Artists use frauds

Artists use frauds to make human beings seem more wonderful than they really are. Dancers show us human beings who move much more gracefully than human beings really move. Films and books and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than people really talk, make paltry human enterprises seem important. Singers and musicians show us human beings making sounds far more lovely than human beings really make. Architects give us temples in which something marvelous is obviously going on. Actually, practically nothing is going on

Kurt Vonnegut

Film Adaptations Of Books Earn 53% More At The Worldwide Box Office

From Forbes (2018):

Film adaptations of books gross 44% more at the U.K. box office and a full 53% more worldwide than films from original screenplays, according to research commissioned by the Publishers Association and produced by Frontier Economics. 

The report also found that 43% of the top 20 highest-grossing films in the U.K. from 2007 to 2016 were book-based and another 9% were based on comic books. Data for the report was compiled from a variety of sources, publishing industry magazine The Bookseller notes, incorporating case studies and publically available information alongside contributions from the BBC, UK Theatre and Nielsen BookScan.

“In short, published material is the basis of 52% of top U.K. films in the last 10 years, and accounts for an even higher share of revenue from these leading performers, at 61% of U.K. box office gross and 65% of worldwide gross,” says the report, adding later that “Across any of the common measures of viewership, book adaptations on average outperform shows based on original scripts or on comic books and other sources.”

Link to the rest at Forbes

Saving Classics From Identity Politics

From The Atlantic:

Early in Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Roosevelt Montas describes an intellectual origin story that I found strikingly familiar. Montas, a fatherless teenager who had recently immigrated to the Bronx from the sticks of the Dominican Republic and was still learning to read in English, found himself on a winter evening faced with a pile of discarded books, some ornately decorated with gold-edged pages, waiting for the garbage collectors. “I wanted to take them all, but there were too many, and we had no bookshelves,” he writes. “In the end, I grabbed only two hardbacks. One of them was a volume of Plato’s dialogues.” That fortuitous selection—and his dogged efforts to learn what was between those covers—would fundamentally change him.

Half a century earlier, in a provincial and segregated Texas community, my own fatherless Black father had a chance encounter with the very same text. And as it freed Montas, it liberated him. It allowed him to build his sense of himself as a reader and thinker, and to forge a connection to a tradition that could not be severed by the accident of his skin or the deprivations his immediate ancestors had suffered.

I suppose, then, that I was primed to admire Montas’s earnest defense of the humanities, which is also a personal testament to the power of a liberal education. And I was primed, as well, by my own experiences and observations to agree with his argument that minority and underprivileged students would have at least as much to gain as their more advantaged peers from entry into the larger intellectual culture that has molded the Western societies we must navigate.

“Every year, I witness Socrates bringing students—my high school students as well as my Columbia students—to serious contemplation of the ultimately existential issues his philosophy demands we grapple with,” Montas writes. “My students from low-income households do not take this sort of thinking to be the exclusive privilege of a social elite. In fact they find in it a vision of dignity and excellence that is not constrained by material limitations.”

This position may have once seemed obvious (think of how W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass stressed the importance of universal, humanistic education), but today it is radical and contested. In the all-consuming culture wars, Western customs and habits of thought, which are ever more conflated with oppressive “whiteness,” have been pitted against oversimplified understandings of diversity and group identity. The latter are ascendant. But as Montas’s book and life make clear, ideas and identity needn’t ever be a question of either/or.

Identities, resonant as they may feel, are almost always too narrowly drawn in the contemporary pedagogical discourse, particularly when even those with the best of intentions take the interests of Black and brown and otherwise marginalized students into account.

“Representation of the cultural backgrounds of a diverse student body as an organizing principle in general education necessarily leads to incoherence, essentialism, and tokenism,” Montas argues. “The criterion of democratic representation—appropriate for politics—is not appropriate for selecting common curricula; to adopt it as such is to abandon the very idea of education and to turn students into interest groups, each lobbying for their own special curricular accommodations.” Yet in this era of seemingly limitless racial reckoning, elite academic institutions have made a devil’s bargain with group identity, in many cases at the expense of the elevating notion that some ideas have withstood the test of time and shaped the contemporary world for a reason. Many academics have stopped arguing that certain ideas are worth understanding no matter the standpoint from which any one individual might approach them.

Last year, in a much-discussed article in The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Poser chronicled Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s fervent mission to “save classics from whiteness.” Padilla’s origin story is quite like Montas’s: A child prodigy also from the Dominican Republic, he drew attention and admiration in the New York City homeless shelter he inhabited with his family. There, he fell in love with a textbook titled How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome. He excelled in every elite space in which his gifts and drive landed him. Each institution he encountered—from Manhattan’s Collegiate School, to Princeton, to Oxford, to Stanford, to Columbia and then back to Princeton—enacted the principles of a liberal education and catapulted him upward.

He distinguished himself early in his career as an authority on the Roman senatorial classes and published original research into the interior and religious lives of the empire’s enslaved population. Nonetheless, even as his star rose, he “began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition,” Poser wrote in the Times article. “Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and ‘Western civilization’ had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped.”

Here’s Poser describing the revolution in Padilla’s thinking and his intense ambition to excavate his authentic self from the scaffolding of his education, which led him far away from Montas’s universalist worldview.

Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He … now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

Padilla slaps the sins of slavery, racism, colonialism, fascism, and the production of whiteness on his discipline and told Poser that he “suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics.” This is extreme, but Padilla is not alone in his refusal to separate ideas from the flawed and compromised men and women through whom they have been transmitted. Even rudimentary educational pursuits such as basic literacy and numeracy have in recent years—and especially since the George Floyd protests of the summer of 2020—been combed over in search of latent and structural anti-Black and -brown biases. A vocal and growing number of people in the knowledge economy now purport to believe, some genuinely and some no doubt expediently, that there is no such thing as an idea devoid of the historical power imbalances inscribed in contemporary identity designations.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

‘The collapse of humanity is deathly funny’: Gary Shteyngart on writing comedy in difficult times

From The Guardian:

do not write historical fiction. But I envy those who do. I can picture them sitting in the lamp-lit halls of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, thumbing through fraying, early 20th‑century telephone directories or spinning the roulette of the microfiche machine, or meeting at a nearby coffee dispensary with fellow history-minded wordsmiths in the wee hours of the day, like hunters getting ready to put a bullet through the heart of a wildebeest. The best are able to address the current moment through deft metaphysical journeys between the present and the past, to illuminate our wayward realities by reminding us that it has ever been so, that the past is not even the past, or whatever Faulkner said.

Personally, I have trouble building a literary time machine. A decade ago, when I wrote a memoir set primarily in the 1980s, all I could remember of that era was Michael J Fox running around in a varsity jacket. The rest of my memories were just volumes of mist that sometimes trickled out of my minor brain holes, tantalising but highly suspect emissions that bore news of events which may or may not have been. When one’s teenage years are a distant Greek island, imagine trying to write a novel about the romantic entanglements of the Italian futurists or the political cataclysms of Meiji-era Japan, or anything at all about the ancient Egyptians.

As a child of two failing superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, I have always found myself in a maximal historical position. The headlines of the newspapers, whether Pravda or the New York Times, were always screaming about events on a global scale. There was no “Local Drive-In Theater to Feature Annual Jaws Marathon” or “Piggly Wiggly 5k Marathon Nets Hearts and Dollars for Muscular Dystrophy Research”. It was all “The Struggle Continues, Angola Will Win”, or our Marines lying dead in the rubble of Beirut. For as long as I’ve been alive, I have been, like the character of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money, addicted to the present. And writing about the perfidy, the hubris, the insanity of these two large, imploding imperial suns, the US and USSR, in something like real time has been my mandate from the start. My first novel, written as a five-year-old and paid for in pieces of glossy Soviet cheese by my literature-obsessed grandmother, concerned Lenin meeting a magical socialist goose and conquering Finland. The rest of my work has pretty much followed suit.

When the pandemic first hit, I had been writing a humour-forward dystopian novel in which New York University had taken over most of Manhattan, building walls and checkpoints round the island, and deputising its own military force, the Violet Helmets (violet is one of the school’s colours), to keep out the non-matriculated. Come March 2020, reality rushed over the draft of my funny dystopia in waves. Once people started dying and our president continued lying, I realised the smallness of my attempted novel, the way the academic satire seemed much too easy and glib. I had undershot my historical mandate and had to make amends immediately. I trashed 240 pages of NYU conquering Manhattan and began to write a tight Chekhovian take on the disaster at hand, a novel with the simple title Our Country Friends.

The importance of the moment presented itself right away. My first novel looked at the world through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the immigrants who had washed ashore on the other side of the Atlantic; my second through the prism of oil politics and American foreign policy. My third examined the advent of tech as the ultimate arbiter of American society (and the death of its democracy); my fourth the way America had become fully financialised by a class of useless and clueless meritocrats. I had always hovered around the present moment, a few years behind it or, in the case of my third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, slightly ahead of it. That book was recently mentioned in the pages of this newspaper in an article about how banks such as Lloyds and NatWest have demanded the firing of faculty staff at London’s Goldsmiths art college – in Super Sad, the school has been rebranded as HSBC-Goldsmiths and offers double qualifications in finance and art.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

How to Reach Out to Someone Beyond “How Are You?”

Apropos for the Covid years.

From the Grammarly Blog:

With so many uncertainties stemming from the current pandemic, you might be looking for more human connection and comfort from friends and family. And while it’s good to check in with loved ones more regularly, simply asking how they are doing might not be enough to show true empathy.

There are alternative ways to inquire about how someone is doing that can be more helpful and supportive—especially during a challenging time. The most important thing is to ask a genuine question that invites a genuine answer.

If there’s someone in your life that really needs your support and compassion, here are 10 ways to ask how someone is doing that are empathetic and open-ended.

1. How can I support you? 

If your friend or family member is dealing with something particularly stressful, ask them how you can help. Sometimes, it can be comforting just to know that you are ready to support them. Even if they don’t actually allow you to do anything special for them, like cooking them dinner or babysitting their new puppy, it’s good to express that you are there for moral support and are willing to help if need be.

2. What’s been on your mind lately?

Allowing your colleague to vent about whatever has been on their mind will likely lead to a deeper, more honest conversation. They’ll feel like you really care about their inner thoughts and feelings. By asking such a direct question, you’re letting them know that the floor is theirs and you are ready to listen to anything that’s been bothering them.

Link to the rest at the Grammarly Blog

Politics

PG has received a couple of private messages that are concerned that he has steered TPV into overly-political areas that have generated more heated disagreements than are usually the case at this location.

When PG reviewed the last few weeks of posts, he decided he agreed with with those who shared their concerns with him.

Henceforth, PG will endeavor to avoid posts containing politics of the elected-officials and government bureaucrats genre and stay closer to the author/book world. He does not, however, intend to bridle his scorn at idiots and predators in the publishing business, however.

Chapter House Is Turning A New Page For Indie Book Publishing

From Forbes:

The merger of indie presses Black Ocean and Not a Cult into a new publishing group offers new path for competitive small-press publishing in the digital era.

As debates about the metaverse rage on, a new development in publishing is proving that digital transformation is core to the future of one of the most legacy media formats in existence: books.

Today, two prominent indie presses — Black Ocean and Not a Cult — officially announced a merger, forming the Chapter House Publishing Group.

The move is intended to be greater than the sum of its parts: in addition to the two aforementioned presses, Chapter House will also stand up a raft of additional imprints: Psychonaut Press for speculative fiction and non-fiction (with editor-at-large Sheree Renée Thomas); Tetra House for self-publishing services and strategy; Kin Garden for children’s books and books for parents; Sauce Press for cookbooks and other food-related books, and an as of yet unnamed imprint for esoteric arts & ideas (with discussions of bringing on writer, curator, and host of The Witch Wave podcast, Pam Grossman, as editor).

. . . .

With this merger, Chapter House becomes one of the few U.S. indie publishing groups with a presence on both coasts, and has earned a new deal with prominent indie book distributor Consortium.

Not a Cult Founder Daniel Lisi and Black Ocean Founder Janaka Stucky see this new chapter as an assertion that independent publishing is more vibrant than ever — in contradistinction to the increasing homogeneity they perceive resulting from “Big Five” major book publishing (likely soon to be Big Four).

“As systems become more homogenous, it is necessary to diversify not only backgrounds but also a diversity of thought that isn’t sponsored by corporations beholden to their shareholders or investors,” Lisi said in an interview with the author. “You don’t want to read books 100% from one place. You want to have many sources, many voices, a chorus of information to explore.”

. . . .

Contrary to what some might expect, book sales have actually increased in the 2020s — seeing a rise of 8.2% in 2020 and an 18.5% increase in the first half of 2021 (compared to the first half of 2020). But like any medium, when book publishing is determined by the choices of a select few, authors and readers suffer.

Chapter House is combining the new possibilities of digital publishing with an emphasis on quality to become a publisher that makes the best of new and established practices. Major book publishing emphasizes volume; the more books a press prints at once, the cheaper the price per book. But this means that publishers are often implicitly seeking reliable hits to justify large print runs.

. . . .

Chapter House will continue to emphasize a small-team focus for each imprint, with accessible “unagented” submission periods continuing for both Black Ocean and Not a Cult (both of which received over 500 submissions during their open calls). In collaboration with art curator Alan Weiner, Chapter House opened up a new base of operations in Aero Salon in downtown Los Angeles and hired staff to handle fulfillment, with the goal of creating a sustainable, scalable, and transferable framework for indie presses to compete with big presses — while retaining an emphasis on boundary-pushing books — using streamlined digital tools and practices.

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG doesn’t know anything about either small publisher, but unless both are consistently profitable, he’s reminded of the old story of two drowning men who see one another as potential means of mutual buoyancy.

Book bans in schools are catching fire. Black authors say uproar isn’t about students.

From NBC News:

Nearly six months ago, celebrated Black children’s author and illustrator Jerry Craft received a message saying some of his books were being pulled from a school library in Texas.

“I was caught off guard,” Craft, the Newbery Medal-winning author of the 2019 graphic novel “New Kid,” told NBCBLK. “I felt bad for the kids because I know how much they love ‘New Kid’ and ‘Class Act.’ I know what my school visits do. … I felt bad if there was going to be some kids that would not be able to take advantage of that.”

The person who sent the message to Craft is from Katy, Texas, a town near Houston that has been under fire for attempts to limit the public’s access to books that teach about racism. In October, the Katy Independent School District made headlines for temporarily yanking two of Craft’s books, which tell the stories of Black boys who experience racism in schools, from school libraries and postponing his virtual visit. A now-deleted petition with more than 400 signatures showed parents calling for Craft’s visit to be canceled.

At the time, Craft tweeted that he was shocked by the accusations.

“Apparently I’m teaching critical race theory,” Craft wrote in response to a parent confused about the ban, citing the decades-old academic and legal framework that teaches about racism in America.

. . . .

While the Texas school district reinstated the book and rescheduled his visit, Craft is among dozens of Black authors whose works are being pulled from school libraries under the pretext that they’re teaching critical race theory. (Most of the books that are targeted for bans don’t teach critical race theory but are written by and about people of color.). The American Library Association said its Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 273 books were affected by censorship attempts in 2020, many with content that highlighted race, gender and sexuality. Since September alone, there have been at least 230 challenges, the organization said in an email.

Link to the rest at NBC News

For visitors from outside the United States, the teaching of what is usually called Critical Race studies/lessons/etc., has been causing a great deal of uproar during the last couple of years.

