A Guide to Conquering Your Demons with 5 Mathematical Sci-Fi Books

From Book Riot:

Mathematical science fiction books use mathematics in world-building to advance the plot and build characters. Building on Clarke’s three laws, Mathematical Fiction allows readers to discover the appeal of solvable questions. The right math can solve any problem, outsmart any foe, or conquer any demon. STEM fields that may not interest readers in real life become fascinating in fiction. I’m a math novice at best, but I always love it when mathematics explains impossible feats of heroism in sci-fi. I have compiled an action-packed list filled with suspense, romance, and silliness as well as advanced mathematics.

. . . .

The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Welcome readers, to a little romantic locked room mystery novella from the dual perspectives of Trinity Jordan and Li Wei. Trinity is a self-proclaimed homebody recovering from an accident that took away her old life. Meanwhile, in the apartment across the hall, Li Wei is relearning what it means to be an almost-human A.I. unit. He uses statistical analysis and observation to acclimate to his new environment, developing a fascination for his gorgeous neighbor Trinity. With the help of Trinity’s friends, Li’s aunt, and Penny, a particularly capable Home A.I. Personal Assistant, they remember the truth. The feeling of wrongness is always on the tip of your tongue, just waiting for you to taste the rancid foundation Trinity and Li’s safety is built on. This Mathematical Sci-Fi novella is very boy-next-door meets Skynet and I love it.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

As someone who took just enough math to get a respectable SAT Math score, then stopped forever, Mathematical Sci-Fi sounds a bit intimidating, but perhaps PG needs to give it a try.

He can’t rule out the possibility that math has changed since the invention of the decimal point.

Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:


IN CAPITAL IS DEAD, McKenzie Wark asks: What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse? The question is provocative, sacrilegious, unsettling as it forces anti-capitalists to confront an unacknowledged attachment to capitalism. Communism was supposed to come after capitalism and it’s not here, so doesn’t that mean we are still in capitalism? Left unquestioned, this assumption hinders political analysis. If we’ve rejected strict historical determinism, we should be able to consider the possibility that capitalism has mutated into something qualitatively different. Wark’s question invites a thought experiment: what tendencies in the present indicate that capitalism is transforming itself into something worse?

Over the past decade, “neofeudalism” has emerged to name tendencies associated with extreme inequality, generalized precarity, monopoly power, and changes at the level of the state. Drawing from libertarian economist Tyler Cowen’s emphasis on the permanence of extreme inequality in the global, automated economy, the conservative geographer Joel Kotkin envisions the US future as mass serfdom. A property-less underclass will survive by servicing the needs of high earners as personal assistants, trainers, child-minders, cooks, cleaners, et cetera. The only way to avoid this neofeudal nightmare is by subsidizing and deregulating the high-employment industries that make the American lifestyle of suburban home ownership and the open road possible — construction and real estate; oil, gas, and automobiles; and corporate agribusiness. Unlike the specter of serfdom haunting Friedrich Hayek’s attack on socialism, Kotkin locates the adversary within capitalism. High tech, finance, and globalization are creating “a new social order that in some ways more closely resembles feudal structure — with its often unassailable barriers to mobility — than the chaotic emergence of industrial capitalism.” In this libertarian/conservative imaginary, feudalism occupies the place of the enemy formerly held by communism. The threat of centralization and the threat to private property are the ideological elements that remain the same.

A number of technology commentators share the libertarian/conservative critique of technology’s role in contemporary feudalization even as they don’t embrace fossil fuels and suburbia. Already in 2010, in his influential book, You Are Not a Gadget, tech guru Jaron Lanier observed the emergence of peasants and lords of the internet. This theme has increased in prominence as a handful of tech companies have become ever richer and more extractive, turning their owners into billionaires on the basis of the cheap labor of their workers, the free labor of their users, and the tax breaks bestowed on them by cities desperate to attract jobs. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet (the parent company name for Google) together are worth more than most every country in the world (except the United States, China, Germany, and Japan). The economic scale and impact of these tech super giants, or, overlords, is greater than that of most so-called sovereign states. Evgeny Morozov describes their dominance as a “hyper-modern form of feudalism.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG will remind one and all that he does not necessarily agree with everything he posts here.

He hopes this is not happening at a lot of other places around the world, but large portions of urban America appear to have fallen into an endless Doom/Gloom cycle, sort of a Doom/Gloom wallow.

PG will note that, when he prepared this post yesterday, the book mentioned in the OP had an Amazon Sales Rank of #143,149 in Kindle Store. The LARB article is dated May 12, 2020, so whatever sales bump the book received from the review apparently didn’t last very long.

Even though the title of the book implies that capitalism is dead, apparently the publisher and author had no problem offering it for sale through an enterprise that is one of the greatest capitalist successes of the last twenty years. Maybe Amazon is on the brink of collapse, but PG wouldn’t bet on that.

(PG was going to put this post in the Non-Fiction category, but decided not to do so.)

Penney Dreadfuls & Murder Broadsides

From I Love Typography:

[A] new kind of serialized fiction . . . first appeared in London in the 1830s. It wasn’t Charles Dickens or Mary Shelley but it was cheap — only a penny — easy to read, entertaining, and extraordinarily popular.

. . . .

The emergence of the penny dreadful in England coincided with improved literacy. Nationwide educational reforms launched in the 1830s aimed to eventually provide universal, free, and compulsory state-funded education. In England, when printing was introduced in the 1470s, literacy was likely under 10%. By the 1830s, literacy rates were about 66% and 50% for men and women, respectively. By 1900 the literacy rate had risen to 97%. What’s more, in the nineteenth century there was sustained and unprecedented population growth. In England, between 1800 and 1850 the population doubled; it then doubled again between 1850 and 1900! That growth was accompanied by a marked demographic shift: already by the 1820s almost half of the UK’s population was under 20! Not only did the period mark an almost exponential increase in mass-produced and cheap print, on scales inconceivable prior to the Industrial Revolution, but it found a global mass market of readers — an increasingly large number of whom were young and literate. It’s in this environment that the penny dreadful made its debut.

. . . .

Before the nineteenth century, there wasn’t much in the way of fun and entertaining reading material for children. In fact, children’s literature as a genre was a pretty late starter, only getting off the ground in the eighteenth century, and even then it was usually didactic, pious, and moralizing — not particularly fun. The first children’s periodical, The Lilliputian Magazine, published by John Newbery, didn’t appear until 1751. By the late 1790s, Churches and religious organizations had begun to publish children’s periodicals and Sunday School magazines, but again they were rather stuffy and conservative, not really the kind of thing that children were excited to read. But that was about to change.

. . . .

In summing up the nineteenth-century ‘reading revolution’, historian Dr Mary Hammond writes: ‘The period 1830–1914 saw some of the greatest changes in readerships and the types and availability of reading material ever experienced in the Western world.’* By the start of that period, serialized fiction was already becoming hugely popular. It’s how Charles Dickens got his start with the serialization of The Pickwick Papers in 1836–37. But most early serialized fiction was intended for adult readers. What’s more, although books were now cheaper than they’d ever been, they were still beyond a working child’s meagre wages; for example, The Pickwick Papers was published in twenty 32-page installments, but at 5 shillings (1 shilling = 12 pennies) per installment, it was far too expensive for most working class adults, let alone children.

. . . .

Enter the penny dreadful, typically eight or sixteen pages, printed on cheap paper, taking its serialized story cues from gothic thrillers of the previous century. Most of the stories are now forgotten, but one notable exception is everyone’s favorite homicidal barber, Sweeney Todd. Before he appeared in the pages of a book, he was butchering his victims and selling their remains as meat pies next door in a penny dreadful serial, ‘The String of Pearls: A Romance’, published in The People’s Periodical in 1846.

Link to the rest at I Love Typography

There are lots of images taken from Penney Dreadfuls at the OP.

Here’s a page from Sweeney Todd from Wikipedia:

via Wikipedia

As the Vote Nears: High Season for US Political Books

From Publishing Perspectives:

How can we have published so many books about a man who doesn’t read them? Before you can even begin to sort that out, another such title will land. David Rothkopf’s Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump is being released Tuesday (October 27) by Macmillan’s Thomas Dunne Books, exactly one week to the feverishly awaited November 3 United States general election.

Was there ever a better moment for bicycle mobile libraries like the ones spotted sometimes in Europe? Polling-place regulations and COVID-19 precautions allowing, they could pedal around this week’s long queues of America’s early voters, offering pertinent reading options to these resolute patriots as they wait for hours to vote in their record-smashing numbers.

The Rothkopf book arrives with particularly strong endorsements. David Frum (author of HarperCollins’ Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy from May) commends Rothkopf’s “elegantly controlled fury” and “scorching accusation.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

For those visitors to TPV from outside the United States, PG doesn’t remember a presidential election season which felt like it dragged on for as long as the present one.

PG also suspects that if “None of the Above” were an option on the presidential ballot, it might win.

Regarding the OP, is there anyone in the US who is clamoring for bicycle mobile libraries? Particularly if they are filled with books about current political topics?

What book has the most disappointing ending?

From The Washington Post:

The novel I’m reading has a terrible ending. But I’ll never tell you its title.

Such is the necessary restraint of a book reviewer — or at least a courteous one.

I go back and forth about the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion. After all, so much of how we feel about a novel depends on how the novel ends. But there’s really no way to critique a story’s ending without giving it away, which, according to my mail, is the single most irritating thing a reviewer can do. So, week after week, I bite my tongue, withholding whatever I might think about finales.

I know other critics — great critics — don’t share my reticence. This summer, in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Winkler started her review of Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” by summarizing the final scene, a maneuver so brazen that my eyebrows still rise when I think of it. And James Wood, the Great Spoiler himself, once splayed out the whole conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” — complete with suspense-squashing quotations.

. . . .

But as much as readers don’t want reviewers commenting on endings, they definitely like to comment on endings themselves. Whenever conversation turns to books, the single most common statement I hear from friends is: “Yeah, but I didn’t like the ending.” I give a pained smile and change the subject.

. . . .

Last month, the online retailer OnBuy.com sifted through reviews on Goodreads to identify the Books With the Most Disappointing Endings. The methodology — searching comments for “ending” and variations of the word “disappointing” — feels a bit dubious, but the list is an irresistible walk down memory lane.

According to OnBuy’s final tally, British writers are particularly disappointing. That hack William Shakespeare wrote the worst finale of all time. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson’s friend Milhouse: “How could this have happened? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but instead it ended in tragedy.” Booker winner Ian McEwan came in at a shameful No. 2. (For the record, I think “Atonement,” including its mind-blowing conclusion, is brilliant.) And gazillionaire writer J.K. Rowling magically takes two spots.

. . . .

Here’s OnBuy’s list of the Top 12 Most Disappointing Endings:

  1. “Romeo and Juliet,” by William Shakespeare.
  2. “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan.
  3. “Requiem,” by Lauren Oliver.
  4. “The Sweet Far Thing,” by Libba Bray.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

For the record, PG thinks the ending of Romeo and Juliet is excellent — unexpected and heart-rending.

Shakespeare had some clichés in his plays (almost everyone else does, as well), but a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers would have been too pat and predictable.

With the world on fire, climate fiction no longer looks like fantasy

From Grist:

The tops of houses poke above the waves. The desert has crept into fields, turning corn dry and brittle. Firestorms ravage entire towns, turning homes into charred, ashy remains.

You don’t have to read a novel to picture what climate change looks like anymore — you only have to read the news. But there’s new evidence that reading fiction about our overheating planet might make it feel more real, sort of like how watching a horror movie makes you scared of the basement for a while.

Authors have been imagining what a warmer world would look like ever since climate scientists first made their concerns about greenhouse gases known. But in recent years, climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has really exploded. With contributions from celebrated authors like Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Amitav Ghosh, Cormac McCarthy, and Kim Stanley Robinson, it has left the realm of sci-fi, a reflection of how climate change has moved from speculation to touch every facet of our lives.

. . . .

“I think we’re close to the point where literature that doesn’t include climate change, in some way, shape, or form, just isn’t reflecting the reality that we inhabit,” said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an assistant professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

A first-of-its-kind experiment published last month found that reading a short story about climate change makes people more worried about the crisis — even if the effect doesn’t last long. The study, led by Schneider-Mayerson, surveyed Americans who were interested in reading fiction and moderately concerned about the climate crisis. In the experiment, participants read short stories online and were then subjected to questions about climate change.

Link to the rest at Grist

During the ongoing months of The Year of Covid, PG wonders what the market is like for books that make readers more worried.

Of course, if you’re vaguely worried about the invasion of earth by space aliens (presidential candidates not included), books about that topic might sell well, but climate change may be something else.

However, as usual, PG could be completely wrong about this category of books.

A Sales Rep With No Regrets

From Publishers Weekly:

The year was 1978. I had just graduated from high school and was eager to begin the next chapter of my life. I was always interested in becoming a police officer, so I began the process. Law enforcement personnel came to my home to meet with me and my parents. It was a great meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting ended with them measuring my height. Apparently there was a height requirement. I failed because I was too short.

My mother suggested I further my education, so I registered for college to get a business degree. Since classes didn’t start until fall, my sister suggested that I apply for a job at the nearby wholesaler Gordon’s Books, which was then based in Denver. She had worked there briefly and loved the owners. Gordon and Blanche Saul were awesome! So, against my parents’ wishes, I decided to get a tuition refund and continue my career with Gordon’s. Within a short time, I was promoted to supervisor of order entry. It was great getting to know different booksellers and helping teachers and librarians with their book budgets.

Gordon’s was sold to Howard Bellowe, who, in 1991, would go on to sell it to Ingram Industries, which hired many Gordon’s employees. In joining Ingram, I became one of the first inside sales reps for the company, working for the famous Art Carson, our v-p of sales. I managed a small sales team in Denver and handled all new business. When Ingram decided it wanted its inside sales reps to be located in its LaVergne, Tenn., headquarters I was laid off. A year later, in 2001, the warehouse was closed. After 21 years working in wholesaling, I was looking for my next adventure.

Shortly after I left Ingram, Bill Preston, who had been my manager at Gordon’s, called me. He was the vice president of sales for Baker & Taylor, which had a sales office in Colorado. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him. I turned him down because I did not want to go through another layoff. After all, B&T was not based in Colorado. I was in my first week of training at the Rocky Mountain News when Bill called again: “I can’t believe you would give up all these years in the book industry,” he told me. And so began my career with B&T. I was its first inside sales rep.

During my time with B&T, I went on to manage sales teams in various offices. When (as I had feared) B&T closed its Denver office, Bill allowed me to work remotely. I went back to managing a territory, which was a blessing, because I missed working with my wonderful indie bookseller accounts. In 2019 B&T decided to close its retail division and, after more than 19 years with the company, I was once again looking for a new opportunity.

In early June of that year, on the Sunday after BookExpo, I was sitting at my computer working on my résumé when an email popped up from Cindy Raiton, president of sales for Bookazine. Many of my wonderful bookseller accounts had approached her at the show suggesting she talk to me. I flew to Bookazine’s headquarters in New Jersey to meet with Cindy and the owners. I was immediately impressed with their operation, kindness, and dedication to independent booksellers. I was soon hired, but less than a year into the job, Covid hit and I was laid off.

So here I sit today, too young to retire but with no idea of my next journey. I have not had to look for a job since 1978, so I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. Being laid off once is awful, but being laid off three times—well, there are no words.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has two thoughts:

  1. The treatment the author of the OP has received sounds quite a lot like the publishing industry as PG knows it. Author or employee, the big boss runs the show and a great many people are expendable.
  2. A good sales person is often capable of selling a variety of different things. Convincing a potential customer to choose the product or service you’re able to provide is a skill that requires some knowledge of the market, but is most dependent upon people skills, intelligence, the ability to build lasting relationships based upon trust and understanding the commercial needs of others, expressed or unexpressed.

Some people with excellent sales talents become an Independent Sales Representative, AKA a Manufacturer’s Rep. PG doesn’t know if the book business has any, but, if they don’t, it might be a good idea to consider.

For those unfamiliar with this term, an independent sales representative is almost universally paid on a commission-only basis and usually sells to customers in a specified geographical region. Basically, she/he is part of a company’s sales, marketing and customer service team, but may live anywhere and doesn’t usually have an office of her/his own at the company.

One of the nice things about working as an independent sales rep is that you don’t have to work exclusively for a single company. Skilled independent sales reps typically sell a variety of products that don’t compete with each other. Sometimes, they’ll sell several different products needed by a particular industry, so a sales call can involve taking orders from a single customer for more than one type of product provided by different manufacturers who the sales rep represents. In contrast, an inside sales employee can usually only sell what her/his employer manufactures.

If one company terminates an indie sales rep, he/she still has the other companies’ products to sell to generate an income, so the impact is different than what happens to a full-time inside sales person who is laid off.

One other benefit of taking this path is that, typically, there is no cap on the amount of money the rep can earn. If the commission is 7%, the rep receives 7% of $1,000 or 7% of $1million if that’s what theindie rep sells during a month, quarter, year, etc.

Inside sales jobs involve the situation described in the OP. You’re an employee of a company and have a boss. Typically, you’ll be assigned a sales quota and a territory (a “territory” can be a geographical area or a line of business, e.g. nuts, but not bolts. An inside sales person often receives a base salary and benefits plus a commission on sales she/he makes.

The inside sales person’s boss typically receives a salary plus what is sometimes called an “override commission” based on sales made by the people she/he supervises. If the inside salesperson makes a $1,000 sale, the salesperson may receive a commission of 5% of the sale and the boss may receive an override commission of 2% of the sale.

One of the unwritten rules of a great many inside sales departments is that an inside sales rep shouldn’t earn more than the boss does, a distinct possibility for a really good sales rep who has a lower salary than the boss, but a higher royalty percentage. One of the ways to keep an inside salesperson from earning too much money is to split his/her territory and hiring a new salesperson to sell in the new territory or adding the new territory to the territory of another sales rep who services a less-fertile geographical area.

Over his legal/business career, PG has known some very successful independent reps who have been able to earn a great deal of money from their skills and work. For some standardized products that can be purchased from a number of manufacturers, an independent sales rep can effectively “own” the customer and, should a manufacturer treat the rep badly, she/he can sign up with a competitor and take the customer elsewhere.

While laws in the United States vary from state to state, a manufacturer’s ability to legally limit the activities of an independent sales rep’s activities are almost always more limited than an employer’s ability to limit the activities of an employee or ex-employee, at least for a period of time.

PG knows very little about the details of how books are sold to bookstores and book wholesalers, but if working as an independent sales rep works in this field, the author of the OP might have an alternative means of finding a way of using her connections and sales abilities that might not be subject to periodic layoffs that cut her income to zero.

UPDATE: PG did a bit of online research and discovered the National Association of Publishers Representatives, so, at least for some categories of publishers, apparently an individual can act as an independent sales representative. Here’s a link to the advantages the NAPR says can accrue to a company using an Independent Publisher’s Representative.

An ode to California dreamin’

From Amazon Book Review:

Over on the East Coast, I’ve been thinking a lot about the West Coast—specifically the colorful landscape and people that make California magical. In recent weeks, fires have ravaged and threatened California’s natural environment and many people’s lives and homes. In an homage to California, I thought I’d pull together a collection of novels that celebrate California.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

You can’t have a California booklist without John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Primarily set in the Salinas Valley—”a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains”—East of Eden tells the story of the interwoven lives of two families just before the outbreak of World War I. Steinbeck’s masterpiece is an epic tale of family, humanity, and California.You can’t have a California booklist without John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Primarily set in the Salinas Valley—”a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains”—East of Eden tells the story of the interwoven lives of two families just before the outbreak of World War I. Steinbeck’s masterpiece is an epic tale of family, humanity, and California.

. . . .

Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

This is one of my recent favorites, The Son of Good Fortune, about a mother, Maxima, and her son, Excel, who are undocumented Filipino immigrants living in California. They each do their best to make money, blend in, and not get caught by the authorities. But what they do is not what you might expect: Maxima seduces men on the internet, eventually cajoling them to wire her money, while Excel flees to a hippie commune with his girlfriend and begins to wonder if he could make it his home. The Son of Good Fortune is a bighearted novel that disguises poverty, displacement, and disenchantment with hearty laughs and wacky characters. But don’t let that fool you—Tenorio writes with gusto and compassion about the undocumented in California.

Link to the rest at Amazon Book Review

The end of the general trade publishing concept

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

My brilliant friend Joe Esposito has written a piece to explain why Penguin Random House would want to acquire Simon & Schuster. I have also been thinking about why PRH, or any of the other three of the “Big Five”, would want to acquire S&S. In fact, two of the three, Hachette and HarperCollins, have indicated interest. Only Macmillan, which coincidentally or not just saw the resignation of its CEO, John Sargent, among the other four of the Big Five, is not on record as pursuing a purchase.

Here’s a snapshot of my view of the world of big consumer publishers and how it has changed over the past three decades, which informs my explanation of why PRH would want to buy S&S.

Big consumer publishers are called “trade publishers” because they have historically sold the vast preponderance of their units through “the trade”, the network of bookstores and libraries and their wholesalers that has grown up in the US over the past century. As the role and importance of bookstores in the overall distribution world of books has changed, so has the commercial reality for publishers.

In 1990, there were about 500,000 individual book titles to choose from because only what was in “books in print” was really available. There were, at that time, dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of stores in the country that carried 100,000 titles or more. Trade publishers who depended on that bookstore network and worked it regularly with two or three “lists” a year could almost always put out a few thousand copies of any book on their list through that bookstore network. Each new book published was competing with half-a-million others in the market, and the publishers were insulated from competition from any entity that didn’t cover the bookstores regularly the way they did.

The result of this was that most publishers made a little money on most of the books they published, unless they very much overpaid on the author advance or printed many more copies than they distributed. Publisher accounting obscured that fact, because almost all publishers did “title P&Ls” based on “unit cost accounting” which insisted that each unit sold carry its share of the publisher’s overhead, which was deemed to be 22 to 30 percent of the revenue, or even more.

This practice was nearly universal and based on fallacious logic. In fact, a publisher’s rent, warehouse costs, sales force costs, and office overheads did not go up or down with each book sold. They were fixed, or nearly fixed. Each title contributed margin if it brought in more dollars than it cost to originate and print, and all the margin from all the books contributed to retire overhead and then, when it was covered, constituted profit.

The point is that individual titles, let alone individual books sold, did not make profits and losses. Titles either contributed margin or they didn’t. The company made a profit or a loss.

. . . .

We’re in a different world today. The universe of possible titles now is about 18 million unique possibilities, or about 35 to 40 times more titles competing with each new book for attention and sales than existed three decades ago. (And all of those 18 million books, most of which live today as files ready to be printed-on-demand, are available in a day or two from Ingram.) Bookstores today are perhaps 25 percent of sales, so having a strong position with them only commands a fraction of the market. The stores are smaller in number and smaller in footprint; very few stores today carry more than 35-40,000 titles.

So publishers can’t make it on bookstores alone; very few titles, let alone whole lists, can. And for the sales made online, through book channels like Amazon or through specialty subject-specific marketing efforts a publisher might discover or construct, the publishers often don’t have the “insulation” that keeps a lot of competition out.

The net result of this is that publishers no longer are pretty much assured of positive margin on any book they publish. It isn’t just misleading accounting that is making them fearful of the commercial result of publishing speculatively; it is a fact that it is harder and harder to make money publishing a new book.

Big publishers (and Ingram, which is not a publisher but provides the full range of services and a shared infrastructure to 600 distributed publishers, making them collectively as big as most of the Big Five) have long recognized this market shift. They have been building “direct” sales efforts, including creating vertical websites, compiling email lists of book consumers, and “working” the Internet for sales and marketing opportunities, for well over a decade.

. . . .

But the big problem for the publishers is that backlist inexorably “decays” in sales power year by year. Titles, particularly non-fiction, become dated. This was not so noticeable in the days when new title publishing was profitable and added new blood to the backlist every season. But it must be increasingly noticeable in a time when new title production in many houses is being reduced and a smaller percentage of what is launched survives to become backlist.

Meanwhile, the big publishers are building sales capabilities through online channels, often topic- or audience-specific, that are wasted assets unless there is a flow of books new to those audiences to feed them. Penguin Random House has been very aggressive at building their digital marketing capabilities. That means they can sell more copies of many titles than anybody else can; they have more places to push and put them.

And all of that is why Penguin Random House could benefit a great deal from acquiring Simon & Schuster. They would get tens of thousands of commercially viable titles to push through channels they have that S&S did not. 

. . . .

General trade publishing will be soon be recognized as an artifact of a trade that no longer exists. It doesn’t make sense any more for the organizing principle for title acquisition and marketing to be “if it works in bookstores, and we are confident we can convince them it will, we can do it”. That was the general trade that the general trade publisher served. As the trade shrinks, so does the universe of general trade publishers.

Book publishing is not going to stop, or even slow down. Individual authors, purpose-driven publishers, and many organizations (including schools) that see books as useful to their mission, will keep pushing new titles into the marketplace.

. . . .

The books will still be there. All the ones from the past will still be available and there will be a steady flow of new ones every day. What will be different is that most of the books sold won’t go through bookstores, and diminishing shares of the book sales will go to “frontlist” rather than “backlist” or to “commercial publishers” rather than self-publishers, upstarts, or not-publishers doing books anyway. In any case, “general trade” is not a term that is likely to make much sense to anybody ten years from now. That’s a big change.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG wonders who’s going to end up owning the rights to the copyrights of all the traditionally-published books.

The large majority of these copyrights are tied up with the publisher for the full term of the copyright – the rest of the author’s life plus 70 years in the US and similar lengths of time in other countries.

Ownership of these contract rights will be owned by someone. If the publisher disappears as a commercial entity, someone else will own the publishing contracts.

A traditionally-published author might well ask, “Who owns my book now? Will they still pay royalties? Who do I sue if the owner stops? Will the owner be in the United States or elsewhere?”

Filippo Buonanni’s Harmonic Cabinet

PG says he hasn’t created a category for Piffle on TPV, but perhaps it’s time to do so.

Or, in the alternative, provide a content warning something like:

PG has come down with another case of temporary insanity.

There’s a lot of that going around, often associated with the Trump/Biden presidential campaigns.

The following may reflect PG’s current frame of mind. He’s called his doctor to see if there is a pill he can take, but has received no response.

From the Public Domain Review:

The German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher had a lifelong fascination with sound and devoted two books to the subject: Musurgia Universalis (1650), on the theoretical (and theological) aspects, and Phonurgia Nova (1673), on the science of acoustics and its practical applications. It’s no surprise then to learn that his famed museum at Rome’s Collegio Romano boasted— in addition to “vomiting statues”, ghost-conjuring mirrors, and other curious wonders — a vast and diverse collection of musical instruments.

. . . .

Inspired by the collection of instruments in Kircher’s wunderkammer, and intrigued by the stories behind them, in 1722 Buonanni published his Gabinetto Armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori (or Harmonic cabinet full of sonorous instruments), an attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world. While there’s a short and often illuminating text for each instrument it is the 152 engraved plates — executed by Flemish artist and publisher Arnold van Westerhout — which really steal the show. The featured instruments are divided into three sections — wind, string, and percussion — and preceded by thirteen brief discussions of other musical categories, including: military, funeral, used in sacrifices, and, intriguingly, as used at sea: not sirens, but chantying sailors. While some of the instruments gathered in Buonanni’s book are as simple as the bee-keeper banging his tub, or the clacking of shoes against the floor, some are highly crafted, technical machines; the great organ at Palazzo Verospi requires a fold-out page to show it all. We are also treated to what might be considered more incidental instruments, for example, the bell about a bound criminal’s neck and the sound of a soldier’s sword being struck.

. . . .

Link to the rest at The Public Domain Review

8 Epic Journeys in Literature

From Electric Lit:

The journey story, where the hero must venture out into the world for reasons not necessarily entirely of his/her own devising, is likely as old as recorded literature.

Of course the journey story can also be understood as an allegory of the self, or soul, and its evolution in a lifetime, for storytelling is always an act, as Ann Carson says, “of symbolization.” In this sense, the journey story not only narrates the material events of a life, but the interior transformations an individual undergoes.

. . . .

The Epic of Gilgamesh, or He Who Saw Deep

The epic poem, one of oldest works of world literature, was composed in its earliest versions over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and written in Babylonian cuneiform on clay tablets. Much of the reason it is lesser known than the younger works of Homer is because the epic itself was not rediscovered until 1853, cuneiform was not deciphered until 1857, and it wasn’t well translated until 1912. Fragments of the story on stone tablets continue to be found in modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

The basic story follows the King Gilgamesh of Uruk (modern-day Warka, Iraq) and his friendship with the wild man Enkidu. They undergo various battles including fighting and defeating the bull of heaven. Later, upon Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh journeys to the edge of the earth where he goes in search of the secret of eternal life and, not finding it, returns home to Uruk having in some manner, in spite of life’s sorrows and travails, made peace with his own mortality.

“Ever do we build our households, ever do we make our nests, ever do brothers divide their inheritance, ever do feuds arise in the land. Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly floating on the water. On the face of the sun its countenance gazes, then all of sudden nothing is there!”

. . . .

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

When I think of Hurston I recall her description in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” of the “cosmic Zora” who would emerge at times as she walked down Seventh Avenue, her hat set at a certain angle, who belonged “to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” In Hurston’s extraordinary novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the eternal and timeless qualities of imaginative literature are on full display in the very specific groundings of place and time, spoken language and culture. The book opens with Janie Crawford recounting her life story to her friend Pheoby upon her return to the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida. The book, set in the 1930s, follows Janie’s narration of her early life, her three marriages (the last for love), and the many trials she undergoes including the death of her beloved during her travels, before she finally returns changed, wiser, independent. “You got tuh go there tuh know there…Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Reading Habits Of Five Generations

From the BookBaby Blog:

I’ll admit, I’m not great at remembering which generation is which, and I do get a kick out of how people like to pit one against another. I guess that’s just the way we do everything these days. OK Boomers vs. Millennials. Gen Z vs. Gen X. And is it wrong that I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Silent Generation? That doesn’t sound very supportive, especially as they were preceded by the Greatest Generation. Who gets to name these groups, anyway?

. . . .

  • Gen Z prefers fantasy to other genres.
  • Millennials read more books than other generations.
  • Gen X reads more online news than other generations.
  • Baby Boomers rely on best-seller lists to find their books.
  • The Silent Generation spends the most time reading each day.
  • A preference for physical books spans all generations.

Link to the rest at the BookBaby Blog and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

PG will note there is an excellent and extensive infographic included in the OP (1-2 screens down from the top, depending upon your monitor), so you may have more reason than usual to click through.

Is American Fiction Too Provincial?

From Public Books:

Autumn brings the peak of the literary prize season: winners of the Booker, the National Book Award, the Women’s Prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Nobel will all be announced by mid-November. American authors and books will be contenders for almost every award, large and small, for which they are eligible. That makes this an auspicious moment to revisit two persistent questions about American literature: Is it really a key part of the global literary system? And is the answer to that question the same for its “serious” and its mainstream forms? We can see the doubts behind those questions most clearly in a recent literary controversy, one that seems to have grown at once more and less relevant in the 12 years since it took place.

Autumn brings the peak of the literary prize season: winners of the Booker, the National Book Award, the Women’s Prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Nobel will all be announced by mid-November. American authors and books will be contenders for almost every award, large and small, for which they are eligible. That makes this an auspicious moment to revisit two persistent questions about American literature: Is it really a key part of the global literary system? And is the answer to that question the same for its “serious” and its mainstream forms? We can see the doubts behind those questions most clearly in a recent literary controversy, one that seems to have grown at once more and less relevant in the 12 years since it took place.

Readers with longish memories and a taste for the absurd will recall the 2008 incident with Horace Engdahl, who was then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and is now a central figure in the Academy’s recent #MeToo and corruption scandals that canceled the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the run-up to the 2008 award announcement, Engdahl explained that American authors were not competitive for the prize, because they were “too isolated, too insular” and didn’t “participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

The results of this claim were a good deal of hand-wringing among American authors and readers, some sympathetic head-nodding both here and abroad, and no noticeable change in the prize’s national distribution. (There have been two American laureates since 1978: Toni Morrison in 1993 and Bob Dylan in 2016.)1 On its own, the incident isn’t worth much attention today; it represented a passing amalgam of ignorance, publicity seeking, and the combination of arrogance and fallibility that James English diagnosed in these pages in his coverage of the Academy’s recent (and more serious) woes.

But the idea that American literature could be or should be (or perhaps already was) more deeply intertwined with the world outside the United States wasn’t unique to Engdahl. Scholars have repeatedly argued that what we call American literature has been bound up with other literary traditions (and markets) for centuries, and that contemporary US fiction has been especially explicit in its treatment of the world.

Domestic readers, meanwhile, have always made successes of at least some American-authored books set outside the US, of novels by writers who immigrated to the States, and of imported fiction largely divorced from American culture. Yet the nagging sense that American literature is at least a little provincial, a little self-absorbed in comparison to other nations—that Engdahl was a broken clock enjoying one of its twice-daily minutes of accuracy—has remained hard to escape.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to say what is the normal or correct amount of national introspection. Danish authors, one presumes, write about Denmark more often and more deeply than do others. We don’t generally consider this a problem. And the United States naturally looms large in the imagination of writers around the globe, as do other wealthy, influential nations. So, we should expect differences from country to country and probably some overrepresentation of the United States across the board, especially in recent decades.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The short answer to the question in the title is “No”.

American fiction is American fiction. Swedish fiction is Swedish fiction.

Most purchasers of American fiction are Americans. Most purchases of Swedish fiction are Swedes. Swedes think Americans are weird. Those Americans who think of Sweden (a small minority) think Swedes are probably OK, particularly the blonde ones, but may not like that pickled herring stuff so much.

Nobel prizes are distributed according to the opinions of a small group of Scandinavians appointed by their nation’s parliaments (Norway) or elected by a self-perpetuating board that tends fill vacancies with other people just like themselves (Sweden).

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is selected by five Norwegians appointed by the Storting AKA the Norwegian parliament. The winner receives the prize each year in Oslo.

Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded by the Nobel Academy, established in 1786 by Swedish King Gustav III.

Visitors to TPV will all remember that Gustav III was a strong proponent of enlightened despotism. (PG note: Is that an oxymoron?)

Gustav III, the enlightened despot, came into power in 1772 via a coup d’état which ended Swedish parliamentary rule (generally referred to as “The Age of Liberty”). Thereafter, Good King Gustav spent a lot of public money money trying to forcibly annex Norway with Russian help.

In 1789, Gustav III helped organize a bunch of other kings who sent soldiers to to Paris to put down a popular uprising against the French monarchy and return his buddy, King Louis XVI, back to his rightful place on the throne.

In 1792, while Gustav III was attending a masquerade ball, he was shot and killed by someone who didn’t like him.

Wouldn’t anyone want their child to grow up to be just like Gustav III, the creator of the Nobel Prize for Literature?

But PG digresses.

The Swedish Academy, AKA Svenska Akademien, is composed of 18 members whose tenure is for life. (Gustave III thought the Swedish expression De Aderton – ‘The Eighteen’ – had a fine solemn ring to it. (Say it slowly, De . . . . . . Aderton . . . . and you’ll understand what GIII was talking about.))

The Swedish Academy publishes two Swedish dictionaries. The Swedish Academy meets for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. (PG doesn’t know if pickled herring is a regular part of the festivities or not.)

The current Academy consists of 18 writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist. PG couldn’t find out how old the members are. Since they are appointed for life and get a free dinner every Thursday, PG suspects there is a high proportion of geezers and geezerettes.

Speaking of which, The Academy didn’t include any women until in the early 2010’s, but reports that, as of today, 1/3 of its current members are women. (A sexual harassment and rape scandal and ensuing cover-up attempts involving Academy members and at least one of their spouses in 2018 created a lot of openings).

(PG is of mixed blood, but the largest percentage of his blood is Swedish, so he’ll leave off with the anti-Swedish scorn in this post now.)

So, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected as prize winners by 18 Swedish members-for-life who run The Swedish Academy?

And, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected for the Man Booker Prize, awarded by five British Judges?

And, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected for the Le prix Goncourt (self-explanatory)?

PG will end with three final questions:

  • What percentage of the American public worries about whether American Fiction is provincial or not?
  • What percentage of the American reading public worries about whether American Fiction is provincial or not?
  • What percentage of the American reading public cares about who wins any prize at all, foreign or domestic?
  • (Bonus Sub-question – What percentage of the American reading public who don’t live within 50 miles of an ocean cares about . . . .?)

Is the Publishing Trade Press Dead?

PG would appreciate it if visitors to The Passive Voice would forward links to anything they see in the Trade Press for Traditional Publishing that mentions the Barnes & Noble computer fiasco.

The Death of Max Jacob

From The Paris Review:

In late December of 1943, Max Jacob went to Orléans and Montargis to buy Christmas gifts for the children of the village of Saint-Benoît. He stayed for five days as a guest in the house of one of his doctor friends in Montargis, where he enjoyed the warmth of a cheerful family. He returned to Saint-Benoît for Christmas—the Mass celebrated in the basilica, the crèche with its plaster figures brought out year after year—followed by days of writing letters of New Year’s greetings and making ceremonial visits in the village. When he reported all this to Jacques Mezure on January 5, 1944, he didn’t yet know that his sister, Mirté-Léa, had been arrested.

Mirté-Léa was seized on January 4 and taken to the internment camp at Drancy. Jacob was beside himself. He threw himself into a campaign to save her, writing to everyone he imagined might have influence with the Germans: Cocteau, Marie Laurencin, Misia Sert, Sacha Guitry, the Bishop of Orléans, the Archbishop of Sens. He consulted his friend Julien Lanoë about whether or not to ask Coco Chanel, who had a German lover. His letters were heart-wrenching. He described his little sister, the “companion of his childhood,” her suffering as a widow, her devotion to her mentally handicapped son. “Dear friend, permit me to kiss your hands, the hem of your dress … I beg you, do something,” he implored Misia. Sacha Guitry replied that he couldn’t help “some unknown Jew.” If it were Max, he said, “he could do something.”

Drancy now contained men, women, and children. Transports to Auschwitz were leaving almost every week. Even as her brother sent his desperate appeals, Mirté-Léa was shoved into a train car on January 20; she went immediately to the gas chamber on her arrival. Max Jacob never knew what became of her.

. . . .

When he wasn’t writing letters to save his sister, Jacob was reading Gongora. Better than Mallarmé, he told Marcel Béalu. On the freezing Sunday morning of February 20, Dr. Castelbon, one of the Montargis doctors, drove the Béalus to Saint-Benoît to visit Jacob. They clustered in his room at Madame Persillard’s house, warming themselves at his stove, and admired the drawings he was working on. They had lunch together in the restaurant of the little hotel. “At least they can’t take this away from me: I’ve loved,” said Jacob. He confessed to Dr. Castelbon: “You know, you can’t always believe me: I make things up. I know it’s wicked and I confess it every morning to the priest—and then start up again.” They visited the basilica as they had done so many times before. Jacob, who hadn’t signed his name in the visitors’ book for years, added his signature, and the dates 1921–1944.

The next morning Jacob rose early in the brutal cold to help the vicar, the Abbé Hatton, serve Mass in the chapel in the Hospice; then he returned to his room, lit his fire, and wrote his daily meditation. When he rejoined his friends, he was in a jolly mood, trilling a verse. After lunch, the doctor drove them to Sully—still half in ruins from German bombs—where the Béalus would catch the bus to Montargis. They planned a visit for the following Sunday. “Au revoir, les enfants!” called Max, waving at them as the bus pulled out.

On Tuesday, Jacob dined with his friends, Dr. Georges Durand and his wife, in the village; he left early to attend a parish meeting. The next day was Ash Wednesday: Jacob received the mark of death on his forehead that morning at the rite in the crypt of the basilica. On Thursday, February 24, he rose at dawn to write his meditation and to help the Abbé Hatton serve Mass. He was back in his room, writing letters, when a gray car from Orléans drove up and three Germans in trench coats got out. They rang the bell, climbed the stairs to his room, and arrested him. Madame Persillard dashed over to the parsonage to rally the priest and the vicar, but they were busy. (“They could have come!” she protested later. “It was a little funeral of no importance whatsoever!”) One of the monks from the basilica hurried to the scene, as did Dr. Castelbon, still at the hotel: he had time to thrust a flask of alcohol and a pair of his own woolen long johns into Jacob’s hands. “Keep his things here for when he returns,” ordered the Germans. Madame Persillard made him take a quilt: “A shame,” said Jacob. “You’ll never get it back.” She erupted, “You see! Fat lot of good it did you to pray so much!” Jacob stayed calm; before stepping into the car, he shook hands with the small group of villagers who had gathered. At the bistro next door, when the car had driven off, Dr. Castelbon heard a neighbor say, “That man, he couldn’t do no harm: he wasn’t writing anymore.” “He wrote with his paintings,” said his companion.

In Orléans, Jacob was incarcerated with sixty-five other Jews, men, women, and children, in a filthy, freezing military cell, ten by ten meters large. They had straw mats to sleep on, already soaked in urine. They were given soup at noon, a little Camembert at night. Jacob managed to dispatch a message to Jean Rousselot, the poet and police commissioner: “Perhaps your title will permit you to bring me some tobacco and matches. Let Cocteau know. In friendship, Max Jacob. Man of Letters, Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.” But Rousselot didn’t receive the message in time.

In the prison in Orléans, Jacob exercised his famous gifts: perhaps they had never been so useful. He told jokes, sang, recited verses, cast horoscopes; he tended the sick, applying cupping glasses (from two jars) on a woman suffering from pneumonia; he soothed the desperate. On February 26 the wretched group was trucked to the station, packed into a train, and hauled to the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. From the train, Jacob was able to send a few appeals for help. To Cocteau he wrote, “Dear Jean. I write you in a train car, courtesy of the gendarmes who guard us. We’ll soon be at Drancy. That’s all I have to say. Sacha [Guitry], when asked to help my sister, said, ‘If it was Max, I could do something.’ Well, it’s me. Kisses, Max.” To the Chanoine Fleureau at Saint-Benoît he wrote, “Dear M. the curé, Please excuse this letter from a drowning man, written courtesy of the gendarmes. I would like to tell you that I’ll soon be at Drancy. I have some conversions in progress. I trust in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom that has begun. Max Jacob. I forget no one in my continual prayers.”

. . . .

Outside of Drancy, Jacob’s friends bestirred themselves. Cocteau pulled every string he could reach, scheming with Georges Prade, a wealthy businessman who ran the collaborationist newspaper Les Nouveaux Temps: Prade owned a gouache of Jacob’s and had already been called on to help Mirté-Léa. Cocteau composed a letter of appeal for Jacob’s release, which Prade took to the counselor Hans-Henning von Bose at the German embassy.

By some mystic coincidence, Jacob’s old friend the composer Henri Sauguet had begun to tinker with some poems from Jacob’s Pénitents en maillots roses in February when Pierre Colle called with news of the poet’s arrest. He and Colle went to find Picasso at lunch at his customary bistro, Le Catalan, near his studio on the rue des Grands Augustins. Picasso was in a lousy mood, Sauguet recalled. Whether or not he already knew of Jacob’s arrest was unclear. He did say, “Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.”

This incident is perhaps the most widely known story about Max Jacob, and is the one thing many people think they know about him. It provides several satisfactions: that of showing a famous artist to be a monster, and his lost friend as a victim. But the situation was far more complex. Picasso, it’s true, was no hero; he betrayed Apollinaire back in 1911 when they were interrogated about the theft of the Mona Lisa. But though German authorities did visit Picasso’s studio during the Occupation, the painter was vulnerable: he was a resident alien in Vichy France, and to be deported to Franco’s Spain would have been catastrophic. When he heard about Cocteau’s appeal, Picasso went to Prade and offered to sign it. Prade dissuaded him, arguing that the signature would carry no weight with the gestapo and would only make Picasso’s position in Paris more delicate than ever. The wisecrack itself was in the cruel lingua franca of the Bateau-Lavoir.

. . . .

Jacob hallucinated, he cried out. He saw trees marching and tried to seize them. The cold was crawling up his legs, he groaned. But his last words seem to have been peaceful: “You have the face of an angel,” he told the doctor leaning over him. He died at 9 P.M., March 5. 

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Max Jacob, photographed by Carl van Vechten, Library of Congress via Wikipedia
Portrait of Max Jacob by Amedeo Modigliani, 1911/1922, Cincinnati Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons
L’église De Locmaria [à Quimper, Max Jacob, 1927, via WikiArt, Public Domain
La Visitation, Max Jacob, 1938, via WikiArt, Public Domain

Eric Satie composed Furniture Music, or in French musique d’ameublement (sometimes more literally translated as furnishing music) in 1917. The piece premiered premiered in Paris the year it was composed, as intermission music to a lost comedy by Max Jacob. Source: Wikipedia

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The following is not in France, but is a photo of The Holocaust Memorial in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. PG found it affecting.

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The Holocaust Memorial, Bratislava’s Old Town, on the site of the former Neolog Synagogue demolished in 1969 original photo by Daniel Dimitrov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) via Wikimedia Commons/ Small modifications for clarity and appearance

China’s Good War

From The Wall Street Journal:

When I arrived in Tokyo in the late 1990s for a five-year stint as a correspondent, one of my biggest surprises was the near total absence in Northeast Asia of international organizations that could foster and channel cooperation in the area.

I had come to Japan from West Africa, a region then widely known for political instability and poverty. Northeast Asia, by contrast, boasted some of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies. When I mentioned to Asian politicians and scholars how, for all of its weakness, West Africa had a dense network of cooperative bodies that mostly functioned well, and I asked them why their region remained so divided and mutually distrustful, I drew uncomprehending stares and even anger. Didn’t I know that Japan had sought to colonize China and Korea in living memory and had committed countless atrocities in the process?

This sort of response would follow me when I took a later assignment in China, leading me to point out that, in Europe, former Axis powers were now joined in a tight-knit community with their erstwhile Allied enemies. What was it about Northeast Asia that prevented it from coming together more closely and overcoming its bitter recent past?

This question runs as a major subtext throughout Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism.” Mr. Mitter, one of Britain’s foremost historians of modern China, examines how Beijing has exploited memories of World War II and explores its recent efforts to win global recognition for itself as a principal architect and leading upholder of the international order. The results are probing, but covering so much ground in one slim volume probably makes the text somewhat inaccessible for a general audience, especially for those unfamiliar with Chinese politics and Communist Party historiography. Mr. Mitter notes how the country’s civil war between 1945 and 1949, which followed Japan’s defeat in World War II and ended in victory for Mao Zedong’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, coincided with the period when most of the postwar arrangements were made.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. had expected a Nationalist-led China to emerge as Asia’s leading power and even helped usher it onto the United Nations Security Council. But the civil war and Mao’s victory in 1949, and Beijing’s support for North Korea’s invasion of American-allied South Korea, led to a rupture in relations with the U.S. that would last into the 1970s. It also meant that the dismantlement of the Japanese empire took place without Chinese participation. Today, with Japan and South Korea firmly allied with Washington, and North Korea a client of Beijing, there has been little opportunity for unifying narratives to emerge, as happened in Western Europe.

China has cycled through political radicalism and economic autarky under Mao, canny and opportunistic cooperation with the U.S. guided by Deng Xiaoping, and increasingly ambitious international activism, beginning in Africa in the 1990s and, more recently, throughout the world via its Belt and Road Initiative. The one constant has been a desire to return to regional leadership and indeed global pre-eminence. Mr. Mitter’s book offers a detailed and fascinating account of how the Chinese leadership’s strategy has evolved across eras—and how its recent overtures to regional and international audiences have corresponded to shifts in domestic education and internal propaganda about World War II.

From the Communist victory in 1949 until the 1980s, war narratives in China heavily exaggerated the role of Mao’s forces in defeating the Japanese, thereby playing down the efforts of the Nationalists, whose armies in fact accounted for the brunt of the fighting, including almost all of the major battles in China’s resistance to the invaders.

China’s goal of gaining broader acceptance of its leadership in the world has come to involve recasting World War II altogether. The priority of lionizing Mao and his comrades in founding Communist China has given way to a desire for international legitimacy and admiration. Mr. Mitter shows how this has meant repurposing World War II as China’s “good war,” a conflict in which the enormous sacrifices made resisting the Japanese after the 1931 invasion of Manchuria bought crucial time for Western powers to gather their strength to confront and defeat Japan in the Pacific. Making such arguments has required China to gradually rehabilitate the long-reviled Nationalists, if not as a political movement at least as combatants.

This Chinese revisionism, expressed not just in textbooks, but increasingly in film and television and proliferating museums, now posits China as the most important Asian battleground of World War II and accords China a decisive role in defeating the Japanese. China, in other words, was “present at the creation” of the current international order and so deserves greater recognition for its past sacrifices and acceptance of its future leadership.

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

PG notes that Marxist regimes in the 20th century and moving into the 21st have always included an evil enemy. It’s a requirement for distracting the citizens from the disagreeable parts of their lives and their thuggish leaders.

Much of the fighting in many parts of China, particularly early in WWII, was between the armed forces loyal to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist insurgents following Mao. Regardless of one’s opinion concerning which side of that fight was worse, there is no doubt that the Chinese-on-Chinese fighting weakened both sides and reduced China’s ability to repulse or eject the Japanese invaders.

Further on Barnes & Noble’s Secret Computer Crash

Yesterday, PG posted about a severe computer outage at Barnes & Noble that reportedly took down the system Barnes & Noble’s physical stores use for orders, inventory control, etc., as well as the Nook store and the ability of Nook users to synchronize their devices, access ebooks not already stored on their Nooks, etc.

This problem took Barnes & Noble about three days from the first report PG read to fix the problem.

To the best of PG’s current knowledge, only two websites, GoodEreader (October 10) and The Digital Reader (October 13), reported on the outage.

Ergo, the entire Nook system went down and nobody noticed.

PG suspects if Amazon’s ebook store went offline went offline for an hour or two, let alone for three days, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and major US television networks would all cover the story.

PG suggests that this is perhaps the best evidence yet that the Nook ereader and Nook’s ebookstore don’t matter any more. Perhaps they’re not dead (at least today), but are semi-comatose.

At least in North America, it appears that Kobo may be #2 behind the Zon.

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt, the hope for traditional publishing’s future in the US, has, to the best of PG’s knowledge, had nothing to say about the ebook disaster (and physical bookstore ordering, etc., disaster) that appears to have been occurring in the US company for which he is the CEO.

If PG has missed something that Daunt or Barnes & Noble PR department has said about this matter, he would be happy to hear about it via the Contact link for The Passive Voice.

Publishers worry as ebooks fly off libraries’ virtual shelves

From Ars Technica:

Before Sarah Adler moved to Maryland last week, she used library cards from her Washington, DC, home and neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland to read books online. The Libby app, a slick and easy-to-use service from the company OverDrive, gave her access to millions of titles. When she moved, she picked up another card, and access to another library’s e-collection, as well as a larger consortium that the library belongs to. She does almost all of her reading on her phone, through the app, catching a page or two between working on her novels and caring for her 2-year-old. With her husband also at home, she’s been reading more books, mostly historical romance and literature, during the pandemic. In 2020, she estimates, she has read 150 books.

Adler buys books “rarely,” she says, “which I feel bad about. As someone who hopes to be published one day, I feel bad not giving money to authors.”

Borrowers like Adler are driving publishers crazy. After the pandemic closed many libraries’ physical branches this spring, checkouts of ebooks are up 52 percent from the same period last year, according to OverDrive, which partners with 50,000 libraries worldwide. Hoopla, another service that connects libraries to publishers, says 439 library systems in the US and Canada have joined since March, boosting its membership by 20 percent.

Some public libraries, new to digital collections, delight in exposing their readers to a new kind of reading. The library in Archer City, Texas, population 9,000, received a grant to join OverDrive this summer. The new ebook collection “has really been wonderful,” says library director Gretchen Abernathy-Kuck. “So much of the last few months has been stressful and negative.” The ebooks are “something positive. It was something new.”

. . . .

But the surging popularity of library ebooks also has heightened longstanding tensions between publishers, who fear that digital borrowing eats into their sales, and public librarians, who are trying to serve their communities during a once-in-a-generation crisis. Since 2011, the industry’s big-five publishers—Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—have limited library lending of ebooks, either by time—two years, for example—or number of checkouts—most often, 26 or 52 times. Readers can browse, download, join waiting lists for, and return digital library books from the comfort of their home, and the books are automatically removed from their devices at the end of the lending period.

The result: Libraries typically pay between $20 and $65 per copy—an industry average of $40, according to one recent survey—compared with the $15 an individual might pay to buy the same ebook online. Instead of owning an ebook copy forever, librarians must decide at the end of the licensing term whether to renew.

. . . .

Last year, Macmillan took an additional step, limiting each library system to only a single digital copy of a new title—at half its usual price—until it had been on the market for two months. Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he worried there was too little friction in library ebook lending. “To borrow a book in [the pre-digital days] days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time,” he wrote in a letter announcing the policy. “In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market.” Many librarians, arguing the Macmillan policy hurt large urban systems that already struggle to keep up with demand for new and noteworthy books, organized to boycott the publisher.

. . . .

The House Antitrust Subcommittee last year launched an investigation of competition in the digital marketplace, and subcommittee chair Representative David Cicilline (D–Rhode Island) has met with library advocates. “The whole issue of this negotiation [between libraries and publishers] over the last decade derives from a place where libraries have almost no rights in the digital age,” says Alan Inouye, the senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association. “In the longer run, there needs to be a change in the environment or in the game. That means legislation or regulation.”

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

PG thought the question of whether libraries were good or bad for publishers had been resolved a long time ago.

The resolution goes something like this:

  1. Libraries allow people to read books at no cost.
  2. A meaningful portion of people who read books they check out from libraries will find they enjoy reading and will continue to read books on a regular basis.
  3. Once a person becomes an avid reader, they are quite likely to continue this habit for a long time.
  4. Some avid readers will become wealthy enough so they’ll just buy a copy of a book they think they will like rather than wait until the library has a copy available to loan.
  5. Some avid readers will always be willing to wait to read a book they think they will really like until it becomes available at their library.
  6. Some avid readers won’t want to wait for several weeks until a book is available at the library and will decide to buy it instead, even if they’re not particularly wealthy.
  7. Avid readers are among the most effective advocates for books and authors they like. Unlike advertising and promotion activities, avid readers don’t cost publishers a cent.
  8. At least some avid readers will flock together in what are called book clubs.
  9. When a book club decides to read a book, it is likely that all copies available at the local library that aren’t already checked out will quickly disappear from the library shelves.
  10. Avid readers in book clubs, avid readers who are friends of other avid readers, etc., etc., tend to buy many more books than people who never caught the reading bug at no cost via their local library.

Ergo, libraries promote more reading, which creates more readers, which creates more book purchasers, which means publishers make more money.

People borrowing books from libraries in any form are likely the best way that publishers can ensure the creation of more and more long-term customers.

But acting on that understanding would require long-term thinking on the part of traditional publishers.

Among many other things that traditional publishers are not good at doing, engaging in long-term thinking may be the most damaging. In the long run.

All of Barnes & Noble’s Computer Systems Are Down, and I do Mean All of Them

From The Digital Reader:

Barnes & Noble is going through the mother of all system crashes right now.

Some time late Friday night or early Saturday morning the retailer’s entire IT backbone crashed, and it took almost all of the company’s functionality with it. Everything from the cash registers to the catalog lookup is down. Even the Nook platform is down.

What’s even worse is that it’s Tuesday morning, and everything is still borked. I just checked the B&N website, and while I can see the site I cannot log in, much less buy anything. I also cannot access any of the Nook features.

UPDATE: B&N’s systems are mostly back up around 3 pm eastern.

There are unconfirmed reports on Reddit that B&N has been attacked by a virus or other malware. Given that we are now on day four of this situation, it is more than likely that they are correct.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

When PG just checked the Barnes & Noble website, he found the following at the B&N Help Center:

We apologize for a system failure which is interrupting access to NOOK content for some users. We are working urgently now to get all NOOK Services back to full operation as soon as possible. We apologize once again and will post an update once systems are restored.

PG couldn’t find any reference to the systems problem on the BN home page.

PG first saw a mention of a huge Barnes & Noble system failure on October 10 on Good EReader. He held up on any post because he couldn’t find anything on the Barnes & Noble website or elsewhere online via Google search about any problems.

PG would love to know if Barnes & Noble sent out a notice to its Nook customers or otherwise notified readers about the problem.

For those unfamiliar with US business computing standards, a three-day outage of a company’s entire computer system (including the one used at all US Barnes & Noble retail stores) almost certainly qualifies as technology malpractice of a high order.

If it failed to do so, then, in PG’s electronically-humble opinion, Barnes & Noble has displayed total and complete ham-handedness, not only in failing to protect its entire IT infrastructure from a single-point-of-failure disaster, but also failing to take the most fundamental step toward handling an outage that interfered with the end-user experience of its Nook users.

Where was super-hero Barnes & Noble British CEO during all of this? PG searched for James Daunt’s name on Google for the last week and found lots of mentions, but nothing that Daunt had said about the Barnes & Noble disaster.

Not exactly an example of good crisis management.

During the process of looking for evidence Daunt had any idea what to do (or even knew) about the Barnes & Noble systems failure, PG learned that Barnes & Noble closed down a large bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, a few months ago.

PG has a lot of knowledge about Evanston, having lived there for several years, and he was more than a little surprised at this closure.

A few details:

  • Evanston is an upscale suburb north of Chicago that is full of wealthy people, many of which are well-educated and who have plenty of money to spend on books and other consumer goods.
  • Evanston is the home of Northwestern University, a highly-rated educational institution where a lot of wealthy people from all over the world send their children to be educated. Many of these students might be expected to have both the time and inclination to buy books.
  • Northwestern faculty are more highly-paid than your typical college professors and teachers and one would expect that they would also be regular patrons of a local bookstore.

In sort, if Barnes & Noble isn’t able to succeed in Evanston, PG doesn’t know exactly where in the United States very many Barnes & Noble stores will be able to succeed.

Barnes & Noble’s former landlord was Northwestern Medicine, a large medical services provider that is associated with the Northwestern University Medical School.

PG couldn’t find any indication that the landlord was trying to push Barnes & Noble out, but the space formerly occupied by Barnes & Noble was reportedly going to be used for additional Northwestern Medicine facilities.

PG wonders if Barnes & Noble is able to afford to have bookstores closed to its best customers any more.

Nuance matters

From The Bookseller:

It’s not often that a book is simultaneously described as a ‘madcap adventure’ and an exploration of race in the countryside, but Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape, my first non-fiction narrative published in April managed the feat. I don’t think either description is accurate but what do I know? I’m just the author. ‘Cross-genre’, and ‘cross-cultural anomaly’ – these are phrases that have begun to trip off my tongue. The book straddles nature writing, memoir, travel and spirituality, and I was born in London, raised in Montreal, Canada to Indian parents who themselves were born and grew up in South Africa. Neither I nor my book fit into any neat boxes.

This has proved to be both a blessing and, if not a curse, then at times, a cause of frustration. In the months before publication I worked with my tireless book publicist at Bloomsbury on the campaign. I was keen to reach readers who might be a fan of any one of the above genres, and equally those who, like myself, come from multi-cultural backgrounds, and are Black, Asian or from another under-represented group, and who have rarely seen themselves mirrored in this kind of literature (or been marketed to.) It’s been a rocky road, but since the book launched at the end of April, at the height of the Covid crisis, I think we fared brilliantly.

My launch day, happened on Twitter: an outpouring of support which I hadn’t anticipated but which kept me buoyant, and washed away the disappointment of a cancelled launch party, and the closure of bookshops. The press reviews and features generated were plentiful and generous. That a book not easy to pin down was reviewed at all felt nothing short of miraculous. In lockdown, a number of independent booksellers across the country helped to spread the word. I found their kindness and thoughtfulness at such a difficult time touching.

Like every other author, I’ve learned hard and fast that when a book leaves you and goes into the world, it becomes the property of others. How any one person might perceive my book would depend on their filter. Some authors of more traditional nature writing were keen to dispel the notion that I might be a nature writer at all. Others called it ‘new’ nature writing. Some saw it as a quirky UK travel memoir, while the more spiritually inclined seemed to enjoy the fact that such a theme had even made it into the mainstream.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG suspects that he is not alone in having experienced a substantial lack of nuance over the past months.

Three cheers for Nuance! May it survive 2020!

Crazy Time

PG had his day consumed by the routine and the crazy and the enjoyable today.

He’ll make some posts a bit later this evening.

Norway’s authors fight to be on more unlimited subscription platforms

From The New Publishing Standard:

Author Jørn Lier Horst moved to Strawberry publishing house Capitana, and went from having titles on one platform to being widely available. He experienced a huge economic upswing. ”It was like a revelation when I saw how much larger market share Storytel had, and what it meant to me.”

Rather undermining the popular myth that authors cannot make money with unlimited subscription services, seven high-profile Norwegian authors have hired a lawyer to ensure their books are on more unlimited subscription platforms to raise their earnings.

The debate strikes at the heart of the faux narrative in the Anglophone publishing arena – and especially among self-publishers – that unlimited subscription means earning less.

. . . .

[I]ndie authors [who sign} up to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and then [complain] about low returns had only themselves to blame. Put simply, by signing up to KDP Select to be in Kindle Unlimited indie authors forego income everywhere else due to Amazon’s insistence on exclusivity. (And that’s before we even begin to think about the need to pay Amazon for visibility using Amazon Ads.)

In Norway it’s not so much a demand for exclusivity as that audiobook publishers are keeping content to their own platforms to attract consumers. For publishers the compromise is that they forego sales/downloads on other platforms, but the sheer volume of titles they field makes that worthwhile. For authors, not so much.

. . . .

Norway is in the unusual position of publishers owning unlimited distribution platforms. Authors with Aschehoug and Gyldendal which owns Cappelen Damm that runs the subscription service Fabel) are having their titles excluded from rival Storytel Norway, jointly owned by Cappelen Damm and Sweden’s Storytel. A third and much smaller player in Norway is Ebok Plus, owned by Vigmostad & Bjørke.

Author Tom Kristensen told Norway’s VG:

Here, there are two major players owned by the largest publishers, and which exclude each other’s authors. They have used us in a competition game. We lose millions of kroner on that. Now that’s enough.

While Unni Lindell said:

Publishers hold back for their authors how much they actually lose by not being on both platforms. They also hold back that they actually have a duty to deliver to all platforms – in the same way as they have a duty to deliver to all bookstores.

This a reference to the Norwegian Book Act that says a book must be available in all bookstores, regardless of ownership of the store.

But according to the Norwegian Writers’ Association only 20 titles have been exchanged between Storytel and Fabel in 2020.

. . . .

[S]everal authors have decided to call in their contracts, if of five years or older. They have had their titles re-narrated and have put them out on all platforms. Jørn Lier Horst, for example, has had 21 old book titles re-recorded.

But the original publishers are not best pleased, are disputing the contract annulations, and arguing they still have audio rights, putting Storytel Norway in an impossible situation. Now the newly re-recorded titles are in limbo.

Storytel Norway Country Manager Håkon Havik told VG that the company was not taking sides, but needed legal clarification to allow the titles on the Storytel platform.

Storytel initially wanted to include these titles – but after receiving information from the Publishers’ Association and their lawyer that this is not legitimate, we chose to wait. Storytel is not a party to the case, but perceives it as a serious dispute over publishing rights.

And in a statement to the Norwegian Publishers Association Storytel has said:

Storytel does not want to get into a situation where we are potentially left with compensation claims for having included intellectual property to which the publisher has no rights, and has chosen this line vis-à-vis both parties in this case. In other words, we do not include the titles in question from any of the affected parties until it has been clarified who the actual publisher is.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

UPDATE: PG was working fast when he wrote the following and relied on outdated information enhanced by a brain freeze. Membership in KDP Select is no longer required in order to receive 70% royalties.

Check the comments for more detail.

PG apologizes for the error.

Begin original post FWIW:

PG was puzzled about the remark concerning indie authors and Kindle Unlimited in an article that otherwise focuses on two Norwegian publishers that apparently have something like a shared monopoly on Norwegian-language audiobooks.

Kindle Unlimited is an optional program. Some indies elect to participate with some or all of their ebooks and others elect not to participate.

KDP Select is the umbrella program that determines whether a book is in Kindle Unlimited or not.

If an author enrolls a book in KDP Select, the book is automatically also included in the Kindle Unlimited program. KU is a part of the KDP Select program. If you’re not enrolled in KDP Select, you can’t participate in KU.

Looking at KU on its own merits apart from other benefits of KDP Select is not useful for indie authors. KU is part of the KDP Select bundle of services.

The principal benefit of KDP Select for most authors is ebook royalty rates that are twice as high.

(The author is dinged for delivery fees for ebooks, which strikes PG as an artifact of a much earlier age. Those will be deducted from royalties resulting in what is effectively a slightly lower actual royalty rate.)

In order for an ebook to be included in KDP Select, an author must set a price for the ebook within a pricing range determined by Amazon – currently $2.99-$9.99 in the US.

KDP Select also requires that an ebook enrolled in the program be offered exclusively on Amazon during the time period of enrollment. For competing ebook vendors, this requirement means they are not able to sell any books an author includes in KDP Select, hence at least some of the dire warnings about the dangers of KDP select that sometimes circulate online.

(PG remembers reading somewhere more than a couple of years ago that this pricing range was determined by Amazon to be the optimal range of prices for ebooks considering how many ebooks readers were likely to purchase at a given price point and the profits generated from each sale for Amazon and, presumably the author as well. But PG’s memory may be faulty about this matter.)

KDP Select enrollment for a book includes a book in the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) program which applies to Amazon Prime members only (PG has read that Prime customers generate significantly more money for Amazon than non-Prime customers.) KOLL pays royalties to the author based upon how many pages of an author’s ebook that Prime borrowers read. No pages read=no royalties. Some pages read=some royalties, calculated on a per-page-read royalty rate.

As mentioned, KDP Select is an optional program. An indie author can use it or not at the author’s discretion.

When an author includes a book in KDP Select, the book must remain in the KDP Select program for 90 days. At the end of the 90 day period, the book is out of KDP Select, exclusivity requirements no long apply, higher royalty rates no longer apply, KOLL inclusion ends, etc.

It is possible for an author to set KDP Select to auto-renew at the end of 90 days, thus continuing to receive the benefits from the program for consecutive 90-day periods until the author turns off auto-renew. When the author turns off auto-renew, KDP benefits and limitations continue until the end of the 90-day period applicable to the books, then stop.

Some authors have suggested that KDP Select can be gamed and the author receive more royalties if, instead of writing a single 60,000 word novel, the author break up the novel into six 10,000 page segments because KU royalties are based on pages read and, if a reader bails on a 60,000 word novel because of a slow part of the story at the 20,000 page point, the opportunity to earn money for pages beyond that is permanently lost. Writing 60,000 words in 10,000 page segments allows an author to end each segment with a cliff-hanger or some other material that will likely to propel an author to the next segment. Hugh Howey wrote a blog post about this strategy in 2015.

PG warns that he’s not certain whether Amazon has changed anything about KU or its rules since 2015 that makes Hugh’s strategy unsuccessful or unprofitable. He suggests anyone planning to use the strategy do some online research on Hugh’s blog and elsewhere to see if the strategy still works.

In PG’s grotesquely-humble opinion, the bottom line for most indie authors is that Amazon is the big dog in all the major English-speaking ebook markets and maybe in other ebook markets as well. Thus most indie authors will likely sell more ebooks on Amazon than anywhere else and maximizing their income from Amazon ebook sales by using all the bells and whistles Amazon offers is the easiest and best way to do so.

Giving up on KDP Select (which includes Kindle Unlimited) means at a most fundamental level, the indie author’s royalty rate on ebooks sold will be cut in half. And any additional income from KU, KOLL, etc., will disappear entirely.

Non-Amazon ebook vendors have their own royalty rates which authors will want to consider, but, if we’re looking at royalties at or near Amazon’s non-KDP levels (35%), an author will have to sell about as many ebooks elsewhere as the author sells on Amazon in order to break even.

PG is happy to have any errors in his perceptions explained by anyone with more knowledge of the Norwegian publishing industry than he has. He would be especially interested in any information about data-hungry authors or publishers who have figured out a way to make their Amazon activities more profitable.

Lawyer Note: PG uses the term “sold” with respect to ebooks in a generic fashion. Technically, ebook vendors license ebooks to readers under varying terms and conditions (don’t make copies and try to sell them or give them away, etc., etc.) and do not sell ebooks to readers.

They were now both ready

They were now both ready, not to begin from scratch, but to continue with a love that had survived for thirteen years in hibernation. They were no longer travellers without baggage. They were no longer twenty. They’d both been around the block a bit and had suffered without the other. They’d both lost their way without the other.
Each had tried to find love with other people.
But all that was now finished.

Guillaume Musso, Que serais-je sans toi?

Que serais-je sans toi? translates to Where Would I Be Without You?

PG admits to no prior knowledge of Guillaume Musso.

However, according to his English-language website:

From one novel to the next, Guillaume Musso has formed a unique bond with his readers. Born in 1974 in Antibes on the French Riviera, he fell in love with literature at an early age, spending all his free time devouring books at the public library where his mother worked. A short story competition organized by his French teacher led him to discover the joys of writing, and he has never stopped since then.

His studies, his extended trips to the United States, his encounters… All have contributed to enriching his imagination and his writing projects. A graduate in social economics, he became a teacher in the East and then the South of France. He published his first novel, Skidamarink, in 2001, but his next book Et Après…, is the one that truly won the public over. This story of love and suspense with supernatural undertones marked the beginning of a dazzling and unwavering success.

Translated into forty languages and adapted many times for film, each book of his is as hugely successful as the next in both France and around the world. The release of a new novel by Guillaume Musso has become, for his readers, an eagerly awaited rendezvous.

Link to the rest at Guillaum Musso

Amazon Author Insights

Some visitors to TPV will already know about this site, but for those who do not, PG thinks it may provide some useful tools for indie authors.

Amazon Author Insights includes three major sections:

  • Write
  • Publish
  • Market

The adjacent post (below this one for most of you) is an example of what PG find in Write.

Publish included articles like these when PG checked it:

  • 3 First-Time Self-Publishing Mistakes to Avoid
  • Understanding Your Audiobook Partner

Market included articles titled as follows:

  • Five Tips for Your Goodreads Giveaways
  • Five ways authors can use Facebook advertising

Amazon Author Insights is marked as Beta. PG couldn’t find any dates to give him an idea about how long Author Insights has been around, but he doesn’t recall hearing about it before. (Of course, on some days, PG can’t recall hearing something Mrs. PG said to him 30 minutes before, so this is not a polished indicator of anything.)

The content isn’t very deep yet. However, you can take a survey to tell the Author Insights team about yourself and help them understand what you might like to see in the future.

Here’s a link to Amazon Author Insights

Murders in Oxford – Making Amends

PG mentioned Mrs. PG’s latest book release about a month ago, but didn’t really carry out his obligations as the husband of an author by doing a proper job introducing it.

His earlier post celebrated the fact that the first book in Mrs. PG’s latest series of murder mysteries was ranked #1 for sales among all Kindle ebooks, at least for a few hours before dropping back to #1 in Historical Mysteries. As those authors who self-publish via KDP know, the rankings of top-selling ebooks can be quite volatile.

Since Mrs. PG has just started a one-day 99-cent ebook price promotion on her latest book today, PG is going to (finally) do his spousal duty with respect to a book about yet another murder involving usually non-violent Oxonians during the 1930’s Jazz Age.

The book is titled, Murder at Tregowyn Manor: A Golden Age Mystery.

It is the third in a series of mysteries set primarily in Oxford.

(Oxford, England, not Oxford, Mississippi, although PG has nothing against Mississippi or the University of Mississippi which is located in Oxford. Local accents do differ between the two Oxfords, however.)

Once again, the book features Miss Catherine Tregowyn, a poet who teaches at Somerville College, and Dr. Harry Bascombe, her beau, who does the same thing at Christ Church College.

Tregowyn Manor is the home place of Catherine’s family in Cornwall. As English parents were wont to do in the 1930’s, Catherine’s parents think she should get married. Catherine is not quite ready to do so and is not the sort of woman to be pressured by anyone to do anything she’s not completely ready to do.

Catherine has mixed feelings about Tregowyn Manor. Her older brother, the golden child of the family, died when he was young and her parents never invested their emotions in either Catherine or her younger brother. The financial assets of the family were greatly diminished during the Great Depression.

Usually calm and a little boring, the atmosphere around Tregowyn Manor changes when an architectural dig on the property locates a Roman settlement, earlier than any other in this part of England. Plus are some priceless Roman artifacts and the possibility of more. An international collection of archeologists are digging up the grounds and some are temporarily residing in the Manor house.

Catherine, her friend, Dot, and Harry arrive in an effort to clear Dot’s cousin, an Oxford student working at the dig, from criminal charges alleging he has stolen one of the artifacts

Of course, somebody gets murdered. Then, Catherine’s father has his first experience with the inside of a local jail cell.

As mentioned, Mrs. PG is running a one-day 99 cent promotion today on the ebook edition of her book.

UPDATE:

PG apologizes for not being more clear about the end-time of Mrs. PG’s promotion. It was one day – yesterday, October 7, and ended at midnight. He’ll be clearer about when Mrs. PG’s price drops end in the future.

Publishers in the Baltics: Differing Expectations for a Pandemic Recovery

From Publishing Perspectives:

While a Latvian publisher seems encouraged, a counterpart in Estonia is less upbeat. And Russia’s LitRes is eyeing the region for its digital-sales potential in ebooks and audio.

. . . .

[T]he Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees Latvia (population 1.9 million) with 2,194 cases and 40 deaths. In Estonia (population 1.4 million), there are 3,659 cases reported, with 67 fatalities. And in Lithuania (population 2.8 million), Johns Hopkins has registered 5,366 cases and 99 deaths.

. . . .

[P]ublishers in the Baltics say they feel optimistic that they’re seeing recovery from the economic impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The book markets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, they say, are seeing resumed growth of sales and levels of book production.

Olegs Mihalevics is the chair of Apgads Kontinents in Riga, one of Latvia’s publishing houses. In comments to Publishing Perspectives, Mihalevics says that most books in the region still are sold in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. That, of course, means that sales sharply declined during the period of March to June when the most stringent efforts were levied by the Baltic governments to contain the spread of the virus.

Recovery from the shuttering of physical points of sale began in the summer.

“Since June,” Mihalevics says, “consumer traffic in the book stores of Latvia has been steadily growing.

“In June itself, book sales increased by 10 percent compared to June 2019. One of the reasons for this was unusually cold temperatures, along with public events being restricted throughout the Baltics.

“At the moment, the market continues an active recovery, parallel to our regional economics. Doctors and teachers–who form the majority of book buyers in our region–have begun to receive increased wages, a good sign for us, with consumers showing more confidence.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

For those who are a bit hazy about the Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – the Baltic Sea separates the southern part of Sweden (including Stockholm) from Europe. The Baltic States are lined up on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea east of Sweden and south of Finland.

Map via Wikipedia

Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the Baltic States, their eastern borders are with the former Soviet Union, now the nations of Russia and Belarus. The closest major cities not across the Baltic Sea are St. Petersburg and Minsk, now the capital of Belarus.

During the first twenty-two years of the 20th Century, the Baltic States were controlled by Russia or Germany, with control of the individual Baltic countries sometimes divided geographically between Russian and German occupation.

The Russian Revolution and the collapse of the German empire allowed the three Baltic states to find a precarious path to independence by 1922. However, life in the shadow of The Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors would not have been completely free from cares and worries.

PG concludes that the doctors and teachers in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia must really like to read books in their native languages to have allowed publishers to survive in these three nations.

Compared to what the people in these nations have already survived, COVID-19 is a walk in the park.

The Stories Michael Shellenberger Tells

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER WANTS US to believe environmentalists are impeding our ability to solve environmental problems. This has long been the position of Bay Area ecomodernists, who argue that technology and growth, not limits, will save the planet. Now, in his best-selling new book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, Shellenberger goes further, claiming that climate change and species extinction are not terribly threatening anyway. Lest we infer that this means environmentalists are off the hook, since the problems they’re preventing from being solved aren’t even that dire, Shellenberger tells us that poverty is actually our most urgent threat, and environmentalists, by blocking industry and artificial technologies, are working to keep the poor forever poor. He is contemptuous of anti-nuclear activists as well, who fight against what he claims is the only source of energy that is “abundant, reliable, and inexpensive,” and able to “power our high-energy human civilization while reducing humankind’s environmental footprint.” Along with his newest organization, Environmental Progress, he has spent the last four years trying to save nuclear power plants as if they were endangered species.

Shellenberger has a history of anti-green contrarianism.

. . . .

After their confrontational essay made waves, he and Nordhaus co-founded a think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, and another PR firm, American Environics. By 2008 they had published a book that landed them among Time’s 32 “heroes of the environment” alongside the likes of Van Jones and Alice Waters. Their position was that if environmentalists want to win politically, including with fence-sitting conservatives, they have to invent and tell better stories. The story Shellenberger has stuck with is that the things environmentalists resist — nuclear, GMOs, fracking, industrial agriculture, and so on — are actually good for the environment.

In a 2019 academic article about ecomodernism’s history, Giorgos Kallis and I wondered whether denialists might soon take up these ideas. This is exactly what has happened with the publication in June of Apocalypse Never. Climate change deniers and delayers have eagerly embraced a self-declared environmentalist who says that global warming is real but no big deal. In July, Shellenberger talked about his new book on Fox News and a Heartland Institute podcast. Right-wing newspapers and climate “truther” websites praised it. When Forbes took down Shellenberger’s provocative piece plugging Apocalypse Never — an “apology” for the “climate scare” on behalf of environmentalists (whom he’s denounced since 2004) — because it violated their policy against self-promotion, Shellenberger tweeted on June 29 that he was censored. The Daily Wire, Quillette, and Breitbart quickly published all or part of the article. Conservative media can’t get enough of this story: the born-again whistleblower bashing scientists and environmentalists who want to cancel him for it.

. . . .

The book itself is well written, with more nuance than the promo piece. This said, it is full of moral condemnations of movement leaders and generic greenies alike. It presents environmentalism as a nature-worshipping religion that has devolved into fanaticism about the apocalypse. Environmentalists find existential meaning in the idea of apocalypse, Shellenberger claims, and therefore reject obvious solutions. He writes,

When we hear activists, journalists, IPCC scientists, and others claim climate change will be apocalyptic unless we make immediate, radical changes, including massive reductions in energy consumption, we might consider whether they are motivated by love for humanity or something closer to its opposite.

His factual arguments often miss the point environmentalists are making. He argues, for instance, that humans are not causing a sixth mass extinction, and then leaps — illogically — to the conclusion that extinction is thus hardly a problem.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Earlier this week, PG was trying to remember when he had last heard a public figure say, “I respectfully disagree.”

PG wishes he could claim to have purposely included the post that preceded this one about cognitive dissonance with this one from the LARB, which includes a feast of disparaging adjectives, but PG’s basic method of exploring for materials that might be of benefit to authors and others who visit TPV is best described as electronic stumbling-about.

The Poison Cup of Gold

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1937, John Steinbeck began to be disturbed by unannounced visitors at the small cottage north of Monterey that he shared with his wife Carol. Steinbeck had just published “Of Mice and Men,” which he wrote at the kitchen table beside an open wood stove during the daylight hours, because the kerosene lamp gave him eyestrain. They had no telephone; when the stage play Steinbeck adapted with George S. Kaufman premiered on Broadway, he and Carol had to drive five miles to a neighbor’s house to hear how it was received. The sudden appearance of fans at his front door upended their spartan, happily impoverished life. Steinbeck built walls around the property and removed the sign with his name at the entrance. Zeppo Marx tried to reach him and Steinbeck refused to get back in touch. But he was sufficiently awed when Charlie Chaplin showed up one day in a stretch limo. They got along well, though Chaplin thought it strange that the Steinbecks didn’t have maids to do the cleaning.

As William Souder recounts in his biography “Mad at the World,” this was the start of Steinbeck’s painful transition “from struggling writer to Great Man of Letters.” It’s common enough to read about authors whose lives are at odds with their work, but has there ever been one so profoundly in conflict with his own popularity? Steinbeck is one of America’s few bona fide literary celebrities—perhaps only Twain and Hemingway enjoyed more international renown—yet he was horrified by public exposure and detested his fame, taking every opportunity to undermine it. Two clashing impulses provide the tension in Mr. Souder’s book: Steinbeck’s deep-seated distrust of success and the unyielding creative passion that brought his success about. As he was fending off admirers in the wake of “Of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck was also engrossed in his next book, a big, ambitious novel about Dust Bowl migrants that would spell the end of his remaining hopes for anonymity.

. . . .

Born in 1902 in Salinas, Calif., he led an introverted childhood passed mostly in solitude in the natural world. Mr. Souder writes that his interest in books arrived with the force of a religious conversion at age 9, when a relative gave him a young-adult version of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur.” From then on he read and wrote voraciously, drawn especially to mythology and legends, an affinity he would never outgrow.

Some writers are content to write nothing until they have something they need to say. Steinbeck was the opposite. From early on, writing was an addiction, a raison d’être: “[He] could no more stop writing than a fruit tree could stop bearing,” Mr. Souder says. He worked incessantly in his knockabout youth, moving from Stanford to New York to a hand-to-mouth, bohemian life with Carol back in California, but he lacked a compelling subject. His first novel, “Cup of Gold,” about the pirate Henry Morgan, is a boys’ adventure yarn that was repeatedly rejected and then, once published, ignored and quickly remaindered. He labored for years on “To a God Unknown,” a curious fable about animism, and he even tried his hand at a murder mystery. The impression Mr. Souder gives of these wilderness years is of a man who felt comfortable being overlooked. “I have come to be a complete fatalist about money,” he said in a letter in 1931. “Even the law of averages doesn’t hold with me. Any attempt to get me any kind of an award is pre-doomed to failure. Furthermore I seriously doubt my brand of literature will ever feed me.” Marriage, stimulating friendships, the companionship of dogs and the daily struggle with what he called the “sharp agony of words”—it made for a noble kind of penury.

. . . .

But once Steinbeck focused his writing on his native California, in books like “The Pastures of Heaven” and “Tortilla Flat,” he acquired a reputation as a regionalist. As well as being obsessively disciplined, he was a world-class listener, and many of his stories and ideas were openly borrowed from acquaintances. The most influential friend was the charismatic marine biologist Ed Ricketts, whose avatar would appear in no fewer than three of Steinbeck’s books. It was Ricketts who put him on to the philosophical theory of the phalanx, a version of biological determinism premised on the idea that the needs of groups rather than of individuals dictate human behavior, as with schools of fish or colonies of coral.

It’s easy to forget the role this theory plays in “The Grapes of Wrath,” given the novel’s fame as the pre-eminent fictional account of the Great Depression. The book sprang from a series of articles Steinbeck wrote for the San Francisco News titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” which revealed the squalor and disease endured by migrant fruit pickers but also the spirit of community that persisted among their ranks. Now, in writing his novel, his usual creative monomania was intensified by political outrage, and he had a wealth of firsthand details he was desperate to convey. The Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw has pointed out that in the early pages of the manuscript, he took care to make the text large so that his wife would have an easier time typing it up, but soon, as the story possessed him, he began omitting punctuation and paragraph breaks and his handwriting grew minuscule and frenzied.

If “The Grapes of Wrath” were strictly a work of naturalism, it would be respected but not beloved. But Steinbeck wove his theories about the group-man into the story, endowing it with broader allegorical possibilities. 

. . . .

“The Grapes of Wrath” won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the screen by John Ford, and the acclaim drove Steinbeck to a nervous breakdown. The worst casualty was his marriage to Carol, which was already dissolving in a haze of alcohol and paranoia when Steinbeck began an affair with 19-year-old Gwyn Conger while in Los Angeles to learn the movie business. Their marriage, though it gave Steinbeck two sons, was short and miserable and was quickly succeeded by a third, to a more mature woman named Elaine Scott. By this point Steinbeck was fully ensconced in his “second life” as a public figure, contending with chronic depression, health problems, money troubles that had never arisen when he was poor and unknown, and behind everything the steady throb of what an earlier biographer, Jackson J. Benson, called “the nausea of success.”

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

When PG visited the Amazon page for the books, he noticed it was the #1 Bestseller in British & Irish Literary Criticism. You don’t get more American than Steinbeck and, when PG checked, it appears that the author of the book lives in Minnesota.

Evidently, the intern at the publisher, W. W. Norton, who put up the Amazon listing was not particularly familiar with Steinbeck. When PG just checked, he noticed that the book is also #4 in British & Irish Literary Criticism (Books)

Note: Mad at the World is on preorder, so the Kindle Preview won’t work yet. PG just put the link in because he liked the cover. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page again.

10 Books That Feel Like Going to a Bar

From Electric Lit:

In some states the barflies have migrated back to patios and beer gardens, but it’s going to be a long time before a night out feels normal again. If you miss sampling expertly crafted cocktails in elegant lounges, sinking into happy hour conversations with coworkers after the office closes, or playing spirited rounds of pub trivia with your friends, consider turning to one of these ten books set in bars to tide you over until it’s safe to gather at your favorite local watering hole.

Ordinary Hazards by Anna Bruno

Bruno’s debut novel follows Emma, a hedge fund manager and MBA professor with a passion for story structure, as she sits in her local bar in upstate New York, drinking whiskey and descending hour by hour through her grief and guilt about the recent breakdown of her marriage. Why is she here when she has to be up before the markets open, or even upstate at all instead of on Wall Street? Why do her friends keep texting, trying to get her to come over? How far will she go to punish one of her ex’s friends who confronts her at the bar that night, and what will it cost him? How has Emma’s story become so broken?

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

In Krueger’s light contemporary fantasy, recent college grad Bailey is living with her parents and bartending with her old high school hookup friend while trying to figure out her future. After killing an attacking demon, she discovers a deep history of monster-fighting bartenders and that certain magically mixed cocktails can give her temporary powers of super strength, telekinesis, and the ability to blast elemental energy to fight the demons. Her race to stop a series of gruesome deaths and navigate the shadowy world of bartenders is punctuated with 14 recipes from an ancient book of cocktail lore.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Artist or the Emperor? Cultural Appropriation and Children’s Classics

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

I GREW UP ON Greek myths. My mother was a Classics major in college, which meant that every night before bed, I heard all about Athena splitting her father’s head open to birth herself, Atlas condemned to hold the world on his shoulders, Persephone being lured away from her home and stolen from her family (Mom really harped on that one). There was something enchanting about the myths my mom had committed to memory. It made them feel more important. She carried them with her.

My mom was born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States when she was three years old. She carried no stories from this place. If she did, she didn’t have the words to share them. In 1990s America, Chinese wasn’t a language to teach your children; it was one you shed like an old skin.

The only children’s book I had that featured an Asian character was Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain by Margaret Bateson-Hill. The story pulled from Chinese legend. To supplement this authenticity, it was also told in Chinese: dark red characters filling the opposite side of the pages. We would glaze over them, my mom and I, unable to find recognition, meaning, or shelter in their shapes. Still, I liked that they were there, a kind of palimpsest, an original chorus that told the tale first, something that tethered me to a world I had come from.

So we begin: An elderly woman named Lao Lao is beloved in her village for making the most beautiful paper cut-outs. One day, a cruel and greedy emperor hears about her. Foolishly, he thinks she will be able to create precious jewels out of just paper. He thinks he will be rich. He sends two guards to abduct Lao Lao from her village. She’s taken to a very tall tower. Locked in, imprisoned, she is forced to make her beautiful paper cuts only for the emperor. She is lonely. The tower, up on the mountain, is very cold. She misses the village children who would visit her, enchanted by her craft. Alone in the tower, she begins to make her art. What else is there to do?

As I remember the story, Lao Lao makes a paper dragon that comes to life and rescues her. No prince, no letting down her hair, no waiting to be kissed. She creates something with her own two hands, breathes life into it, and in return, it sets her free. As I have been retelling it to myself for years, this is a story that says: Your art can save you.

. . . .

I moved into a new apartment recently, and as a result I have been thinking a lot about what makes a home. When my mom asked what she could bring me as a housewarming present, I told her I wanted Lao Lao to live with me. Upon revisiting the book, I have realized two things. The first thing is that I had the ending all wrong. Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain was not an inherently feminist tale that advocated for the arts. In hindsight, that was a very Western moral I slotted in. Lao Lao doesn’t save herself. It is not that kind of story.

What really happens: Sensing that something is wrong, the majestic dragon that lives at the top of the mountain swoops down, freezes the guards and the emperor, and takes Lao Lao with him. She rides on the back of the dragon, continuing to make her art. She covers the trees in pink blossoms in the spring, fills the fields with flowers in the summer, creates a harvest of apples in the fall. She blankets the world in snowflakes as a special winter gift. And so we have the seasons, the mythic reason for why the world changed. Another explanation for the Earth’s spinning, another version of Persephone, another woman stolen.

And this leads to my second mistake. Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain — much beloved in my childhood, so formative of the rest of my life — was written by a white woman from Lancashire.

If you search for Margaret Bateson-Hill on Google, her website is the top result. Her author page advertises numerous other children’s books: two retellings of nursery rhymes (Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day and This Little Piggy Went to Market), a separate fantasy series about dragons, and something called the Folk Tale Series. This series includes two titles: Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain (1996) and Masha and the Firebird (1999), the latter telling the story of a little girl who assists the mythical creature, helping her hide her eggs from a witch. To do so, she paints them with the colors of the four elements.

There is a third book in the series not listed on Bateson-Hill’s official website. It’s called Shota and the Star Quilt (1998), and it’s about a young Lakota girl in America whose neighborhood is threatened by an impending development. The plot description reads: “They use long-standing Lakota traditions to find a solution that saves their homes. In working together, they create a beautiful quilt that resolves more than just their problem.” Shota and the Star Quilt is out of print.

I guess the takeaway from the Folk Tale Series has to do with the power of craft, after all. You can tell a lot about a culture based on the tales it passes on. Myths and children’s stories are always trying to explain the way things are.

The way things are: In 1996, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an estimated 4,500 children’s books were published in the United States, along with Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain. Only 49 of those titles were written by or depicted Asian Americans. The study offers no further data. There is no breakdown of statistics relating to different Asian countries. There isn’t even a parsing of “written by” versus “depicting.” Any book that had anything to do with Asian Americans is lumped into the 49. In 1996, we started to care about a kind of diversity but didn’t question who could control these narratives.

According to the Center’s 2018 study, half of the children’s books published in that year centered white characters. Ten percent featured African or African American characters, while a mere seven percent showcased Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders. Even more egregiously, only five percent featured Latinx characters, with a meager one percent depicting Indigenous communities. By comparison, 27 percent of the children’s books published that year had animals or inanimate objects as protagonists. This means that the world welcomed more stories about animals and inanimate objects than about all people of color put together. From an early age, we learn what the default is.

Of the small percentage of books depicting characters of color, even fewer were actually penned by people of color. The first page of Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain (not the cover) says: “Chinese text by Manyee Wan” and “Paper cuts by Sha-liu Qu.” If you search for either of these people on Google, you won’t find anything. The inside of the book jacket reads: “The Chinese craft of paper cutting is at the center of the story and there are instructions so that children can make their own paper cuts. All of these elements work together to give children an authentic and inspiring insight into Chinese culture and traditions.”

In the middle of writing this piece, I called my grandmother. She hasn’t been back to China for decades, but she grows Chinese pears in her backyard. She was slicing into that homesick fruit when I asked her if she knew the legend Bateson-Hill’s book was based on. She did not. “Maybe from the next village,” she told me.

The line between appreciation and appropriation is thin. In cases like this book, it becomes a tightrope walk between loving something and wanting to share it and taking something that isn’t yours, between being the artist and being the emperor.

When I discovered that my favorite (and only) Chinese children’s book was written by a white woman, a friend asked if I felt a sense of loss. Part of me — the angry, incensed part; the part that’s been tapped into these national conversations about who has the right to tell which story — is screaming, Yes, absolutely! How could I not feel that something has been taken? And yet there’s another part of me that’s just grateful the book exists. I loved this story. I loved the fact that the dragon — unlike in Western myths where the creature was something to be feared, slayed, conquered — was a blessing that came to serve a hero who was Chinese. One of only 49 other Asian protagonists to grace children’s books that year, Lao Lao was special. She was diligently devoted to her craft. She taught me something about how art can save you. It’s a story, as I say, that I carried with me. The greater sense of loss comes from its not having the empowering ending I had originally thought.

I think there’s a way to read Lao Lao’s story that reclaims some of her agency. She makes the seasons. She quite literally changes the world.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that people have been borrowing stories from other cultures for centuries, probably beginning when different cultures developed. The Romans borrowed stories about the Gods from the Greeks.

PG further notes that “Asians” is an artificial construct that includes people from a wide range of cultures. So is “Latinx”.

Do the Japanese believe they are part of the same culture as the Chinese are? If you were to suggest that to a person of Japanese origin living in Japan, you might find that you have offended her/him. A Latinx Argentine might not even understand what a Brazilian Latinx is saying.

The Chinese include an amalgam of people from genetically and culturally different origins. The geographical areas that comprise China have expanded and contracted over many years. A quick online check discloses there are more than 200 different Chinese dialects. PG suspects that the people speaking those dialects came from differing cultural origins. At least some of them became “Chinese” for reasons than their voluntary desire to join the Chinese nation and culture.

In what particular Chinese culture did the story of Lao Lao originate? Is the author of the OP of that same culture? If the author came from a dominant culture that conquered the separate people of the original creator of the Lao Lao story a couple of centuries ago, is the author of the OP guilty of cultural appropriation herself?

Did Pearl Buck commit the terrible sin of cultural appropriation when she wrote The Good Earth, a fictional story about family life in a Chinese village?

Did Ms. Buck’s creation of a moving novel about Wang Lung and O-Lan that introduced a great many English-speakers around the world to the very real challenges of drought, famine, poverty and forced migration experienced by some of the people in China during the early 20th century constitute an evil act?

Should Ms. Buck have not written the story and waited until someone of Chinese origin and heritage wrote the story and gotten it to a publisher who could have translated it into English and many other languages so non-Chinese around the world could understand something about the difficulties faced by real people and their experiences upon which Ms. Buck based her fictional creation?

Written stories belong to their individual creators as individuals. Copyright laws around the world reflect this belief and value. Where the individual creator is unknown or anonymous, stories have no owner.

Stories don’t belong to cultures or people who bear some similarity to the characters in a book. Can only blind women write about Helen Keller? Can only African-Americans write about Martin Luther King? Can only Russians write about Stalin? Can only naturalized French women who were born in Poland write about Marie Skłodowska Curie?

Is there anything morally wrong with a person who travels to another country returning home and telling others about his/her experiences there? Is writing about those experiences in diaries, letters and books different than communicating them orally?

Is writing a work of fiction based upon something the author has read or heard or seen morally wrong? Does it matter if the author decides to write a fictional story that is set somewhere other than where the author was born or has lived?

Again, cultures don’t own stories. People who have the same cultural background as someone who wrote a story don’t own that story or any stories that are derived from that story.

Absent copyright protection for the expression of a story created by an individual who is known to be its creator, in PG’s internationally and cross-culturally humble opinion, stories written by humans belong to humanity. Anyone can write them, alter them, love them or hate them.

Sorry About Light Blogging

PG has been hip-deep in a complex matter. He apologizes for not posting as much as usual during the last few days.

He’s still not finished with complexity, but he will put up some posts today.

Unruly Genius

From The Wall Street Journal:

Some 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln—more than any other historical figure except Jesus. But there has never been one like this one by David S. Reynolds. The author, a literary scholar and historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness. Mr. Reynolds is a distinguished cultural historian of antebellum America. Among his many books are cultural biographies of Walt Whitman and John Brown and an earlier work, “Beneath the American Renaissance,” which prepared the way for his unusual approach to biography—stunningly revealed in this life of Lincoln.

Lincoln, like Whitman and Brown, was a product of his times; and those times were wild. Whatever we might think about the divisiveness, partisanship and violence of our own era, it is nothing compared to antebellum America. Government in the first half of the 19th century was weak and unstructured, and established institutions were few and far between. The economy was diffuse and unmanageable: Thousands of different kinds of paper-money notes flew about, and risk-taking and bankruptcies were everywhere; even some states went bankrupt. This was a rough-and-tumble world, and duels, rioting and mobbing were commonplace. Alcohol flowed freely, and Americans were drinking more per capita than nearly all other nations, which provoked desperate temperance movements. Fistfights, knifings and other explosions of violence seemed to be ordinary affairs, taking place even in state legislatures and the Congress. Public rhetoric was abrasive and harsh, and zany humor and sensationalism flourished in the popular press; people were especially eager to read lurid reports of suicides. The nervous nation was coming apart, torn by sectional conflict and the struggle over slavery.

This was the disordered and unruly world Lincoln experienced. The future president was born in 1809, and possessed a natural intelligence, an easygoing temperament, an incredible memory and a sense of “innate fairness.” He became unusually tall and strong, which was helpful in the brawling world in which he grew up. But everything else about him he absorbed and adapted from his environment. Far from distancing himself from the wild world of antebellum America, Lincoln, says Mr. Reynolds, “was thoroughly immersed in it.” After he assumed the presidency, he was able to redefine democracy for his fellow Americans “precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions—from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

Much of Lincoln’s greatness, writes Mr. Reynolds, came from his ability to tap into this culture. He was able to respond thoughtfully to the teeming chaos of antebellum America. Lincoln was less a self-made man than an America-made man. He told his law partner, William Herndon, “Conditions make the man and not man the conditions.” But, according to Herndon, Lincoln also “believed firmly in the power of human effort to modify the environments which surround us.” Indeed, his capacity to shape the world around him was crucial to his life and to the life of the nation.

Like any good biographer, Mr. Reynolds takes us through the important events of Lincoln’s life. But unlike previous biographers, Mr. Reynolds spends an extraordinary amount of time presenting his cultural context. In effect, his biography becomes less a narrative of Lincoln’s life than an explanation of his genius. We come to understand fully why Lincoln did what he did, and why he did it when he did it.

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

PG suggests that it is publishing malpractice for Penguin to obtain such a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal – a publication with a readership for which the hardcover price of $45 would be a typical tip for the server at a New York City business lunch with a prospective client – and not have Amazon’s Look Inside/Preview in place.

Perhaps nobody at Penguin knew Amazon’s phone number.

Transferring TPV to New Domain Registrar

PG is in the process of transferring thepassivevoice.com to a new registrar.

He doesn’t anticipate problems, but if there are burps, he’ll push it through as quickly as possible.

Amazon’s Inside Your House Drone

Ring’s latest security camera is a drone that flies around inside your house. Announced today.

You can also program the device to go around your home on a schedule if you like. Reportedly, you teach it where you want it to go in your house by putting it in learning mode, then you hold hold it while you walk along the path through your house that you want it to follow.

PG understands that this will creep some people out. Amazon probably does as well, but PG and Amazon (like minds 🙂 ) think Amazon will sell a bunch.

What James Daunt did and did not say about Barnes & Noble’s future

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

In what has to be considered a bit of a coup, BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary scored a lengthy interview with B&N head James Daunt as the feature of BISG’s annual meeting which took place on September 11. Daunt had a lot to say about his plans for change at B&N, including more diversity in what the stores stock which will be a by-product of more power for individual store managers.

What publishers undoubtedly took note of were Daunt’s announced notion to lighten up on initial buys and depend more on rapid replenishment to keep books that move in stock. He seemed to expect the rapid resupply that requires to continue to come from B&N’s own warehouse infrastructure, a system of support built during a more expansionist time.

. . . .

What presents publishers with a bit of a conundrum, though, was Daunt’s firm position against publishers calling on the B&N stores to inform store managers about offerings that the central office might have skipped for them that they might want to consider. In fact, this “all the information has to go through the home office, but the store managers can do some stocking as they see fit” is both a logical and logistical oxymoron in the plan. If the central office doesn’t like a title enough to buy it, why and how would they pass along information to a store sufficient for them to make a different decision? And if the titles not bought are never presented to the stores, how would they know what to buy from what was skipped?

. . . .

Although Daunt answered every question put to him, he also clearly had his own checklist of things to say and emphasize. The most glaring omission from Daunt’s presentation was the fate and role of BN.com. This is particularly ironic because competition with Amazon (always, and disconcertingly for me, pronounced “AmaZIN”) was a frequently-arising topic. Daunt was acutely aware that much of what had been his chain’s business is flowing to them. But, curiously, he had absolutely nothing to say about his own dot com competition with them. Not one word.

And if Barnes & Noble sees any inherent advantage in having an online complement to their store presence, such as a “buy online, pick up in store” or “buy in store, have delivered by post” capability offer, Daunt did not to choose to mention them in this conversation (although the store pick up capability has been talked about him in the past and curbside pick-up has been featured during the pandemic). If B&N sees any threat from Amazon expanding its physical store footprint with much smaller stores, that also wasn’t mentioned.

In fact, Daunt’s hopes (you couldn’t call them “plans”) for the Nook got a lot more airtime than the zero allocated to dot com sales. This despite the fact that dedicated reading systems started out in service to dedicated devices. Dedicated devices have been superseded by multi-function devices. There is no real discernible point or competitive advantage to the Nook reading system. These realities were not acknowledged in the dialogue.

The movement of book sales from shops to clicks is now a much bigger story than Amazon and B&N alone. Big retailing brands like Walmart and Costco are selling books online as well as in their stores. Bookshop.org is a new indie-friendly online sales capability that is starting to get real traction, although it is still tiny compared to Amazon or BN.com. But customers who want to buy online and don’t want to support Amazon have a robust new alternative that is not named Barnes & Noble.

. . . .

The inexorable shift of book sales to clicks is a bigger question than the merchants and the pricing. Temporarily accelerated by the pandemic, the movement of consumers to buy more and more online for home delivery — of just about anything but especially those things that don’t have to be tried on or tasted — is a trend that shows no sign of abating. It would seem to me that acknowledging that reality would be front and center thinking for any retail operation with a big physical footprint and a significant digital infrastructure.

Link to the rest at Idealog

PG will attempt to control his impulse to bloviate and opine and comment in a more bullet-pointish manner. (Update after finishing his comments: PG failed.)

Daunt appears to be a smart guy, but PG thinks he’s out of his depth (and culturally-unsuited) to save Barnes & Noble (which would be a very, very difficult job for anyone).

The true costs of the pandemic have yet to be calculated and at least some long-term impacts yet unknown.

However:

Amazon has benefitted greatly from the great shutdown as a whole lot of people who were Amazon customers have broadened the range of items they purchase from the Zon.

Perhaps more importantly, a lot of people who weren’t Amazon customers or were sporadic Amazon customers have become regular Amazon customers.

Some unknown percentage of people (at least in the US – PG claims no expertise elsewhere) will continue to purchase more online instead of automatically reverting to their prior physical retail shopping habits after Covid dies.

As Mike pointed out, Walmart, the largest retailer in the US, has (finally) gotten its online presence worked out so it’s usable and, at least in PG’s locale, offers free two-day delivery for online orders. If any meaningful percentage of Walmart customers continue to purchase more online than prior to the Great Shutdown, such behavior will have a significant impact on physical retailers. It’s really, really easy to add a discounted physical book to your Walmart order.

A whole lot of retail purchases are made when someone is going to work or returning home after work. A great many people, including many with a significant amount of disposable income, who used to travel to work are working from home at present. Many prognosticators PG follows predict that a significant portion of those working from home at present will continue to do so after the facemasks disappear, at least some of the time.

Care to guess which is easier for someone working at home – Ordering from their computer OR getting in the car/on the bus-subway and traveling to a physical retail establishment to pick up a few things? Yes, sometimes, it will be nice to get out of the house. For relief, exercise and pleasure more than for shopping.

Free pickup of essentials ordered online from grocery stores and elsewhere will not disappear with Covid.

Back to Daunt and Barnes & Noble

Who’s going to be around to go back to work at all the Barnes & Noble stores that are closed or operating on reduced hours with reduced staff?

Store managers? Maybe, but some may have found better opportunities elsewhere during shutdowns.

Store staff? Nope. Low-wage jobs are available elsewhere during Covid and PG suspects many former BN staff will stick with what they’ve been doing after being laid off by Barnes & Noble instead of going back (being laid off always leaves a bad taste in the victim’s mouth).

So re-opened Barnes & Noble stores will be filled with newbies able to provide precious little customer service to those who decide to try out a physical bookstore after having bought all their books from Amazon or electronically borrowed them from their local library for months and months.

Basically, Barnes & Noble stores will be in a position of having to win back a significant portion of their former customers. A great many were marginal business operations before the shutdown and will be money-losers if even a relatively small percentage of their prior patrons don’t come back.

In one of the comments to a prior post on TPV, someone pointed out that the geography of England allows Daunt to drop in on most of his Waterstones retail stores to impart his personal touch on operations with relatively little travel time. That will definitely not be the situation he will encounter in the US. Daunt’s idea of each Barnes & Noble store manager curating stock for the local populace won’t include Daunt’s tips and critiques provided to Waterstones store managers in Old Blighty. Additionally, unless Daunt relocates, regular trans-Atlantic flights take a toll on anyone who makes them on a regular basis.

Daunt is correct to not talk about Barnes & Noble’s ebookstore. It’s a giant hot mess. Barnes & Noble will have a very hard time hiring talented tech people with the ability to bring it up to basic non-Amazon internet retail standards and even very well-funded competitors of Amazon have a hard time competing with the Zon head-to-head. Amazon is the best on the planet at ecommerce and anyone who thinks they can build an ebookstore that’s remotely competitive to Amazon’s without spending obscene amounts of money has only the shallowest understanding of what goes on under the hood on Amazon’s website.

Mike is correct in his assessment that Nook reading devices are dead, dead, dead. And cannot be revived with any hope of ever reaching financial break-even.

In the OP, Mike mentioned a new online bookstore saying, “customers who want to buy online and don’t want to support Amazon have a robust new alternative that is not named Barnes & Noble.” PG gently suggests that the size of this “don’t want to support Amazon” target market is miniscule. If such an enterprise tries to operate without discounting to Amazon’s prices (a very difficult thing to pull off without Amazon’s scale), it will struggle to survive in the nichiest of niche markets.

PG will end with a quote from the OP: “The movement of book sales from stores to clicks will continue and, near as I can tell, B&N has no plan in place based on an understanding of that inevitability.”

Wait, Can They Still Study Shakespeare?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When news broke that the University of Chicago’s English department would only admit graduate students next year who are “interested in working in and with” Black studies, it was greeted with both applause and raised eyebrows. Leaders of English and African American-studies departments at other institutions called it “an impressive commitment” and a “bold, edge-cutting” position. But the move also attracted derision, including from some sources who don’t typically weigh in on graduate-school admissions policy decisions.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted that studying authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Austen was “presumably not acceptable” under Chicago’s arrangement, and others criticized the move as “racist” and “anti-intellectual.” Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Harper’s Magazine, tweeted: “I am obviously interested in black literature. But being strong armed into studying it??” Faculty members at Chicago said on Twitter that the department had received hate mail.

The decision carries extra resonance coming from an English department that is among the most high-profile in the country and at a university that has traditionally declined to take institutional positions on questions of social justice or politics. That stance dates back to a 1967 report, commissioned by the university to stake out the university’s “role in political and social action” in the wake of protests against the Vietnam War, and critics say Chicago’s decision represents a deviation from that policy as well as an abandonment of academic principles.

The statement Chicago’s English faculty released in July begins with a statement that Black lives matter. “As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality,” the statement posted on the English department home page reads.

The second paragraph on the home page read in part, “For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.” That language has since been removed from the home page, but is still present on the department’s Black studies and admissions pages. Jeremy Manier, a university spokesman, confirmed to The Chronicle on Friday that the department would admit only those interested in Black studies for the 2020-21 admissions cycle.
The scholars also wrote that English “has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.” Given that context, they continued, “we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere.”

. . . .

The number of students admitted to Chicago’s English department will be lower than usual for the 2020-21 admissions cycle because of the pandemic and a lackluster job market, the university said in a statement. (A number of other programs have chosen to suspend admissions for fall 2021 entirely in order to allocate more funding to already-enrolled students.) The department will admit only five students this year, though it expected to receive about 750 applications, Maud Ellmann, the interim department chair, said in a statement, noting that the department sees higher application rates in “times of crisis.” “The reduced number of spaces persuaded us to focus on specific areas so as to give careful consideration to all the applications we receive,” Ellmann said, noting that Black studies has become a significant part of the program thanks to the hiring of several new scholars focused on Black studies. The faculty, she said, “wanted graduate students interested in Black studies to know that they would receive the highest standard of mentorship in our program.”

. . . .

The five students who begin at Chicago in fall 2021 won’t be working exclusively in Black studies (the department currently has 77 students). Instead, a statement on the admissions page read, they “will be encouraged to take advantage of the wide variety of courses, not restricted to Black Studies, offered by the Department and the Division.” Manier, the university spokesman, said they’ll be able to select from “dozens of courses in English” and “across the humanities, in modern languages, for example, or philosophy, classics, divinity, etc.”

So it’s not true — as Cruz and others have suggested — that this class of graduate students will be unable to study Shakespeare. In fact, the doctoral curriculum includes a course called “Black Shakespeare,” taught by Noémie Ndiaye, which “explores the role played by the Shakespearean canon in the shaping of Western ideas about blackness, in processes of racial formation, and racial struggle from the early modern period to the present” and examines Black characters in plays such as Othello and The Tempest.

. . . .

Mark Bauerlein, a professor emeritus of English at Emory University, who criticized the decision on Twitter, said the department may have been better served by being less public about its plan. “I’ve been on admissions committees — you don’t have to say all this out loud. Just say, ‘Hey, look, let’s try to emphasize Black studies in this year’s entering class. We don’t have to make some big announcement out of it. We don’t need to talk the talk, we’ll just walk the walk,’” Bauerlein said. “I think that the intellectual reputation of the University of Chicago’s English department has suffered greatly because of this move.”

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

During the past several months, all but those living on isolated islands in the middle of large oceans with no ability to receive communications from the larger world have seen vivid video and read endless news stories about Black Lives Matter activists who have, in many American cities, been associated with or otherwise attracted a meaningful number of individuals of various races who appear to have been primarily focused on creating violent protests involving burning and looting. On more than one occasion, the structures burned and looted are retail stores that have been relied upon by the local African-American and other minority groups for basic needs such as food and medications. In some cases, these business establishments have also been owned by people who are African-American or other racial or ethnic minorities.

Apparently, some Black Lives Matter more than others do.

Prior to the latest round of destruction, business insurance for buildings and their contents in such areas was difficult to obtain and, if obtained, cost more than insurance in other parts of town. PG hasn’t seen any analyses of what percentage of buildings damaged have been insured and what percentage have not been insured. In the short run, it’s cheaper to run a business in a low-income area without fire insurance and you might even be able to lower your retail prices a bit which attracts a few more customers and leaves those customers with a bit more money to spend on something else or save for a rainy day.

Rules governing what risks must be covered by business insurance policies vary from state to state, but, the last time PG knew anything about the subject, damages from riots and civil unrest were not covered under a great many business insurance policies.

Commercial insurance companies can with reasonable accuracy predict the likelihood of various types of losses across a broad area based upon the age, types of commercial structures and the businesses operating within those structures. Given a group of 100 restaurants and 100 automatic car washes, the likelihood of fire loss claims from restaurants is significantly higher than the likelihood of a fire erupting in a car wash.

However, given the historical fire loss experience the insurance company has experienced with insured restaurants combined with data about restaurant fire losses experienced by a wide range of other insurance companies, information which is likely compiled and shared by state insurance officials and/or one or more commercial data services that collect, organize and analyze the claims experiences of a variety of insurance companies) an insurance company is able to set premium prices at an appropriate level to allow it to cover and pay for the damage caused by nearly-inevitable occurrence of fire losses in some restaurants during any given year and still be able to afford to continue in business.

While the number of individual restaurant fires resulting from careless employees, failure to clean grease from kitchen exhaust fans, etc., etc., during a given period of time together with the amount of money required to repair the damage done by such fires can be projected with reasonable accuracy given adequate information on historic frequencies of restaurant fires, etc., the likelihood that a particular city or a particular neighborhood in the city will be attacked by rioters and the cost to repair the damage caused by those rioters is something that can’t be projected with the accuracy necessary to properly price insurance policies and operate an insurance company that won’t go broke, leaving all of its other policyholders without any coverage at all. It’s easier to predict damage caused by lightning strikes than damage caused by riots.

One consequence PG can forecast for the future is that business insurance costs for structures and the contents of those structures in areas likely to be touched by Black Lives Matter protests and violence that is not certain to occur, but certainly has occurred in accompaniment with more than one Black Lives Matter protest this year will be much, much higher in the future than it was in the past. Insurance companies may be required under anti-discrimination legislation not to discriminate on the basis of the racial or ethnic identity of business owners, but insurance businesses are not required to have agents or sales offices located in every geographical location in a city or state. It makes good business sense to focus sales efforts on potential customers that are likely to provide profitable business.

Combine poor neighborhoods that didn’t have an excess of businesses of any sort in the first place combined with significantly higher costs of doing business for small businesses operating in those areas and you end up with far fewer merchants, less competition to help keep prices reasonable and a population that has to spend a much larger portion of its meager income for basic living expenses, including travel costs to go to places where they can buy what they need, than before the city was taught that Black Lives Matter.

So, back to the OP. If a few years from now, a college or university has two applicants for a position in its English Department, one applicant schooled in the Black Lives Matter curriculum of the University of Chicago and another who has been schooled in a high quality English Department of another respectable university, which applicant will have an advantage when the head of the English Department, an individual who already has enough stress in her/his professional life, likely to choose?

If Northwestern University, the other nationally-ranked university in the Chicago area (no offense intended toward other Chicago-area academic institutions) has decided to accept graduate students in its English Department without an express or implied requirement that they focus on Black Studies, which group of future PhD’s will seem like the safer bet for the head of an English Department who would like a relatively quiet life focused on academic excellence for her/himself and the remainder of the faculty and staff?

What We Aren’t Seeing

THE UNICORN RESTS IN THE GARDEN, FROM THE HUNT FOR THE UNICORN TAPESTRIES, 1495–1505

From The Paris Review:

How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.

The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.

It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.

What would I have thought, as a child, if I’d known that this delicate, graceful creature was an animal to be hunted, like one of the endangered-species safari trophies.

. . . .

And what would I have concluded if I’d been told that this slaughter could not be accomplished without the willing assistance of an agreeable virgin?

Apparently, the unicorn was not only swift but strong, capable of killing an elephant with its horn. The hunters could not get near it on their own. That was why you needed the virgin. The unicorn liked to lay its head in a virgin’s lap, and, while it was distracted, the hunters closed in. The virgin was bait. In case the implications escape us and we miss the ramifications—the preciousness of female purity and the relative contamination of female sexuality—here is Richard de Fournival, the thirteenth-century chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens and author of The Bestiary of Love:

I was captured also by smell … like the Unicorn which falls asleep in the sweet smell of maidenhood … no one dares to attack or ambush it except a young virgin. For when the unicorn senses a virgin by her smell, it kneels in front of her and gently humbles itself to be of service. Consequently, the clever hunters who know its nature place a maiden in its path, and it falls asleep in her lap. And then, when it is asleep the hunters, who have not the courage to pursue it while awake, come out and kill it.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Not much to do with books and writing, but PG had not considered unicorns for some time and the parts of the OP that weren’t political were satisfying to him.

Samuel L. Jackson – celebrity voice for Alexa

Not really to do with books, but definitely related to Amazon.

From Amazon:

We heard you loud and clear! Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice just got easier to use. Now you can simply say “Hey Samuel” to ask for jokes, weather, and more. To get started, just say, “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson” and choose the “Hey Samuel” wake word. You will still be able to use Alexa’s default voice just as you do now. Check below to see if your device works with “Hey Samuel”.

Already have Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice? You can set up “Hey Samuel” by saying “Alexa, enable ‘Hey Samuel’”.

GET STARTED WITH SAMUEL – Samuel L. Jackson is here to add extra personality to your Alexa experience. Just ask and Samuel will set a timer, tell you a story, and more.

KEEP IT CLEAN, OR DON’T – Choose whether you’d like Samuel to use explicit language or not. If you change your mind later, simply go to the settings menu of the Alexa app to turn explicit content on or off.

ASK AWAY – After purchasing, try saying:

“Hey Samuel, what’s the weather?”
“Hey Samuel, tell me a joke.”
“Hey Samuel, set an alarm for 7am.”
“Hey Samuel, tell me a story.”
“Hey Samuel, what can you do?”
“Alexa, ask Samuel to give me advice.”
“Alexa, ask Samuel what he thinks of snakes.”

Link to the rest at Amazon

Why Your Book Matters

From Writers in the Storm:

When we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?

At the most obvious level, we want our book to be bought, liked, shared, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who have been touched and changed by what we wrote.

When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things—and I got a lot of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important results are things I never could have foreseen.

I’d like to share two of these “results” with you today. One has to do with a wonderful and unexpected connection with a photographer whose work took the experience of my fictitious protagonist to a whole new level. The other has to do with how Queen of the Owls saved someone’s life. Literally.

The first experience came from photographer Angelika Buettner, who saw my article in Ms. Magazine entitled Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating .  In the article, I personalized a central theme of the novel, which is about the power of “choosing to be seen”— the deep longing to reveal and embrace one’s whole self. 

The article attracted Angelika’s attention because she had recently published a book called I Am: Celebrating the Perfect Imperfect

Through a gallery of 121 nude photos and testimonials that reveal the “inner and outer beauty” of women ages 40 to 99, Angelika’s goal is to empower women (and girls) by portraying the “aging and ageless” beauty of our perfectly-imperfect selves. As she told me in our first conversation: “I invited women to wear nothing but what they are feeling inside. Those women stepped out of their comfort zone and gave me the permission to portray their naked souls. I photographed a feeling they had lost—of loving oneself.”

When Angelika saw the article in Ms. Magazine, she immediately reached out to me, and from there to my novel. She read Queen of the Owls nonstop because, to her, it was exactly what she had been trying to convey in her portraits. “The protagonist is expressing the feeling my ladies have, and she finds why it so important to be seen, the real me, by myself. In the end those images are for ourselves.” We discovered that we were offering the same message—for me, through story; for her, through photographs.

From there, a collaboration began. We’ve been meeting on Zoom to talk about ways to work together, joined by a third woman, Lilianne Milgrom, a painter-turned-novelist whose work also addresses the theme of female embodiment. Our dream is a cross-disciplinary presentation about the female body in painting, photography, and story. A shared message, delivered more powerfully through complementary channels.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

A reminder that PG doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

While he is generally tolerant of a wide variety of human behaviors, PG can’t envision himself as a photographic subject unless he is fully-clothed, the more fully, the better.

His personal opinion is that, particularly at his current stage in life and having added a Covid bulge in the last several months, PG wouldn’t feel the least liberated by photos of his aging and ageless, perfect-imperfect self existing, much less circulating among the general population or any subset thereof.

But PG understands that others may disagree (not about PG’s body in particular – there can be no rational disagreement about that – but naked bodies in general).

Can Tech Ever be Good?

From Public Books:

Having thrown privacy and consumer protection overboard long ago, Google, in 2018, officially removed its best-loved maxim, “Don’t be evil,” from its code of conduct. Arguably, the company could no longer ignore the contradiction between self-declared ethics and the relentless pursuit of profit. (In only the final quarter of 2019, Google booked $46 billion in advertising dollars and third-party sales of user data.) And Google is not alone.

Recently, Slate published a list of the 30 most “evil” tech companies. Noting that these companies produced “ills that outweigh conveniences,” Slate’s list flayed the tech giants. This article—alongside recent books like Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil and Lucie Greene’s Silicon States—illustrates that the very existence of companies like Uber, 23andMe, and Airbnb relies on the exploitation of users and workers. And then there’s the rampant sexism and racism across what Emily Chang calls tech’s “brotopia.” Goodbye, tech exceptionalism; hello, “techlash.”

Skewering Google with its own maxim, Foroohar points out in Don’t Be Evil that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (the FAANGs), as well as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (the BATs), don’t even innovate anymore, nor do they generate new jobs. Such justifications might have lent their profit seeking and mistreatment some social value. Instead, the BATs and FAANGs of Big Tech mostly focus on keeping people online as much as possible and monetizing their attention.

Perhaps more importantly, as Lucie Greene shows in Silicon States, the amount of money funneling between San Francisco and Washington has correspondingly increased. The top three Big Tech companies each spent around $15 million on lobbying in 2019 (to compare: Boeing spent only $13 million). No wonder a countermovement—the tech backlash—seems to grow bigger and bigger.

Tech—even though its pace of innovation and job creation has rapidly slowed down, even as it exploits people and grabs attention—is very much in power. So, clearly, tech cannot purely be seen as a force for good. At least, not anymore. But could tech still be bent toward better purposes? And if so, how?

Tech’s profits are not purely based on selling its often world-changing products and services; they are also a result of the industry’s lax morality and its political might. Like Google’s abandoned motto, this, too, is a contradiction: Big Tech leans on libertarianism, even as it built monopolies and spends immense sums on lobbying politicians and administrators. Since the Obama administrations, Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill have spun the revolving door at a furious clip.

Critics like Foroohar and Greene, along with labor and social activists and academics, have disrupted tech’s status quo—the “don’t be evil” persona, the exchange between tech companies and lawmakers—by forcing tech abuses into the national conversation. This criticism has focused on Big Tech and its involvement in politics; what hasn’t yet been discussed in depth is the role of venture-capital investors.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was about to go on a rant, but, uncharacteristically, he is going to restrain himself.

Three comments:

  • Anything that “labor and social activists and academics” don’t like can’t be all bad.
  • Amazon just announced it would be hiring 100,000 new workers.
  • Unlike labor unions, together with local, state and federal governments, anyone can choose not to be involved with Facebook, Google or Amazon.

Users Being Locked Out

PG has received a couple of emails in the past few days from long-time visitors to The Passive Voice which say they haven’t been able to log in using their regular ID/PW.

If you are having a similar problem, get in touch with me via the Contact link on the top menu bar. PG’s temporary fix is signing you up for a new Subscriber account.

PG doesn’t think he’s made any recent changes to the blog that might have triggered this glitch, but, who knows what he’s done while in one of his too-much-Covid hazes.

If any WordPress experts know about what might be causing this problem, PG would appreciate a tip, explanation, fix, etc., via the Contact link.

FYI, he has over 70,000 people who have signed up as subscribers. An unknown portion of those are undoubtedly would-be comment spammers.

Is artistic nepotism an evil – or a necessity?

From The Critic:

T he other day, I discovered that a talented young writer was publishing her first novel. She seemed to have a good, if not unusual back story; she had been working as a bookseller in the estimable Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and had published her debut collection of short stories earlier this year. And then I caught sight of her name, Naomi Ishiguro. My first reaction was to wonder whether it was merely a coincidence that she shared a surname with the Nobel Prize-winning Anglo-Japanese author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, but it was not. She was interviewed in The Guardian earlier this year about her writing and was nonchalant about her famous father, saying of his Nobel Prize that “I could barely get to speak to him on the phone because there were all these journalists outside the house”. She also remarked that having a writer as a father made a writing career “feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical” and that “You think: ‘I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard.’”

There are few issues that lead to such widespread feelings of anger and frustration as the idea of nepotism, especially in an artistic or literary context. For many would-be writers or actors, in particular, the suspicion remains that both industries operate as essentially a closed shop, and entry can only be obtained to the glamorous and well-remunerated professions through having a famous name or similarly high-profile connections.

I still remember the unfortunate saga of the young would-be journalist Max Gogarty, who was commissioned by the Guardian to write a series of blogs about his travels on his gap year. The then-19 year old Gogarty was initially torn to shreds because of the slightly guileless and parodically middle-class way that he presented himself – “working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand”, but then it transpired that his father was a freelance travel journalist and occasional contributor to the paper, and all hell broke loose. Had Twitter existed back then, his name would have trended for days.

. . . .

Laurie Nunn is unapologetic about using her privileged status and well-known family name to further her career. As she said in the interview, “Having family in the arts made me feel, from a very young age, like that was an option for me. I’ve got friends who are in the arts whose family aren’t, and it feels like more of a scary prospect. They definitely encouraged me to follow my passions.” It undoubtedly helps to get noticed if your father is the former head of the National Theatre and the RSC, but it is equally true that her programme is a truly outstanding piece of work. The famous surname may have led to the doors being opened and meetings being obtained, but her own talent is what ensured the success of her career.

Questions of nepotism have been central to writing for generations. While most pre-twentieth century legendary English writers – Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and the like – did not come from literary backgrounds, the profession was then far more reliant on talented individuals being given opportunities on their own merits, rather than attempting to follow in well-known parents’ footsteps. Perhaps the most notable example of this in twentieth century literature is Martin Amis, whose first novel The Rachel Papers was published in 1973, when Amis was 24.

He has made various comments about how his becoming a writer was nothing more than “entering the family business”, as if literature was a trade like being a butcher or a funeral director, and remarked that it was inevitable that any publisher would want to invest in the second generation of a writing dynasty. His father Kingsley was one of Britain’s best-known men of letters in the early Seventies and continued to be one of the country’s major writers until his death in 1995, so it was widely felt that his fame had smoothed his son’s path into creativity. Not for nothing was the winning entry in a 1980 New Statesman competition for the least likely title for a book “Martin Amis: My Struggle”.

Link to the rest at The Critic

A reminder that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts about.

The author of the OP strikes PG as someone behaving as if he/she feels personally offended because the world is unfair or, at least, unfair in a way that upsets the author.

Is it strange, unexpected or disturbing when the daughter of an auto mechanic becomes an auto mechanic herself? Ditto for a plumber or teacher.

Lawyers and doctors are well-know for having children who go into the family business. A law firm called “Johnson and Johnson” is quite likely to involve a parent and child or, somewhat less frequently, a husband and wife (although PG notes in recent years, in his admittedly limited experience, it has become more common for a female professional to retain her maiden name).

Is “maiden name” sexist these days? Should PG have used the term, “former name” or “birth name” or “surname from the family of origin”?

What if a man takes his wife’s name because it’s fancier or better-known than his own surname? It doesn’t seem that his former name could be correctly termed a “maiden name.” Perhaps “bachelor name” or “unmarried name” or “known to his college drinking buddies as” might work.

People think of the inventor

People think of the inventor as a screwball, but no one ever asks the inventor what he thinks of other people.

Charles Kettering

For those unfamiliar with Charles Kettering, he invented the electric cash register in 1906, two years after graduating from Ohio State University. In 1909, he was a founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco. In 1911, he invented the electric starter and the first 12,000 appeared in the 1912 Cadillac.

In 1914, Kettering built a house in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. It was the first house in the United States with electric air conditioning using freon, another Kettering design.

In 1945, at the request of Alfred P. Sloan, then Chairman of General Motors, Kettering personally agreed to oversee the organization of a cancer research program in New York City which is today called The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

PC Font

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Polite Type has been developed in close collaboration with a diverse team with wide-ranging backgrounds in anti-racism work, gender research and D&I consulting. Additionally, the initial vocabulary for the font have been co-created with high-school-aged teenagers and youth from diverse backgrounds in Finland, together with The Children and Youth Foundation. . . . The font is an OpenType font file (OTF) that recognises a number of either discriminative and/or offensive English-language words. After typing the word, the font substitutes it with a more neutral, inoffensive word. . . .

The blur is an integrated part of the design for the words that have no literal translation, or their meaning is too broad to replace with just one word or their purpose is only that of hurting someone. Blurring is commonly used as a way to censor or to hide something offensive, but it has never before been used as a symbol in a font. . . .

The library of words deemed hurtful has been put together in collaboration with people from different origins, religions, world views and sexual orientations. Naturally, the library is always changing with the language itself.

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

George R.R. Martin Can’t Build Castle Library In New Mexico

From Huff Post:

“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin won’t be able to build a seven-sided, castle-style library at his compound in Santa Fe that drew objections from neighbors.

The city’s Historic Districts Review Board on Tuesday denied a request to allow Martin to exceed the building height limit in the historic district where he lives, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The project included a roof deck and an elevator tower.

“It is a medieval castle, and I don’t understand how we could possibly approve it in this style,” board member Frank Katz said.

Mark Graham lives south of the property and said residents couldn’t “support having a castle in the neighborhood.”

“With the notoriety of Mr. Martin and ‘Game of Thrones,’ we absolutely fear that our neighborhood will become the next treasure hunt, that his fans will be looking to find the castle that’s in the middle of Santa Fe,” Graham said.

. . . .

Alexander Dzurec with the architecture firm Autotroph Inc. filed the application for the height exemption and said Tuesday that the library was intended to house “a very sizable collection” of literature and “other collectibles.”

Link to the rest at Huff Post

Relying strictly on a brief online search, PG came up a couple of images for George R.R. Martin’s house in Santa Fe. It looks pretty much like a lot of other buildings in Santa Fe – reminiscent of Santa Fe’s early history. Here are a couple of links – House 1 and House 2 – PG doesn’t know if either depicts a residence which Mr. Martin owns or not.

Anyone who has spent more than 30 minutes in downtown Santa Fe should reasonably understand that the city is both very proud and very protective of its quite ancient (particularly by US standards) architectural history.

Here are a handful of Stanta Fe photos.

San Miguel Chapel, built about 1610
By Shiny Things – originally posted to Flickr as San Miguel Chapel, CC BY 2.0,  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Palace of the Governors – Built about 1610-1618
Asaavedra32 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Shopping area just off the Plaza, Santa Fe
Asaavedra32 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi of Santa Fe, New Mexico, built in 1869 –
MichaelEBM – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

You Probably Still Need the Soothing Embrace of Cottagecore

From Electric Lit:

Cottagecore—the escapist aesthetic that romanticizes a simple, pastoral lifestyle—has been the internet trend of 2020. As Rebecca Jennings notes in Vox, cottagecore has become a way to make this national quarantine romantic by aestheticizing the joys of crafts and rural life. It’s also deeply rooted in previous pastoral movements, inspired by Romanticism (think: nature poems by Coledridge and Wordsworth) and pre-Raphaelite painters (like John William Waterhouse and William Morris). But as set in stone as the aesthetic seems to be, cottagecore is also a fluid movement filled with contradictions. On the one hand, it embraces returning to nature; on the other, it is an entirely virtual (and thus technology-dependent) phenomenon. Similarly, while cottagecore is coated with nostalgia for a simpler past—it’s been criticized for valorizing colonialism—it is also associated with progressive politics and LGBTQ+ subcultures. Accordingly, the books below showcase the long tradition of pastoral novels, as well as contemporary meditations on nature and cottage life. They offer a variety of takes on what could be called “cottagecore literature,” extending beyond Beatrix Potter and L. M. Montgomery—while still relating to the cottagecore aesthetic in some way.

. . . .

The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning

A memoir about mycology and mourning, The Way Through the Woods explores the author’s foray into mushroom foraging after her husband’s sudden death. Woon acutely describes the feelings of bleak grief after losing her partner of 32 years, and how mushrooming offered a way to connect with nature, re-vitalizing her life. Woon also offers educational insight into the fascinating forms of fungi all around us, from Norwegian forests to Central Park. After reading her vivid descriptions, you may find yourself taking a second look at the fungal growth on your week-old leftovers—or embarking on a mushroom forest adventure of your own.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG didn’t see anything particularly cottagey in the book covers in the OP, so, he located a couple of genuine cottage photos of an English and a French cottage.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
Cottage in Kerascoët

Cynicism and The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

The law of supply and demand, like the law of gravity, applies to just about everything. These days, for example, cynicism abounds—“We are all cynics now,” Ansgar Allen reports—and we value this oversupply accordingly, which is to say not at all.

In ancient Greece, however, true Cynics were few. Hard-bitten dissidents, they lived an aggressive, contrarian philosophy opposed to convention, keen on what is “natural,” and enabled by near-fanatical independence. Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps the best known of their number, scandalized Athenians by flaunting his bodily functions. But these enemies of propriety had a certain usefulness, much like short sellers in today’s financial markets. When human values seem built on thin air, count on a Cynic—or if necessary, a mere cynic—to realign them with reality by sneering at their emptiness.

Neither Mr. Allen’s “Cynicism” nor Helen Small’s “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time” celebrates cynicism, but both make a kind of case for it. They also concern themselves as well with how we went from the paradoxically idealistic social criticism of the ancient Cynics to the nihilistic cynicism of our own times. The short answer is: Friedrich Nietzsche.

. . . .

Ancient Cynics, in a kind of perverse altruism, embraced extreme poverty, the better to credibly assail the complacent with their radical social critique. The self-interested cynicism of our own times, which sees every motive as ulterior, “prefers to express itself in private, as a grievance,” says Mr. Allen, a lecturer in education at Britain’s University of Sheffield. His book is in part a plea on behalf of “the obscene, confrontational force of Cynicism,” which he values as a mode of revolt suitable to “the predicament of those who look about them and find everything wanting.” One fears he is among them.

Ms. Small, in “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time,” is also bracingly cynical about cynicism. The cynic’s caustic approach, she observes, means that he “arrogates power to himself over his listener,” and his radical self-sufficiency is a sham, for “despite appearances, the cynic is always on the make for recognition by others.” Yet Ms. Small sees cynical thinking “not as the isolated posturing of a radical or psychologically damaged few” but as a commonplace and useful check on the credibility of people promoting moral ideals.

. . . .

There was benevolent cynicism, the author suggests, in Bertrand Russell’s “Marriage and Morals,” a takedown of outdated sexual mores and regulations that, in 1940, prompted a New York judge to vacate the philosopher’s appointment to teach at City College. (John Dewey defended Russell in the Nation.) Russell’s provocative book exemplified cynicism’s utility by demanding that we justify conventions, taboos and legal restrictions and reminding us of our animal nature.

Cynicism’s bracing challenge comes at a cost. Diogenes, one version of the story goes, was exiled from his hometown of Sinope when his father was jailed for debasing the currency he was in charge of issuing. This history is also a metaphor, since cynicism can undermine confidence in the social coinage of tradition, ritual, civility—all the evolved practices that keep violence at bay and make life tolerable.

But has cynicism really become more pervasive these days? America has always had cynics, but we’ve had Cynics as well. Henry David Thoreau, a figure associated with nature, asceticism, self-reliance and social criticism, must have reminded someone in his day of Diogenes. We can see a family resemblance in Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen and the Beat poets, too.

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

Before reading the OP, PG might have characterized himself as a cynic, but afterwards, he thinks he’s more of a practitioner of targeted skepticism.

While PG believes in the essential goodness of many a human being and in the potential goodness of many more, he also is cynical about certain types and classes of people.

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors to TPV that PG is both cynical and skeptical of a great many people associated with the world of traditional publishing, for example. He is also both cynical and skeptical about nearly all communists and socialists. (This isn’t a political blog. PG was just doing a bit more public self-examination than is probably wise.)

That said, PG is very much convinced that individual human beings and groups of human beings can be improved and even perfected, given enough persistence and some outside help at appropriate times.

Human beings are, of course, intensely social creatures and the influence of those around them can be very powerful. Hence, PG’s problems with the mores and habits of traditional publishing in general. (He readily acknowledges many more than one exception to this generalization.)

In the long run, however, PG believes that working on the bright side is a more successful strategy in business and in life, although there is no doubting the efficacy of dark-side strategies at certain times and in certain places in business, history and society.

PG has run out of philosophizing juice (to the great relief of more than one visitor to TPV).

Who Is a ‘Crossover’ Book For?

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s been a while since I set a book in high school. By the time I finished my fifth young adult novel, I could feel my interest in that particular place waning. When I started my sixth, I made the protagonist a dropout (like me), gave her the keys to a car, and let her drive herself into a vicious unknown: her little sister was dead. She was going to kill the man responsible. A few months later, she’s gone missing and a radio host starts a podcast dedicated to finding out what happened to her. That book is Sadie, released in paperback last month.

Sadie is a relentless, brutal, and gritty testament to a sister’s love that takes its protagonist to the darkest corners humanity has to offer without flinching. With Sadie, my work has become less clearly prescriptive—if it ever was—making it even more at odds with that strange expectation a certain type of reader holds: that YA novels should take on the responsibilities of an authority figure and deal in hopeful, aspirational endings while being devoid of all delicious and interesting four-letter words.

Because of this, some readers feel Sadie should be categorized as an adult novel. Others can’t envision it in any section but YA. Most have settled on calling it a “crossover.” That didn’t feel like a bad thing then—and it doesn’t now—though, at the time, I didn’t realize this designation that easily serves as a point of entry for two audiences can just as easily be used as a tool, by some gatekeepers, to deny its primary target. If a book is seemingly too much of one thing or not enough of the other, who, ultimately, is it for? This response has fascinated me, having spent more than 10 years working in YA fiction, and freely and proudly identifying myself as an author of such. I suspect my February 2021 release, The Project, about an aspiring teen journalist who forgoes the high school experience to investigate a cult, has the potential to yield a similar response.

. . . .

I don’t think the high school setting is a prerequisite in a YA novel, by the way—I’m more versed in my industry than that. But I often think of the cues and tropes we use to define the category when asked. According to Wikipedia, “The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist,” and, for many of us, the metal-tinged scent of locker-lined halls is one of the first things that calls to mind. It’s the blush of first love. It’s that specific kind of friendship drama you desperately hope won’t follow you into your 40s. It’s a sense of immediacy, a pace—fast. Or any number of first times. These are the hallmarks of many YA novels, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Teens are growing up in that world, and they deserve to see it reflected.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly