilty than Harriet Beecher Stowe of insisting that a person’s ‘categorisation … cannot be transcended.’ Baldwin, whose success Wright had done much to promote, wasn’t the only protégé to turn against him. In 1963 Ralph Ellison wrote that, in Bigger Thomas, Wright had created not a black character other black people would recognise, but ‘a near subhuman indictment of white oppression’ crudely ‘designed to shock whites out of their apathy’. Ellison’s hyper-cerebral protagonist in Invisible Man, who is able to see far beyond his own condition, was a pointed rejoinder to Bigger’s inarticulate and explosive rage.

That rage had once been important to Ellison too. During their days in the CPUSA, he had sent a letter to Wright commending Bigger’s ‘revolutionary significance’. Readers horrified by Bigger’s violence, Ellison insisted, ‘fail to see that what’s bad in Bigger from the point of view of bourgeois society is good from our point of view … Would that all Negroes were as psychologically free as Bigger and as capable of positive action!’ This argument was echoed in 1966 by the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who called Bigger ‘the black rebel of the ghetto’, with ‘no trace … of the Martin Luther King-type self-effacing love for his oppressors’. For Cleaver, who wrote in his memoir that he had practised raping black women before graduating to white women, Bigger embodied an authentic, revolutionary black masculinity that Baldwin, a gay man, naturally despised.

The Black Power movement’s patriarchal and homophobic embrace of Wright did little to salvage his reputation, especially after the rise of black feminism in the 1970s. In Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978), Michele Wallace traced the movement’s ‘love affair with Black Macho’ back to Native Son. Black women writers never forgave Wright for having once accused Zora Neale Hurston of writing ‘in the safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live’. It didn’t matter that he had denounced the absence of female speakers at the 1956 Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, insisting that black men could only be free if black women were too. Or that in a 1957 book of reportage he had catalogued the forms of oppression suffered by women in contemporary Spain, comparing the Catholic cult of ‘female purity’ to the Ku Klux Klan’s defence of white womanhood. Thanks to Native Son, he continued to be associated with the idea that, in Darryl Pinckney’s words, ‘the black man can only come to life as the white man’s nightmare, the defiler of white women.’

Black feminists weren’t the only ones to take offence. In 1986 the novelist David Bradley confessed that the first time he read Native Son,

I shed no tears for Bigger. I wanted him dead; by legal means if possible, by lynching if necessary … I did not see Bigger Thomas as a symbol of any kind of black man. To me he was a sociopath, pure and simple … If the price of becoming a black writer was following the model of Native Son, I would just have to write like a honky.

Novelists never completely shake off an association with the murderers they invent: Dostoevsky is still remembered for Raskolnikov, Camus for Meursault. The difference in Wright’s case is that Bigger Thomas is practically all he is remembered for. Wright is not just blamed for Bigger but almost mistaken for him.

On the surface, Wright’s life bore little resemblance to Bigger’s: he was a child of the rural South not the northern ghetto, a self-made intellectual and writer. But as a young man in Chicago he had had a series of menial jobs in hospitals and the postal service and could identify all too easily with Bigger’s anger at the white world. He had known Bigger’s fear of white people’s arbitrary power – in his view, this was the ‘fundamental emotion guiding black personality and behaviour’, even if it sometimes appeared in the ‘disguise that is called Negro laughter’. It wasn’t only whites he wanted to provoke with Native Son, but members of the decorous black middle class, who felt that a figure like Bigger Thomas was a threat to their precarious status on the margins of white America.

Native Son was a work of shocking intransigence in its portrayal of black rage, in its treatment of liberal whites and, above all, in its violence. After suffocating his employer’s daughter, Mary Dalton, with a pillow – he’s terrified that she might alert her blind mother to his presence in her bedroom, and that he might be accused of rape – Bigger slices up her corpse and burns it in a furnace. His violence is recounted as if it were the concentrated payback for hundreds of years of anti-black violence and humiliation, and described with graphic relish. When he murders his girlfriend, Bess, to prevent her from revealing his crime, he feels a rush of exhilaration: at last he has accomplished ‘something that was all his own’, an act no one would have imagined him daring enough to execute. ‘Elation filled him.’ No longer emasculated by fear, no longer ‘a black timid Negro boy’ in a white man’s world, he has ‘a sense of wholeness’, of power over his oppressors. He is a man who has ‘evened the score’.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Who doesn’t read books in America?

From The Pew Research Center:

Roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Jan. 25-Feb. 8, 2021. Who are these non-book readers?

Several demographic traits are linked with not reading books, according to the survey. For instance, adults with a high school diploma or less are far more likely than those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree to report not reading books in any format in the past year (39% vs. 11%). Adults with lower levels of educational attainment are also among the least likely to own smartphones, an increasingly common way for adults to read e-books.

In addition, adults whose annual household income is less than $30,000 are more likely than those living in households earning $75,000 or more a year to be non-book readers (31% vs. 15%). Hispanic adults (38%) are more likely than Black (25%) or White adults (20%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months. (The survey included Asian Americans but did not have sufficient sample size to do statistical analysis of this group.)

Although the differences are less pronounced, non-book readers also vary by age and community type. Americans ages 50 and older, for example, are more likely than their younger counterparts to be non-book readers. There is not a statistically significant difference by gender.

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months has fluctuated over the years the Center has studied it. The 23% of adults who currently say they have not read any books in the past year is identical to the share who said this in 2014.

Link to the rest at The Pew Research Center

How a book goes from acquisitions to bookstore shelves

From Nathan Bransford:

[Let’s discuss] the journey from the contract to bookstore shelves.

It’s a longer journey than you might think! One common misconception about publishing is how fast books come to market or go on-sale. People are often surprised that this process typically takes a year or more. (There are exceptions for books that may be newsworthy and have to be rushed out, which is called a “crash” schedule.) 

Why does it take so much time? Well, a lot is happening behind the scenes over the course of many months to set up the book to give it its best shot to attract a readership. 

The editor’s job is to oversee and coordinate all the facets of that process. In this post, I’ll walk through those steps: 

  • Determining the publication date
  • Editing
  • Launch meeting
  • Production
  • Marketing, publicity and sales
  • Book promotions and publication

For ease, let’s give the book that’s winding its way to readers’ hands a title. How about HOT NEW BOOK?  

Determining the publication date

As soon as HOT NEW BOOK is under contract, one of the first things the editor and his/her colleagues must do is to determine the optimal time to publish it. (Fun fact: all books go on sale on Tuesdays). 

Publishers work in spans or seasons, typically three of them: Summer (books that go on-sale between May and August), Fall (books that go on sale between September and December) and Spring (books that go on sale between January and April.) 

So the editor looks into the future and decides the right season/timing for the book. Different types of books come out at different times. For example, in the Fall, you often have your big franchise writers like John Grisham, or big new cookbooks–offerings that might be good for the holiday gift giving season. In the Spring, you might have prescriptive books that go along with our desire to be better, thinner, more productive people at the start of every year (with mixed results. Just me?). Summer you have your beach reads or escapist thrills. 

There are always exceptions, but that’s a rough idea of how publishers think about the publishing calendar and then look very far ahead to slot books in. Right now (late summer 2021), publishers are gearing up to start planning for books being published next summer (2022). 

Let’s say HOT NEW BOOK is an exciting debut, commercial suspense. A lot of those books have been coming out in Spring, so the editor might tentatively schedule the book for Spring 2023.

Editing

First priority, of course, is making sure HOT NEW BOOK is the best book it can be. This may involve months of editorial work. The editor will do a very, very close and comprehensive read of the manuscript and offer detailed edits on the page: line edits of individual sentences and also bigger picture suggestions about characters, plot points, scenes, etc. that will be outlined in an editorial letter. 

The author of HOT NEW BOOK will digest that feedback (after lots of deep breaths and maybe a stiff drink) and then embark on a revision. The editor will read that revision, offer more notes and suggestions to the author, who will revise again and so on until both the author and the editor are happy that the book has reached its fullest possible potential.

Here’s another related question I get a lot: Do editors *really* edit?  The answer is an unequivocal: depends!  

It’s true that some editors are less “on the page” than others. Because of their workload, they might not find it feasible to do rounds and rounds of intensive edits. But the majority of editors do want to have a strong hand in shaping a book. 

. . . .

Launch meeting

And now the work to set up the book begins. First up: publishers have a launch meeting. These happen three times a year to correspond with the seasons.  

At this meeting, the editor gives a presentation about HOT NEW BOOK to the whole publishing team (sales, marketing, publicity, etc.)–what it’s about, what’s special about it, about the author, and why it’s guaranteed to be a success. 

The editor’s job here is to get people in the company excited about that book and eager to read it.  After the meeting, the teams responsible for producing and marketing  need some time to read HOT NEW BOOK (along with all the other books being published by the imprint–another reason it takes time).

. . . .

Production

The art department designs an arresting jacket for HOT NEW BOOK. The first step here is for the editor and art designer to brainstorm about the vision for the cover. The editor will supply examples of comparative jackets that he/she and the author like and then the designer goes off to create.  

The designer will create about 8-12 different options and the whole team (publisher, associate publisher, department heads, editor, etc) will gather in a cover/jacket meeting (usually held weekly) to discuss reactions. Sometimes there’s a clear winner, sometimes none of the options work. Most often some people like some jackets, some people hate some jackets and that’s where it gets fraught. Because everyone has strong opinions about jacket designs/visuals and it’s so subjective. 

After some discussions, usually the team will agree on 1-2 options to show the author.  Whatever the editor’s feelings about the jacket that emerges as the “winner” from this meeting, his/her job is to “sell” it to the author. The message: this is the jacket that the publisher loves, so you should love it too. Alas, that persuasion doesn’t always work and the author and agent may not like the jacket, in which case the whole process starts again.

. . . .

And yet, the jacket is so important to get right, with the whole judging a book by its cover thing!  So it’s worth taking the time. And the deep breaths. 

While that’s happening, the hard-working (and too often unsung) production department is seeing the manuscript through the nitty gritty of copy-editing, proofreading (the book will be proofed about three times), and designing what the interior of the book (the font and page layouts).  

Here’s another fun fact.  Did you know that all books have a page count that is a multiple of 16, 304, 320, etc.? It’s because of the way they cut, bind and print paper at the printer. 

Publicity, marketing, and sales

The publicity team starts strategizing about how to drum up excitement in the media and with events. This involves pitching the book to talk shows, magazines, podcasts and reviewers to get them to cover HOT NEW BOOK. That’s how readers are going to know it even exists!  One of the tools they use is called an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) or galley. These are early versions of the book that look like paperbacks. Months before the hardcover is printed, these are shared with media folks and others to drum up excitement.  

Meanwhile, the marketing team is at work, too. Their job is to promote the book on social media, via advertising, and to drum up excitement with booksellers and librarians. (There is a whole team dedicated to academic marketing too targeting schools, libraries, etc.). Marketing people also send out ARCs/galleys and sometimes they send along little gifts to help HOT NEW BOOK stand out. So if the novel is about a murder at a winery, they might send a mini bottle of wine or a fancy corkscrew along with the galleys. Yes, bribery.  

And now, enter the all important Sales team. There are individuals assigned to work with each of the major retail accounts, i.e. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Target, Hudson, etc. These reps go to these accounts and tell them all about the books the publisher has forthcoming, like HOT NEW BOOK, and urges the retailers to buy a lot of copies (called stock) because the book is sure to be a hit with their customers. The goal for publishers here is to drive up the print run, that’s the initial amount of copies that will be printed and shipped to stores across the country. The higher that number, the more money the publisher makes. 

These accounts buy stock months ahead of time, which requires planning far ahead. And remember bookstores have finite space, so it can be competitive to get them to buy a book and then promote it.

Book promotions and publication


What does promoting mean? That means putting HOT NEW BOOK in front of stores, or featuring it in a newsletter blast, or singling it out as special (remember Borders Discover Picks?  RIP Borders sigh.) All of those promos help customers find HOT NEW BOOK, so the publisher is very keen to get retailers on board. 

The publisher might send the author of HOT NEW BOOK on a tour too, though publishers have become more conservative about book tours.

. . . .

It doesn’t make sense to fly an author from New York to LA, and put him or her up in a hotel only to have four people show up to hear the author read. So publishers are strategic about what events will get a good turnout, via the store’s or the author’s own personal network.  

Of course, most events have been virtual since the pandemic began, which is a very cost effective and convenient way to have events, and will likely continue into the future for that reason.

The goal is that people fall in love with HOT NEW BOOK every step of the way so word of mouth and excitement spreads, with the editor cheering the loudest of all.  

All of this involves an enormous amount of manpower and resources. There are so many books being published and it takes ingenuity, passion, relationships (and a little luck doesn’t hurt) to break through the clutter.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

And then they load cases of HOT NEW BOOK in boxcars and a steam engine takes them to the end of the rail line where they’re taken out of the boxcars and put on wagons pulled by oxen for delivery to the bookstores, hopefully before the winter snows close all the wagon trails.

PG didn’t notice much of anything 21st century about the process described in the OP. It was industrial-age from one end to the other, little changed from the way that Ernie Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald’s books were produced and launched.

In earlier lives, PG was involved in the creation, promotion and release of commercial software and electronic products delivered online. (PG notes that ebooks are pure software products and POD books can be printed at a variety of locations, including locations close to where they will be sold.)

If PG had ever proposed a product launch structured in the manner described in the OP, he would have justifiably been fired on the spot.

Long ago in the octagonal gloom

Long ago in the octagonal gloom of the Battistero di San Giovanni he had been baptized twice, as was customary, once as a Christian and again as a Florentine, and to an irreligious bastard like Ago it was the second baptism that counted. The city was his religion, a world as perfect as any heaven. The great Buonarroti had called the Baptistery doors the gates of Paradise and when the little baby Ago emerged from that place with a wet head he had understood at once that he had entered a walled and gated Eden. The city of Florence had fifteen gates and on their inner faces were pictures of the Virgin and various saints. Voyagers touched the gates for good luck, and nobody starting on a journey through those gates did so without consulting astrologers.

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence 2008

Ponte Vecchio

Strafforello Gustavo, La patria, geografia dell’Italia. Provincia di Firenze. Torino Unione Tipografico-Editrice, 1894, via Wikimedia

Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy

From Writer Unboxed:

I feel like I’m committing a grievous writerly sin by even typing these words, but I must speak my truth:

I would like to see more passive protagonists in fiction.

While the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, I do think that passive protagonists are unfairly maligned in part because of the unspoken association between passivity and femininity. I’ll get into why I think so a little later, but let’s discuss what “passive protagonist” means first.

The importance of intent

Passive protagonists are the antithesis of what we’re told makes a good story. A good story, says common wisdom, is driven by the choices and desires of the main character. Passive protagonists, on the other hand, do not drive the plot through their choices and actions, but rather have the plot inflicted upon them. Without goals and desires, and without challenges to overcome toward those goals and desires, what are the stakes? Where is the tension?

Such a story can absolutely be boring and frustrating to read.

But common wisdom also tells us that the choices made by an active protagonist must build toward a climax. In her craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison argues that the traditional path through fiction in the Western world has been the dramatic arc: the wave that rises to a climax, then falls. There are variations on that wave or triangle pattern, of course, but by and large, storytellers are told that things must build and build until they come to a head, then be resolved in a way that denotes to the reader that the story is complete.

As Alison says, “Bit masculo-sexual, no?”

If written compellingly, passive characters have a lot to teach us. That’s easier said than done, of course. Getting a reader to bother caring about someone who doesn’t seem to want anything is difficult, which is why passive characters are hard to write well. It’s much easier to tell a compelling story about a character striving to get what they want. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Active characters make for great stories. I don’t want to knock active characters, or argue that everyone should only write passive ones. This is more of a plea for more diversity—of all kinds—in fiction. Passive protagonists have as much to teach us as active protagonists, and can make for stories that are just as interesting.

The difference between a “good” passive protagonist and a “bad” one boils down to what causes many writing problems: purpose. Not the character’s purpose. I’m talking about whether the author has written a passive protagonist intentionally or not. As Matthew Salesses says in Craft in the Real World, “Everything is a decision.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG is reminded of his problems with masculine and feminine genders in long-ago language classes during the height of the Roman Empire.

Just as it was difficult for him to recall the masculine/feminine characteristics of different groups of words and he thought they were more than a bit foolish, he doesn’t think that active or passive protagonists have any connection with women and men in real life.

Anyone who thinks that females are in any way inherently passive due to societal pressures or otherwisee hasn’t met PG’s wife, mother or a long list of female friends PG has had in his life.

He is reminded of a group conversation involving females and males of many years ago when one of the females addressed one of the males (not PG) by calling his name, then said most emphatically, “Be a man! Just be a man!”

The recipient of this strongly-worded advice blinked, bucked himself up, and, at least in the short term, acted in a manner more consistent with this strongly-worded advice.

Sorry for the gap in posting

PG and Mrs. PG have been busy with uplifting family activities and PG has been ensorceled by charming grandchildren.

He’ll be a bit more prolific in the future.

7 Novels For Living Out Your Cottagecore Fantasies

From The Literary Hub:

Growing up, I fell in love with the cottagecore coziness of Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End, the Weasley’s ramshackle and magical Burrow, and the eclectic Victorian ephemera in Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street. I agonized endlessly over design choices in The Sims, using cheat codes to get the much-needed Simoleons for my champagne tastes. But in the last couple of years I’ve seen more of my own four walls than I ever thought I would. And like many of us, I’ve found myself reaching for refuge in joyful, light-hearted books more than ever before.

Maybe it’s counterintuitive that I’m still so drawn to cozy (and not so cozy) houses in fiction, but it’s hard to not recognize the power that “home” has over us. I take comfort in the solace (and, sometimes, menace) they represent for the main character. In my new novel, The Shaadi Set-Up, it should be no surprise that a house plays a pivotal role: two exes have to work together to flip a gorgeous, if slightly tumbledown, beach house on a little island off the North Carolina coast. The renovated house, just like their relationship, is built stronger the second time around.

No matter which is your cup of tea, I hope you’ll find at least one fictional abode here that makes you want to kick up your feet and linger for a while.

Sarah Hogle, Twice Shy

The main character inherits a once-grand house in the Smokies that she must share with a co-beneficiary. Even amidst all the clutter, the house represents their hopes and dreams for the future in an utterly charming, totally wholesome way. Secret rooms, treasure maps, and a vast property to explore: a property like this would be a dream for weathering the pandemic.

Talia Hibbert, Act Your Age, Eve Brown

A woman reluctantly accepts a job as a chef at a storybook-charming bed and breakfast in the picturesque Lake District after accidentally injuring the B&B’s grumpy owner… and then falls in love with him. This book is a perfect staycation read, set in a house you’ll never want to leave. 

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

The Top 10 Party Girls in Literature

From Electric Lit:

From an age that was often too young to be anywhere, I found myself in closed-off rooms. They ranged from green rooms at concert halls to back rooms at parties. By the time I was 21, I had known my purpose in those spaces, how and why I was invited into them, and what was expected of me. I was a seasoned party girl who flitted in and out of metropolitan cities with seemingly few resources. People had seen me around. They would say, “Oh her, I’ve known her forever!”

The politics of the Party Girl have always been of interest to me, simply because of the way she moves within a world that warns her to be careful. To watch her behavior, her tone, her drink. She exists on a precipice of seeking out fun, when also too much fun, she’s warned, is dangerous. The prevailing image of the Party Girl has historically been white—of course, non-white Party Girls have existed, but how much space do we lend them in its canon? How much fun are they allowed to have? My characters come from a lineage of flappers, demimondaines, and society girls, where what unifies these archetypes is how they attempt to rise ranks with charm as their only currency.

. . . .

Mr. Right is Dead by Rona Jaffe

The titular novella in this collection follows a playgirl named Melba Toast who gathers men and gifts without a touch of malice, “She takes quick flights of fancy and quick flights across the country in quest of someone she had two dates with a month before.” The narrator is a willing accomplice to Melba’s schemes and comes to the realization that though she makes it look easy, a playgirl’s life is often hard work. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

This list would be amiss without Holly Golightly. The glamorous call girl who left men wanting more. She has some of the best Party Girl pedigree—a secret marriage, a mob connection, and a casual grasp of French. I often find myself repeating her aperçus—“Certain shades of limelight wreck a girl’s complexion.” 

. . . .

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

After a long-term relationship detonates, Queenie Jenkins careens around London in a never-ending spiral of bad decisions and sexual foibles. Wrestling her mental health, heartbreak, and a prudent Jamaican British family, Queenie attempts the clumsy journey of trying to achieve independence through sexual encounters.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Zorba

Not much to do with writing and PG isn’t going on another video binge, but he learned that Greek composer and politician Mikis Theodorakis died last Thursday at 96. Theodorakis composed the music for the 1964 film, Zorba the Greek.

End of Labor Day Weekend

This is the end of the Labor Day Weekend and PG’s tribute to people who work hard to earn their living.

Everything at TPV will return to abnormal on Tuesday.

Barangrill

Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
and Singapore slings
No trouble in their faces
Not one anxious voice
None of the crazy you get
From too much choice

. . . .

Well some say it’s in service
They say “humble makes pure”
You’re hoping it’s near Folly
‘Cause you’re headed that way for sure
And you just have to laugh
‘Cause it’s all so crazy
Her mind’s on her boyfriend
And eggs over easy

You Just Can’t See Him from The Road

“Ridin’ Fences” refers to the requirement to continually check the condition of the fences that keep the cattle from wandering off on ranches in the American West.

Ranching has long been a business with narrow margins. If a few or many cattle get out of the often very-large fenced-in pasture, they may never be found again because there’s so much empty space for them to get lost and so many opportunities for predators, both animal and human, to make them disappear forever.

Losing or not losing a handful of cattle may be the difference between a narrow profit or a large annual loss for the rancher.

In the United States, a lot has been written about rural poverty in Appalachia, throughout the South, etc. However, there’s plenty of poverty in the rural American West. It’s just harder to find because the empty spaces are so large in many parts of the West. You can’t see the poverty from the road.

As examples, Wyoming has six people per square mile and Montana has seven people per square mile. Each of these states has cities where the population density is much higher on a square-mile basis, so rural population density is much smaller.

Looking at rural counties, Loving County, Texas, had a population of 64 and a population density of .095 people per square mile in 2020. The only community in Loving County is its county seat, Mentone, Texas, which had a population of 15 in 2000 and 19 in 2010.

Mentone consists of a courthouse, two stop signs, a gas station, a post office, and a school building which has been closed since the 1970’s. The reason for the school closure was that student enrollment had fallen to two students.

Loving County, population 64, covers an area larger than the City of Houston, Texas, the fourth most-populous city in the United States.

The City of Houston has a population of a population of 2.3 million residents. The Houston metro area has a population of over 7 million. The only larger US cities are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Once you get out of Mentone, you can drive a long way without seeing another human being.

Ploughing

A growing day, and a waking field,
And a furrow straight and long,
A golden sun and a lifting breeze,
And we follow with a song.
Sons of the soil are we,
Lads of the field and flock,
Turning our sods, asking no odds,
Where is a life so free?
Facing the dawn, brain ruling brawn,
Lords of our lands we‟ll be.


A guiding thought, and a skillful hand,
And a plant’s young leaf unfurled,
A summer’s sun and summer’s rain,
And we harvest for the world.
Sons of the soil are we,
Men of the coming years,
Turning our sods, asking no odds,
Where is a life so free?
Facing the dawn, brain ruling brawn,
Lords of our lands we’ll be.

4-H Guidebook

Labor Day

Today, Friday, is the unofficial beginning of Labor Day weekend in the United States. Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September and is commonly regarded as the last big weekend of the summer. In cooler parts of the US, it’s often the last weekend to use a mountain cabin or a boat.

More than a few people wherever PG has lived have either taken Friday off or disappeared after lunch on Friday in order to extend their weekend. As 5:00 pm approaches, most large office buildings in many major US cities are pretty much abandoned. City busses and commuter trains are almost empty. Traffic to wherever the favorite local weekend destinations are is heavy.

PG will devote most of this long weekend to paeans to working men and women. In particular, people who perform hard manual labor.

Unions began forming in the US in the 1880’s as a response to the Industrial Revolution. The American Federation of Labor, a loose coalition of local unions, was founded in 1886 and led by Samuel Gompers until his death in 1924.

Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) became law. This is a foundational statute of United States labor law that guarantees the right of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes.

This law replaced much weaker prior legislative guarantees of the rights of workers and was designed to correct the “inequality of bargaining power” between employers and employees by promoting collective bargaining between trade unions and employers. The law established the National Labor Relations Board to prosecute violations of labor law and to oversee the process by which employees decide whether to be represented by a labor organization. It also established various rules concerning collective bargaining and defined a series of banned unfair labor practices, including interference with the formation or organization of labor unions by employers. 

The 1947 Taft–Hartley Act amended the NLRA, and was passed in response to a series of massive post-war labor strikes in 1945 and 1946. Taft-Hartley weakened union power by establishing a series of mandatory labor practices for unions and granting states the power to pass right-to-work laws.

A right-to-work law gives workers the right to choose whether or not to join a labor union their workplace. It also gives workers the option to not pay union dues or other fees whether or not they are in the union. One of the rationales behind this legislation was that it protected the freedom of association or non-association of workers and their freedom to choose not to become subject to a labor union contract with their employer. Since labor unions are free to make political contributions to support candidates or causes, a right-to-work law also protects an employee from having to contribute to a political candidate or cause the employee opposes.

Right to work laws were passed by state legislatures throughout the American South, a North/South strip of states in the Midwest and also in several Mountain West states. Texas and Florida, two states which have enjoyed large increases in their populations during the last fifty years, are right-to-work states.

California has the highest number of unionized workers and New York has the second highest number. Hawaii has the highest percentage of unionized workers, almost 24% and New York has the second-highest percentage with 22%. North Carolina and South Carolina have the lowest percentage of unionized workers.

Public Sector Unions – unions comprised of federal, state and local government employees – have become much larger and more powerful in the United States within the last 50 years. At present, there are more public sector union members than there are private sector union members. Slightly less than 1/3 of federal employees are unionized. 35% of state workers are unionized as are 46% of local government workers.

As with private-sector unions, the rate of unionization of public sector workers varies greatly from state to state and from region to region.

Some people have strong opinions for and against unions. PG asks that commenters remain civil while discussing all topics over this Labor Day weekend.

Sorry for no blogging today

PG apologizes for not posting anything today.

Nothing terrible has happened, just a backlog of must-do items that piled up too high.

Tomorrow is another day.

Britain has an enormous number of pheasants

For some readers,“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was a disappointment. “[T]his fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising,” wrote a reviewer in Field & Stream, a hunting periodical, in 1959. Unfortunately, “one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material” to get to the passages “on the management of a Midlands shooting estate”.

Pheasants rarely command attention—and yet there are oodles of them. The most recent estimate puts their number in early August (before shooting season begins) at 31.5m, and their share of the nation’s wild-bird biomass (together with the less numerous partridge) at around half. The number released into the wild each year after rearing has risen by around 900% since the 1960s. Yet, as in Lady Chatterley, they seem peripheral to the narrative.

One reason is that official figures held on them are so poor. The government knows how many pigs there are in England (4m), cattle and calves (5.2m) and llamas (1,000). There is a Sheep and Goat Inventory (in England, unlike the End Times, the species are bracketed together). And it tallies deaths caused by various animals, including dogs (two in 2019), rats (one) and crocodiles (zero).

But there are no good data on pheasants. Anyone who holds 50 or more captive birds should fill in a form for the poultry register, but many do not. Estimates differ wildly: another commonly cited one puts the total far higher: at 47m.

Opinions differ on whether this abundance is a good thing. Animal-lovers say that shooting pheasants is cruel. Saboteurs sometimes try to stop shoots. Environmentalists say pheasants’ droppings damage the soil, and that they boost the number of predators such as foxes. But they also bring benefits, says Joah Madden of Exeter University, who produced the most recent estimate of their number. They have shaped the countryside for the better: 28% of British woodland is managed for game, and if you spy an isolated copse or strip of trees on a hill, there is a fair chance it is there to provide cover and good sport.

Link to the rest at The Economist

For the record, although he has not had the pleasure of visiting Britain in well over ten years and his British ancestors left England and Scotland almost 400 years ago, PG still considers himself to be a fully-committed Anglophile and is definitely a subscriber to The Economist. Stories like this still resonate with the British voices in his blood.

Narrative Design In The Gaming Industry

From The Creative Penn:

Edwin McRae: Narrative design is effectively the design of story elements that then go into video games. I steer away from the general term of writing for video games, because often within the industry, the games industry, writing gets siloed into things like dialogue and flavor text. And the player-facing material that you would see in a video game.

Whereas narrative design, there’s a lot more behind the scenes than that, creating the story experience for a video game, which I’m happy to elaborate on more what a story experience for a video game is.

I started out writing a novel, pitched that around, almost got picked up by HarperCollins at one point, but to no avail. And then shifted to doing theater for a while, and then studied screenwriting for film. And then on that course, which is at Victoria University in Wellington, I managed to get a work placement on New Zealand’s soap opera, ‘Shortland Street.’

I ended up as a storyliner and script writer there for four years, which taught me a lot about churning out a lot of story and the best practices for that kind of fast-paced storytelling. And then I got to the end of my tenure with writing for soap opera, I wanted to do other things.

I started to hang out with some game developers in Auckland at the time, at a game developers meetup, met the guys at Grinding Gear Games who make the game ‘Path of Exile.’

They Facebook messaged me one day and said, ‘Hey, do you want to try writing some dialogue for us?’ And then that kind of, the rest is history.

Joanna Penn: It’s so interesting. You’ve done lots of different types of writing, obviously. But I wonder if you would also maybe start by giving us more of an overview of the gaming industry, because I feel like there’s a lot of misconceptions.

Edwin: It’s certainly become a large industry. It has eclipsed cinema as an industry. I was looking a few things up, I think cinema is around $110 billion, games are around $150 billion as an industry internationally, which you compare that to books.

Publishing still sits around over $200 billion, but of that, books I think are around the $120 billion mark. I would see games as a platform being as large as the books industry pretty much at the moment.

So it’s certainly a significant thing out there. And interestingly, your average gamer, I was looking at, is apparently I think 34 years old, has children, and owns a house. So it’s not the teenage stereotype that often is assumed with video gaming.

Looking at various stats it ranges…for instance in Australia, 80% of gamers are over 18 and the U.S., 70% are over 18. So it’s actually, it’s quite a mature audience, and perhaps more mature than people might assume.

Joanna: And what about the gender split? Because there used to be this sort of thing that it was mostly guys.

Edwin: Oh, absolutely. That’s the curious thing with games. It’s almost like referring to a game is the same as referring to a book, as a book can be anything from a thriller to a dad’s joke book, could be horror to a kid’s picture book.

It’s the same range with games, it can be everything from yes, your ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and your ‘Call of Duty’ shooters back right to…for instance there’s a company here in Dunedin, Runaway Play, that makes effectively nature simulation games and games about cat cafes, and games about dog refuge centers.

There’s a full range within the type of games that are out there, there’s really something for everyone.

Joanna: There are obviously the high-end games where you need whole consoles and things, but then you see people playing games on their mobile phone.

Edwin: Oh, absolutely. That’s the curious thing with games. It’s almost like referring to a game is the same as referring to a book, as a book can be anything from a thriller to a dad’s joke book, could be horror to a kid’s picture book.

It’s the same range with games, it can be everything from yes, your ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and your ‘Call of Duty’ shooters back right to…for instance there’s a company here in Dunedin, Runaway Play, that makes effectively nature simulation games and games about cat cafes, and games about dog refuge centers.

There’s a full range within the type of games that are out there, there’s really something for everyone.

Joanna: There are obviously the high-end games where you need whole consoles and things, but then you see people playing games on their mobile phone.

Edwin: They’re the ones that get the most press is the really big ones like ‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ or ‘Witcher 3,’ or ‘Skyrim,’ big games that you can explore for up to, oh gosh, 100 hours, 200 hours, 300 hours for some. But those are your larger titles that cost between say $50 to $100, $120.

But then especially in the indie game dev scene, you’ll get games that are anywhere from $2 to $20. And even in those, you’ll tend to have a good 10 to 20 hours of gameplay in those. Again, it can be on mobile, it can be on PC, it can be on console.

There’s that epic, massive series that you can explore, there are short stories, and novellas in the game scene as well. So, again, it’s a full range of experience on offer.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

The Record Label Remixing Novels into Music

From The Guardian:

Last year, Taylor Swift’s album Evermore featured two prominent nods to literature: the Rebecca-inspired Tolerate It, and Happiness, a breakup song which references F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

After the news that Dolly Parton’s debut novel is to be released alongside her new album, it seems that fiction-inspired music is having its moment.

The scores to screen adaptions of books have enjoyed steady sales for years, with Wendy Carlos’ and Rachel Elkind’s soundtrack to The Shining (1980) due to receive a vinyl reissue later this month. And authors have been writing existing music into their work for decades: the late Sean Hughes’s 1997 novel The Detainees featured a revenge-seeking antiques dealer who becomes galvanised after being pushed into a Wedding Present mosh pit.

The Scottish micro label Bibliotapes has made literature-inspired music into an entire business. The label’s objective – asking musicians to compose new scores to classic novels – is an idea so simple it could almost be a happy accident. Stuart McLean, who runs it, suggests that’s the case.

“There was no grand plan. The label can be best summed up in a sentence: soundtracks for books on tape,” writes McLean.

“After I mentioned the idea of book soundtracks on Twitter, I was sent one for CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew by Ioan Morris, who’s composed many of the Doctor Who soundtracks for Big Finish’s audio adaptions.”

Eight further soundtracks to novels have now been released by the label, including Audio Obscura’s pulsating score to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-FourRupert Lally’s brooding woodwind compositions for John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, and the electronica prepared by Twenty-Three Hanging Trees as an accompaniment to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (and since picked by Meadows Records).

Bibliotapes is releasing its soundtracks in cassette form only (McLean “never felt the point of hanging on to something long after the physical copies have sold”, and “cassettes are faster to make and distribute” than vinyl), but the artists themselves have kept their music available digitally via Bandcamp.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The OP sounded interesting to PG until he got to the part about releasing the soundtracks on cassette.

PG will rely on British visitors to comment concerning whether this is a reasonable commercial structure or not, but PG doesn’t think he still has any equipment that can play music on cassette tapes. If he does, he expects the music would sound very unlike what listens to on a daily basis.

Empty Spaces

From The Paris Review:

It is not incorrect to say that, for years, the way my family grieved my mother was to avoid acknowledging her altogether. It is not incorrect to say that we hardly invoked her name or told stories about her.

Shortly after college, my father, Caroline, and Steph descended upon my cleared-out group house in Washington, D.C., for Thanksgiving. In my childhood home, my father’s stacks of clutter multiplied until they overtook the space that my mother had so carefully cultivated; it crowded my sisters and me out. I reacted efficiently, diligently, which is to say that I pretended that trips to Steph’s apartment in Rhode Island or Caroline’s in California were just a chance to visit another part of the country.

We’d decided to exchange Christmas gifts a month early, since we wouldn’t be together in December.

Caroline, dressed in a key-lime-green onesie, handed Steph and me sets that matched hers.

“They’re actually really comfortable,” she said. She smiled toothily and pulled up the hood to show us the outfit’s ears, her faded highlights a spray of lavender around her face.

The onesies were from the kids’ section, which was fine for us since everyone in our family, including our father, was small and roughly the same size. Steph and I donned ours, and I was grateful for anything to distract from how cobbled together holidays had become since my mother’s passing. My sisters and I stood on my front stoop to take a photo of us modeling our new outfits. In the photo, Caroline and I jam our hands into our pockets while Steph is wedged between us, her arms thrust into the air. We look so much like sisters, not just because, in this image, we are dressed identically, but because the ways we hold our mouths enthusiastically, wryly, are the same.

Afterward, Steph passed out slender boxes.

“I thought this might be good for everybody to open last,” Steph said. There was a question in her voice, a preemptive apology that made me tense.

She had gifted us each a framed photo of our family. It showed all five of us, including my mother, in Seattle the summer before she died, and it was one of the last photos we’d taken together. We stand on a pier. The sky is muted and filled with the gray wash of color that comes from dragging paintbrush water across a canvas. It looks windy, and though it’s the end of summer, we must be cold, because we’re wearing long pants and sweatshirts. We huddle around my mother, who has her hands clasped in front of her stomach.

“Oh,” Caroline said as she pulled the wrapping paper off hers, her eyebrows shooting up her forehead as she examined the photo.

I shivered and said nothing. Our time with our mother was a past life—some version of ourselves from which we’d become estranged. When I replayed memories of her, it was as if hearing someone else recount stories of their own mother.

“What’s this?” our father asked, still working his fingers underneath the paper. He looked at my sisters and me, confused by our sudden shift in mood, not understanding this context. “Oh. A photo of our family?”

We held the wooden frames like they were made of blown glass. I studied my mother’s face and sat in a glum silence, unsure what to say, fighting the urge to turn the photo away.

When I consider the ways images can wrench our grief to the surface, I think of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s poems, which are wrapped around photos of her family in her collection Ghost Of. The book is dedicated to her siblings, including her brother who committed suicide. He is cut from every photo. Nguyen plays with these silhouettes. She cocoons him with her grief and her memories of him. She inhabits the negative space with her despair.

Why should we mourn?
Isn’t this the history we want
one in which we survive?

The first time I read her poems, I assumed that she had sliced her brother out of the photos. I thought she didn’t want outsiders to be privy to his body. No. Nguyen told an interviewer that her brother, in a fit of anger, carved himself from all of the family photos hanging in a hallway of their childhood home. Afterward, he carefully slid the photos back into their frames.

“They foreshadowed his death, and after his death, the missing shards in the frames wounded me deeply,” she said in an interview. “I avoided walking down that hall, I avoided returning to the house.”

When I learned this, her grief crept into me. I avoided walking down the hall, I avoided returning to the house. Why head down a hall of memories if it leads to a perpetual reminder of death? I felt as though Nguyen, with her poetry, had inhabited the void that her brother had left behind, the way I now inhabit the one created by my mother.

For many years, I could not look at photos of my mother. I wrapped the one from Steph in a scarf and tucked it into my bedroom closet, underneath a box of clothes I no longer wore. The way I endured grief was to think only of the after, and not the before.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

How Charles Dickens built Bleak House

From The Guardian:

The problem with most biographies is that they tend to have only two pace settings. There is the plod of the episodic, one-thing-after-another accounting; parallel to that is the gallop that makes years vanish in pages. Momentum may build, and it may stall, depending on the life being investigated, but that dual speed is the halter that biographical writing struggles to break from.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t an innovator in restricting his scope to a specific time-frame – Alethea Hayter’s 1965 book A Sultry Month set the standard – but he is surely the first to compass the life of Charles Dickens this way. The year 1851 was momentous both in the writer’s personal circumstances and in the life of the nation and bouncing ideas between the two enables Douglas-Fairhurst to set his own narrative rhythm, at once irresistible and ominous. The Turning Point sees Dickens as a product of his age, “a living embodiment of its energy and ambition”, and identifies the book he was preparing to write, Bleak House, not only as the “greatest fictional experiment of his career” but as a signpost to the future of the novel itself. Typical of this book’s magpie eclecticism is that it notes “turning point” as a phrase gaining currency in mid-Victorian English.

Turning 39 in February, Dickens is found to be in restless mood (when was he not?), editing his weekly magazine, Household Words, consulting with his friend Angela Coutts on the running of Urania Cottage, his London refuge for “fallen” women, trying to set up a literary guild for needy authors and, perhaps closest to his heart, organising a production of his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem for a charity gala. Dickens might once have become an actor – an untimely cold had thwarted his audition years ago – but he now excelled himself as an actor-manager, directing, cajoling, inspiring, controlling. He even managed to persuade the Duke of Devonshire to loan him his grand London mansion as venue for the play’s royal premiere. The duke also made available his gardener, Joseph Paxton, to supervise the staging at Devonshire House.

Paxton’s name this year was almost as famous as Dickens’s, for in May his much-vaunted Crystal Palace in Hyde Park opened its doors and the Great Exhibition was under way. “A giant architectural exclamation mark”, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s words, this vast cathedral of glass and iron divided opinion. While some regarded it as a symbol of progress and a singular feat of engineering, others like Ruskin thought it chilly and lifeless. Dickens himself was not a fan, preferring buildings on a human scale. As one to whom “order” was sacred, he also deplored the exhibition’s higgledy-piggledy profusion – it’s notable that even he sometimes found things too much. On another visit in July, he was more taken by the sight of 100 schoolchildren wandering about the place. He later discovered that one of them had got lost and ended up in Hammersmith. Having spent the night in a workhouse, the boy was retrieved by his mother; he was supposed to have asked her when it would all be over. “It was a Great Exhibition, he said, but he thought it long.” You can hear Dickens’s laughter in that line.

As ever, family was close to his heart and to his nerves. In March, his father died after agonising surgery on his groin, a death that probably revived all his lifelong ambivalence towards this unsatisfactory parent. Recasting him as Micawber in David Copperfield, Dickens could make merry with his fecklessness, but in real life John Dickens had been a pest and a drain on his resources. Less than two weeks later, his infant daughter Dora suddenly died, news that he broke to his wife, Catherine, staying at Malvern, in a letter that gently tried to cushion the shock, as if she might have been a child herself. Pliant and plump, Catherine had borne him nine children in 13 years, during which time the vibrations of his impatience and discontent with her had grown stronger. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that the example of Bulwer-Lytton would have warned Dickens of how a bad marriage could pollute one’s life, but the parallel doesn’t quite hold: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was a vengeful fury who pursued a public campaign against her husband, whereas Catherine Dickens simply became an unhappy encumbrance. A cache of recently discovered letters reveals that in the years prior to their separation Dickens tried to have her declared insane, a stratagem worthy of the ripest Victorian melodrama.

. . . .

The new fashion for bloomers in 1851 provoked his ridicule – women wearing trousers, or indeed the trousers, was an outrage against the social order, he argued in print, making clear that their doing anything much beyond home-management ought to be discouraged. He organised his own household with rigour, recreating a near-lookalike of his previous domicile when he moved the family to a new home in Tavistock Square. 

Link to the rest at The Guardian

About the OP, PG asks, “Why can’t we accept historic figures as individuals who were shaped by the times and places they inhabited?”

The OP mentions Dickens’ “reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation.”

Those who are applying 21st century moral strictures to 19th century figures are failing to understand the completely-accepted social mores that shaped the historical figures because of when they were born, how they were raised and what they were taught.

Speaking of women’s liberation, here’s a photo of the Guardian’s Editorial, Financial and Wire Room staff members in 1921:

Does anyone wish to speculate concerning the gender of the bosses and and the tasks that the women performed? And the relative paychecks of the genders?

The Guardian opposed the creation of the National Health Service in 1951 as it feared the state provision of healthcare would “eliminate selective elimination” and lead to an increase of congenitally deformed and feckless people.

PG can assure one and all that “attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation” were different in 1960 than they are today. He will also predict that “attitudes” toward all sorts of things will be much different in 2121 than they are today. (And, yes, that includes attitudes at The Guardian.)

Such contemporary attitudes toward those long-dead also assume that societal norms have only advanced toward greater absolute good over time.

Was the Germany of 1935, ruled by Adolf Hitler, morally superior to the Germany of 1835, ruled by Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria?

End of rant. PG feels much better now.

I Just Don’t Get Some Authors

From Book Riot:

Most of the time, when I finish a book I don’t like, I consider it a fault of my book selection abilities: it just wasn’t for me. I can see how some people might like it, but it didn’t line up with what I enjoy in a novel. For instance, I can’t stand a lot of description of imagery. As a not very visual person, it always feels like a slog to read. My eyes glaze right over it. But I know that plenty of people love books with rich descriptions, because they can vividly imagine the scene. Great for them, not for me.

Sometimes the fault lies more in the marketing: I was promised a romantic read, and this turned to be meditation on mortality. The cover suggested something fun and silly, and this was a heartbreaking read I was not in the headspace for. Of course, occasionally I just think a book is bad. As much as I want to believe there’s a reader for every book, there are some that I finish and can only think about the glaring faults.

The weirdest thing, though, is when your experience of a book doesn’t match up to what seems to be everyone else’s. It’s not just, “Well, I didn’t like this because it’s a space opera and I’m not much of a fan of that genre,” but: “Everyone says this is funny, but I found it depressing??” There are a few authors who I just seem to bounce off of. When I read their books, I just…don’t understand what they’re trying to do. I understand the literal meaning of the words, I’m following the plot, but I just don’t get the selling points. I don’t understand the appeal.

There’s one author in particular I seem to have this problem with the most — probably because he’s such a popular author that I kept going back and trying again, because I felt like I must be missing something. Since his work is so beloved, I’m going to refrain from naming names, but every time I read his books, I feel like I’m reading them through a window. There’s a distance from the characters, the world, even the writing. I can’t seem to ever got lost in the story.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG is undoubtedly atypical in more than one way, but he’s never felt any pressure to read books his friends liked that he doesn’t like. Or any book that he doesn’t like.

(Yes, PG did have a longer-than-normal educational experience that involved reading (or skimming) books he didn’t like, but he doesn’t count that. Incidentally, PG was a big fan of used college textbooks because they were cheaper and because, in many used books he chose, the prior owner(s) underlined the important parts. Those study aids made reading books he didn’t like go much faster. He did always wish that the student bookstore where he bought the books had indicated whether the prior owner got a good grade in the class or not.)

While reading the OP, PG gained the impression that the individual might not be very old and, possibly, feel a bit of peer pressure in her choice of books

The Ages of 5 Great Writers When They First Published

From Medium:

The pressures of life can really catch up with us. As we get older, we know we need to keep working hard to make sure we can pay the bills and make an effort to keep our savings ticking over.

For many of us, that means taking up jobs in professions we might not really be all that passionate about. All that effort elsewhere can take time away from doing the things we really care about. For many of us, that thing is writing.

The purpose of this article is motivational. By showing you the ages a few writers published their first books at, I hope to emphasize that it’s never too late to start writing, and there’s always time to get going — that is, if you are prepared to find the time for yourself.

One — Ernest Hemingway

Let’s start young and get older as we go. Ernest Hemingway was 24 years old when he published his first work. It was a short story and poetry collection entitled Three Short Stories and Ten Poems, published in 1923.

His first full novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published when he was 27 in 1926. For Whom The Bell Tolls wasn’t published until 1940and it was not until Hemingway was 53 that The Old Man and the Sea was published.

Although Hemingway did publish for the first time at the age of 24, his first real success came in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s story goes to show that writing to achieve publication is a process that requires finding a style that sticks through effort, perseverance, and hard work.

. . . .

Four — JK Rowling

A writer who nearly every millennial in the world grew up reading, JK Rowling did not publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone until she was 32. JK Rowling graduated from the University of Exeter, having studied French and Classics there.

The influence of her classical education on the Harry Potter series is quite clear, when you consider the names of spells such as lumos, which is derived from the Latin word lumen, meaning lamp or light, as well as the fact that Harry and his friends have to get passed a three-headed dog before encountering Lord Voldemort in the first book.

In Greek mythology, the three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades to prevent the dead from leaving the Underworld. JK Rowling’s life can tell us a couple of things about writing. Firstly, that it’s crucial to surround yourself with sources of possible inspiration. And secondly, that it can sometimes take a while to get going. We all know how it turned out.

Link to the rest at Medium

When should writers return to old, abandoned work?

From The Writer:

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” —Leonardo da Vinci

We might say the same thing as da Vinci about a work of fiction. You revise a story or a novel a dozen times or more, and still you find something to fix. In fact, the more you look, the more you find. Will it ever be over? No, it seems.

Still, you must stop at some point, and so you do. You submit it, or you shelve it.

If you shelve it, that’s real abandonment.

But perhaps at some point – perhaps years later – you decide to revisit it. What are some things you should consider? Will certain factors come into play?

. . . .

Mood as a factor

Mood can take two forms – the mood of the story or novel you abandoned and the mood you’re in when you try to get back into it – that is, your emotional state of mind. As any writer can tell you, the mood you’re in makes a great difference when you tackle any work of fiction. But let’s say this project’s been gathering dust for several years. Are you charged up enough to take it on? Do you have the right inspiration?

Lois McMaster Bujold, speculative fiction writer and four-time winner of the Hugo Award, can speak to these very questions. She returned to an abortive novella after a seven-year hiatus. In 2011, she had completed 15,000 words on a “high-concept tale” about bioengineering, which she nicknamed Radbugs! Then she ran into a brick wall: “Radbugs, and then what?”

Plot-wise she had drawn up short: “The internal problem was that of making the Radbug bioengineering project central, as semi-realistic science (fiction) – it didn’t have a novella-like time frame or structure.” She considered two options, the first being a story that concentrated more on the research. “But scientific research like that is just a whole lot of tedious back-and-forthing on experiments and data collection for several years until the concept either becomes viable or is proved not to work.” Her second option didn’t seem viable, either. “Letting the story focus instead on some of the human problems encountered in those first 15,000 words seemed too much like another story I’d written. I eventually stopped and went on to other things, thinking I’d finally own a trunk story. But it itched. It was half done.”

In 2018, she was in the right frame of mind to return to it. “In the course of events (including major surgery, a house move, and reaching supposed retirement age), I finally ran out of other things and circled back to it somewhat in the spirit of spring cleaning.” By now, she was ready to make that novella work. If she’d been frustrated before, she now went back to this project with a laid-back, just-let-it-happen attitude: “I decided to stop fighting with the material and just let it run out on the most immediate social story-problem – people illegally residing in a radioactive zone.” To Bujold’s relief, this meant a shorter route to completion – 20,000 words instead of 40,000.

All in all, her once-abandoned project was now a success story. Her newly titled novella, The Flowers of Vashnoi, was published as an indie-published e-novella, a form she’d been experimenting with for three years. The hiatus of seven years would most likely have been “time enough to declare it legally dead, but that’s not what happened,” says Bujold.

For Bernice L. McFadden, author of 10 novels, mood is a major factor in the drafting process. “I have to be in a very specific emotional space when I write – and, more often than not, that space is an emotional one that is rife with anxiety and/or melancholy.” Mood-wise, returning to an abandoned project has typically worked in her favor. “In many cases, the lapse of time has been on my side when revisiting stories that I’d abandoned for one reason or another.”

A “deep emotional connection to the subject” is key for Caroline Leavitt, author of 12 novels. Recapturing that emotional connection can present a problem for her, but she was able to do so with a novel that didn’t, at first, look like it would pan out.

“Recently, I decided I was going to write a novel based on an article about a woman who had grown up in a Hasidic community and had left, along with her child, to be secular. A few years later, her child was kidnapped back into the community, and she lost custody.” This story enthralled Leavitt; for one thing, she felt a personal connection since her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. Even so, as she was in the midst of doing field research, interviewing people in the community, she began to realize that she wasn’t the right author since she lacked “firsthand knowledge” of her subject. “I felt like a fraud,” says Leavitt. “So, I stopped and abandoned this book to write a new novel.”

Still, this abandoned project worked at her so much that a few years later, she felt compelled to return to it. But first, she wanted to know what it was about this novel project that was pushing her to complete it. After giving it considerable thought, she realized that it was the larger idea of “being pushed out of a community for something you had done.” This theme of ostracism gripped her.

With that theme in mind, she had the right inspiration to return to her project. “That idea became the novel I am working on now, Days of Wonder, which I immediately sold on the synopsis. Did I abandon everything in my research or writing? Nope. I made it part of a character’s past that informed her decisions in the present.”

With some abandoned projects, success means getting into the mood of the story or novel itself. An old work can feel strange, alien. Is this actually your work? According to Jim Daniels, author of numerous collections of short fiction and poetry, “With some pieces written years ago, even published stories, it feels as if another person wrote those stories, and in many ways, it was another person – a younger version of myself, a person I might resemble in some way but not the same person.” When Daniels attempts to revise old work, while it’s “hard to recreate the mood, the state of mind” of the abandoned work, “sometimes things do click.” He’s not one to throw things away, so he often does return to “old stories that petered out or ended with an unsatisfying thud.”

Link to the rest at The Writer

PG apologizes for omitting the link earlier.

The ebook at 50 — is the dream of a free, universal library fading?

From The Financial Times:

Fifty years ago, on July 4 1971, Michael S Hart typed the text of “The Declaration of Independence” into a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. He circulated a note to the roughly 100 users in that pre-internet age, explaining the document was free to share. And with that, the world’s first ebook was born. It would be downloaded by six users.

Hart, who died in September 2011 at the age of 64, spent 40 years of his life building the world’s first digital library, Project Gutenberg. He stubbornly argued against restrictive access and copyright practices, which went against his grand vision: “To bring as many books to as many people as possible.”

His vision has not wholly succeeded. Over the past two decades, the cut-throat commercialism of ebooks has become a problem for readers and libraries. In 2019, the American Library Association criticised Amazon, which has a huge slice of the ebooks market, for refusing to make its ebooks available to libraries “for lending at any price or any terms” and spoke against the delayed release of ebooks by other publishers to library markets.

But in the early 2000s, I stumbled across Hart’s Project Gutenberg as a paralegal researcher and then as a journalist looking for archives and databases online. It was a treasure house. Delhi and Kolkata were reader-friendly cities, with decent bookshops and historical archives, but public libraries were — and are — still scarce.

Readers who grew up in countries without extensive library networks will know how it feels to be handed the keys to this treasure trove of books that you could download and store for yourself, forever. I find messages in a Hotmail archive from 2003 between me and other bookish friends in Coimbatore and Mumbai. We were like astronauts, cast into space and dazzled by a universe of delights. A friend wrote to me after her first foray into Project Gutenberg’s catalogue, “More books than you can imagine! We are *rich*!”

Hart’s online library had a slow start — disk space in the 1970s and early 1980s was so limited that storing a complete book was almost impossible — but by May 1999, Project Gutenberg had a collection of 2,000 books. Five years later, that had grown to 10,000 public domain works online, including The King James Bible and Alice in Wonderland.

Today, the main Project Gutenberg site hosts more than 60,000 free books in languages from English to Finnish. But perhaps Hart’s greatest achievement was that Gutenberg inspired others to found their own free digital libraries, from the mammoth Internet Archive to the World Digital Library.

In much of the public imagination, ebooks are associated with Amazon, which pioneered the commercial sale of ebooks and Kindles. With Amazon, Kobo and the world’s biggest publishers all broadening their ebook readers and catalogues over the past 10 years, the average reader’s comfort with digital books has grown — despite obstacles such as screen fatigue or the delayed availability of many commercially successful books in digital formats for libraries. Even so, a recent industry report by Mordor Intelligence valued the global ebook market at $18bn in 2020.

. . . .

The pandemic has forced a massive change in reading habits, perhaps temporary but still significant. OverDrive, a US company that works with libraries as a digital distributor of ebooks and audiobooks, released data this January showing a global spike in digital borrowing by readers across global public library systems. Notably, children’s books and young adult fiction are being more widely read as ebooks or digital downloads as the pandemic kept families indoors

Link to the rest at The Financial Times (if you have problems with a paywall, you may want to try a browser you haven’t ever used to access the FT)

And here’s a link to Project Gutenberg (much friendlier destination than the FT)

Top 10 bookworms in fiction

From The Guardian:

Reading has always been everything to me, keeping me afloat when the sea of life gets choppy. Working in a bookshop added another dimension; not only was I was soothed in a near magical way by the physical presence of the books, but talking to strangers about them could always lift my mood. What joy, then, to explore all that in a bibliographic memoir. I imagined my dream customer, addressed them directly, and proffered anecdotes and themed booklists. Dear Reader was born.

My ulterior motive was that the novel I was writing was rather too full of characters who did little other than read. ‘“That’s no good,” I said to myself. “Fiction needs action!” 

. . . .

  1. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Orphan Anne Shirley felt as real to me as any of the flesh and blood little girls I knew, and I longed to be able to climb into the pages and join her story club. We have a lot in common. Anne is a ferocious bookworm who gets into trouble for reading Ben Hur in class because she just can’t stop until she knows how the chariot race will turn out. Such is the lure of reading, that she has to get her guardian, Matthew, to lock up tempting books in the jam closet until she has finished her homework.

  1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain writes her diary while sitting in the kitchen sink, capturing her eccentric family. Her father, still famous for his experimental novel Jacob’s Ladder, is now stuck and does nothing but read as many detective novels as he can find. Cassandra’s beautiful sister, Rose, frets because she has no clothes and no opportunities. When they hear that rich Americans are about to move in next door, it reminds them of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mrs Bennet says that Netherfield Hall is let at last. Perhaps now something exciting will happen …

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve been reading and rereading this novel since my teens. My favourite scene these days is near the beginning when Anna is returning from meeting Vronsky for the first time and scarcely wants to admit the attraction. On the train home she reads an English novel and it is her impatience and frustration that signal to us that she is about to transgress: “It was unpleasant to read, that is to say, to follow the reflections of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.”

  1. The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

In the first of the Cazalet chronicles, Howard layers up satisfying details about what everyone is reading. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Irwin, Howard Spring and Angela Thirkell all get a mention and the characters are in and out of bookshops. When the brothers and their wives meet at the family home in the country, everyone chooses a book that reveals much about their character.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Heart of the Trouble

From The Paris Review:

In 2007 Gwendoline Riley, then age twenty-eight and already the author of three acclaimed novels, described her writing life as lacking “any tremendous triumph or romance—I feel like I’m just always trying to be accurate, to get everything in the correct proportion.”

As literary aspirations go, it sounds modest. And by superficial measures, Riley’s novels are unambitious: light on conventional plotting, narrow in scope, and told from the perspectives of women close to herself in age and background. Riley has tried using the third person, she said in 2012, but it “always sounds so false.” As for adopting a male point of view: “Ugh, men’s brains! That vipers’ nest? No.” Her protagonists are writers, too, encouraging the frequent assumption that she draws directly from life. But to regard Riley’s fiction as titivated memoir is to misperceive what beguiles her readers: not barely mediated personal experience but its sedulous transmutation by a strange, rare talent. As Vivian Gornick wrote after reading the letters of Jean Rhys, a novelist with whom Riley shares some kinship: “The letters are the life, and the novels—there’s no mistaking it—are the magic performed on the life.”

Nor does Riley write autofiction, if authors in that contentious category aim to replicate the texture of life by dispensing with, in Rachel Cusk’s now famous words, the “fake and embarrassing” architecture of novels. When Riley makes you squirm with recognition, it’s not because of any explicit overlap between author and protagonist or winking acknowledgment of the writing process. Her uncannily observed female character studies, with their bracing emotional clarity, ruthlessly crafted scenes, and consummate use of the telling detail, belong instead to a certain feminist-existentialist tradition of realism. Literary forerunners to Riley’s work include Rhys’s interwar novels of female alienation, as well as Margaret Drabble’s groundbreaking early novels, in which intellectual young women grapple with the hazards and potentials of their desires, thus dramatizing, as the writer Jennifer Schaffer aptly put it, “a fighting urge to disturb the mold of one’s life, as it sets.” Yet what sets Riley apart from even these noble antecedents is her unshrinking determination to contemplate the unseemly, the discordant, and the unsolvable, without ever straying into despair or the maudlin.

Riley, who was born in London and grew up in Merseyside, published her Betty Trask Award–winning debut, Cold Water, in 2002, when she was twenty-two. Given her age, not to mention the gorgeous nouvelle vague–ish author photo adorning advance copies, some preconceived skepticism about the novel’s merit might have been forgivable. Forgivable, but unwarranted, because Cold Water is an understated classic. Our heroine in holey All Stars and a dress over jeans is twenty-year-old Carmel McKisco, a barmaid of a “downbeat disposition” who works in a low-lit Manchester dive, dreams of moving to Cornwall, and nurses an obsession with a failed musician whose band she loved when she was fourteen. Charting Carmel’s poetic musings and alcohol-fueled gadding about, this wistful little ballad of a novel captures with great verve and originality the bittersweet exhilaration of youth, with its various diverting limerences that, in the big picture, shouldn’t matter. “But, you see,” Carmel explains,

the point is, I’m not in the big picture. I’m in Manchester, and I can’t afford to leave just yet … For now I walk around through the scraping wind, through puddles full of brick dust, often with my feet so cold and sodden; the flesh of my toes like soaked cotton wadding spun round the bones.

In Cold Water, rain-bleared Manchester is seen through an artist’s eye. The lights in Piccadilly Gardens cast “an eerie medical glow against the smudge-grey sky.” Some “ragged carnations the color of evaporated milk and tongue” remind Carmel “of the old recipe cards in the back of a kitchen draw at my mum’s.” This light-handed imbrication of visual and emotional detail to conjure atmosphere, a hallmark of Riley’s early novels, makes for the kind of immersive, effortless read that’s often underrated as easy to write. Here’s the short story writer Esther, in 2004’s Sick Notes, describing her roommate’s bedroom:

There’s a duvet cover, framed postcards on the wall, ornaments even: dried up sea urchins, a crouching child figurine, a tiny pair of painted wooden clogs, a ship in a bottle and a Russian doll flanked by the two rubber ducks I got her for her last birthday. Also a plain brass photo frame holding a picture of a small girl standing by a piano. The kid’s on tiptoe, reaching up to jab at the keys. The curtains behind her and the jumper underneath her dungarees are in sour seventies colors. Her facial expression is kind of sour too.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG is not familiar with Ms. Riley’s writing, but the OP doesn’t maker her sound like a person for whom he can generate much sympathy.

He admits the photo in the OP may have affected his judgement, but he is reminded of a short, but difficult, dating relationship he had with a woman in college (years before he met Mrs. PG). This individual was from a wealthy family and had lots of money to spend, but nothing would make her happy for more than ten minutes or so.

Perhaps she suffered from hidden traumas of which PG was unaware, but he headed for greener, sunnier pastures after 3-4 dates. Their last date was a formal dinner at her parents’ home to which PG and two of his male college buddies were invited.

The woman PG was dating became upset when neither PG nor anyone else responded to the invitations in writing and informed the guests that they would be expected to wear suits and ties during a college era when getting dressed up often meant putting on a clean shirt.

The dinner was predictably excruciating with abbreviated polite conversations all around for 90 minutes or so.

As PG thinks back to that occasion, he thinks one of his friends made him send a written thank-you note to their hostess. PG had to ask for a stamp in order to do so.

Fortunately, PG has done a lot of growing up since that time and hopes the woman involved went on to have a wonderful life.

Politics and the English Language – II

PG realizes he had a post about George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language yesterday, but still finds it so compelling for many events of the past year or so (at least in the US), he’s going to post more.

From The Orwell Foundation (PG apologizes for any formatting issues you may encounter. The OP is packed with the lack of spaces and other typographical conventions that don’t translate well to HTML):

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary.

. . . .

4. All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic Fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet

. . . .

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

. . . .

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenonelementindividual (as noun),  objectivecategoricaleffectivevirtual,  basicprimarypromoteconstitute,  exhibit,  exploitutilizeeliminateliquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements. Adjectives like epoch-makingepichistoricunforgettabletriumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien régime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, Gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize  formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize,  impermissible,  extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.  age-oldinevitableinexorableveritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realmthronechariotmailed fisttridentswordshieldbucklerbanner,  jackboot,  clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac,  ancien régime,  deus ex machinamutatis mutandisstatus quoGleichschaltungWeltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite,  ameliorate,  predictextraneous,  deracinatedclandestinesub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyenahangmancannibalpetty bourgeoisthese gentrylackeyflunkeymad dogWhite Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize  formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalizeimpermissibleextramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . .

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. 

. . . .

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocitiesiron heelblood-stained tyrannyfree peoples of the worldstand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

Link to the rest at The Orwell Foundation

PG first learned about Politics and the English Language when he was in college and a couple of his friends read it for a Semantics class. He read it then and has come back to it from time to time ever since.

PG is currently readint an excellent history of the concentration camps in the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin, Gulag, A History, written by Anne Applebaum. He picked up Gulag immediately after finishing another book by Ms. Applebaum titled Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, about which PG has commented recently.

Will a Traditional Publisher Republish My Self-Published Book?

From Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant:

One of the most common questions I’m asked is about whether it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal for a book that has been previously self-published.

In general, traditional publishers want to buy first publishing rights. They don’t want to republish material that’s already been published, as quite often it is thought the market for the work has already been served.

Historically, there are exceptions, usually for work that has fallen out of print but is thought to have the potential for a new life if put in front of a new audience. Persephone Books would be an example of the kind of publisher that works this way.

These days there are also some agents and publishers who will consider previously self-published work, although in limited circumstances. Carina Press, a digital-first imprint of Harlequin, is an example.

. . . .

You can’t sell your rights to a traditional publisher if they are still controlled by a hybrid publisher. You will need to have the rights reverted to you if you have not retained them. Getting your rights back may not be completely straightforward . . . .

. . . .

The difficulty with previously self-published work, for a traditional publisher, is that very rarely is there an untapped market for it. It isn’t like publishing a debut author, who is brand new to the market.

When an author whose work has sold poorly asks whether they would do better with a traditional publisher, the answer is ‘No’. The poor sales show that the buying public has had the opportunity to buy and read the book, but not taken it up. That suggests it has a limited market, which has already been served.

. . . .

Let’s assume the reason for low sales is the marketing of the book, and not the quality of the book. In the event this is true, it may be that the wider reach of a traditional publisher would result in good enough sales to make republishing the book worthwhile. But then again it may not, and why should they risk it?

Traditionally published authors still need to do a lot of the marketing of their books, they can’t sit back and rely on the publisher to do it all. If an author is unable to achieve sales with their own marketing efforts, the problem might well be that the book is not good enough to attract an audience, and in which case a traditional publisher who takes it on will merely be throwing good money after bad.

BUT 50 SHADES OF GREY WAS SELF-PUBLISHED AND THEN REPUBLISHED, AND IT WASN’T GOOD!
Some books are outliers, and their success becomes a talking point because it’s unusual, not because it’s usual. That means they’re not a great basis for comparison. Don’t pin your hopes on replicating one of these rarities.

In fact, there was a clear case for Vintage Books to republish that previously self-published work. They saw the potential for sales to many more readers, and so were able to take the books from a minor hit, which relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth recommendations, to a worldwide phenomenon.

Link to the rest at Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant

Politics and the English Language

PG usually places his comments after whatever he excerpts, but he’s making an exception in this case.

Politics and the English Language, an essay written by George Orwell, was first published in 1946, largely in response to what he saw happening both before World War II and during a post-war period in which Russian-backed Communism appeared to be gaining power and influence and a rapid pace. After all, the end of the war left Central and Eastern Europe under Russian control, so from the viewpoint of someone wishing to build an empire, the peace deal was a big gain for the Soviet Union.

One of the common practices of Communist governments and their supporters during this period was to manipulate language in a manner which was, unfortunately, quite effective in influencing large numbers of people.

Here’s a quote that encapsulates much of Orwell’s assessment:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Animal Farm was published shortly after the war ended. 1984 was published in 1949.

To be clear, Orwell doesn’t limit his cautions to Russians or Communists. He points out all sorts of different groups and individuals who distort language for political purposes in order to gain and keep power over others.

In the TPV post immediately before this one chronologically, the CEO of The American Booksellers Association described the shipment of a book to a large numbers of bookstores as a “serious, violent incident.”

Quite an accomplishment for a small stack of dried pulp from a dead tree.

Since PG has dozens of such dangerously violent objects just outside his office door, he will have to tread very carefully the next time he goes to refill his glass with Diet Coke.

From The Orwell Foundation:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression).

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia).

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York).

4. All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic Fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet.

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as ‘standard English’. When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!

Letter in Tribune.

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes ontake up the cudgels fortoe the lineride roughshod overstand shoulder to shoulder withplay into the hands ofno axe to grindgrist to the millfishing in troubled waterson the order of the dayAchilles’ heelswan songhotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperativemilitate againstprove unacceptablemake contact withbe subject togive rise togive grounds forhave the effect ofplay a leading part (roleinmake itself felttake effectexhibit a tendency toserve the purpose of, etc. etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as breakstopspoilmendkill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as proveserveformplayrender. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard tothe fact thatby dint ofin view ofin the interests ofon the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desiredcannot be left out of accounta development to be expected in the near futuredeserving of serious considerationbrought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Link to the rest at The Orwell Foundation

Should MFA Programs Teach the Business of Writing?

From Jane Friedman:

Anyone who knows me even a little can guess my answer to this question. I even wrote a book, The Business of Being a Writer, that’s meant to be used in university writing programs to help students understand the publishing industry and what it means to earn a living from writing. My perspective is informed by my work in the publishing industry, as well as being someone who has a degree in writing. A few background details:

  • I earned a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English. My undergrad education led to some school loans; my graduate degree was funded entirely through an assistantship.
  • I was employed at a mid-size publisher while I earned my master’s. I really had no choice—I needed the money. I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I couldn’t afford to take time off work or enroll in a low-residency program. Neither was I eager to step away from my publishing career, which was teaching me far more about writing than I ever learned in school.
  • I was an AWP member for many years and attended AWP’s annual conference first in 1998, then every year between 2004 and 2018. Often I was a panelist or speaker. (More on this later.)
  • I’m a regular speaker at MFA programs around the country, both in person and virtually, and moreover I hear the concerns of early-career writers daily via email and social media.
  • Several years ago, I was hired by Southern New Hampshire University to help develop the curriculum for their online MFA program, which includes a strong professional development and publishing education component. Their goal: to graduate writers who learn the fundamentals of craft while also understanding what it takes to publish professionally and successfully.

Despite the books I’ve written, the keynotes I’ve delivered, and the courses I’ve taught, I’ve never laid out, in a public forum like this, why I think it’s problematic when MFA programs or professors argue that the business of writing lies outside their purview. Why? Well, the type of person often attracted to the MFA likely believes the same and I don’t see my role as persuading the unconvinced or barging in where I’m unwanted. Rather, I am here if people see the need, as I do, for writers to understand the business they’re entering.

However, I think times are changing, for many reasons which I won’t delve into here, but part of it has to do with the gig economy and/or creator economy and the greater variety of writerly business models we now have than we did twenty years ago. More writers are ending up in undergraduate and graduate writing programs who need and want this information. I also believe writers should leave degree-granting programs prepared for the pragmatic and professional issues they will face as a writer. They’re often working alone, with limited or bad business guidance, confused about what’s “normal.” The anxiety and confusion is apparent at every AWP conference I attend. 

Writers should focus on craft first, business later.

It can appear boorish or second rate to suggest that business could or would ever be as important as art, craft, or technique. Because art is everything, right? Without quality work, there is no business—right?

(Let’s put aside the fact “quality” is subjective and MFA programs tend to be concerned with the kind of quality that’s of less interest to publishers than you might think.)

This “craft first” argument has a big assumption behind it: that art and business are antithetical to each other or can’t be in conversation. This belief is so ingrained in the literary writing community that few even question it.

Just look at the stories we tell about great writers, which all generally sound the same: we focus on the development and discovery of their literary genius. Business conditions rarely enter into it, much less business acumen. George Eliot is celebrated as a great moral novelist, but she also left her loyal publisher for another house that offered her a bigger advance. The bestselling work of Mark Twain—a novel that funded his career—was sold door-to-door in a very low fashion instead of properly, in a bookstore. (Today’s equivalent might be selling your ebook through Amazon rather than the print edition through your local independent bookshop.)

Why don’t we share these business stories? Because it is typically taboo to produce for the market or to be too good at business, lest you get pilloried by your peers and accused of selling out. Amy Lowell met this fate: she was criticized by T.S. Eliot for being a “demon saleswoman” of poetry. Even one of the earliest successful authors, Erasmus, was pitied by his peers for taking money from his publisher. (No self-respecting author at the time took money for their work; you were supposed to be above that.)

What a bind: writers get shamed if they’re not successful but also get shamed if they are too successful or overly concerned with success. How to Reform Capitalism wisely notes, “There remain strict social taboos hemming in the idea of what a ‘real’ artist could be allowed to get up to. They can be as experimental and surprising as they like—unless they want to run a food shop or an airline or an energy corporation, at which point they cross a decisive boundary, fall from grace, lose their special status as artists and become the supposed polar opposites: mere business people.”

The prevalent belief, at least in the literary community, is that “real writers” don’t worry themselves with commercial success or with how the sausage gets made. That’s someone else’s job, that’s for the agent or publisher to worry about. In fact, if one is good at art, then good business will follow or take care of itself.(won’t it?). Quality will make it or cream will rise to the top (right?).

. . . .

Business and art are often portrayed as antithetical because we think of business in terms of cartoon caricatures. But business is just as a complex and creative as any “pure” art form. Just ask a book publisher.

. . . .

This brings us to the next argument often trotted out by MFA programs: that it’s a time and place to focus on one’s writing and not be distracted by the outside world/real world or commercial concerns.

. . . .

It’s true that writers can potentially get distracted by submissions protocol and agent etiquette and all the secret handshake stuff they think exists, but that’s another reason the business needs to be taught. There is no secret handshake and a lot of what the business of writing is—well, frankly, it’s boring. The more quickly that writers can start seeing agents and editors not as mystical beings who anoint them and make their careers, but as average and flawed business people, the better.

Also, we’re not talking about MFA programs switching over to half-craft, half-business curriculum. (Or I’m certainly not.) The basics could be covered in a single required course. There might be a series of optional business-related courses for those who are interested.

I don’t think there is a downside to teaching business if we assume (and we must) that MFA students can be treated as mature adults. Safeguarding them from business talk is infantilizing them and making them vulnerable to bad actors and bad deals if they don’t know what standard business practices are.

And might I suggest that the only students who can afford to not consider the business side of the writing life are those who already have money or a safety net.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG notes that Jane has produced an epic discussion of the huge number of people who claim to teach students about writing, but don’t really deliver on their promises.

If graduate programs were required to abide by the same truth-in-advertising that applies to people who make and sell laundry detergent, there would be a vast change in how they’re presented and pitched.

In the United States, we have a seemingly endless number of federal and state agencies devoted to protecting consumers from being defrauded by unscrupulous businesses.

We have The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to name just two federal agencies. We have a large U.S. Department of Education, presided over by a cabinet secretary, with an Office of the Inspector General tasked with investigating violations of Federal laws, rules, and regulations pertaining to ED programs and funding, including complaints involving ED employees, recipients of ED funds, schools, school officials, other educational institutions, contractors, lending institutions, collections agencies, or public officials.

Absent a very large trust fund, it is almost certain that students pursuing an MFA will borrow substantial amounts of money in the form of government-insured student loans.

MFA and similar graduate programs have a very poor record of graduating students who are able to find jobs that allow them to repay their student loans (and PG guarantees one and all that MFA programs, particularly at “elite” institutions, pile on the student loans).

From Inside Higher Ed:

[T]he A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) Institute at Harvard was placed on the Department of Education’s naughty list for running afoul of the department’s gainful employment metrics for its “debt to earnings” ratio.

As compiled by Kevin Carey at The New York Times, those ratios are indeed grim. 

  • Two year tuition is $63,000
  • Average borrowing is “over $78,0000
  • Average graduates earn $36,000/year

As Carey says, “After accounting for basic living expenses, the average Harvard A.R.T. Institute graduate has to pay 44 percent of discretionary income just to make the minimum loan payment.”

Yikes.

The news is particularly embarrassing given that Harvard’s endowment is over $35 billion, and the American Repertory Theater is a nonprofit with a board that includes a Who’s Who of American music and theater music mixed with some really rich folks.

. . . .

Some desire a career in academia with the MFA as a terminal degree. Some are already planning for a PhD. Some want to make connections to help get a book deal. Some are just looking for time and space to pursue their passion with little care or concern about future publication or employment. Some just want the opportunity to work closely with a particular mentor or even live in a particular place.

Some feel like they’re not sure about their prospects as a writer, but they’re definitely writing-curious, and graduate school sure beats your soul-killing job.

. . . .

There are approximately 3,000 newly minted MFA holders each year. It is a good thing that many are not interested in academic positions because the Academic Jobs Wiki for creative writing this year listed a sum total of 102 tenure-track jobs across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, open, and mixed categories. Even presuming equal chances (which would be silly), the odds of landing a tenure track job are vanishingly small. The vast majority of those positions will go to people who are many years post-MFA with significant publications.

. . . .

At a place like Columbia, which boasts a faculty that includes Paul Beatty, Richard Ford, Leslie Jamison, Hedi Julavits, and Ben Marcus, among many other luminaries, the full-cost tuition for the two-year program is $120,000. Those students are also living in New York City.

Yikes.

When it comes to tuition and funding and student outcomes and what all that means, I think it’s worth programs asking some questions and seeing what kind of answers emerge:

Can we charge tuition?

Should we charge tuition?

Must we charge tuition?

In the case of, “Can we charge tuition?” the answer for the vast majority is “yes.” Even with so many programs, the demand for slots exceeds supply. According to AWP, the average number of applicants to full-residency programs is 56 while acceptances are 18.5.

But just because you can charge tuition doesn’t mean you should, at least if we’re looking at doing right by students.

The A.R.T. Institute at Harvard is a great example of where we may draw this distinction. The gateway to success that its students are trying to squeeze through is so narrow, I’m betting they could charge even more in tuition and still find plenty of qualified and willing applicants. When it comes to people pursuing a career on Broadway, the heart wants what it wants.

. . . .

The questions are more complicated for creative writing fine arts programs, however, as they are not strictly pre-professional. Using a heavy bureaucratic hand to police programs would likely do far more harm than good.

. . . .

What’s happening to those students post graduation? Here’s some of the questions I think programs could answer:

  • % of students in stable, full-time academic positions
  • % of students who have published with commercial, independent, or university press
  • % of students who work in writing or publishing-related field
  • Debt at graduation/Debt at 5 years/Debt at 10 years/Debt at 20 years/Average time to debt free

Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed

What would a clear warning statement concerning an MFA program in creative writing look like?

  1. Do you understand that this course of study will not prepare you to become a professional writer? Y/N
  2. Do you understand that none of your professors or instructors are or ever have supported themselves exclusively from their earnings as professional writers? Y/N
  3. Do you understand that, for the last three years, the average graduate of the MFA creative writing program has graduated with a total student loan debt of $200,000?Y/N
  4. Do you understand that the MFA student loan debt described is in addition to any student loan debts you incurred prior to applying to enter the program? Y/N
  5. Do you understand that the average salary of an MFA graduate from our school is $44,000 per year, provided that the graduate lives in New York City? Y/N
  6. Do you understand that the cost of living in Manhattan is over 250% of the average cost of living in the United States? And that the median price of a home is $1.2 million? Y/N

Just so visitors don’t think PG is piling onto MFA students, he will reveal that virtually every law student of his generation (and quite possibly, subsequent generations) had a professor/dean, etc., tell her/him that law school was going to teach him/her to “think like a lawyer.”

This lazy/hazy description made lawyers seem like some sort of leisure class who sat around and focused on thinking about various and sundry legal theories.

PG would have suggested, “Work like a lawyer” or “become a successful lawyer.”

Farming

Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy

PG expects Freudian practitioners could make something of the comparison between a tractor and male sexuality in all of its cruder forms.

Having actually driven tractors a very long time ago, PG can attest that driving a tractor all day in the summer as in the following video results in the driver being covered with sweat everywhere.

Sweating on a tractor with a bare chest means that lots and lots of dust and grit will have collected on the upper half of your body and worked its way down well past the beltline as well. If you used the tractor to pull a manure spreader, it’s even nastier. Boots and socks will be black, brown or red, depending on the color of the soil.

Since the sweat and grit have been collecting from early that morning, the smell will not be that of someone who spent 30 minutes on a treadmill before taking a shower. It’s going to be rank, which won’t bother the rest of the farm/ranch hands because they’ll smell just as bad.

More than a few farm and ranch houses have a shower room close to a side entrance. Walk in that door and you’re likely to encounter a mud room well-stocked with dirty boots that Momma will never allow in the house under any circumstance.

You take off your boots in the mud room and walk into the shower room. (No fancy fixtures, some of the showers are home-made from tin, just like the bin that holds cattle feed.)

You get completely naked, dropping all your clothes into a separate laundry bag. If Mamma has complained about having to do too many loads of laundry, you might hang your jeans on a hook to put on the next day.

Your cap, of course, will never be washed so the caps all have their own hooks, probably in the mud room. If you went to the feed store or the grain elevator with a clean hat, people would think you were from Chicago or Denver and immediately know you weren’t the right kind of person. You do get a new hat from the elevator and feed store 2-3 times per year, but you don’t stand out because everybody else in the place just got their own new hat. The tractor dealer is also good for a new hat once in awhile.

Back to the shower room. You wash everything, maybe twice, to get all the dirt off, then stand under cold water straight from the well for awhile to cool off.

When you get out and dry off, you notice your farmer tan. (white wherever the feed store t-shirt covers your body and really brown everywhere else except for your legs which are also fish-belly white – yes, you look really dumb when you to to the swimming pool in town) The farmer tan has gotten a few shades browner and you have some new scrapes and scabs on your hands and forearms from trying to fix whatever broke on the tractor or what you were pulling that day.

At this point, you realize that you have no clean clothes anywhere near the shower room. If you haven’t aggravated Momma too badly in the last couple of days and if you shout politely, she might bring you something to wear. If not, you wrap the towel around your waist, watch out for your younger brother who likes to sneak up and snatch it away, and go into your room.

During that entire day and through the night, no girl acts like she loves your tractor. And if you do happen to spend some time with a girl, she may complain that the callouses on your hands are rough and holding hands isn’t nearly as nice as when you’re in school and the callouses have retreated to wherever they go when you’re using your hands for holding pencils and typing.

Self-Publishing Review

PG received an email from a long-time visitor to TPV after he published a review of Tokyo Zango yesterday that appeared in Self-Publishing Review.

The visitor, A, was absolutely right.

The email questioned PG’s judgement in linking to a pay-for-play site that sells reviews, Amazon best-seller rankings, etc. Suffice to say, if Amazon finds out what’s going on, an author and his/her books will face some difficult experiences.

Self-Publishing Review claims that what it’s doing is permitted by Amazon’s T’s & C’s, but PG would like to hear that directly from Amazon.

PG pleads guilty to moving fast, breaking things and making an unconsidered post. He’s pulled the post down.

He always appreciates suggestions from visitors to TPV. You can email him directly with the Contact PG link in the menu bar at the top of the blog.

A Brief History of Summer Reading

From The New York Times:

When the days get longer and the mercury begins to rise, the books appear. Sunscreen-dappled paperbacks are tucked into beach bags and backpacks, sprinkled across picnic tables and dropped into the crooks of hammocks. Like their siblings the summer blockbuster and the song of the summer, they come: The season of summer reading has arrived.

Something about these dog days, more than any other time of year, invites readers to bury themselves in a book — and not just any book, but one that is lighter, more fun and more transporting than their usual fare. “Why summer reading? One doesn’t have winter reading, or fall reading (that I suppose would have too autumnal an echo) or even … spring reading,” the critic Clive Barnes wondered in The New York Times Book Review in 1968. “But summer reading — like the Statue of Liberty and motherhood — is always with us.”

This has been true since the earliest days of the Book Review, which published its first special issue featuring “books suitable for summer reading” on June 5, 1897, and has continued to put out an annual guide almost every year since. The recommendations in that first issue ran the gamut from memoirs, history and biography, to poetry and essays, to books on “Travel and Adventure” or “Gardens, Flowers and Birds.” There were offerings from “A Group of Female Novelists,” “Fiction by Famous Hands” and “Novels by Some Newer Men,” as well as “Noteworthy Long Stories” and “Books on Many Themes.” And, just for good measure, the editors also threw in the 50 best books of 1896.

What seems commonplace now was then a fairly new phenomenon. The idea of reading different kinds of literature at different times of year dates back centuries — for an early example, see William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” — but summer reading as we now know it emerged in the United States in the mid-1800s, buoyed by an emerging middle class, innovations in book publishing and a growing population of avid readers, many of them women. And this rise of summer reading coincided with the birth of another cultural tradition: the summer vacation.

“The novel appointed to be read on the piazzas of mountain and seaside hotels and on the shade side of farmhouses that take ‘city boarders’ is the direct product of the Summer habits of the American people,” the Book Review reported in 1900. “Half a century ago going to the country or changing the family abode during the torrid months was hardly thought of except by the rich and fashionable folk.”

Growing numbers of middle-class Americans flocked to resorts and grand hotels that popped up across the United States, connected to urban centers by an expanding network of train lines. “Any place the railroad went, chances were that there was going to be a summer resort at the end of whatever railroad line was there,” Donna Harrington-Lueker, a professor of English at Salve Regina University and the author of “Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading,” said in a phone interview.

But in the mid-1800s, things started to shift. What had been a privilege reserved for the wealthy became a possibility for a growing group of upper-middle-class and middle-class Americans. While they didn’t have palatial summer estates or the funds for a monthslong European tour, they could afford to take a brief respite from paid work. And they were eager to exercise this ability as a marker of their rising social standing.

Publishers saw an opportunity in this new wave of summer travel to bolster what had traditionally been a lackluster season for book sales, and to promote novels, which up until that point had largely been seen as an inferior literary subgenre and a dangerous corrupting influence, particularly for young women.

“Reading novels was something that was highly suspect,” said Dr. Harrington-Lueker. “But slowly, from the 1870s into the 1880s and ’90s, they manage to reposition it as a genteel, middle-class pleasure. Light novels, paperback novels, novels that were easily portable or could be read while lying under a tree: All of these became embraced by the tastemakers of the industry.”

The publishers’ goals were helped along by two other important developments, Wendy Griswold, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, explained in a phone interview. The invention in the mid-1800s of wood pulp paper, which was much cheaper to produce than paper made from linen rags, significantly reduced the price of books. And literacy rates among American women — who were more likely to spend long chunks of the summer at resorts than their husbands, who often had to commute back and forth from their city jobs — skyrocketed.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Problems with TPV Comments/Comment Editing

PG saw a comment by a regular TPV visitor saying he had been having problems editing his comments.

PG uses (and has used for a long time) a WordPress plugin called Simple Comment Editing. Perhaps he’s missed reports of prior problems editing comments, but this is the first one he can recall.

  1. If anyone is having problems leaving comments or editing their comments, please share those problems in the comments to this post or, if you’re having problems with posting comments, send an email to PG through the Contact PG link in the top menu of the home page of TPV.
  2. If anybody has ideas about what may be causing problems for some visitors leaving comments, PG would appreciate them sharing that information, either in the comments to this post or the Contact PG link at the top of the page.

As PG has said on multiple prior occasions, he thinks the comments are the best part of TPV and he wants to hear from any and everyone who wants to share thoughts here.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Feb. 16, 1943, by special order of Adolf Hitler, Mildred Harnack, a 40-year-old American academic, was executed at Plötzensee prison in Berlin. She had been accused of treason for her role in an underground German resistance group that had put up anti-Nazi posters, distributed seditious leaflets, and helped Jews and dissidents to escape the country.

The Nazis called the group the Red Orchestra. Radio transmitters were known by German intelligence as “pianos,” their operators as “pianists.” In 1941, when the Nazis discovered that German “pianists” were sending messages to Communist agents in Moscow, they dubbed the orchestra “Red.”

Until now, not much has been known about Harnack. “Her aim was self-erasure,” writes her biographer Rebecca Donner. But as Harnack’s great-great-niece, Ms. Donner, in “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days” , comes to the story with an advantage. When she was a teenager her grandmother gave her a pile of letters Harnack had written to her family between 1929 and her arrest in 1942. Ms. Donner, an accomplished researcher and reporter, was also able to gain access to documents discovered in an East German archive after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A few years later the Russians opened foreign-intelligence files to historians, and in 1998, under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, the CIA, FBI and U.S. Army also began to release top-secret records.

Harnack was born Mildred Fish in 1902 into an impoverished Milwaukee family. She attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a master’s degree in English literature. She met her future husband, Arvid Harnack, a German economist, when he wandered into the wrong lecture hall.

In 1929 the Harnacks moved to Germany, where Mildred earned a doctorate at Geissen and later taught American history and literature at the University of Berlin. Her classes were popular but eccentric; sometimes she would sing a folk ballad, “John Brown’s Body” or “Clementine,” and unpack its sad meaning. She lectured about American farmers, factory workers and immigrants, and the writers William Faulkner, John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser. She made no secret of her loathing of Hitler. In 1932 she held her first clandestine meeting in her apartment, bringing together political activists of all backgrounds and faiths.

A job as literary scout for a Berlin publishing company allowed Mildred to travel and to seek recruits abroad. Arvid passed as a Nazi in the Ministry of Economics, pretending allegiance to Hitler’s administration while supplying military secrets to the Soviets and the Allies. The Allies, however, weren’t convinced there was a serious German resistance. Ms. Donner reports that those who tried to warn them about Hitler’s threat to the world were ignored. An official in the British Foreign Office asked “Are the stories which reach us of dissident groups genuine?” Stalin angrily dismissed Arvid’s report that the Germans were about to invade Russia, scrawling it with obscenities. Five days later, on June 22, 1941, the Nazi invasion began.

Ms. Donner’s use of the present tense increases the feeling of inevitability as she unfolds her story to its horrific conclusion. This is a powerful book. A nonfiction narrative with the pace of a political thriller, it’s imbued with suspense and dread.

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

Worse Than a Dumpster Fire

From Smart Bitches/Trashy Books:

RWA.

When I quit the organization 47 years ago back in February 2020 (remember then? Sure was different!), it felt like a relief. I wouldn’t have to harbor that knot in my stomach or go get my mouth guard before writing about the latest technicolor f***** (PG prudery edit) from an organization that makes regular and complicated superficial changes but can’t control the 300 foot deep racism fire burning within its membership. Despite the efforts of people who I admire and people with whom I’d worked for over 15 years, I didn’t think it was fixable.

When the finalists for the newly-renamed award, the Vivian, were announced this year, one book in the Religious or Spiritual Elements category (which really means evangelical Christian, let’s be real) featured a hero who participated in the genocide against the Lakota at Wounded Knee. So all the changes and the renaming and the rewriting of the structure and the rubric and all the significant work that goes into hosting and managing an award yielded the same result as in prior years: racist, White supremacist narratives are lauded, whether the hero is a Nazi or a murderer of Indigenous Americans.

Then, this weekend, that same book won the Vivian. No, I’m not naming it. This small bit of ignominy is all I can provide here.

Same racism, different year. It’s not a surprise, but it is remarkable. And my thought was, good grief. If RWA wants to demonstrate its irrelevance to the rest of the romance reading community by rewarding White supremacist plots and characters, well, fine. If the organization insists on demonstrating its own irrelevance, okay. I shall oblige. I didn’t want to write about it because there isn’t a thing I can do about it except say, Yup, that is Indeed Terrible and also Not Surprising because the ground is still smoking from the racist mine fire below.

Then the president of RWA released a statement that romance with religious or spiritual elements:

requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity. According to its subgenre conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category. (emphasis mine)

I’ll be honest: I nearly broke something laughing. I thought it was a joke. There was no way that was real. It had to be satire. I don’t know what month it is any more; is it April 1?

But it was not a joke. The response was, effectively, “Look, sometimes there’s crimes against humanity in the romance and we have to be okay with that.” Bonus head tilt for “RWA staff did not receive any complaints from the thirteen judges who read and scored the entry.”

GOSH I WONDER WHY. How could it be that the judges didn’t see genocide as a problem? Also the ground is really hot; it smells a little toasty. Is something on fire?

Link to the rest at Smart Bitches/Trashy Books

While PG will let others do more commenting on the OP (or not), he is pretty much a free speech absolutist.

PG is also pure Whitebread.

That said, PG doesn’t believe his ancestry prevents him from understanding those who have a different ancestry. He further doesn’t believe that his ancestry should preclude him from writing about those with ancestries different than his.

PG doesn’t have any problem with someone creating a fictional character in a work of fiction in 2021 that fictionally participated in a horrible event that took place in distant history. He doesn’t have any problem with someone buying such a book. He doesn’t care whether the author of such a work of fiction is Lakota or Irish or Chinese. He doesn’t believe than anyone reading such a book will decide that treating Native Americans badly in 2021 is perfectly fine.

As background, PG’s best friend in elementary school was Japanese. Only much later did PG learn that his best friend’s parents had almost certainly been interned as potentially dangerous aliens during World War II. That knowledge didn’t interfere with PG’s fond memories of his best friend and his hope that their paths would cross at some time so he could enjoy that friend again.

As further background, PG attended high school with several Native Americans with whom he associated and interacted every day school was in session. Within a ten-minute drive from his small-town high school, there was a battlefield where the ancestors of PG’s Native American friends had thoroughly outwitted and slaughtered a bunch of Whitebread soldiers in the 1800’s.

PG believes in knowing history, but not being trapped or limited by it. He also believes that putting difficult experiences behind us is a pretty good rule of life.

(PG is not suggesting that those who have personally experienced severe trauma should be expected to pretend nothing bad ever happened to them. He is suggesting that being emotionally sensitive or triggered about something that happened to one’s great, great grandmother is an indication that such a person might enjoy a better life with some good counseling.)

PG didn’t intern his Japanese friend’s parents. He likes to believe he would never have done such a thing, but won’t be a virtue poser.

None of PG’s Native American friends ever did anything to hurt PG so he didn’t blame them for anything their ancestors did to other Whitebreads just like PG.

PG believes that inherited grievances are a bad idea under any circumstance he can imagine.

He will point to the problems that have plagued the nations and ethnic groups of Central and Eastern Europe for centuries and resulted in the killing of unknown numbers of people as only one example of why inherited grievances are a bad idea.