PG doesn’t know whether Critical Race Theory is a “decades-old academic and legal framework that teaches about racism in America” or not.

He does know the the latest uproar concerning Critical Race Theory began with an August, 2019, New York Times initiative titled “The 1619 Project,” with the following introduction:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. n the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The 1619 date is significant because late in 1620, a group of English pilgrims, dissenters from the Church of England, arrived in Massachusetts to establish a new settlement that would allow them to practice their religion without being persecuted.

In November, 1620, prior to leaving the ship which carried them to the United States, The Mayflower, this group of immigrants approved what has since been titled, “The Mayflower Compact.”

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great BritainFrance, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of EnglandFrance, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

Prior to departing, the Pilgrims signed an agreement with The Virginia Company, a British commercial venture chartered by James I, to be industrious in Virginia after they arrived.

The 41 male Pilgrims aboard the ship signed the Mayflower Compact. They concluded that they hadn’t landed in the British Colony of Virginia, their intended destination (established by representatives of The Virginia Company as part of a commercial enterprise in 1607). Instead they had landed in present-day Massachusetts, about 600 miles North of Virginia and well outside of any jurisdiction or sphere of influence of The Virginia Company. PG doesn’t know exactly when anyone in Virginia learned about the Pilgrims, but it was certainly well after they and those who followed them to the Plymouth Colony were well-established and prospering.

The Mayflower Compact is significant because it established a framework for the majority of the male residents of The Plymouth Colony to create rules and laws by which all would be governed. Today, it is generally regarded as the first document setting forth a basis for a self-governing settlement anywhere in the English-speaking world and, perhaps in many other worlds as well.

[To} covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony;

More specifically, the male Pilgrims (including two indentured servants) agreed:

  • the colonists would remain loyal subjects to King James, despite their need for self-governance
  • the colonists would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices…” for the good of the colony, and abide by those laws
  • the colonists would create one society and work together to further it
  • the colonists would live in accordance with the Christian faith

The principles reflected in The Mayflower Company would be utilized and expanded upon elsewhere in North America and continue to be fundamental to federal and state governments in the United States. Principles embodied in the US Constitution has been copied and included in the constitutions of a number of democratic nations around the world.

While PG does not condone or excuse slavery in the United States, PG will point out that slaves were freed in the United States more than 150 years ago. The Southern States where slavery existed took more than 100 years to begin to recover economically from the Civil War. Rural poverty, black and white, is still a significantly larger problem in the states of the former Confederacy than it is elsewhere in the US.

PG suggests that the long-term impact of the 1620 document and the people who wrote it has been and is much greater in the US than the tragedy that began in 1619.

But PG acknowledges that others may disagree.

New Tech Can Distinguish Brush Strokes of Different Artists

From Smithsonian Magazine:

A new artificial intelligence (A.I.) tool may be able to foil fraud and help art historians determine the original creator behind particular paintings. The system analyzes tiny sections of paintings, some as small as half a millimeter, for telltale differences in brushwork, reports Benjamin Sutton for the Art Newspaper.

While previous projects used a form of machine learning to identify artists based on the analysis of high-resolution images of the paintings, the new system uses topographical scans of the canvasses.

. . . .

“We found that even at the brush bristle level, there was a fair level of success in sorting the attribution,” Kenneth Singer, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, tells the Art Newspaper. “Frankly we don’t really understand that, it’s kind of mind boggling actually when you think about it, how the paint coming off a single bristle is indicative of what we’re calling the artist’s unintentional style.”

. . . .

To test the A.I. system, four art students at the Cleveland Institute of Art each painted yellow flowers using identical brushes, paints and canvases, reports Steven Litt reports for Cleveland.com. The researchers scanned the surfaces of the paintings using a tool known as a chromatic confocal optical profilometer, creating precise 3-D surface height data showing how the paint lay on the canvases, and digitally broke them into grids. The machine-learning system analyzed randomized samples and was able to sort them by the artist with a high level of accuracy.

“We broke the painting down into virtual patches ranging from one-half millimeter to a few centimeters square, so we no longer even have information about the subject matter,” says Michael Hinczewski, another Case Western physicist and coauthor of the study, in a statement. “But we can accurately predict who painted it from an individual patch. That’s amazing.”

. . . .

In additional research not yet published, the team used the A.I. to try to distinguish original portions of the 17th-century painting Portrait of Juan Pardo de Tavera (1609) by El Greco from sections that were damaged during the Spanish Civil War and restored later.

“This is a painting we have an answer key to, because we have photos of the destroyed painting and the current painting, so we’re able to make a map of the areas that were conserved, and [the A.I.] was able to identify those areas,” Singer tells the Art Newspaper. “But there was another section of the painting that it identified as conserved that wasn’t obvious, so we’re going to have a painting conservator in Spain look at the painting to see what’s going on.”

The team’s next project is analyzing two paintings of the crucifixion of Christ by El Greco in the hopes of distinguishing portions painted by himself, by his son Jorge Manuel; by other members of his workshop; and by later conservators.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

PG has been reading a bit about Artificial Intelligence and will have more on implications for authors tomorrow.

Embracing the Mystery: Deep POV

From Writers in the Storm:

Q: What’s Deep POV?

A: I can’t tell you, but I know it when I see it.

This worked well enough—until it didn’t.  So I got busy trying to get to the bottom of it.  Nail it down. Carve it in stone. Cement it immovably amid the legendary constancy of the English language.

I’ll wait till you stop laughing.

You can sort of follow the progress of this endeavor by the history of the titles I tried out:

  • A brief definition of Deep POV
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code. Maybe
  • Deep POV: Legend, or Myth? [wait, those are the same thing…]
  • Deep POV: Is it really a thing?

as well as some of the discarded verbiage I left behind along the way (see strikeouts).

Deep POV is all about eliminating reducing managing distance between the reader and the story, and immersing the reader in the story. I knew intuitively how to use Deep POV (see “I know it when I see it,” above), but when one of my editing clients needed me to explain it, I realized I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of it to define it universally, without resorting to customized examples every time. I wanted something that would travel well from one manuscript to another. Something I wouldn’t have to re-create for each author or student I worked with.

What I found—and didn’t find

The struggle is real: nearly every website I visited had a slightly—or sometimes not so slightly—different definition, and Deep POV has yet to be covered by the likes of The Chicago Manual of Style or merriam-webster.com.

So you can see my dilemma. Someone had to do it. (Oh, the chutzpah.) (In my defense, I had significant prodding from a writer and publisher whose idea this column was in the first place.)

So, clothed in nothing but sheer, naked hubris, I tackled this slippery eel of a question: What exactly is Deep POV?

. . . .

I took what I was thinking and turned it into an equation. (And you thought that if you became a writer, you’d never need to use algebra again.) Here was my first hypothesis:

  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV = Deep POV
  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV – Deep POV = Deep POV – Deep POV
    (Stay with me; we’re just keeping both sides of the equation balanced.)
  • third-person limited POV = 0

Highly illogical. Thank you, Dr. Spock. My hypothesis was disproven.

So I tried this hypothesis instead:

  • third-person limited + inner dialogue = Deeper POV 

And the lights came on. I’d been crediting a literary device (internal dialogue) as the sole alchemy that magically turned one point of view into the gold of another, and mentally equating the two—internal dialogue and Deep POV—as essentially one thing. But it was adding the literary device of internal dialogue to an existing point of view that took the reader deeper into experiencing the story.

So, I had gotten this far in organizing my thoughts, most of which are obvious, but bear with me; I was fighting my way out of the deep underbrush here. I needed visuals.

  • Third-person limited* is a Point of View (POV).
  • Internal dialogue** is a literary device.
  • Using both in a story creates a deeper variant of third-person limited POV.

What I was actually looking at was the convergence of one point of view with a literary device that made it deeper, thicker, like cornstarch thickens broth and turns it into gravy.

So far, so good. BUT, for those of you holding your breath or yelling at your computer that I’m just wrong, wrong, WRONG, and I wouldn’t blame you at this juncture, here it is:

My hypothesis was much too limited. I needed a new hypothesis—and a fresh perspective.

. . . .

I had been looking at only a narrow segment of Deep POV, one that utilizes internal dialogue, taking readers inside your characters’ minds to live, as closely as possible, their experience. And it’s a powerful device, the rules of which are better left for another day.

But it’s not the only POV or literary device that can bring the reader closer, deeper into the story. Look at this short (and not exhaustive) list of things that can also do that:

  • First person can bring the reader into a story and add or remove distance, depending on what the story needs at any given point.
  • Present tense can establish an immediacy that brings the reader deeper into the character’s experience.
  • The narrator in third-person limited POV brings a level of closeness as the narrator paraphrases a character’s thoughts.
  • Visceral responses, subtext of varying kinds, body language can all enhance closeness for the reader.

All these things and more create an ambience, a mood, an attitude. I am no longer even sure that Deep POV is best described as a POV.

I am increasingly convinced that Deep POV is more a state of mind. Multiple devices can bring readers closer to what a character is thinking, feeling, experiencing, and thus bring the reader deeper into the story—at a level that you, the author, can manipulate with increasing skill as you use it. You can bring the reader only as far into the story as you want them to be, at any point in your story, as it serves your purpose.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

No, PG doesn’t understand Deep POV.

Contracts: Traditional Publishing

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

Here’s a weird thing about businesses: When a business is rolling in cash, the people who run it loosen their grip on the details. Instead of solving a problem, they throw money at it. Often they don’t recognize the problem for the danger that it might be, until it comes back to bite them, years down the road.

However, when the business notices that its revenues are down, and nothing it does seems to improve them, the business tightens whatever belt it can find. It also gets draconian about the details. Before, when the business was throwing thousands of dollars at a problem, the business didn’t really care about hundreds of dollars or tens of dollars or the pocket change.

When that business realizes its revenues are down, though—and maybe down for a bunch of months or even years—then that business watches every single dollar that flows in and out. In fact, if it’s a publicly traded company and/or if it has a board of directors and/or if it has shareholders to answer to, the business also finds a way to inflate its bottom line.

Inflating the bottom line attracts investors. It also keeps the stock price up (for any publicly traded company), and it makes the folks running this slowly sinking ship look like they’re doing Just Fine.

I’ve been thinking about that principle a lot this past semester. I’ve been taking an Entertainment Law class. I love it. I really do. I was exhausted at the end of the semester from that class, from finishing a (surprise) novel, from a bunch of things, and I still find myself looking forward to the second half of the EL class in the spring, so much so that I couldn’t quite believe it when one of my classmates said she didn’t think she’d take the second part of the class, even though it has units on movies, television, and streaming, things she, as a wannabe screenwriter, needs to understand.

For me, the first two weeks of the class were a gimme—copyright law, the bedrock foundation of entertainment law here in the U.S. (and abroad). I got that stuff. But the rest of it showed me just how haphazard my knowledge is.

In class, we read a lot of cases, and that, more than anything, showed my why my book contracts morphed and changed over the years, why it became so hard to suddenly negotiate points that seemed small to me, but seemed very, very important to the person on the other side of the table.

Usually, the changes came about because copyright law changed in a major way (twice in the United States during my active career; three times in my lifetime), but sometimes the contracts changed because some publisher lost a big dramatic lawsuit, and everyone wanted to prevent the same kind of loss from happening to them.

. . . .

Case in point was the sample publishing contract in the 12-year-old edition of the textbook. I have never, in my entire career, seen a contract like that one. Not a single one. And I have read maybe close to a thousand publishing contracts.

How have I read so many when I haven’t published that many books? Early on, I was in a group with young writers who shared contracts, even though we weren’t supposed to. That was a hell of an education in levels of contracts. Later, friends shared, particularly when they got high-end deals. And in the past thirty years or so, students have sent contracts, asking for help in understanding them. Or at least, students used to. Most of the people Dean and I teach now are indie.

The book contract in that textbook had a lot of clauses that were more favorable to the writer than I had ever seen. It also had some truly bizarre clauses that publishers seemed to think they wanted.

What caught my attention, though, was the advertising section of the contract. It went on for pages, with a suggested ad budget and an advertising plan as part of the contract.

You lawyers and the contract-savvy will understand this: If the advertising budget and the proposed plan are part of the contract, and the publisher reneges or somehow cannot pull off that advertising plan, then they are in breach of contract.

All I can think is that this sample contract dated from the 1970s or was very specific to one author that the book’s authors were familiar with. Because I’ve seen contracts with a stipulated advertising section. That section is as vague as possible. (The Publisher will use all best efforts to run a full-scale advertising campaign in accordance with best practices for the period when the Work appears…)

. . . .

Over the decades since the first edition of this textbook was published in the early 1980s, writers have lost a lot of their clout. Writers also stopped relying on knowledgeable people to help them negotiate their contracts and relied on literary agents instead.

With few exceptions, literary agents do not use the services of lawyers to help negotiate a contract. Some of the larger agencies do, especially if they’re affiliated with other branches of the entertainment industry, but most of the time a traditional book contract is being negotiated by a person without a law degree whose knowledge of contract law is more haphazard than mine is.

What this has done with traditional publishing contracts is make them exceptionally inequitable. The contracts favor the publishers and, in some cases, actively harm the writers.

I’ve been shouting about this for years now. The problem is that in the years since I last got a traditional publishing book contract, the destructive nature of the contracts has grown worse, not better. Major companies are trying to license as many rights as possible for the life of the copyright. These companies have a hand-waving termination clause in the contract—something like if the book can’t be found for sale somewhere then it’s out of print—which means nothing in these days of internet sales.

Even contracts that have a good termination clause negate that clause in a different section (usually in the warranties). And within the last two or three years, some traditional book publishers have gotten smart and added a clause like this:

This contract represents the entire Agreement between the Publisher and the Writer. If any part of this Agreement is deemed unlawful or unenforceable, the rest of the Agreement shall remain in effect.

Think about that for a moment. In the past, a bad clause or two would have caused a breach of contract. I’d like to say not anymore, at least with these clauses at the very end, but I don’t know. I suspect that clause has not been challenged in court.

. . . .

But traditional publishers are using contracts for things other than swallowing and holding other people’s IP. The larger companies, particularly the Big 5, are adding morality clauses.

I couldn’t find a good example of these clauses in the handful of contracts I have at my fingertips, but The New York Times a few years ago gave two good examples. The first is from Penguin Random House, which is poised to control even more of the traditional publishing industry.

At the time this article was written, four years ago, Randy Penguin’s clause read like this:

These clauses release a company from the obligation to publish a book if, in the words of Penguin Random House, “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.”

As of February, Randy Penguin did not require the author to repay all monies paid in that instance.

The 2017 article pointed out Condé Nast’s morality clause in its annual contract for regular magazine contributors, a clause which is infinitely worse than Randy Penguin’s was. The article says,

If, in the company’s “sole judgment,” the clause states, the writer “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” Condé Nast can terminate the agreement.

Um, what? What?  “Contempt”? “Complaints”? What do those things even mean? And does it matter, since those are determined only by Condé Nast, not by any objective (if there is one) source?

. . . .

Again, clauses like this are designed to chill behavior, not to punish it. Sure, it will give the publishing company an out if the writer goes from, say, being the doctor to an entire gymnastics team to being outed as a serial rapist, but the morality clause could just as easily be frivolously used to break a contract with a prickly author who the replacement for the acquiring editor does not like.

Or as PEN America said in its opposition to the morality clause:

While the necessity of such clauses may be understandable where an author with a signed book contract is convicted of a crime or publicly admits to immoral behavior, PEN America is concerned that some clauses pave the way for publishers to cancel publication on the basis of speech that is controversial, offensive, or provocative, but legally protected. If writers are on notice that a provocative comment, quote, or social media post that stokes uproar may prompt the cancellation of a book contract, they may constrain their expression for fear of harming their careers. Morality clauses thus risk chilling speech and narrowing discourse among writers who fear a loss of livelihood based on their publisher’s response.

The morals clause and the copyright license are big issues in current contracts. A smaller, telling issue shows yet again how traditional publishers are trying to control the behavior of the writers they bring on board.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG’s first rule of business relationships is:

Don’t do business with crooks.

This is PG’s shorthand vernacular for advice not to deal with people or organizations which are dishonest. Some publishers and some agents fall into this category.

PG regards some of the contract provisions described in the OP as substantial overreaching, an indication for him that whatever organization inserted them in its “standard” contract is, at a minimum, overreaching and not to be trusted.

Morals clauses or morality clauses originated, like a great many other one-sided contract provisions, in Hollywood contracts between movie studios and their major stars. Morals clauses first appeared there in response to a scandal involving silent screen star, Fatty Arbuckle.

Fatty was charged with the rape and killings of an actress in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in 1921. He was tried for these alleged crimes three times. The first two trials resulted in a hung jury and the last resulted in an acquittal of Arbuckle on all charges.

Despite the acquittal, the official motion picture censor banned all of Arbuckle’s films and Arbuckle’s career was over for a period of time. He never regained his former stature or compensation level.

Universal Studios placed the first morals clause in its contracts for talent in 1921:

The actor (actress) agrees to conduct himself (herself) with due regard to public conventions and morals and agrees that he (she) will not do or commit anything tending to degrade him (her) in society or bring him (her) into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the community or outrage public morals or decency, or tending to the prejudice of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company or the motion picture industry. In the event that the actor (actress) violates any term or provision of this paragraph, then the Universal Film Manufacturing Company has the right to cancel and annul this contract by giving five (5) days’ notice to the actor (actress) of its intention to do so.

Morals clauses are most commonly found in contracts for actors or other performers, including television personalities and newscasters. Stars of reality television shows are also likely to have these clauses. Morals clauses are also common in professional sports contracts between players and team owners.

One way that PG has used to help deal with unfair contract provisions is to ask the other party for a reciprocal provision in the agreement that obligates them in the same manner as PG’s client is obligated.

If PG’s client is obligated to pay money to the other party on a certain date and the other party has the right to terminate the contract upon the failure to pay that money on that date, PG might suggest a similar provision that allows his client to terminate the contract if the other party fails to complete its promised actions at the time(s) set forth in the agreement.

This doesn’t always work but, when it’s rational, it’s a great way to cause the other side to become more realistic in its contract language.

The same strategy has been used in response to morals clauses. If an organization wants an individual to sign a contract including a morals clause that allows the organization to terminate its agreement if the individual commits certain acts, including saying or writing something offensive, a reciprocal morals clause could be proposed for the officers, directors and major shareholders of the company asking for the morals clause.

If a performer’s or author’s contract with an organization will be terminated for saying or doing something offensive, the officer or director’s relationship with the organization will also be similarly terminated if the officer or director says or does the same sort of thing and the performer wishes to exercise this contractual power. Major shareholders could be be required to divest themselves of their ownership interests in the company or put them in a blind trust with a large bank as trustee.

If you would like to read more about morals clauses, PG located a 2016 law review article on the subject that seems to be free of paywalls. You can find it here.

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

Change is hardest

Change is hardest at the beginning, messiest in the middle and best at the end.

Robin S. Sharma

What Is a Book?

From Public Books:

nyone who remembers making the transition from typewriting to word processing has probably thrown away a fair number of floppy disks and jettisoned more than a few computers since then. Bad for the planet, yes. But it also poses particular challenges for the stewards and denizens of archives. We are still learning what it means to consult the “papers” of an important entity or individual when that becomes a metaphor for digital materials. A presidential library with its collection of tweets? A corporate archive with its residuum of labors in the so-called cloud?

Consider the “papers” of Toni Morrison at Princeton, which can be accessed on a dedicated terminal in the reading room. To do so is an occasion to ponder the traces that remain of the becoming of Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved, as well as the conditions of its creation. One finds an archive of documents scanned from paper, along with carefully curated versions of old word-processing files. Everything is there on the terminal, except the labels on the original floppy disks, which you’ll have to request from storage to examine. The becoming of Beloved survives in bits and bobs, not to say BLOBs (binary large objects). It reveals itself to inquiring minds only if they take exquisite care to parse the surviving of that becoming.

What, then, is a book? Examining the “papers” like those of Morrison at Princeton allows Matthew G. Kirschenbaum to offer bibliographical answers in Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage. The “bitstreams” of Kirschenbaum’s title refer to the data that preservation archivists extract from outdated storage media—your floppy disks and hard drives, for example—in the hopes of salvaging materials created with now-obsolete software and saved in now-obsolete file formats. Watery metaphors abound: Kirschenbaum sees bitstreams rippling through today’s publication workflow, the multiple steps and agencies by which an author’s digital files get turned into finished, saleable items. To the extent that these items now include so many one-click purchases and e-books for download, ours is indeed an age of “digital liquidity,” as Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon.

Like mirror-image twins separated at birth, Kirschenbaum and McGurl bring bibliographical and sociological methods to bear on contemporary American literature. In 2009, McGurl’s The Program Era completely re-envisioned postwar fiction in connection with the rise of university creative writing programs. Then Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes arrived in 2016 to like effect, re-envisioning literary history in connection with the advent not of curricular programming but of computer programming and the killer app that we have all learned to euphemize as “word processing.”

. . . .

Kirschenbaum’s book is an enhanced version of his 2016 A. S. W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. The lectures are named after an American book collector and philanthropist, who might have defined a book as the surprisingly intricate outcome of more and less coordinated human labors. Following this definition, the first folios of Shakespeare that Rosenbach purchased would be among the most complicated. Rosenbach had to account for the work of authors and compositors, pressmen and booksellers. Today, thoughKirschenbaum’s remit includes computers—how they work, as well as the oversized roles they have come to play in the culture and business of books.

Morrison’s “bitstreams” seem bewildering enough. But those of William H. Dickey and Kamau Brathwaite each present additional wrinkles for literary history. Toni Morrison had an assistant who did the word processing, but these poets went further, using first-generation Macintosh computers themselves. Dickey created an oeuvre of hypertext poems that went unpublished during his lifetime. Brathwaite, meanwhile, used desktop publishing to create what he called his signature Sycorax Video Style, a font-and-page design that he had trouble getting his publishers to even attempt reproducing in print.

. . . .

Not all readers will have the patience to follow the specific steps between Dickey’s long-ago Macintosh and today’s JavaScript versions at archive.org, but they are hardly immaterial. Likewise the steps by which books and e-books arrive in our hands today.

A book nowadays is likely to have left its author’s computer to become a bunch of digital assets in Adobe InDesign. These digital assets are then published to e-book formats and onto paper, Kirschenbaum explains, in a globe-spanning process that might involve a specialized logistics firm, designer, and distributor in the United States, plus a paper mill and printer somewhere in Asia.

A book contains multitudes, Kirschenbaum has it. And, so it seems, to multitudes a book returns: as readers take it up within an effulgent media landscape where it shares “deep ontological commitments and compatibilities with other media” and participates in “the same technologies and infrastructures and economy.” Books in this sense are becoming “bookish media,” part of a transmedia complex native to our era of platform capitalism.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is reminded of a statement from a semantics class that occurred centuries ago, “The word is not the thing.”

Books are whatever a group of people say they are. When little Suzie shows up with a bunch of free-form coloring that she has stapled together, she and her mother may both identify it as a book.

What constitutes a “book” has certainly changed over time. PG expects that all but the most muddle-headed individuals would recognize that an ebook is a book even though it can’t be perceived without the assistance of a smart phone, ereader, electronic tablet or some similar device that would be completely useless in perceiving a physical book.

PG can’t read either a printed book or an ebook without wearing his glasses these days. Is there something about requiring one or more intermediary devices to accurately perceive what has been written that determines what the author is attempting to communicate from being a real “book”?

The definition or meaning of a word is what a group of people agree it is at a given time and place.

Take “crimes” as an example. When PG was a sprout, there were no computer “crimes” and you couldn’t be arrested for surreptitiously hacking into someone’s computer. PG doesn’t even know if it was physically possible to access a computer from a meaningful anonymous distance or steal information except in the form of a voluminous printout.

The first computers were glorified calculators which could perform actions on numbers that were entered into them, but didn’t really contain any information worth stealing unless you were planning to load a room-full of giant metal cabinets on a fleet of trucks and leave nothing but an empty room behind. Stealing trade secrets would be the closest you could come to criminalizing then what a hacker does now.

Legislatures across a wide range of democratic nations around the world create new “crimes” all the time and the definition of a “crime” is of far more importance to most people than the definition of a “book”.

What is The Economist’s word of the year for 2021?

From The Economist:

If 2020 was the year of the covid-19 explosion, 2021 will go down as the one in which the world struggled to get back to normal. The words of the year—chosen by dictionary publishers, other linguistic outfits and sometimes this column—reflect the disconcerting mix of familiarity and strangeness.

Getting back to business meant, for some, returning to the dreariness of politics. Dictionary.com chose allyship as its word of the year, to describe the practice of people outside oppressed groups aiding and trying to understand those in them. Some have detected and decried woke-washing, the ruse of polishing a brand—usually a company’s—by talking allyship while doing the opposite. Woke-washing is a mutation of the older virtue-signalling. Signalling virtue is no bad thing, but the phrase has come to mean merely parading purity and doing little.

For others, “back to business” was more literal. The economy generated several contenders for the word of 2021. In the traditional economy, inflation was the talk of central bankers and commentators, and transitory became the buzzword associated with it—until America’s Federal Reserve abruptly stopped reassuring people that it would soon pass. People who had never thought much about supply chains began doing so as they were disrupted worldwide.

. . . .

But nontraditional finance produced more new words—or new uses for existing ones—than the boring old economy. DeFi, or decentralised finance, is the widest term for a group of phenomena including blockchainscryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens or nfts, a kind of title deed over a digital asset such as an artwork. (Collins, a dictionary publisher, chose nft as its word of the year.) When the parent company of Facebook changed its name to Meta, the metaverse, a parallel digital reality in which users play and work—and can buy and sell in cryptocurrencies—shot up in online searches.

. . . .

Those who don’t get it are right-clickers: failing to grasp the worth of things like nfts, they think they can right-click and save a digital image on their computer with the same value. Crypto-adepts revel in obscurity. Take one website’s welcome: “ $wagmi embodies the heart and soul of diamond handed apes. No plebs, no jeets, and no rugs—just moon, ser.”

But the year’s most significant words were once again covid-related. A pingdemic, unleashed by Britain’s track-and-trace app notifying countless people that they had to self-isolate, showed the frustrating shortcomings of technological fixes. Variant made its way into everyday parlance, as the world started learning the Greek alphabet. Delta rampaged in the middle of the year, and the highly contagious Omicron was on everyone’s lips as it ended—albeit with some confusion about how to pronounce it. While some English-speaking classicists put the stress on the second syllable, most people converged on the first syllable favoured by the media (which is closer to how modern Greeks say their 15th letter).

. . . .

But the most important word of the past year came right at the start. It is not a new word, but unquestionably 2021’s most resonant. Derived from the Latin vacca for cow, and named after an early example used to treat cowpox, vaccines finally bent the curve of the covid pandemic.

With frequent use comes change: vaccine was shortened to vax. That can be used as a verb, especially in participle form (vaxxed), and has spawned variations including double-vaxxed and anti-vax, and portmanteaus like vaxophobia or vaxication (for people’s first trip after getting their jabs). 

Link to the rest at The Economist

A bit of a surprise

Late yesterday, PG checked the stats on TPV, something he typically forgets to do.

He was pleasantly surprised to learn that in the 30 days ending yesterday, TPV had visitors from 109 countries.

To be clear, a great many countries in non-English-speaking nations had only one or two visitors, but it was interesting to see such a long list.

An economist

An economist is someone who has never met a real person but once had one described to him.

Source Unknown

A Christmas Perspective

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

“Snowd all night & snows yet rapidly. Great difficulty in getting wood. Offerd our prayers to God this Cherimass morning. The prospect is appalling but hope in God.”

—Patrick Breen, December 25, 1846

So wrote Donner Party survivor Patrick Breen as he and his family of nine holed up in a windowless cabin on the shores of Truckee Lake on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the harrowing winter of 1846-47.  The Breens had left Independence, Missouri the previous May bound for a new life in California, wagons filled with supplies and hearts filled with hope. A deadly combination of weather extremes, uncharted geography, and poor decisions resulted in 81 men, women, and children becoming trapped for the winter just 60 miles shy of their destination near present-day Sacramento. Half of them would not survive.

In my second novel, Answer Creek, fictional character Ada Weeks joins the Breen family on the journey. In Chapter 24, I conjure the scene inside the cabin on Christmas Day. 

Ada’s breath forms icy clouds with each exhale. She rearranges her cloak so her shoulders relax, and then shoves the garment down to cover her near-frozen feet. She wiggles her toes to make sure they are still attached. Her toenails need clipping, and she pulls on the corner of a nail to shorten it. She yanks so hard she draws blood, which she stanches with her sock. Ada hasn’t washed her socks in so long she’s grown immune to the stench. She makes a fist, first with her right hand, counts to ten, and releases. Then she repeats with her left. Her stomach rumbles with hunger. She holds her midsection to ease the pain. Her head aches. As Ada rubs her head, a clump of hair comes out in her hand.

The scene screams desolation and despair. And on Christmas.

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

Our Favorite Essays And Stories About the Holidays

From Electric Lit:

The holiday season—which I (arbitrarily!) define as beginning in mid-November and continuing through the first of the year—is a minefield. If you’re lucky, the bombs are carbohydrate- or confetti-filled. If you’re not, you’re facing roughly two months of celebratory gatherings and realizing that alcohol, while perhaps a helpful social lubricant, does not actually have the power to silence your mother’s unsolicited opinion about your ticking biological clock. However full or empty your cup of holiday cheer, these essays, stories, and lists are perfect for “the most wonderful time of the year.”

. . . .

Please Do Not Give Me Another Freaking Bookmark” by Carrie V. Mullins

As any voracious reader knows, the only thing you really want for Christmas is a book, which also happens to be the only thing your loved ones refuse to give you (in their defense, it’s not their fault, you’ve read everything). Unfortunately, this dilemma often results in the purchase of book-related garbage—and do you really need another bookmark? No, no you do not. If you’re worried about being on the receiving end of yet another pillow embroidered with a literary quote, I recommend sharing this list of alternative ideas with your friends and family this year. 

This Christmas Is Unlike Any Other, and Exactly the Same” by Tabitha Blankenbiller

The holiday season can often feel like a one-dimensional menagerie of glee, as enthusiasts fail to ask important questions like: just how many Christmas lights does this desiccated evergreen actually need? In her thoughtful essay, Blankenbiller discovers a book on Christmas in midcentury America that prompts her to unpack her own holiday traditions in the context of her own unusual cultural moment.

This collection I’m now surrounded with for the remainder of my quarantine holiday is the answer to a question I wouldn’t have dreamed to ask. How did you know it would get better? This sparkling, melancholy, fading world is its own reply. We didn’t. But we celebrated anyway. As you do. As people always have.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Gift of a Good Book Gush

From Writer Unboxed:

Tonight, many of us will celebrate Christmas Eve. I’m one of them. I’ll gather with my parents and brother and our spouses and mostly-grown children for dinner and maybe some games. My parents have downsized and we no longer have a table large enough for all of us to do the traditional hot oil fondue (why, yes, I grew up in the 70s). But it will be good to be together, especially after last year’s Zoom situation.

Even those of us who don’t do the Christmas thing can’t avoid it–advertisers make sure everyone knows that this is the month for giving and getting gifts.

In the U.S., after a month of being told gratitude makes us happy so we must be grateful for what we have, we have a month of being told gifts make us happy so we must buy the absolutely right hot gifts for all the people we know and plenty of them or they and we will be unhappy.

Why, yes, it does make me roll my eyes.

But it does feel good to give and to receive. So let’s lean in to that good feeling in the next year: let’s give the gift of excitement about stories.

I’m talking about a piece of writing that’s short and easy to finish (unlike novels, which are neither, or short stories or poems, which are only short):

A review.

It doesn’t have to be a formal review in an actual publication. It should be nowhere near a school book report. Just a simple, “I LOVED THIS,” and why. Gushing about a book you loved on social media or Goodreads or bookseller site is a gift to the author and to the readers who pick it up based on your recommendation. If you know the author it’s even better, because you’re giving that gift to a friend.

. . . .

So what do you get out of writing a review for someone else?

Besides the pleasure of having read something really good,

  • you get to encourage another writer,
  • you may get to help them make a sale or rise in those sales algorithms,
  • you get more people who can talk with you about that great story,
  • you get a reputation as a booster of fellow writers
  • which may, in turn, get you people willing to gush about your projects.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Sometimes History

Sometimes history repeats itself. And sometimes it doesn’t.

Adam Curtis

On the Most Adapted Ghost Story of All Time

From The Literary Hub:

Ghost stories are about seeing. If their earnest intention in simplistic terms is to scare, then that fear first and foremost arises from witnessing. Seeing becomes séance in tales of the supernatural. In the history of the literary ghost story, several writers have taken the form to its zenith through terrifying temporal lapses of perception. Those glimpsed stories of M.R. James’s or those witnessed horrors of Charles Dickens; all stories in which the act of seeing becomes the spine of the narrative.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see why several of the strongest ghost stories of the last two hundred years or so have found their way onto screens in various forms. With the act of seeing so pivotal to their narrative arcs, there is an obvious visual quality within them that renders their potential for screen adaptation irresistible. It could almost be argued that the most adapted of writers and their stories are those that convey this visual terror most effectively.

M.R. James is likely the most adapted of ghost story writers (perhaps with some competition from Algernon Blackwood), in terms of the sheer number of different stories that have made it onto the screen. An upcoming adaptation of his story The Mezzotint is due to be screened at Christmas this year on the BBC. In terms of singular stories, one of the most adapted is arguably Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, partly (like James) due to its firm position within Christmas tradition.

One story above all is returned to again and again by filmmakers across countries and eras, suggesting that it may be the most visually alarming of all English language eerie tales. That story is Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.

The novella follows the haunted and disturbing events at a manor in Bly, Essex. A group of men are being read a manuscript authored by a governess who was charged with the care of the children of the manor, Miles and Flora. Miles has been mysteriously expelled from school and returns home. The governess becomes increasingly unnerved by their behavior and the presence of a man and a woman seen variously around the property. They are said to be the spirits of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Soon, the governess suspects liaisons between the ghosts and children, her investigations resulting in horror and tragedy.

James’s heady novella is arguably the most successful ghost story ever written, at least in terms of creative responses to it. A cursory glance over IMDb entries reveals over two dozen screen adaptations, and that’s before including filmed versions of the chamber opera of the story by composer Benjamin Britten.

In particular, the last two decades have seen a slew of television adaptations, 2020 itself boasting no less than six screen versions of various kinds. Even this year, there have already been two adaptations, and filmmakers seem to sleepwalk into recreating it in the same somnambulist fashion as the children of the narrative; possessed of spirits older and darker than themselves.

Out of the many adaptations, Jack Clayton’s 1961 version is considered the benchmark. The film celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having premiered in London on the 24th of November, 1961. Considering the sheer number of competitors to Clayton’s version, it is telling of the film’s qualities that it still stands far and above its many peers. In fact, it is difficult to see James’s story without those stark black-and-white images of the film coming to mind, as well as its stunning central performance by Deborah Kerr. Suffice to say, 60 years on, Jamess’ screen ghosts still haunt.

. . . .

The Turn of the Screw has the sort of ambiguous ghostly heritage expected of such a celebrated tale. James was acquainted with another noted exponent of the English ghost story, E.F. Benson. Benson’s father Edward White Benson was the Archbishop of Canterbury and, on a visit to his house in 1895, the archbishop purportedly told James a story. The story was one vaguely similar to the narrative he was soon to produce, in which two children were left in the care of ill-suited servants, both of whom died and haunted the children, corrupting them even from the grave.

Roger Clarke, the author of The Natural History of Ghosts, has researched the story’s history thoroughly and highlighted the murky contradictions within its possible inspirations. “The general scholarly view is that The Turn of the Screw is not based on any known story but,” he writes, “in fact, the story recounted one January evening at the archbishop’s house in Addington…” Clarke sees some connection to the famous haunting of Hinton Ampner and its occupant Mary Ricketts, perhaps passed down through the upper echelons of society to the archbishop. He does stress, however, that E.F. Benson, along with the archbishop’s wife, could never recall the man recounting such a ghost story.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Non-Posting

PG has had offspring and grand-offspring running around the house for the past several days.

The offspring have definitely captured PG’s attention during that time and PG has missed a couple of days of posting.

Today, the male grand-offspring are otherwise occupied and the female offspring and grand-offspring will be joining Mrs. PG for High Tea at a local establishment.

Mrs. PG has experience with High Tea from visits with English friends some years ago and assures PG that the local version is true to the original even if it takes place in a location far-removed from England.

(If High Tea is also traditionally observed in Scotland and/or Ireland, PG apologizes. He didn’t mean to exclude you from his reference to locations where High Tea is traditionally observed. Having never partaken of High Tea himself, he is quite without knowledge of much beyond its existence and that sweets are involved.)

Do the Humanities Need Experts or Skeptics?

From Public Books:

How should cultural critics regard claims about the artistic value of literary works in the European traditions? Should such arguments be taken seriously, as experts offering essential information for living a human life well? Or should they be regarded skeptically, as the ideological counterpart of two centuries of Western hegemony? There are, after all, an uncountable number of artistic practices in human cultural history. And if, in a quiet moment, critics are unable to explain why, say, twentieth-century Anglophone novels are more worthy of attention than Ottoman shadow puppetry or the art of knot tying, then perhaps skeptics of the contemporary humanities have a point. Perhaps the prominent scholars of this particular practice are simply the pretentious snobs of an unjustly privileged elite, and perhaps this particular literary-artistic tradition should not play a significant role in education.

Answering this challenge involves first getting clear on what could even count as an answer, and a contention of two recent books is that critics and philosophers have been confused about what it means to deny aesthetic value. Michael W. Clune’s A Defense of Judgment and Dominic McIver Lopes’s Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value both contend that the debate is misled when conducted in terms of the broad category “art,” and that answering skeptical challenges has to start within the density of specific artistic practices. If the justifications are thus humbler than more enthusiastic predecessors—great artworks do not improve readers or transform the world here—they are all the more plausible. And if English professors turn out to be something less than history-transcending authorities, that humility is key to recognizing what they actually can contribute to one’s decisions about which works of art to spend time with.

. . . .

The fusion between aesthetic appreciation and intellectual analysis here is a difficult line to walk (one I’ve attempted myself, in arguing that reading Victorian novels for their moral philosophy is a way of enjoying them). But Clune’s theory of literary appreciation does at least do justice to the specificity of literary experience: it can account well for the difference between reading a poem and, say, contemplating a landscape. And it is strengthened by his insistence that critics should not overstate their intellectual competence. Rather than social activists or free-ranging intellectuals, at the end of the day critics are simply masters of a few discrete capacities in written culture (example: “the ability to show students what you are seeing in a work”). So while they must use ideas from other disciplines to comprehend literary works, the expert critic also recognizes the scholarly standards of those disciplines in so doing.

Yet literature professors have often had significant difficulty acknowledging their expertise and corresponding difficulty in justifying their status to skeptics, Clune contends, for broadly two reasons. First, a commitment to democratic equality has made it difficult to espouse hierarchies in any form: judging one work of art to be worse than another—much less judging one person’s capacity for judgment to be worse than another’s—has seemed to many a violation of the moral ideal of fundamental equality. But this is a mistake, Clune argues: aesthetic experience isn’t the product of a capacity for disinterested pleasure shared universally, as Immanuel Kant thought. David Hume’s account is better: aesthetic experience is the result of a learned sensitivity. It’s not that some are born able to judge art while others are not; it’s that some receive an education others don’t. The inequality between those who have the skill and those who don’t is thus inevitable but also untroubling (at least philosophically).

Link to the rest at Public Books

The OP made PG feel grateful that it has been decades since he had any interaction with professors of humanities.

The New York Times Reveals Their 10 Best Books of 2021

From Book Riot:

The 10 Best Books Of The Year as it is currently presented by The New York Times has been going on since pretty much the beginning of the Book Review magazine, back in 1896.

After several changes across the years, in 2004 the list has taken the shape that is still being used today: as fall arrives, the editors start reading, discussing, and choosing what will become their definitive list of the ten best books of the year.

These are their choices for 2021:

As it’s common with the New York Times 10 Best Books Of The Year lists, the first five books are labelled under the genre literary fiction, and the other five are works of non-fiction, although Labatut is said to stand on the edge of both.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Apologies for non-posting

PG apologizes for failing to put up any new posts for a couple of days.

Nothing terrible happened. He just needed to do other things, including clearing his driveway of a lot of snow this morning.

In other news, Mrs. PG’s latest book continues to sell quite well and has received a number of favorable reviews.

For the Sheer Joy of It

From Writer Unboxed:

I realize this blog typically concerns itself with the “craft and business” of fiction, but I want to address instead something we seem to discuss too little.

I wrote this post before reading Wednesday’s superb piece by Kathleen McCleary, “Stories Will Save You,” in which she discussed how fiction can offer meaning and insight. Here I too discuss the value of fiction, but from a slightly different perspective: the pleasure of reading.

I grew up in Ohio, and December days were overcast, the nights were long, and snow often covered the ground. Going outside was fun for a while but so was coming back inside where it was cozy and warm—hygge, as they say in Norway—the perfect environment for reading.

“Curling up with a good book” was something that, for me, defined the winter months (and made them a bit more bearable). I remember immersing myself in Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre and Moby Dick, all those thick 19th-century marvels few of us return too—sadly, in my opinion—except in their cinematic versions. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Dawn of Everything

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Dawn of Everything” is a brainy and braggadocious book, styling itself—without a hint of modesty—as “a new history of humanity.” A combative work that pushes a revisionist view of prehistory, it takes its fight to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas on early man as a creature mired in a State of Nature it dismisses as pure fantasy. This is the anthropological equivalent of a tearing down of statues. Its authors are (the late) David Graeber and David Wengrow, professors, respectively, at the London School of Economics and University College London. Their book is a manifesto for early man, a bid to restore him to his “full humanity.”

Prehistoric man, say Messrs. Graeber and Wengrow, was no simpleton or dolt. Far from being akin to the modern-day apes to which he is glibly likened by popularizers of anthropology—such as Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens” (2014)—he was complex, creative and “full of playful possibilities.”

“The Dawn of Everything” is the latest—and most provocative—in a line of Big History: bold, panoptic works that offer to explain the whole sweep of man’s story. The genre kicked off with “Maps of Time” (2004), by David Christian, and includes such practitioners as Mr. Harari, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. The book was 10 years in the writing and is every bit as dense and passionate as you’d expect from a decade-long labor of love—conceived by two learned and mischievous men.

Mr. Graeber, the more ungovernable of the two authors, died in September of last year, three weeks after the book was finished. An American anthropologist and anarchist, he had migrated to Britain in 2008 after failing to get tenure at Yale (and, subsequently, not getting a job at any of the more than 20 U.S. universities to which he applied). His views were simply too radical, which is astonishing in light of the present-day obsessions of American campuses. Mr. Graeber also helped to organize the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, the year in which his anti-capitalist book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” was published.

Mr. Wengrow, his British partner-in-writing, is a soft-spoken professor of archaeology with a lower public profile. In a dedication to Mr. Graeber, he describes the latter as someone who “tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation.” It’s not surprising that a man like that would, with his co-author, attempt to liberate prehistoric humans from the straitjacket in which they have been confined since Rousseau wrote his “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind” in 1754.

Until the early years of the 19th century, the authors tell us, “there was as yet no ‘prehistory.’ There was only history, even if some of that history was wildly wrong.” The term “prehistory” only entered the common language after a dig in Brixham Cave in Devon, in 1858, uncovered stone axes in a sealed rock casing, alongside the remains of extinct animals. After this, archaeology and geology began to play a major part in our understanding of man and earth.

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

For the record, PG is firmly in the capitalist camp of economics. He suggests the greatest examples of charitable giving which benefits others were some of the greatest capitalists. For a classic example, he’ll point to Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie emigrated to the United States from Scotland at the age of twelve. He had been born in a weaver’s cottage with only one main room which served as living room, dining room and bedroom. After his family arrived in the US, his first job was in a cotton factory where he worked as a bobbin boy, changing spools of thread in a cotton mill 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He earned $1.20 per week, equivalent to $36 in today’s dollars.

Eventually, Carnegie became one of the richest men in United States history. He gave away 90% of his fortune for charitable purposes. One of Carnegie’s best-known charitable activities was to build and equip over 3,000 public libraries in the United States, Canada and England. The first Carnegie library was built in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was born.

When PG was young, he and his family were patrons of a couple of different Carnegie libraries in places which would have been unlikely to have libraries absent Carnegie’s gifts.

No Christmas Without Books

From Publishing Perspectives:

Warily watching the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic numbers in Europe, particularly with the picture of the omicron variant’s presence still coming into focus, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) in Brussels has opened a “No Christmas Without Books’ campaign.

The Booksellers Federation is joined by the Federation of European Publishers and Intergraf, the organization of more than 110,000 European and United Kingdom printing companies in this appeal, which calls on EU leadership and all the member-states’ national authorities to “Follow the lead of several European countries—Italy, France, Belgium—in recognizing books as essential cultural goods, thus allowing bookshops to remain open.”

The effort is a kind of pre-emptive strike, in the vernacular, a warning prior to many actual such closures having been put into place.

There’s a decided and understandable emphasis on print, of course, not only as the most desirable format for bookish gift traffic but also as the retail segment most vulnerable to sales-point shutdowns. In such closures lie the worst memories of the pre-vaccine part of the pandemic era, when, for example, Germany saw its bookstores closed just 15 days before Christmas 2020.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Stories Will Save You

From Writer Unboxed:

Stories Will Save You. Early in the pandemic I wrote these words on a yellow sticky note and stuck it on the wall above my desk, where I see it often. At the time I wrote that note, I thought writing stories would save me during a difficult time in my life. Instead, stories written by other people saved me. I realized that a critical part of being a good writer is understanding that stories are an important teacher—for both author and reader. Stories can show us how to act (or not act), how to confront our own discomforts, how to better understand ourselves, other people, the world around us, and our place in it. As writers, I think most of us are aware of how the act of writing helps us figure things out, but it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell do this for others. Storytelling is our superpower.

Why do stories have so much power to save us, and how does that work? Some of the stories that saved me over these past 18 months include The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead; Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; the BBC series ShetlandGrey’s Anatomy; and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, among many others. Here’s what I learned:

There is a big, wide world out thereThe Great Circle took me on a journey from Antarctica to Montana, Alaska, Seattle, and London during WWII. Cooped up in my pandemic-imposed semi-quarantine, with my travel limited to trips to the grocery store, I relished reading about and imagining far-flung places, and adventures as varied as working as a battlefield illustrator or circumnavigating the globe in a small plane. That world is real, I thought, and I will be able to jump into it again one day.

Everyone has a story. It’s easy to spend too much time in our own heads, narrating our own lives. The best stories have a wide cast of characters, whose personalities and choices and successes and heartbreaks are as unique as they are. Some of the characters in the stories I devoured drove me crazy, some made me laugh, the best ones made me recognize pieces of myself or pieces of the people I’m closest to. And with that recognition comes some insight and understanding.

Everyone suffers. This is obvious. But if you’re suffering, it can be enormously helpful to remember other people are suffering, too. I started watching (okay, binge-watching) Grey’s Anatomy, a TV series I missed when it debuted in 2005 because I was working full-time and had young kids and don’t remember having time to watch anything. Sure, it’s a television medical drama, so there’s significantly more drama (hopefully) than in my life or yours. But the characters—all surgeons and physicians— have to deal daily with grief, loss, danger, fear, and things that can’t be fixed. This is real life, just more intense and condensed into a shorter time period. The novel Hamnet has one of the most searing and accurate depictions of grief I’ve ever encountered, as Shakespeare’s wife mourns the loss of their young son. We are not alone is a welcome feeling when life is a struggle.

We are small pieces in a great, big puzzle. One of my favorite quotes in literature is from My Antonia: “At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” Again, it’s a helpful reminder that the universe is vast and varied, that life holds infinite surprises, that today’s heartache may lead to tomorrow’s new beginning. The best stories transport us out of ourselves and into an awareness of all that.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Nicola Barker is Our Great Post-Punk Novelist

From The Literary Hub:

“I feel like, at some level, we are all outsiders,” Nicola Barker says of the vast array of oddballs and originals who populate her bafflingly innovative thirteen novels. “Society is fluid. But you need to stand outside of a situation, a dilemma, an experience, to truly understand it. That’s what my characters often do. They are inquisitive. They can’t be satisfied by the time or circumstances they are living in.”

It is January in this deadly winter of COVID-19, and we are exchanging emails across the Atlantic—me in Richmond, Virginia, and my literary hero in the town of Faversham, formerly the home of the explosives industry in the UK. Both of us are home-bound, like most everyone else, trying to feel like writers even if we’re spending a lot of our time staring at walls. When I asked her what she’s been up to recently—during Britain’s Tier 5 lockdown—she says she’s done little but “walking and thinking,” though she spends a good deal of time talking by phone to family scattered across the globe.

Our correspondence has been a small miracle for me, as my discovery of Barker’s work a decade ago completely changed the way I write and think about writing. Often, after sending an email, I’ll spend a tortured day thinking of what I could have said that will finally prove that I am a fool (why did I insist on making that corny Bowie joke?), but I find again and again that she responds with effusive grace and a rich supply of advice on writing and life.

Hailed as an “unclassifiable genius” by the Guardian, Barker is a well-known literary figure in Britain. But if she is familiar at all to readers in America, it is often for her 2007 novel Darkmans, a wild and paranoiac book that is both about history and very much about twenty-first century life—and a strong candidate for the eight hundred funniest pages in literature. I ran into the book back in the last recession, during a phase in my life when I was hopping from job to job, rudderless, trying to hold on to some idea that I could be a writer. It challenged everything I’d learned thus far about fiction and pointed me in a new direction, one centered on character and voice and trust in one’s aesthetic obsessions and particularities, on the inner play of consciousness, on the lightning-quick moves of our real lived experience.

. . . .

Maybe I needed a change. Maybe I needed to spend a couple of years trying to write like someone else—someone who takes risks without a net—in order to discover an authentic voice of my own. Darkmans made the short list for the Booker Prize, and she made the long list for the Booker for two other novels, Clear and The Yips. One could call Barker an avant-garde writer, but she looks at her style as something more like play: “I need to feel free. I won’t be constrained. Especially not by the expectations of others or even my own expectations. I am guided by a sense of mischief. I don’t ever sit down to write and think: I’ll use this tone, this accent, this layout…”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Some virtues

Some virtues, when they become fashions, also become exaggerated. Just because nobody likes a judgmental attitude does not mean that there isn’t a sort of spoiled, self-righteous hypocrisy when one man obsessively commands other men not to judge without knowing the circumstances without himself, too, knowing their circumstances behind their judgments.

Criss Jami

A Pay to Play Bookstore Scheme: The Reading Glass Books

From Writer Beware:

I’ve recently gotten several reports of phone solicitations from a New Jersey-based bookstore called The Reading Glass Books.

Why would a bookstore be calling authors out of the blue? Well in this case, to sell shelf space: $350 for six months. Authors can direct the store to sell the books at whatever price they like, and will get “100% of the royalties” (which of course makes no sense, since direct sales proceeds are not royalties). And if you’re thinking that the store will order the books…no, no, no, don’t be silly. Authors must provide their own copies.

Paid shelf space for self-published authors isn’t a new idea. Here’s one entrepreneur who set up a bookstore entirely on that model (the store closed in 2019). And a few years ago there was some media coverage of independent bookstores that were renting shelf space to self-pubbed and small press writers–in some cases for a good deal more than $350.

Whatever you may think of paying for shelf space, these were all real brick-and-mortar stores in the business of selling books to the public–not exploitative schemes aimed primarily at extracting money from writers. Based on its solicitation phone calls, sketchy website, and array of other paid services, my guess was that The Reading Glass Books fell into the latter category. I wanted to be sure, though, so I did some research.

Reading Glass claims a physical address–7 Wrightstown Cookstown Road (aka County Road 616) in Cookstown, New Jersey. To my surprise, there actually is a storefront. It’s located in a small strip mall on a relatively empty stretch of road. Here’s an image,, courtesy of Google (note the prime location, between Air Transport International and Domino’s Pizza).

. . . .

The mall’s roadside location is not exactly conducive to the foot traffic that real bookstores count on–though I guess it’s possible that Reading Glass gets some walk-ins from next-door Domino’s, or from the tattoo and barber shops that are also in this mall. However, those well-shaved and freshly inked book lovers won’t find the store’s inside much more prepossessing than its outside. Interior photos (a number of which are present on Reading Glass’s Facebook page and Google listing) show a small space with sparsely populated shelves. Here we are in December 2020:

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

The 36 Best (Old) Books We Read in 2021

From The Literary Hub:

I know, I know, it’s December, we’re all contractually obligated to tally up the Best Books of the Year That Was—and don’t worry, we will. (No shade to book lists, end of year or otherwise; they are, as Eco reminds us, a cultural bulwark against death. Also they are fun.) But as your father says, age before beauty, and so before we take the measure of the new kids on the block, the Lit Hub staff would like to celebrate some non-2021 books that we discovered (or re-discovered) this year.

After all, one of the great things about books is that they don’t disappear after the first year of their publication—barring floods and thieves, they can loiter forever on your shelves, waiting to be picked up and rediscovered, manic publicity cycle be damned. They can be revisited, loaned out, traded, forgotten and found. They can have strange, long lives. And hey, sometimes you’re just in the mood. So here are the older books we’ve been reading this year, whether for the first or the tenth time.

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997)

I am not a huge re-reader, but in the middle of a rainy weekend bookshelf alphabetization disaster I uncovered Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, a book I read a decade ago in an MFA class called “The Hysterical Male” taught by Gary Shteyngart. I remembered the very end of the book scene by scene; I also remember finishing the book exactly at my subway stop and uncontrollably crying, much to the absolute terror of everyone around me. Either because I was aware the organizational project was soon going to break me or because I needed a distraction, I found myself spending the rest of the weekend with the curmudgeonly Barney Panofksy, self-described “wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap, a drunk with a penchant for violence and probably a murderer.” It is an exceptionally fun book to read, and from a craft perspective, Richler’s mastery of both voice and unreliable narration still feels surprising. Thoroughly recommend for a first, or second, read.

Sebastian Castillo, Not I (2020)

Sebastian Castillo’s Not I is a book of accumulation. It has twelve sections, one for each of the English language’s verb tenses; each section uses English’s 25 most common verbs to create a series of first-person sentences. The maybe-Sebastian, maybe-nobody, maybe-everybody speaker catalogues the quotidian: “I make toast.” “I go to the park.” “I will be getting surgery tomorrow.” And the emotional: “I felt depressed.” “I thought you were my friend.” “I felt sorry for myself.” The speaker bends to authority figures; indulges in moments of luxury; longs for closeness; worries about doctor’s appointments. In mapping the everyday, Castillo’s doing something close to Perec’s idea of taking an account of the infra-ordinary, but with an inventory of time instead of space.

For Not I is concerned with the end. Juries, judgments, and grades make recurring appearances. “I have accumulated the bits of my life,” says maybe-Sebastian. And: “I will have called it the past.” Not I is aware and skeptical of the urge to accomplish, to turn your life into something you can look back on and feel pride. (Like, a book.) But its format knits the past to the future, promising that even banal experiences add up. When the book hits future tense, the sentences read like mantras, and the future experiences start to feel like the reader’s. It becomes a book of faith: look at all we have done, we will do, we will have done.

. . . .

Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952)

To my great shame, I must confess to never having read a Patricia Highsmith novel before 2021. Despite my love of the film adaptations of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Price of Salt (aka Carol)—all of which I consider to be masterpieces—I never bothered to walk the quarter mile to my local used bookstore and spend the price of a pint on a battered paperback by the troubled poet of apprehension. What a fool I was. The atmosphere of unease Highsmith conjures in her novels is thick enough to choke, and this tale of sexual awakening, obsession, and liberation is (despite being, I think, murder-free) no exception. The story of a disaffected New York set designer/shop girl who becomes infatuated with a glamorous suburban housewife, The Price of Salt is also a tender, bitingly witty, and surprisingly hopeful love story.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

If you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally a thousand times, as I have, it’s perhaps time to venture into the rest of Nora Ephron’s oeuvre. Reading this novel feels like watching one of her beloved movies, at a tilt. It comes with all of her signature wit, but it’s by no means a romantic comedy. (NB: Heartburn was, in fact, adapted for the screen. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, it’s definitely not what you’re expecting. But the book! The book feels closer to classic Nora.)

Reader, meet Rachel Samstat. She writes cookbooks for a living. She’s a devoted wife, a doting mother, she’s pregnant with her second child—and then she finds out her husband is having an affair. The rat bastard! For a book that revolves around such devastating discovery, it’s unexpectedly light. We have our effervescent narrator to thank for that. She’s smiling through her tears! She’s finding something funny in the tragedy! And she’s doling out tips for a killer vinaigrette!

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Artists on Trial

From The Wall Street Journal:

Enjoying the novels of Ernest Hemingway can be a difficult thing to do after reading the man’s biography. “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are masterpieces of efficient storytelling that changed Anglophone writing forever. But their author was an inveterate liar, prone to hedonism and violence, vicious beyond belief to wives and friends, and culpably stupid on political subjects.

The case of Hemingway is an extreme one, but the truth is that most supremely gifted artists are not in possession of high moral character and have wrought immense pain in the lives of those closest to them. Their admirers learn to manage the tension between life and work as best they can. Some cases are easier to manage than others, depending on the nature of the work and one’s emotional and intellectual attachment to it. But in the end, work almost always trumps biography. I doubt there are many people inclined to relish the music of Richard Wagner who refuse to do so on account of his anti-Semitism and all-around repugnance. Lord Byron’s sexual propensities would be hard to describe in a respectable newspaper, but one learns to forget them while reading his poetry.

Is there much to say about the capacity of terrible people to produce works of great beauty? I have on my shelf a marvelous collection of essays by the literary critic Brooke Allen, “Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior” (2004). Ms. Allen holds up her subjects’ disgraceful conduct and splendid literary productions and registers little more than gentle surprise that one can produce the other.

But the young today, and especially the inhabitants of elite college campuses, are no longer content simply to contemplate the mystery that wonderful works of art can emerge from the crooked timber of humanity. The highly educated young are ready to judge—even if, in a world without mythology or religion, they lack clear principles on which to base their judgments. In “Drawing the Line,” Erich Hatala Matthes aims to give them those principles. He acknowledges the perils and excesses of a worldview in which past sins constantly threaten to nullify accomplishments and soil reputations, but he accepts its premises almost entirely. The didacticism of his subtitle—“What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies”—captures the spirit of the age. What to do with them!

Mr. Matthes, who teaches philosophy at Wellesley College, uses four chapters to ask four questions: Do immoral artist make worse art? Is it wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists? Should immoral artists be “canceled”? And how should we feel about immoral artists?

There are, to my admittedly hidebound sensibilities, basically two problems with the book. The first is that Mr. Matthes draws no distinctions between what constitutes “art” and what doesn’t. Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Paul Gauguin, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Roald Dahl, Caravaggio, Chuck Close—all are simply and equally “artists.” But they are not all artists except in the loosest sense. Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr are comedians. Michael Jackson was a stupendously gifted entertainer but not the creator of any transcendent or ennobling work of the human spirit.

The distinction matters. The only reason an aesthetic artifact deserves to remain in the public consciousness is that it possesses unique and abiding worth. We can argue about what constitutes that worth, but a catchy pop song with a forgettable tune and nonsense words, or a mildly humorous comedic routine memorable mainly for its idiotic vulgarity, is bereft of it. Enjoy it as much as you like. Or don’t. The argument that its creator’s deplorable personal deeds or retrograde social views should determine its longevity in our collective life is simply not interesting.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if the free link doesn’t work for you, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG says that the artist is not the work and vice-versa.

If they are the somehow linked, do we put the work of an artist who committed a serious crime in prison? Or do we destroy it completely?

How, exactly, does condemning art (and, presumably, putting it away someplace where no one will be offended by it) that gives many or some people pleasure make the world a better place?

Exactly how evil does the artist have to be in order to be banished from society?

In the United States, generations of people referred to African Americans by what is now described as the “N-word”. At the time and in the place where this practice was common, it was the standard term for African Americans. If a person at those times and in those places did not use the N-word, he/she/they would be perceived as making some sort of distinction between members of the race.

During PG’s lifetime, the word, “Negro”, has moved from a polite way of referring to an individual’s race into something that may lead to some degree of scorn for someone who utters the word.

A great many Americans also used slang words to describe other groups of people as well. Poles, Germans, Japanese and Jews come immediately to PG’s memory. Some of those slang words have moved into the impolite realm of language. PG is unaware of any that have reached the negative place occupied by the N-word, but time continues to march on.

In summary, a bad person can produce good art and good literature.

In PG’s youth, those who banned or attempted to ban books were regarded with scorn and disdain – narrow-minded, prissy neo-puritans.

“Banned in Boston” referred to the time period during which Boston officials had wide authority to ban works featuring “objectionable” content, and often banned works with sexual content or foul language. This even extended to the $5 bill from the 1896 “Educational” series of banknotes featuring allegorical figures which were partially nude.

Per Wikipedia:

Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, four cast members were placed under arrest.

. . . .

This movement had several unintended consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than other cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.

Prominent literary figure H. L. Mencken was arrested in Boston in 1926, after purposely selling a banned issue of his magazine The American Mercury. Though his case was dismissed by a local judge, and he later won a lawsuit against the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade, the effort did little to affect censorship in Boston. The interracial romance novel Strange Fruit, by Lillian Smith, was also banned by the Watch and Ward Society and in 1929 Boston’s mayor Malcolm Nichols and the city censor banned Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Strange Interlude.

During the same era there were also periodic “purity campaigns” on radio, as individual stations decided to ban songs with double-entendres or alleged vulgar lyrics. One victim of such a campaign was bandleader Joe Rines who, in November 1931, was cut off in mid-song by John L. Clark, program director of WBZ, for performing a number called “This is the Missus”, whose lyrics Clark deemed inappropriate. Rines was indignant, saying he believed Clark was over-reacting to a totally innocent song, but Clark insisted he was right to ban any song whose lyrics might be construed as suggestive.

The Warren Court (1953–69) expanded civil liberties and in Memoirs v. Massachusetts and other cases curtailed the ability of municipalities to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies. The last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. was fought over Naked Lunch, which was banned in Boston in 1965.

Banned books included those from Walt Whitman, Giovanni Boccaccio, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway (twice), William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and The Everly Brothers (for “Wake up, Little Susie”)

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Face Surveillance Was Always Flawed

From Public Books:

In 1879, Alphonse Bertillon joined the Parisian police department. At the time, people who committed multiple crimes were having a good run of it—branding had been banned and fingerprinting had not yet been widely adopted. Officers’ memories, as Richard Farebrother and Julian Champkin have detailed, were the main remedy against repeat offenders, who gave false names, claimed it was their first offense, and were able to avoid serious consequences. The only alternative for 19th-century law enforcement: sifting through stacks of notecards cataloging prior arrests, which were completed idiosyncratically and organized haphazardly.

Struck by the system’s inefficiency, Bertillon created a cunning new method to identify alleged offenders. He envisioned “giving every human being an identity, an individuality that is certain, durable, invariable, always recognizable, and which can be established with ease.” Photography had just begun to arrive on the scene, and Bertillon recognized its potential for cataloging people who had been arrested. He pioneered the idea of seating accused people in the same chair, set a standard distance from the camera, and photographing them at standard angles. In so doing, Bertillon invented the mugshot.

More than a century later, face surveillance has gone digital. In January 2020, journalist Kashmir Hill revealed that a secretive start-up company called Clearview AI had scraped photographs from untold numbers of websites, collecting more than three billion pictures (now closer to 10 billion) to fuel face recognition technology used by law enforcement. The public was horrified. But the massive consentless collection of face data for carceral purposes is a foundational approach to face surveillance that originated with the two men who developed it, first as an analog technique and later as an automated technology.

As Bertillon’s story makes clear, the earliest applications of face surveillance were also not rooted in consent. Nearly 150 years ago, using images of faces to identify people who’d committed crimes was done without permission of those portrayed. Law enforcement officers were the primary users. And that tradition continued when Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Bledsoe automated face surveillance in the 1960s.

These essential flaws cannot be corrected with greater accuracy or oversight. Despite more than a century of time for potential introspection about face surveillance, it seems that law enforcement has not truly grappled with the collateral consequence of its expansion: the elimination of privacy for everyone. Instead, more law enforcement agencies are adopting face surveillance as you read this article. Face surveillance began as a carceral technology, and that application continues to ensure that the technology will be available, attractive, and financially advantageous to law enforcement and the companies who serve it.

Bertillon and Bledsoe’s work assumed that law enforcement personnel should have the power to surveil the faces of the people they were supposed to protect and serve. Today, law enforcement continues to buy into that belief. But Bertillon’s and Bledsoe’s stories reveal that face surveillance was flawed from the start and illustrate why those flaws persist.

Bertillon believed that “every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth.” His approach, as Kelly Gates details, was not actually intended to reveal the inner workings of the individual—unlike physiognomy, an old, racist pseudoscience that postulated that certain facial features predicted criminality. Bertillon’s use of scientific measurement seemed a stunning development. He coupled his mugshots with intrusive measurements of people who had been arrested, such as their arm length and head circumference, to create measurements collectively known as a Bertillonage. He was assisted by Amelie Notar, a woman with impeccable handwriting whom he met crossing the road and who later became his wife.

It seemed improbable that an arrested person would share the same Bertillonage with any other person (though that assumption was ultimately proven wrong). Bertillon’s mathematical approach to identifying people who had allegedly committed crimes was popular and effective. Ultimately, Bertillonage identified more than 3,500 repeat offenders in its inaugural decade.

Bertillon himself became quite famous. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to his own famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, as the “second highest expert in Europe”—after Bertillon, of course. But his methods proved fallible.

In 1903, a Black man named Will West arrived at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. As was the standard procedure, identification clerks took his Bertillonage and matched the measurements with one William West. Police expressed no surprise that Will West was a repeat offender, nor that he denied being one. But upon investigation, Will West was discovered to be an entirely different man serving a life sentence for murder in the same penitentiary. The two men had identical measurements, something Bertillon and other police had believed impossible.

The fallibility of Bertillonage is among the least problematic aspects of Bertillon’s legacy. When he was not photographing people who had been arrested, Bertillon was writing a book called Ethnographie Moderne: Les Races Sauvages—translated, Modern Ethnography: The Savage Races. Bertillon also concocted a handwriting test used in the Dreyfus Affair, a now infamous case of government anti-Semitism. His participation in the trial spurred his brother, married to a Jewish woman, not to speak to him for years.

By the turn of the century, Bertillon’s “science” had been discredited. But the mugshot lived on. And it fueled generations of corporations, governments, and researchers curious about mathematically measuring the faces of people accused of committing crimes.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

From The MIT Press Reader:

Robots have histories that extend far back into the past. Artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots all find expression from the human imagination in works and contexts beyond Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE) and the story of Pygmalion in cultures across Eurasia and North Africa. This long history of our human-machine relationships also reminds us that our aspirations, fears, and fantasies about emergent technologies are not new, even as the circumstances in which they appear differ widely. Situating these objects, and the desires that create them, within deeper and broader contexts of time and space reveals continuities and divergences that, in turn, provide opportunities to critique and question contemporary ideas and desires about robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

As early as 3,000 years ago we encounter interest in intelligent machines and AI that perform different servile functions. In the works of Homer (c. eighth century BCE) we find Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithing and craft, using automatic bellows to execute simple, repetitive labor. Golden handmaidens, endowed with characteristics of movement, perception, judgment, and speech, assist him in his work. In his “Odyssey,” Homer recounts how the ships of the Phaeacians perfectly obey their human captains, detecting and avoiding obstacles or threats, and moving “at the speed of thought.” Several centuries later, around 400 BCE, we meet Talos, the giant bronze sentry, created by Hephaestus, that patrolled the shores of Crete. These examples from the ancient world all have in common their subservient role; they exist to serve the desires of other, more powerful beings — either gods or humans — and even if they have sentience, they lack autonomy. Thousands of years before Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” to refer to artificial slaves, we find them in Homer.

Given the prevalence of intelligent artificial objects in Hellenic culture, it is no surprise that engineers in the later Hellenistic period turned to designing and building these machines. Mathematicians and engineers based in Alexandria began writing treatises on automaton-making and engineering around the third century BCE. These included instructions for how to make elaborate dioramas with moving figures, musical automata, mechanical servants, and automata powered by steam, water, air, and mechanics. Some of these devices were intended to illustrate the physical principles animating them, and others were scaled up and incorporated into public spectacle. Regardless of size, they were intended to evoke a network of emotional responses, including wonder and awe.

Robots were so prevalent in the imaginative and material culture of the Greek-speaking world that they were seen as emblematic of Hellenistic culture by others. Buddhist legends focused on north-eastern India from the fourth and third centuries BCE recount the army of automata that guarded Buddha’s relics, built with knowledge smuggled from the Graecophone world. In one version, which features both killer robot-assassins and robot-guardians, a young man travels in disguise to the land of the Yavanas (Greek speakers) to learn the art of automaton-making, a secret closely guarded by the yantakaras (automaton makers) there, knowledge that he then steals to make the artificial guards. We find stories of automatic warriors guarding the Buddha’s relics in Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindu, and Tibetan texts. Additionally, mechanical automata also appear elsewhere in the Chinese historical record: for example, at the court of Tang ruler Empress Wu Zhou (c.624–705 CE).

The trope of the guardian/killer automaton also appears linked to stories about the ancient world from medieval Latin Christendom — where, unlike much of the rest of Eurasia, people lacked the knowledge of how to make complex machines. In an Old French version of the Aeneid (c.1160 CE), a golden robot-archer stands sentry over the tomb of a fallen warrior queen, and in the history of Alexander the Great (c.1180 CE), the ruler encounters golden killer robots guarding a bridge in India and armed copper robots protecting the tomb of “the emir of Babylon.” Hellenistic handbooks on automaton-making, translated into Arabic in the ninth century CE at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, also influenced the design and construction of automata in Islamdom that were usually placed in palaces and mosques, and included musician-automata, programmable clocks and fountains, and mechanical animals. These makers in Islamdom innovated on the designs of the Alexandrian School and created increasingly complex machines; although some of the objects hearken back to much older forms. In the work of courtier and engineer al-Jazari (1136–1206 CE), for example, we find designs for wheeled cupbearers and servants, an echo of the wheeled servants attending to the gods on Mount Olympus.

Al-Jazari’s courtly mechanical servants and the killer sentries in imaginative literature share a link to surveillance, foreshadowing another purpose to which AI and robots have often been turned. Sentries and guards keep watch and discern friend from foe, while courtly servants operate in ritualized, hierarchical environments where people are under constant scrutiny. Objects like those of al-Jazari’s designs were found throughout Islamdom and the eastern Roman Empire, but were unable to be built or reproduced in the Latin Christian West until the late 13th century. However, they appear earlier in imaginative texts as luxury objects, in elite settings, as fantasies of perfect surveillance and perfectly obedient servants.

. . . .

Robots and AI have long been used both to foreground and to trouble the conceptual boundary between born and made, and the related boundary between life and not-life. Yet the contexts in which these stories appear supply different meanings to the same story. In the early Taoist text “The Book of Liezi”(compiled circa fourth century), the skill of the artificer is appreciated by the king and his court, but in other stories about learned men and their automaton-children, such as those attached to Albertus Magnus in the 14th and 15th centuries, and to René Descartes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the robot is destroyed by ignorant people out of fear. In E. T. A. Hoffman’s version of this tale, “The Sandman” (1816), the inability to distinguish made from born drives the protagonist, Nathanael, insane and, eventually, to his death.

Link to the rest at The MIT Press Reader

The MIT Press article is excerpted from The Lovemakers, edited by Aifric Campbell

The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot

From The Wall Street Journal:

If fame is the name of your desire, writing about literature is among the least likely ways to find it. From the 17th century until today, only four literary critics, John Dryden (1631-1700), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Matthew Arnold (1828-1888) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)—five if one includes that one-man Tower of Babel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)—have attained enduring reputations. All five also wrote poetry, but, apart from Eliot, it is doubtful if today any would be remembered for his poetry alone.

What these men have in common is that all were, in the old-fashioned phrase, men of letters. T.S. Eliot, who may have been the last of the breed, defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.” Literature, for the man of letters, who not only writes about it but practices it by himself writing poetry, fiction or drama, provides wisdom beyond all other wisdoms, surpassing science, social science, history and philosophy, while incorporating them all.

The man of letters, like the poet, has a responsibility to the language, for, to quote Eliot, “unless we have those few men who combine an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our own ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.” He is also responsible, as Eliot wrote in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923), for “the reorientation of tradition” in the arts, and, like the artist, is “the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real.”

The responsibility of the man of letters is finally for the culture at large. His duty, as Eliot wrote in the 1944 essay “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe,” is “neither to ignore politics and economics, nor, certainly, to desert literature,” but to “be vigilantly watching the conduct of politicians and economists, for the purpose of criticising and warning, when the decisions and actions of politicians and economists are likely to have cultural consequences,” for “of these consequences . . . the man of letters is better qualified to foresee them, and to perceive their seriousness.” As he views politics as being too serious to be left to the politicians, the man of letters feels education is hopeless without a clear ideal of the educated individual. “I hope,” Eliot wrote in “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” “that we shall not consciously or unconsciously drift towards the view that it is better for everyone to have a second-rate education than for only a small minority to have the best.” Which is, of course, where we are today.

. . . .

In his late 20s Eliot would write of Henry James, whom he much admired, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” Cosmopolitan in interest and outlook though he was, Eliot went on to become an Englishman to the highest power: He applied for British citizenship, at the age of 39, in 1927, the same year he was confirmed in the Church of England. So rigidly English did he seem that Virginia Woolf called him “the man in the four-piece suit.”

The young T.S. Eliot was also a careerist, fully aware what would bring him the prominence and ultimately the fame he craved. Eliot wrote to J.H. Woods, one of his teachers at Harvard, that there were two ways to succeed in the literary life in England: one being to appear in print everywhere, the other to appear less frequently but always to dazzle. Eliot arranged to do both, publishing his dazzling poems at lengthy intervals, propelling himself to prominence with the prolificacy of his brilliant criticism and commentary.

. . . .

How prolific, and to what impressive effect, is now revealed in “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot,” a handsome trans-Atlantic co-publication of Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, London. An eight-volume hardcover collection, “The Complete Prose”—edited by many hands under the guidance of Ronald Schuchard, a professor of English emeritus at Emory University—is elaborately but relevantly footnoted, a work of learning and scholarship. The separate introductions to its eight volumes, running to roughly 250 pages, constitute a splendid biography in themselves. This edition of the prose makes plain, as nothing before it quite has, that T.S. Eliot, as the introduction to the seventh volume has it, “lived life large—larger than we have known.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Iconic downtown Ann Arbor bookstore will close early next year

From Michigan Live:

Crazy Wisdom Bookstore is closing permanently early next year due to the “relentlessness” of running a retail business, its owners said.

“Our own family has grown up, and we’re in our 60s, and we’re ready to look out upon a new and different horizon,” Bill Zirinsky and Ruth Schekter, bookstore owners, wrote on Facebook. “The bookstore had a very profitable year (due to having closed the tea room at the onset of the pandemic), and that’s not a bad way to go out.”

. . . .

“We know that Crazy Wisdom has been a unique destination and special bookstore in our region, and treasured by its friends and customers,” the owners wrote. “We and our longtime managers and staff, past and present, have so much gratitude for having had the privilege over these decades to serve people in our region who are searching in their lives – spiritually, psychologically, holistically, and in terms of sustainable and conscious living.”

The building itself, which Zirinsky and Schekter own, is not for sale, they said, adding that they are, however, open to selling the bookstore or renting the space.

Although they have no “preconceived ideas” about who a potential buyer might be, they do want someone with “financial werewithal,” Zirinksy said.

“That allowed us to sustain the store for over three decades, and to create a physically appealing environment in a historic building downtown, and to expand into having live music, poetry readings, fairy teas, storytelling nights, and so on,” Zirinsky wrote in an email to MLive. “But one would also want that buyer to be a reader, a lover of the written word, a wordsmith. And to appreciate the fine aesthetics of the store’s jewelry and craft items, and its non-linear loveliness.”

Link to the rest at Michigan Live

For visitors from outside the United States, Ann Arbor is the home of the 200+ year-old University of Michigan, a selective public university with over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a faculty and staff of about the same size, including 20,000 employees at the University’s hospital.

Per the 2020 US Census, Ann Arbor had a population of about 124,000 people. (PG has no idea how many students were or were not included in this count.)

Suffice to say, the University and those associated with it are most of what’s going on in Ann Arbor on a daily basis.

PG includes this information because college and university towns are generally known as places where people purchase a lot of books. Traditionally, these have been wonderful places to operate a bookstore.

Heavy Lifting

From The Offing:

My mother said we have to wait until it’s late outside, and her sister Gina agreed. I knew they wouldn’t do anything until people dragged themselves off their porches and closed their doors, but I wondered if there ever came a time when no one in the projects was peering out a window or rushing back from a graveyard shift. Gina prayed out loud that my brother wouldn’t come home anytime soon. Just in case, Mom decided to keep the gun downstairs.

I figured he’d say it didn’t belong to him. Bernard was seventeen and seemed to do everything for his friends, and not the ones he’d known all his life, but this new bunch he hung out with all hours of the night. I pictured my brother pacing the living room and trying to buy some time with an apology or a pitiful excuse. Mom said if he came home soon or not, it didn’t matter. “One way or other, that thing is out of my house tonight.”

An hour earlier, she’d gone upstairs and into Bernard’s bedroom. She picked up a plate of old fries and a sticky mug and left, then changed her mind and went back. She dumped a pile of crumpled sweatshirts and jeans from the corner into the hamper. After she hung up his bomber jacket, she started in on the sweat socks littering the bottom of his closet. She spotted the corner of a towel and tugged on it, but it was stuck on something. She went in further and pulled. The towel fell away. Her hand trembled as it moved down the length of a double-barreled shotgun.

Mom tried her best to keep Bernard out of trouble. When she grounded him, he had to hunker down in his room or on the porch. Sometimes, she let him go next door and hang with his best friend. But lately, he found every excuse not to be home, and she missed him. At night they had watched movies like Boyz in the Hood and Total Recall and talked long after the credits rolled. But now Gina drove her through our neighborhood after dark sometimes, and they searched the streets for him. They had no idea that if he saw the red Subaru first, he’d duck behind his boys. Of course, I didn’t know either, but years later, my brother told me he’d become good at hiding. Bernard tucked his hard-earned money into an old pair of Nikes, stashed his new clothes and sneakers at his friends’ houses, and kept his beeper deep in his jacket pocket.

I stood downstairs in front of the coat closet with my mother and aunt on either side of me. We were close to the kitchen, and I heard my clothes spinning in the washing machine; they were almost done. I’d come over for a short visit, but now I’d sit tight. My mother needed me, even if I could do little to help. I opened the closet door. Mom picked up the gun and looked at us. “This damn thing feels heavier than the whole world.”

Link to the rest at The Offing

Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows

From Publishers Weekly:

When Penguin Random House announced in July that it would be publishing a memoir by Prince Harry, there was one name that was, conspicuously and appropriately, left off the press release. The man channeling the Duke of Sussex’s voice for the book, J.R. Moehringer, was nowhere to be found among the details the publisher released. But those in the industry know that Moehringer, one of the highest-profile ghostwriters working, will be an essential component in the royal’s book—even if his name never appears on the final product.

Ghostwriting, or “collaborating” as it’s now called, is nothing new. For as long as celebrities have been writing books, others have quietly helped them do it. It’s highly specialized work that requires a blend of skills; industry sources say the best collaborators are equal parts editor, reporter, writer, mimic, and shrink. And in today’s industry, where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever. It’s also the kind of work, very handsomely paid at the high end, which is appealing to a growing population: writers, journalists, and editors.

Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who’s spent her career representing ghostwriters (they’re the only clients at her company 2M Communications Ltd., which is over 20 years old), said that, in the past, “talking about ghostwriting was a bit like sheepishly admitting you’d done internet dating.” No longer.

The growing demand for celebrity books (coupled with the increasing presence in publishing of Hollywood-backed talent firms like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency), has created a greater need for high-level ghostwriters. Morel believes this has led to a turning point: “I always say it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best because there’s more collaborative work out there than ever, and it’s the worst because there are more collaborators out there than ever.” She cited a number of writers who have, in the past five to 10 years, turned to ghostwriting as other avenues have dried up—former midlist authors, former long-form journalists whose newspapers or magazines have closed, and former editors who’ve lost jobs to consolidation.

So how many high-level ghostwriters are there? When asked about collaborators like Moehringer, who’s rumored to command seven figures per project (and who’s written two critically acclaimed nonfiction books of his own and has a couple of Pulitzers for reporting), Morel noted they are “few and far between.” Insiders cited a handful of other authors with well-established literary pedigrees like Moehringer who occasionally moonlight as ghostwriters.

. . . .

Below the top tier of collaborators, there are a handful of well-regarded writers who make a very handsome living as ghosts. Morel estimated that the “best of the best”—meaning ghostwriters with a number of bestselling books by high-profile figures on their résumés—includes 20–30 people, “maybe up to 50.” One high-level industry professional, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that good ghosts can make anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000 per year. Morel said the average ghostwriting project for her clients pays $75,000–$100,000 and usually takes about six months. While projects differ, most ghostwriters tend to get paid a flat fee. (Some can, and do, demand a percentage of the advance, and/or books sales, but sources said this is less common.)

Gail Ross, a veteran literary agent at the Washington, D.C.–based Ross Yoon Agency, who estimated that half of the books she sells require a collaborator, wouldn’t endorse the notion that ghostwriters have necessarily grown in influence or stature in recent years. She claimed they’ve always been “very, very important.” But it is true, she went on, “that back in the day no one wanted to say they used a collaborator or ghostwriter, and now it’s totally respected. It’s also acknowledged by most people [who use collaborators] that it’s the only way they could get their book done.”

Will Lippincott, a senior agent at Aevitas Creative Management, said that in the past three years he’s done more business with “collaborative agents and their writers than in the prior 10.” Estimating that 25%–30% of his projects have “a collaborator attached at some point,” Lippincott said these specialists are either brought in at the proposal stage (and help the author craft that) or after the book is sold. He believes the work they do is “being valued at a higher level” than ever.

The rise of the term collaborator within publishing speaks to the respect ghostwriters command from others working behind the scenes. As one industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, the term ghostwriter “implies subterfuge,” which they called “problematic.” The work is, they went on, totally “above board” and there’s “no reason to hide it.”

“I love ghostwriters,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at CAA. Estimating that there are 50–100 top ghostwriters who do two-to-three books per year and “always work with the biggest names,” he said he believes the change in nomenclature speaks to a shift in understanding about what ghostwriters actually do. “In the past it was, ‘You talk and I’ll write.’ Now I think [collaborators] have more engagement with the process.” He added that, as an agent, he knows he needs great collaborators who are fully invested in order for projects to work. “We want them to like the idea and be invested in the creative process.”

. . . .

Morel said she often has to insist on a clause that allows her ghostwriters to be able to put their projects on their résumés. Because ghostwriters are often privy to private details about the lives of their famous subjects, NDA-style agreements are standard parts of their contracts. In short, it’s a bit like Fight Club—ghostwriters can rarely say whom they’ve worked with, much less what they’ve discussed with those people.

For many, though not all, ghostwriters, this is as it should be. One who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed a desire to have their work more out in the open. “I’ll generally ask for a ‘with’ credit and often get turned down,” they said. “I’d love to be on the cover of all of them. It would be easier for me to talk about the books and be out there promoting them.”

Hilary Liftin, a long-time ghostwriter who has 13 bestsellers to her name, said that when she started, it was assumed things written by ghostwriters “were somehow subpar or hackey.” While this has unquestionably changed within the industry, it may not be true for the general public.

Liftin prefers not to be mentioned on her book covers, but would like to see any negative perceptions about collaboration dispelled. “I don’t want to be on the jacket for aesthetic reasons and because I’m not trying to be a famous ghostwriter,” she said. “I say ghost because I like the word, but I do think as a professional you want to be visible, so I’m usually, but not always, on the title page.”

Another bestselling ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, said she sometimes feels that everyone knows about her career but no one wants to talk about it. Her comparison? “You know your parents are having sex,” she said, “but you don’t want to hear about it.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Censorship Has Been Alive Forever. It’s at Fever Pitch Today.

From BookRiot:

There are a lot of bad takes this week on the whys and hows of the growing firestorm of book challenges. I’m not going to link to them, but the reality is this isn’t new, media that’s reporting on “firsts” for any area are behind the curve by months (thanks, death of local journalism), and no, it’s not school boards who are willy nilly banning books. These complaints are coming from grown adults who may or may not live in a community and more often than not, they’re aligned with right-wing groups funded by a lot of dark money. Moms of Liberty — currently putting a bounty on teachers who talk about systemic racism — is but one of many of such groups across the United States, typically spearheaded by a failed or hopeful politician. They share information across public and private social media tools (here’s a great example of an extremist group gearing up their followers to at protest one school board meeting this week). These groups put board members in a position of being on the defense, and in many cases board members need to be escorted to their vehicles after a meeting because their literal safety is at risk.

Are there folks on the inside starting these censorship calls? Sure. But the vast majority are not, and in a not-insignificant number of cases lately, the adults who are complaining aren’t parents of students in the district.

. . . .

Something else to be aware of: the same groups that are pushing anti-antiracism with their anti-“CRT” movement that conveniently includes anyone who isn’t straight, too, is going to start coming hard for mental health. They’re already protesting social emotional learning, and the next logical step is the books that talk about mental health. (This is, of course, the same groups that complain students are miserable and why won’t anyone help them. The fault lies, conveniently, in mask mandates or virtual learning or any other anti-science scapegoat).

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Per his usual practice, PG will remind one and all that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

With respect to the OP, PG is of the opinion that not every decision that school boards, private schools, teachers, etc., regarding books they select for students to read is automatically a correct decision because of the power or authority that such groups and individuals possess or the role they play in a school or community. PG speaks as the son of one public school teacher, the brother of another and the husband of a former college instructor.

While civilized societies can reasonably place limits on some decisions parents may make that affect their children, the history of harmful use of force, physical or otherwise, by state state actors regulating what may be said or read or what may not be said or read is not read is a dark one.

At least during the past few years in the United States, more than a few groups of people who disagree with others have adopted a pattern of personal attacks on those who don’t think as they think. This same pattern of behavior has included over-the-top characterizations of social or political opponents.

Historically, true Censorship was imposed by government agencies on a population or group. In our time, censorship has involved prohibitions that limited the ability for social dissidents to express opposition or disagreement with the powers that exercised control over them.

As such, PG suggests that groups of individuals who object to books they find harmful or offensive being used by a government-sponsored entity for the education of the children of the dissenters doesn’t qualify as censorship.

Instead, such objections are a protest against the imposition of ideas and values to which the protesters strongly object being imposed on their children by an organization and individuals who possess and exercise a great deal of power over the children of the protesters. If a state requires mandatory or quasi-mandatory attendance of children in specified types of educational institutions, that qualifies as state action.

For the record, PG thinks mandatory attendance of children at public schools is a generally good idea, assuming that parents who feel strongly enough about the topic to take on the responsibility of educating their children outside of the public school system.

While education outside of formal public or private schools can go badly wrong, so can education of at least some children in formal schools can also contribute to the same end for a child.

As only a slight diversion, PG is not aware of whether this is happening elsewhere or not, but over the past ten or fifteen years, homeschooling of children has been a growing phenomenon in the United States. A bit of quick online research indicates that an estimated 3-4% of school-age children were being homeschooled.

It interests PG that an outsized percentage of homeschooled contestant have advanced to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee over the past several years. The 2021 Spelling Bee winner was a 14-year-old homeschooled African-American girl from New Orleans.

The Book of Mother

From Vogue:

Violaine Huisman’s debut novel, The Book of Mother, tells the story of a 20th- and 21st-century Parisian woman’s life and legacy. Part One is told from the perspective of Violaine, the younger of her two daughters, who is ten when Maman—her beautiful, charismatic, and wildly excessive mother—suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized. Part Two traces the arc of Maman’s, aka Catherine’s, life—from the emotional penury of her hardscrabble, working-class childhood; through her early success (earned through the harshest discipline) as a dancer; to a second marriage that finds her navigating a high-wire act between her life as a woman and the demands of motherhood, while feeling entirely out-of-place amidst the gauche caviar of upper-class Parisian intellectuals; to the betrayals of her third husband, which lead to her undoing. In Part Three, her daughters, now grown women, deal with Maman’s complex legacy.

I lived with the novel’s larger-than-life characters for months while translating Huisman’s winding, revved-up (and at times, improbably comic) Proustian sentences. I heard their voices and felt the shadow of history and the Shoah hanging over them as they breathed the heady air of Paris in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with its boutiques, salons, and swinging night clubs. More recently, I sat down with Violaine, who had returned briefly to New York—her home for the past 20-years—in the midst of an extended sojourn in France, to talk about The Book of Mother. The conversation that follows, over lunch at Café Sabarsky, has been edited and condensed.

In all our discussions about the book while I was translating it, I never asked you, how did you come to write The Book of Mother?

There were two moments of genesis. Ten years before the book’s publication in France [in 2018], I wrote my mother’s life story, but as a monologue, using only her voice. It was similar to the voice that I use in the novel for her tirades and harangues—that long, digressive, angry, wild tone.

I showed that manuscript to a publisher who admired it and gave me some suggestions, but I couldn’t find a way to revise it. Then, one year later, my mother died, and it became impossible to revise it. And then, two years after my mother died, I had my first child, and two years later, the second one.

So there was all this time of, literally, gestation. I realized that becoming a mother gave me a completely different perspective on who my mother was. I started understanding the conflict that she had faced, between her womanhood and her motherhood. So that was a huge turning point for me.

And then, days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth to my younger child, with the baby on my lap, I read 10:04, Ben Lerner’s second novel, and I had this epiphany, which was that in fiction—whether you are writing about your own stories or those of others—facts don’t matter. Facts are only relevant when it comes to history. I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother’s story, to create a coherent narrative. That’s something that Ben Lerner writes and talks about very beautifully, that fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living.

Because life makes no sense.

Life makes no sense. And the truth is, my mother didn’t know, my father didn’t know, why things happened that way. But fiction has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal.

And then, when the structure of the novel came to me—its organization in three parts—I knew even before I started writing exactly how it would be laid out. And that’s how I was able to write it.

Link to the rest at Vogue

Mapping Utopia in the Dark

From Public Books:

Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies is an exploration of what author Matt Tierney calls the “emancipatory critique[s] of technology” from Long Seventies authors like Audre Lorde, Paul Metcalf, Toni Morrison, Huey P. Newton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Alice Mary Hilton. The Long Seventies is a historical period familiar to scholars of labor studies that begins with the radical political changes brought about by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and stretches until the early 1980s. During this period, Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and men were able to participate in union organization in unprecedented numbers. Matt uses this moment of increased labor activism and organization as the backdrop to investigate poetic, literary, and philosophical critiques of technology and capitalism. In Dismantlings, he looks to a broad range of literary and political writings to find a counterlexicon that shows how Long Seventies writers opposed the idealism embedded in the language of technocapitalism.

The title of Dismantlings is a direct reference to Audre Lorde, and each chapter considers one of this term’s seven forms of appearance: Luddism, the smashing or gradual relinquishing of the worst machines; communion, a planetary togetherness irreducible to networks of telecommunication; cyberculture, a word that, in its coinage, named the historical and material foundation that automation shares with racist and militarist machines; distortion, a way to read and write against the present; revolutionary suicide, a deliberate submission to the dangers of political engagement; liberation technology, a point of contact between appropriate technology and liberation theology; and thanatopography, a mapping of planetary technological ethics in terms of technologically enabled mass confinement and death. All of these ideas, some that have been obscured over time and others that only seem familiar, lay bare to the reader a genealogy of current fears and concerns with the hegemonic role the discourse of technological innovations plays in the organization of social and political life.

It was particularly timely to talk to Matt about Dismantlings in the wake of last summer’s racial justice uprisings in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Across the United States this year, there was a rapid adoption of progressive, activist language by university administrators. Embedded within this language of “antiracism” were the buzzwords of the STEM-ification of social change and political analysis that has come to dominate US universities since the mid-2000s. The issues of anti-Blackness, gender-based violence, underemployment, authoritarianism, and our climate catastrophe are framed within the discourse of STEM fields and require the intervention of “moonshots,” “grand challenges,” and “toolkits.” In Dismantlings, Matt reminds us that it is important to use other words to name political possibility, and that the Long Seventies was a moment, like our own, when writers and activists were concerned with a similar technocratic idealism.

. . . .

RP: The book is an archive of Long Seventies literary works from Lorde to Le Guin and Morrison to Samuel Delany. Together, these works show us how to dismantle as well as how to reassemble a version of life that can confront and overcome the logics of technocapitalism; how to refuse the pseudoconcretization of human life and the ideologies that come with it; and, perhaps cautiously, how to imagine an alternative version of our world.

MT: To me this boils down to a critical form of utopianism. This is a strange thing to say as a person who has written one book on the void and another book on dismantling. But pessimism is kind of a problem in left scholarship.

This is not to say that I’m not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger, which of course I am, and of course we all are. We live in a pandemic, an ecological crisis, a housing crisis, an incarceration and policing crisis, an employment crisis, and a crisis of economy in which many people are not permitted to live at all.

Now I think a lot of people are returning to utopian thought through long-established paths. But there’s another tradition of utopian thinking that would look toward, not another world than this one, but instead this world lived otherwise. Avery Gordon, for example, sees the utopian as “a way of conceiving and living in the here and now” where “revolutionary time doesn’t stop the world, but is rather a daily part of it.”

Gordon’s “here and now” echoes for me with a talk that Toni Morrison gave in 2000 called “How Can Values Be Taught in the University?” Morrison there asks listeners to separate themselves from worn-out ideals of freedom and civic responsibility, whose defense has produced so much pain and death. She wants them instead to “speculate,” which after all just means to look, at getting to “a future where the poor are not yet, not quite, all dead; where the under-represented minorities are not quite all imprisoned.”

This might seem like a pessimistic response, but again I don’t think it is. I think rather that she’s observing historical tendencies that led up to the start of this century and still aren’t alleviated. Twenty years on, we can now add that these tendencies not only have been exacerbated by despotic bad actors and by ecological and health disasters but also extend clearly through the duration of living memory. Morrison wants us, then, to imagine a life where survival and freedom, if that word is to have any meaning at all, do not require wealth. Wealth, moreover, wouldn’t be granted, as now, primarily to those who own and program the computational tools of our supposed freedom.

This is a version of openness to change in the here and now, in the daily revolutionary time of the world. To think in terms of technology, it might imagine a way that the device in everybody’s pocket isn’t manufactured by the hands of dispossessed workers, nor relies on a battery whose operational mineral has maimed and killed scores of workers, including children. Morrison’s deeply utopian vision, which should affect our cultures of technological use, is to imagine which ways of living otherwise are required to get to where the poor are not all dead.

This is not lowered expectations. It’s a wish for a mass normalization of resistance to deadly ways of looking at the world. Some language for this normalized resistance is what I’m trying to recover with Dismantlings.

Link to the rest at Public Books

For the record, PG is not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger and doesn’t envy those who are.

A Love Letter to Tackiness and Bad Taste

From Electric Lit:

I met Rax King outside of a bar on the first truly cold autumn night of the year, for which we both underdressed. We were wearing identical faux-fur lined denim jackets—albeit in different colors—and, weirder still, had both accidentally inflicted minor-but-nagging injuries to the thumbs on our left hands. From there we wound up on the topic of interior decor and affirmed that, although we do both have animal print duvets, they are at least different animal prints.

From there we landed on a new decision/dictum/lifestyle change that Rax recently committed to. 

“I’m only going to wear outfits where at least one thing is an animal print, and preferably more than one, and preferably two different animal prints from different animals.”

She continued, “And the night that I made that decision, I spent $200 on used animal print clothing on eBay. And then the next day, I woke up just like, ‘What did I do?’ And then I had like 10 emails, congratulations on your animal print purchase. And then I was kind of regretting it and then everything arrived and I was like, ‘No, this was right. This feels right.’”

To say Rax demonstrates commitment to the bit here would be to imply that anything Rax does is ever less than completely sincere. As we discuss in our interview below, and as Rax lays out in her remarkable debut essay collection Tacky, the bedrock of tackiness is utter un-selfconscious sincerity. That sincerity might garner ridicule—including, obviously, being labeled “tacky”—but it also leads to a sense of, this feels right. And, sometimes, it also leads to a cool leopard print bedspread.

. . . .

Calvin Kasulke: So the subhead of your book is “Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer.” But a lot of the culture you discuss is from your adolescence and coming of age. Why that section of culture?

Rax King: Primarily because it’s personally important to me. I grew up with Creed, I grew up shoplifting from Bath & Body Works, these were formative experiences for me.

As I got a little older, it became obvious that these things I liked so much were not cool at all. Other people, who seemed smarter and more worldly than me, who I really wanted to impress, they did not like any of the same stuff as me. And it was a moment of forced reeducation, like I needed to get on board if I wanted to make friends with the cool smart people—which I did, because I was 16 and shallow.

And after long enough time passed and I was no longer in high school, I felt comfortable revisiting all this stuff I used to like, and it turns out all of it is still awesome. So I was right, everyone else was wrong. You can quote me on that.

CK: What were your shoplifting techniques?

RK: I wasn’t super brave with it most of the time, like—nothing with a security tag. I liked anything I could slip into my purse. I really liked the sample makeups from Sephora and whatnot because it was not only easy to steal them but I also felt pretty virtuous about it, like “This is something nobody else is going to want. It’s got 500 people’s other mouths all over it already, I might as well.”

. . . .

CK: Your essay about a date you had at the Cheesecake Factory achieves something that’s similarly difficult to convey, because you’re telling a story about an event that was ultimately disappointing and kind of boring. Which, by the way, what is your go-to order at the Cheesecake Factory?

RK: All right, settle in. Gotta get the avocado spring rolls to start—and a mojito, because not everybody has them and the ones at the Cheesecake Factory are huge.

Avocado spring rolls as the starter, the Louisiana chicken pasta as the main, and then at that point, you’re going to want to tap out early and get a box for leftovers. They give you two chicken breast patties and you want to save one, plus a bunch of pasta, because you don’t want to fuck up dessert. Then for dessert, peanut butter fudge ripple cheesecake, usually to go, and then I eat dinner all over again when I get home.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes that more than a few of the subjects of his posts are not about ideas or people he thinks are cool, smart, etc., etc.

Sometimes he posts items that strike him as signs of the times.

That said, PG did a bunch of dumb things himself when he was much younger than he is now.

Death of an Earl

As some regular visitors know, PG enjoys reading history, 20th Century by and large, but other centuries are also of interest to him as well.

As an expert historian, PG can assure to one and all that every single Earl is going to die at some time or another. No 14th century Earl has ever been located except in a creepy crypt somewhere.

PG thinks the Queen can make new Earls, but his preferred way to become an Earl would be to inherit the title and receive a bunch of valuable Earlish things in the process. That way, he’d have the crumbling mansion, suits of armor, colorful local staff, a fortune, etc., to complement his Earliness so nobody could say he just made up the Earl story.

The catch to this path to prominence is that you need to have an ancestor who was an Earl somewhere.

PG hasn’t found any Earls among all the peasants in his family tree.

Many years ago, PG was poking around among his forebearers and found one who was a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, which, according to the microfilm of an old, old piece of paper, would have made PG an hereditary Count. He got excited because everybody would have to call him Count PG.

However, about 15 minutes later, he discovered that he wasn’t descended from the old Count after all, and as of today, he’s still officially disCounted.

“Why,” one might ask, “absent the possibility of receiving vast treasures and great public distinction, are we concerned by the death of an earl?”

That’s a good question in 21st Century life for 99.999% of the world’s population.

However, if the earl is closely related to you, your view might change.

Today, Mrs. PG released her latest murder mystery, titled Death of an Earl.

1930’s Oxford types, Catherine Tregowyn and Harry Bascombe are tootling along, teaching students and minding their own business when one of Harry’s relatives (who is an Earl) turns out to be dead. Harry’s Earl hasn’t always been dead, it’s a recently-acquired trait.

So, like all good Oxonians, Catherine and Harry want to see that justice is done and start an investigation.

Italians and fishermen are involved.

Today is the release day for Death of an Earl on Amazon and the PG’s would be happy if a lot of people purchased copies of her book.

Britain used to treat her dead soldiers with disdain. One man changed that.

From The Economist:

What mattered was the shadow of the sun on the stone. The letters on the gravestones of the Great War should be deep enough and the angle of their engraving sharp enough, the commission on war graves decided, that someone—a mother say, or a father—walking between the rows could read the name of their son at a distance of six feet. Stonemasons struggle to achieve this: a chisel likes its own lean and to go steeper is to struggle against stone. But the commission was adamant. The letters were to be in an identical font, cut at an angle of 60 degrees and to a depth of three-sixteenths of an inch.

The precision is that of a factory: this is mourning, mass-produced. It needed to be, because when the commission was formalised in 1917,there were so many graves. On the first day of the Somme 19,240 British soldiers died; by the war’s end the total was 900,000. More wars added more bodies. Today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (cwgc), as it is now known, has 1,154,324 graves, from Arras (2,678 in just one cemetery) to Zanzibar (24) and even Timbuktu (two). It has graves in over 150 countries and every continent except Antarctica, corners of foreign fields that are legally forever England, since the cwgc has agreements giving it rights to its cemeteries “in perpetuity”.

When world leaders lay wreaths and stand for two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday, therefore, they stand in places so orderly and so familiar that they feel less invented than inevitable. They were nothing of the kind. Before the first world war, Britain’s treatment of her dead was characterised by contempt. After Waterloo, Wellington’s men—“the scum of the earth” as he called them—were tipped back into the earth to rot. When tourists travelled to the scene, triumph turned to revulsion at the piles of bodies. At the start of the first world war Britain had no system for recording her dead—nor any plan to create one. General Haig called efforts to identify the dead “purely sentimental”.

Mass literacy and mass communication changed all that. News reports had started to chip away at official indifference: it was harder for generals to send brigades charging into the valley of death when war reporters sent back dispatches on the volley of cannon that met them, and the folly of the generals who sent them. It was easier to convince the British public that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” without letters from the front giving the details of deaths that were neither dulce nor decorous, and that ended with, in the words of Roland Leighton, “a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull” and “hideous putrescence”. (The fiancé of Vera Brittain, an early feminist who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Leighton died soon after, aged 20, shot through the stomach on a moonlit night.)

But the efforts of one man were crucial. Fabian Ware, a former journalist, was too old to fight, and went to the front as commander of a Red Cross mobile ambulance unit instead. He quickly realised that there was no system for recording the slaughter. Soldiers had been trying, with pencils and wooden crosses, but official indifference defeated them. Ware set to work.

Walk through a war cemetery on Remembrance Sunday, and Ware’s legacy is around you. By May 1915 his unit had registered 4,300 graves and the commission had gained some official recognition. By 1916 he had sketched a design for the now-iconic double dog-tag: one for the body, one “for the purpose of evidence of death”. By 1917 the empire’s artists were involved. Rudyard Kipling oversaw the wording on the graves. MacDonald Gill produced the font and Edwin Lutyens the design. All should be the same shape—and they should not be crosses, for among the dead were “Jews, Mussulmens, Hindus and men of other creeds” who deserved “equality of honour”. (Religious symbols could be individually engraved afterwards).

. . . .

In India, in the rainy season grass is mown twice a week to maintain a military cut. Many of the graves are in Britain, as those who died of their wounds after the war still received a war burial. Walk through London’s Victorian cemeteries and you will spot them, amid the ivy and angels and decay, by the grass of a shorter cut and stones of a brighter white.

The cwgc aims for perpetuity. But time fights back. Moss grows, ivy creeps, rain erodes. The headstones were intended to be eternal: instead, Ozymandias-like, their soft Portland stone turned out to be an object lesson in obsolescence. By the second world war it was already eroding, says Caroline Walker, great-niece and biographer of MacDonald Gill. The cwgc does its best. Enzymes are now deployed to clean moss without eroding the stone further.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Moral Suasion

From The Paris Review:

I am not sure I will ever agree with the viability of the political trajectory traced in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future; I don’t think we are going to survive by successfully convincing an administrative class—through science or terror or moral suasion—to administer the world better until climate collapse is averted. But so what? You don’t read books because they say what you already believe. You read books because they take the problem seriously, take the world seriously, don’t counterfeit the dimensions of the predicament. Or, those are at least some reasons to read books, and The Ministry for the Future is one of very few that satisfy those imperatives for me. Interestingly, his books, including this one, are often classified as “Hard SF,” meaning they are based in careful and arguably wonky extensions of hard science. Yes and no. Certainly they take science very seriously, and Robinson is wildly erudite and engaged in such matters. But Robinson’s books have over the last decade increasingly understood that the underlying problem is not science, and therefore has no scientific solution; it lies in political economy, and a sustained change that might preserve the possibility of human flourishing has to happen there. I think that should complicate the categories a little. In any regard, the book is real thinking and real invention, operating at the scale of the whole, which is really the place to be these days.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG notes that, over the span of history, it has always been a bad idea to give control over a large group of people to a small privileged class.

Moral suasion works only on those who invariably honor the morals being used to persuade under all circumstances.

Human nature tends to lead to individuals in the privileged class finding ways to garner more and more power for themselves.

The first dictator may begin as an effective and highly-admirable individual, perhaps even for the rest of her/his life. But the first dictator may also change once he/she’s in power and is surrounded by some conscientious helpers and, invariably, some sycophants. Like bears to honey, sycophants are attracted to power.

Even if the dictator starts out by winning a democratically-run election, you see the one election, one leader, one time unless there are substantial legal, social and cultural restraints on that leader’s power and time in office.

Even if the first dictator runs the country very nicely, there is always going to be a second dictator who will be unlike the first in some ways.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton