Meta ‘discussed buying publisher Simon & Schuster to train AI’

From The Guardian:

Staff at technology company Meta discussed buying publishing house Simon & Schuster last year in order to procure books to train the company’s artificial intelligence tools, it has been reported.

According to recordings of internal meetings shared with the New York Times, managers, lawyers and engineers at Meta met on a near-daily basis between March and April 2023 to discuss how it could get hold of more data to train AI models. From the recordings, which were shared by an employee of the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company that owns Facebook and Instagram, the New York Times found that staff had discussed buying Simon & Schuster and some had debated paying $10 per book for the licensing rights to new titles.

Simon & Schuster is one of the English-speaking world’s major book publishing houses and is part of what is referred to as the “Big Five”, along with Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and Macmillan. Simon & Schuster’s authors include Stephen King, Colleen Hoover and Bob Woodward.

In March 2020, Paramount Global, the parent company of Simon & Schuster, announced its intention to sell the publisher. After a much-criticised planned merger with Penguin Random House was blocked by US courts, Simon & Schuster was eventually sold to private equity firm KKR in August 2023.

According to the recordings, Ahmad Al-Dahle, Meta’s vice president of generative AI, told executives that the company had used almost every book, poem and essay written in English available on the internet to train models, so was looking for new sources of training material.

Employees said they had used these text sources without permission and talked about using more, even if that would result in lawsuits. When a lawyer flagged “ethical” concerns about using intellectual property, they were met with silence.

. . . .

Maria A Pallante, president of the Association of American Publishers, does not believe that Simon & Schuster would have agreed to such a sale. “The fact that Meta sought to purchase one of the most important publishing houses in American history in order to ingest its venerable catalogue for AI profits is puzzling even for Big Tech,” she said. “Did Meta plan to trample the primary mission of Simon & Schuster, and its contractual partnerships with authors, by sheer power?”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As the OP makes clear, Simon & Schuster is anything but an independent company. America’s third largest trade publisher was owned by Paramount Global, which sold it to KKR in 2023 for $1.62 billion. Meta’s market value at the end of 2023 was almost $500 billion. Its annual revenues for the year were almost $135 billion, and its profit margin was 28.98% for the year.

Purchasing S&S to provide content for Meta’s AI would probably have been a smart move because S&S’s value as a publisher was far less than its value as one of many content providers to prime Meta’s AI program.

As PG has opined on previous occasions, he questions the claims of more than a few traditional publishers that using their books to train an AI system somehow violates the copyrights of the authors they publish. In part this is because PG’s understanding that creating an AI does not create copies of the original work. Regardless of the query to an AI program, it won’t produce a copy of any book or any other document to the person making the query.

PG is happy to receive information—likely originating with an experienced copyright attorney or long-time law school professor—that indicates his opinion regarding no copyright infringement in the creation of an AI is incorrect.

Indiana’s Intellectual Diversity Law

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When I won a teaching award at my university, I was asked to write a brief description of my pedagogy. I proudly wrote — and my provost read aloud at the awards ceremony — that I incorporate themes of racial justice and gender equality into my composition classes. Today, if I were in Indiana, I would be afraid of losing my job if I admitted such a thing.

Under Indiana’s Senate Bill 202, known as the “Intellectual Diversity” law, the trustees for public colleges will evaluate faculty every five years on the following:

  • Whether they “foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity.”
  • Whether they teach “a variety of political or ideological frameworks” within their disciplines.
  • Whether they “subject students to political or ideological views and opinions” unrelated to the course.

Faculty, regardless of tenure, can be fired if the board determines that they would be “unlikely” to foster intellectual diversity, “unlikely” to incorporate a variety of ideological or political frameworks, or “likely” to talk about their own political views.

According to its supporters and its Republican sponsor, State Sen. Spencer Deery, the law is needed to help politically conservative students feel more comfortable expressing their views on campus. But Indiana’s law is a solution in search of a problem. Survey data analyzed by the political scientist Ryan Burge show that most conservative students feel about as comfortable sharing their views as liberal students. The difference in comfort level is small and mostly due to perceptions of how other students might react, not faculty.

Critics say the law will chill both free speech and academic freedom. But no one is talking about the self-contradictory nature of the law, nor how its built-in contradictions empower a biased policing of campus speech and thought.

When does presenting diverse ideological frameworks to students transform into subjecting them to one’s ideological views? Or is sharing one’s ideological views — which students may never have heard or considered before — part of fostering a culture of intellectual diversity?

Is allowing students to share their own ideologies tantamount to endorsing them to other students, or is it fostering a culture of free inquiry and expression? How does a professor foster “a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity” while also satisfying the requirement to teach “a variety of political or ideological frameworks”?

Does “free inquiry” mean exploring everything as though all ideas are equal, or does it require the exclusion of disproved ideas? What constitutes a sufficient “variety” of frameworks? Inquiry struggles to be free when one must treat all ideas and perspectives the same.

. . . .

One person’s “free inquiry” and “variety” of ideological frameworks is another person’s political indoctrination. The frameworks that a professor considers irrelevant to their discipline could be central to a trustee’s sense of “intellectual diversity.” Correcting a student’s misinformed statement with facts and sound reasoning could be portrayed as censorship. The clear message for Indiana faculty: Avoid saying anything that might cause complaints.

Just a few student complaints could be used to claim a professor is “unlikely” to foster a culture of intellectual diversity or “likely” to subject students to political rants, leading to termination of tenure and employment. As all faculty know, course evaluations tend to produce polarized responses: Students love you or they hate you. Sometimes, they project their own biases and assumptions onto you, a phenomenon that will now come with graver consequences.

It is tempting to ask rhetorical questions, as Diane Ravitch did, about professors teaching evolution, climate change, or the Civil War, and then giving equal time to “the other side” to comply with Indiana’s law.

. . . .

After George Floyd’s murder, I began using racial justice and gender-equality advocacy as examples of discourse communities in my composition courses. Students learned some of the key terms, concepts, values, beliefs, and rhetorical strategies of these communities, gaining the transferable skill of audience analysis in a relevant context. Most of my students seemed very engaged. Some students of color said they had never felt so “seen” in a class. Only two or three complained in course evaluations. But when only a couple complaints could lead to your firing, why risk it?

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG understands the frustration more than a few feel about the political/cultural monoculture that rules on many college and university campuses. In an era that privileges an individual’s “comfort,” it’s almost certain that students and professors who disagree with the dominant social/political environment that permeates higher education are likely to feel uncomfortable and isolated.

However, few individuals in the now-dominant culture will recognize and respect their feelings because intelligent individuals today know this is the new normal, and it’s the nonconformer’s responsibility to deal with it.

Many university campuses are replete with speech limits — free-speech zones that imply speech must be carefully censored on the rest of campus. You can only say what you really believe and how you really feel about what’s going on around you in a free-speech zone. But, you still might be drowned out by groups using the hecklers’ veto.

Students and professors must be very careful not to perpetrate microaggressions that may harm a single individual in a large classroom. This morning’s quip might trigger a single student and become a microaggression that brings down disciplinary sanctions on the microaggressor before the day is done.

PG has no idea how professors can recall and use the personal pronouns various individuals may have adopted for themselves –

  • Ze/hir/hir
  • Per/per/pers
  • The person’s name – Jack ate Jack’s food because Jack was hungry

And misgendering is offensive and disrespectful to anyone, but especially to trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

PG wonders if there is a list analogical to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of universities and colleges that ranks institutions by cultural and political freedoms enjoyed by students.

‘We may lose ability to think critically at all’: the book-summary apps accused of damaging authors’ sales

From The Guardian:

A tech sector dedicated to boiling things down has raised temperatures in some quarters of the publishing world

Hungry for niche knowledge to impress your colleagues? Troubled by the size of a hefty new book? Doubt your abilities to understand complex arguments? Well, today an increasingly competitive industry offers to take away these problems with one product: a book summary app.

Since these digital services first promised to boil down a title, usually a nonfiction work, a decade ago, the marketplace has become crowded. So much so that authors and publishers are concerned about the damage to sales, as well as to the habit of concentrated reading.

Some successful writers, including Amy Liptrot, also fear that apps such as Blinkist, Bookey, getAbstract and the latest, Headway, may be undermining the book trade and misrepresenting content.

Liptrot has approached her union, the Society of Authors, for advice on how to take action. She was alarmed last week to find her acclaimed 2015 memoir, The Outrun, now a film starring Saoirse Ronan, being peddled in potted form on Bookey. “It was unnerving to see a totally fictional quotation purporting to be from my book,” she told the Observer. “These apps are very anti-literary. They’re for people who want to absorb the key ideas without reading the book. I don’t mind a bland, soulless summary, but I do mind a false quotation.”

Diana Gerald, chief executive of the charity BookTrust, is also disturbed by the influence of these apps on young readers. “Book summaries can be a useful starting point. However, it goes without saying that improvements in mental health, in sparking imagination, empathy and language acquisition that reading can have, come from reading the book itself,” she said.

Writer Susie Alegre also sees lurking danger. “The trend towards apps that summarise books so that you can ‘think better’ is likely to have the opposite effect – if we don’t use our minds to reflect deeply, we may lose our ability to think critically at all,” she said, citing research which showed that our reliance on satellite navigation was already rewiring our brains and “destroying our ability to navigate the physical world”.

“Relying on summaries of big ideas might do the same for our capacity for deep thought,” added Alegre, whose forthcoming book Human Rights, Robot Wrongs: Being Human in the Age of AI is published in early May.

“AI is famously prone to hallucinations: if you read an AI-generated summary of a book, there is no guarantee that it actually reflects the content,” she said, pointing out that writers’ “already meagre income” could be destroyed by the summary-app business.

The publishing industry is also on alert. Andrew Franklin, founder director of Profile Books, understands the worry: “These apps are potentially depriving authors of income and bookshops of custom. It is quite a serious way of infringing copyright, although not technically wrong, as you are allowed to summarise a text. These apps are really just the same as the adverts that pop up offering you an effortless way to lose weight without exercise.”

The new crib sites function a little like the York Notes study guide series for British students, (or Cliffs Notes in the US), but have less analytical content and tend to compete over the niche business areas they cover.

Not all in the book world are concerned. Toby Mundy, executive director of the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, wonders if these apps might prove a gateway for readers to actual books.

He said: “When people want to know about a subject, they might start with Wikipedia or a precis app, but publishing is fundamentally about voices. If you want to know about the Russian Revolution – and I mean really know – then most people will turn to Orlando Figes’s masterpiece, A People’s Tragedy, rather than a dreary textbook, because it combines authoritative scholarship with tremendous literary verve. Precis apps might disrupt certain genres, business books perhaps, but they are intrinsically anti-voice and philistine.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From Wikipedia:

CliffsNotes are a series of student study guides. The guides present and create literary and other works in pamphlet form or online. Detractors of the study guides claim they let students bypass reading the assigned literature. The company claims to promote the reading of the original work and does not view the study guides as a substitute for that reading.[1]

History

CliffsNotes was started by Nebraska native Clifton Hillegass in 1958.[2] He was working at Nebraska Book Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, when he met Jack Cole, the co-owner of Coles, a Toronto book business. Coles published a series of Canadian study guides called Coles Notes, and sold Hillegass the U.S. rights to the guides.

Hillegass and his wife, Catherine, started the business in their basement at 511 Eastridge Drive in Lincoln, with sixteen William Shakespeare titles. By 1964, sales reached one million Notes annually. CliffsNotes now exist for hundreds of works. The term “Cliff’s Notes” has become a proprietary eponym for similar products.

IDG Books purchased CliffsNotes in 1998 for $14.2 million.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

PG wonders if borrowing a copy of the notes for a class from a friend who Aced the class qualifies as a terrible moral failing.

What if the class is taught by a professor who reads her/his notes, putting nearly everyone to sleep?

What if the world’s worst literature professor teaches Shakespeare?

Do all students have to consume the academic version of Brussels Sprouts from professors who have gained tenure and use their status to force starving graduate students to update their class notes?

It doesn’t take more than being sentenced to one or two boring 500-student lecture classes for many students to realize they should choose the professor instead of the subject. Why? Because, unlike Education majors, professors have never been taught to teach effectively. Teaching skills are not nearly as professionally rewarding as the publication of a paper on an abstruse topic that perhaps 15 people will read in its entirety.

PG made a big change to his college major to a subject nobody had heard of so he would be taught by one of four superb professors for 90% of his classes, with each class typically comprised of 10-12 students.

His GPA reflected his enthusiasm for these classes, but never completely recovered from the terminally miserable experience of the giant auditoriums struggling to stay awake.

Can SEO writing ruin your prose style? And why Bill Bryson can call a book Wubberhumptimuph and you can’t

From Nail Your Novel:

I’ve had this question from Mark….

This question has been bouncing in my brain ever since the digital revolution began and especially after working for various publishers that asked me to help them with social media and website text. 

Do you think that being forced to focus on SEO when writing articles, promos, headlines etc can negatively impact your non-journalism writing? My sense is that SEO flourishes from a writing style that is different from the style I use when writing creative works, especially fiction. And I don’t want my brain to be steered down that path.

Good question! Short answer: yes, writing for SEO purposes will affect your prose style!

But don’t panic yet. It’s not all doom and there’s much more to say.

First, a brief explanation, so we understand the difference between SEO writing and the kind of writing we do in our books and other creative domains, the kind of writing that Mark is talking about.

What is SEO writing?

SEO is writing that’s meant to be read by machines, specifically search engines. You do this with keywords and key phrases. Ideally, you imagine what words or phrases a reader might type into Google, and make sure they’re used a lot in your blogpost or article. And especially in your headline because that sums up the whole piece.

Here’s an example from a piece I edited for the Alliance of Independent Authors. If you’re writing about William Shakespeare, perhaps to promote a book you’re publishing, you might post a piece about the 10 best quotes for Valentine’s day. If you’ve got an ounce of soul, you’ll get creative with the headline. ‘When love speaks… Timeless lines from the Bard.’

Will that get the attention of humans? Yes. Will it get the attention of search engines? Probably no, so the humans won’t get to see it. You’re much more likely to get hits if you call it ‘My 10 top Shakespeare quotes about love.’ Dull but true. ‘Top Shakespeare quotes’ is what a reader will ask a search engine to find, so those are the words (the key words) that will get you the most hits. The searching person just wants an answer, and they won’t think of the many inventive or witty ways to enjoy expressing the question.

Here’s where I’m wholeheartedly agreeing with Mark. I want to live in a world of headlines that are intriguing, evocative, stylish, haunting. I love how language can do that. If I ruled the universe, we would all use our words with grace and panache.

SEO, though, isn’t about that. It’s about communicating with machines first, humans second. Labels rule; not a love of language.

Link to the rest at Nail Your Novel

Why There’s Nothing Icky About Promoting a Book

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

Many authors would rather chew off their own arm than stand in the spotlight promoting a book. They say things like, “I don’t want to seem narcissistic,” “I hate being like, ‘Me, me, me!’” or “I just want to write.’” If this describes you, I am here to explain why — and I know this sounds a little harsh — you need to get over it immediately.

(An aside: I get it — finding language that bridges the gap between authentic and promotional can take some thought, and I empathize. But I also hate to see an author not get their due because they are nervous about putting themselves out there. All of this book publicity advice comes from a place of love!)

Below are three ideas that might help you think about leading a book promotion campaign for your book with confidence:

Conduct this thought experiment.

Conjure a smart and talented friend, and imagine they’ve been working on a creative project — maybe an indie film or an art show—for many years. They’ve poured their heart and soul and thousands of hours into bringing it into the world. It’s finally completed, and the premiere, opening, or launch is coming up.

Now, imagine they say to you, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to email my friends and family about it,’ or ‘I don’t want to look like a narcissist,’ or ‘I’m hoping people find out about it organically.’

You would likely tell them, correctly and emphatically, that’s wild, they must let their people and, if possible, the wider world know about their work. How will their ideas and talent be known otherwise? You and your book deserve the same championing you would insist upon for a loved one.

Put on your business hat when promoting a book.

Authors tend to bristle at this idea but once you have a publishing deal or pub date, you need to think of your book as a product. It’s a smart, creative, thoughtful, excellent product, yes. But it is still a new thing that you want people to know about and buy. No (successful) business in the world launches a product and just waits for people to stumble upon it.

Would a band release a new album and neglect to alert their fans? Would a playwright open a show and make a single social media post about it? Of course not. There’d be a launch party, emails to mailing lists, a website, many social media posts, media outreach — a slew of promotional efforts.

Authors need to do the same.

You might be thinking, isn’t that the publisher’s job? That would be nice, but in-house publicity and marketing teams have slim budgets and are way overstretched. They’re often handling an impossible workload. That includes managing every season’s soon-to-be and newly published books. Plus any longer-term interest in books published in past seasons. Today’s media environment, by and large, requires too much in-the-weeds research time for them to lead robust and highly personalized campaigns for all their books.

Publishers expect authors to be active partners in the promotion of their books — running their own social media (occasionally with marketing help provided), building and maintaining an author website, curating a broad contact list for personal outreach, and more.

No one will be paying as much attention to your promotional emails or posts as you.

Remember, people get hundreds of emails a day and see who-knows-how-many social media posts. It may feel like a heavy lift for you to hit send, but it’s going to land as just one in a ton of other messages. When you post about it online, the vast majority of your followers will miss it.

In this era of overwhelm — with the nonstop churn of social media posts, the proliferation of mailing lists, Substacks, and more clogging your inbox, the reduction in book coverage across the print and digital media landscape, and the pick-and-choose format of personalized news intake—you have to make as much noise as possible.

You need to post about it — and then post about it again! You have to email people — and then you need to follow up with them. I cannot tell you how many top national media hits Press Shop PR has landed for authors on a third follow-up. People miss emails all the time. Sometimes they mark them as unread and forget to go back to them. Sometimes, it just gets pushed down into the depths of the recipient’s inbox too quickly. Don’t let the success of promoting a book depend on other people’s email management skills!

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

What Does an A Really Mean?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When classes pivoted to remote instruction in 2020, some professors — even some entire colleges — moved to pass/fail grading systems. Sure, it was a short-term crisis response. But allowing pass/fail, even for a little while, demonstrated that the traditional approach to grading isn’t the only option.

Some professors had already decided as much: There’s a small but high-profile “ungrading” movement championed by professors who argue that grades are not only poor measures of learning, but also pull students’ focus from understanding the material to earning points. And there are alternative grading approaches that evaluate student work against a standard, provide feedback, and let students try again if the standard has not been met.

For other professors, grades are a barometer. If many students aren’t performing well — and if there are demographic disparities among them — that is a sign something has gone wrong in how they’re being taught or supported.

Meanwhile, there’s been a wave of worry about grade inflation. And it’s true that grades at many colleges have risen steadily since the 1980s. Grades can rise for many reasons, but the concern is that students and administrators are pushing professors to award higher grades, lowering expectations and losing a main method for differentiating among students.

Grades mean something — articulated by an instructor and interpreted by a student — in the context of a particular course. But that isn’t all they mean. Grades play a gatekeeping role, helping to sort students into colleges, majors, graduate programs, and jobs. They can shape the way students see themselves. Heck, they can get them a discount on their car insurance.

In an attempt to capture the myriad and evolving ways in which grades are perceived, The Chronicle asked a selection of stakeholders, including professors, students, and high-school counselors, to provide a short answer to the same simple question: What does an A mean?

. . . .

As a teacher (of both philosophy and public speaking), my philosophy of grading has always been that a B should be relatively easy to earn, assuming that the student gives an honest effort and does what is expected, and that an A should be hard to get, representing both excellent performance and depth of understanding.

Jim Jump, retired academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., who writes about admissions issues

You knew what the course was trying to achieve and pursued it sincerely without trying to game the system.

Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals and a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

. . . .

It depends on context and content, but I flash back to the rubric I used when teaching high school so many years ago. For me, an A should reflect five things: evidence of deep understanding, masterful application of the relevant knowledge or skills, attentive participation, creative engagement, and thorough attention to detail. These will apply very differently when it comes to a seminar discussion, an essay, a biology midterm, or a math problem set, of course, but the intuitions should consistently apply.

Rick Hess, senior fellow and director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written about grade inflation

Link to the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education

Fuzzy grading that differs from professor to professor and from college to college is one reason that prospective employers sometimes ask prospective employees for their results from standardized testing.

Per The Wall Street Journal:

Consulting firms such as Bain & Co. and McKinsey & Co. and banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. ask new college recruits for their [SAT] scores, while other companies request them even for senior sales and management hires, eliciting scores from job candidates in their 40s and 50s.

What Is Sensitivity Reading?

From The Science Fiction Writers of America:

Have you ever read something that you knew was incorrect? Sometimes, research has fallen short of convincing people who know better, even though other readers might not notice anything wrong. For those who know, it can be jarring and pull them out of the story. How would you feel if that error was about your life? Your personal history? Your family’s history? Or something intrinsic to who you are?

Sensitivity readers exist as a consultancy resource to offer an authentic perspective regarding how marginalization affects characters, settings, and worldbuilding, and to provide feedback that an author can accept, reject, or question. That feedback can include, but is not limited to, problematic tropes, stereotypes, inaccuracies, and offensive portrayals. Utilizing this feedback, authors improve the representation so that readers who live these experiences can avoid harm and enjoy their books.

The controversy

Books have been recruited into the ongoing culture war that we’re seeing across our society with lurid headlines about Roald Dahl or the James Bond books “being forced” to change. Often, when an author has negative feedback or a book is delayed or withdrawn, the sensitivity readers are blamed.

Sensitivity reading is seen as new, controversial, and headline-grabbing. Changing anything is presented as “woke,” snowflake modern sensibilities. However, this practice has been employed for as long as books have been printed. Some great examples include Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the Bowdlerized version of Shakespeare, or how Grimm and Anderson fairy tales are softened for younger children. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa-Loompas were originally pygmies Willy Wonka imported from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle.” Ten years later, Dahl updated them as having “golden-brown hair” and “rosy-white skin,” and Africa became Loompa-land. Dahl was happy to edit his own work. So was Dickens, with another book considered a classic. Dickens went back and removed over two hundred references to anti-Semitism of the Fagin character in Oliver Twist after criticism from a Jewish reader. 

Stories with positive outcomes exist in modern reporting despite the media’s tendency to focus on authors who are less receptive. Recently, Irvine Welsh spoke candidly about when he’d written trans characters, and thought using sensitivity readers would be akin to censorship. However, Welsh said his sensitivity reader had wanted to make the book “as authentic as possible and was incredibly supportive. And it did help to make the book better.” 

Joanne Harris, Chair for the Society of Authors, also made a great point when she tweeted: “If you don’t want to use a sensitivity reader, don’t use one. But if you’ve never used one, then maybe you’re not the person most qualified to talk about what sensitivity readers actually do.”

The process

What sensitivity readers look for depends on their specialty and the manuscript itself. Topics could include race, LGBTQIA+ experiences, disability, and other marginalizations. While what we’re looking for varies, we all look for authenticity. We read through the manuscript, searching for instances of stereotyping, bias, or harmful tropes, and providing cultural, personal, or community-related context to all aspects relevant to our read.

As a biracial British Indian second-generation immigrant, my area of expertise includes my identity, race relations in the UK, especially for the Indian/Desi diasporas, UK anti-immigration politics, Brexit, etc., through to India under the Raj, for both factual or fictional books. I can help with general racism, but I would always recommend finding a closer fit where possible.

With most fiction or non-fiction books, my sensitivity read is completed at the end of the editing process, before or during copy edits. I’ll be given the full manuscript to review or a selection of scenes. Picture books, however, require feedback for the very early script and work-in-progress art stage. A second review of the final art and copy will often be completed.

When reading, I’m working from my personal lived experience, from training, and any background research required, if it’s a particular time period, for example. If it’s authentic, I’ll give it a thumbs up and explain why; if it’s not, I will give suggestions on how to improve the authenticity. These suggestions might be in-line text or links to further resources where they can find more information.

I take note of initial impressions by using Track Changes in MS Word or comments on a PDF; then, on a second read, I’ll review how those impressions played out. Were people deliberately using stereotypes in order to subvert them later, or was it an accidental problem that needs fixing? I point out good representation, not only the negatives, and try to recommend details that help the story ring true.

The report ties back to a page number or a reference, so the author knows exactly what the comment refers to. If it is an overall issue, I’ll clarify why they must change something fundamental about the narrative.

Industry uptake

While there is no formal data on the use of sensitivity readers, I have noted an increase in requests and new clients. I worked with ten different publishers in 2021, thirteen in 2022, and sixteen in 2023. There was a similar proportional increase of requests from independent authors. My sensitivity reading peers have also noticed an upward trend, especially from publishers.

Many reads are one-off projects, but I have been working with some publishers since 2020, and I know of at least one publisher who uses readers for every book they release.

Bloomsbury, Bonnier, and Quarto told The Bookseller they had employed sensitivity readers as it was “important in inclusive, forward-thinking publishing.”

Why do it

Creating characters that reflect the world’s diversity is important for writers and readers. However, it’s essential to create that representation authentically. Consider why you’re adding characters different from yourself, and how you will feel if you get aspects wrong. Consider asking for feedback to create your best character rather than worrying about possible bad reviews or social media pile-ons. 

Link to the rest at SWFA

PG tried to think of a book of fiction he had read that reflected the world’s diversity. He was unsuccessful.

PG’s favorite books are often set in a time and place very different from any PG has experienced. That preference takes him to many histories. Fantasy/sci-fi is another trip to a time and place he has never experienced first-hand and has never actually existed.

PG also bucks against overly-sensitive people, although in his former legal practice, he had to deal with clients who could be triggered by many and varied events and experiences. The hurly-burly and unpredictability of some hard-fought court cases were difficult for such clients to deal with.

PG tried to prepare clients for ups and downs in court proceedings, but the intense emotions when a witness delivers a nasty surprise instead of another brick in a carefully constructed wall can be hard to deal with.

Help Us Choose the Saddest Book of All Time

From Electric Lit:

Forget March Madness—this year, we’ve decided to try something new: March Sadness. That’s right, folks: this literary bracket is full of the most devastating novels we could think of, all with the goal of choosing the saddest of the sad. These are the books that have broken our hearts in the best and worst ways, the ones that will compel any reader to go on a long, long walk while playing the same depressing songs on loop and contemplating the tragedy of life. 

You, dear reader, are going to help us decide which of these books has single-handedly accounted for thousands of dollars in revenue for the Kleenex brand (we assume) thanks to readers blotting their eyes and blowing their noses. Voting starts Monday, March 25 on our Instagram and Twitter (sorry, did we say Twitter? We meant “X”).

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG missed this earlier and March Sadness has already been determined. Go to Electric Lit to find the winner/loser. Cursor down at Electric Lit to see the winner(s) and loser(s) of each round of March Sadness.

Reading fiction ‘significantly’ reduces stress

From The Bookseller:

The Queen’s Reading Room –  the literary charity set up by Queen Camilla in 2021 – has found that reading fiction can “significantly” reduce stress.

The research, which was carried out by Trinity McQueen and Split Second Research, is the first to be commissioned by the charity. 

Participants in a neuroscientific study were asked to complete a number of tasks while having biometric reading taken. The findings suggest that reading fiction for just five minutes reduced stress by nearly 20%. 

Qualitative elements of the study found that reading fiction can also reduce loneliness and improve focus. High-frequency fiction readers reported finding it easier to read a map, find a new place and follow a newspaper story and were more likely to believe that reading fiction kept their brain sharp and improved their intellect. 

. . . .

Speaking about the results, Vicki Perrin, chief executive of The Queen’s Reading Room, said: “As a charity, we are fascinated by the relationship between reading and wellbeing and it comes as no surprise to us that there are clear benefits to reading. We are delighted that our very first neuroscientific study has been able to confirm what we have all known for so long – that there is an important link between improved mental health, brain health and social connectedness, and that it should be nurtured further. 

“While this research has only just begun to scratch the surface of what reading can do for our well-being, we very much hope that the results of our study will spur a shift in the way we think about reading.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG expects that he’s not the only regular reader to be unsurprised at the findings in the OP that reading is very good for him, Mrs. PG, any number of PG offspring and a large number of friends.

In Defense of Imagination

From Public Books:

In his short story “The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu makes a case for imagination’s value: for its innate significance and material power. I teach “The Paper Menagerie” every year in my introduction to literary studies course at West Virginia University, and every year, it makes me and most of my students cry. Liu’s story charts the deterioration of a once tender relationship between a Chinese mother and her Chinese American son, figuring their connection through a set of magical paper animals. The creatures that Mom crafts out of recycled wrapping paper using zhezhi, or Chinese papercraft, are imbued with life, and Jack establishes a strong bond with all of the animals, especially Laohu, a tiger. But as a preteen, after a neighborhood child instigates a racist bullying campaign that centers around the menagerie, Jack distances himself from his mother and all that she stands for: her cultural practices; her papercraft; her racial difference. It’s only years after her death, after his girlfriend finds the menagerie in storage and Laohu comes alive once more, that Jack finally values his mom and realizes all that he’s lost.

In its emotional intensity and exquisitely crafted plot, “The Paper Menagerie” is a wonderful vehicle for reaching students, but the feature that really draws me back each time is its rich theory of art. For Liu, art’s power resides simultaneously in its three main elements: the creative process, the work itself, and the act of aesthetic appreciation. Liu registers this flexible and expansive theory of art through the trope of paper—this story’s dominant motif. Paper takes many forms in “The Paper Menagerie”: it’s a reusable resource (like the wrapping paper that Mom uses to craft her animals); a method of facilitating transnational connection (in the printed catalogs that Jack’s dad uses to meet Mom, who was then in Hong Kong); a metonym for immigration documentation (Mom needs papers to move to the US); and a medium for communicating a personal history (Laohu unfurls his body upon his revival, revealing a letter from Mom to her estranged son). It’s through art—through Laohu—that Mom is able to posthumously reconnect with Jack by narrating her life story, expressing her pain at his emotional distance and confirming her abiding love for him. It’s also through art that Jack is finally able to appreciate both his mother and his cultural heritage. Unlike the ineffectual paper tigers of idiom, Liu’s animate paper menagerie signifies art’s vitality: its liveliness and magic; its necessity and power.


Believing in art’s magic—in the power of creativity to bring imagined worlds to life—underpins every aspect of my work as an English professor, and never more so than this year, when both my job and its very purpose were under threat. As a professor at the now infamously beleaguered West Virginia University, a labor organizer with West Virginia Campus Workers, and a faculty senator engaging with a frequently hostile administration, my own reflections on art’s value, and more broadly of the liberal arts, have taken an acute turn.

In March 2023, WVU president E. Gordon Gee made the shock announcement that hundreds of faculty and staff would be subject to a reduction in force (RIF) and dozens of core educational programs would close. Since then, WVU employees have lived in a state of significant anxiety. By June 2023, 135 faculty and staff had lost their jobs. By July, nearly half of the remaining faculty were under review. By August, afflicted programs appealed their fates, defending themselves against drastic cuts that would see entire departments eliminated and others losing nearly half of all professors. By September, the board of governors had cut an additional 143 faculty at all ranks while an additional eight people were unilaterally laid off in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. By October, faculty who’d been cut had received their notices of termination. By November, RIFed faculty had begun the process of appealing the university’s decisions; only one was successful. They’d also learned that, despite the best efforts of a team of DC and WV employment lawyers, their cases lacked the necessary common ground for a class action suit. By December, more people had learned that they would be let go; 16 people were RIFed in the Libraries and 9 people in the Teaching and Learning Commons. So far, 311 people have lost their jobs, with untold consequences for the university’s reputation, employee morale, the local economy, and the future educational opportunities of young West Virginians.

Narrated this way, the picture is bleak—and the mood in Morgantown is bleak indeed. Too many talented employees have lost their livelihoods because university leadership has seemingly decided that higher education should cater to market needs rather than cultivate independent thought and intellectual passion. President Gee’s insistence that there is no financial crisis, despite a well-publicized $45 million deficit, suggests that these unprecedented cuts are at least as much ideologically fueled as they are caused by taking on an unsustainable debt load and failing to convince Republican legislatures to increase spending on public universities. WVU’s administration continues to spend lavishly on their own comforts, including unnecessary flights on private jets. Meanwhile, more than 300 people and their families have lost their jobs and incomes, harming our local economy and the very fabric of our community.

But what’s happening at WVU is not an anomaly, except in scale. Since WVU announced its unprecedented cuts, administrators have announced layoffs at UNC Greensboro, SUNY Potsdam, the University of New Hampshire, and more. And it’s not just the humanities that are at risk, either; WVU’s sweeping cuts have impacted programs as diverse as math, chemistry, music, languages, public health, soil sciences, and education. Leadership teams across the country are coming for the liberal arts, selling the public an inferior product that’s been packaged by management consultancies, particularly Huron Consulting Group and rpk GROUP. What’s emerging is a radicalized belief that the public university is a place not to acquire deep knowledge but to learn basic job skills. In their commitment to market logics and the whims of a small sector of the right-wing electorate, an increasing number of university presidents have little time for independent thought or creative intellectual inquiry that might not bear immediately practical applications. In West Virginia, the current legislature has cast young people in the state as unworthy of having career aspirations beyond a handful of localized industries. The transformed university that Gee imagines as his legacy, from this, his last presidential post, is built on market logics that valorize skill acquisition and ignore the value of deep learning.

In August 2023, when uncertainty over my own employment and academic future was at its highest, and when all of us on campus were worried about our colleagues and students, teaching “The Paper Menagerie” offered a welcome reprieve. Immersed in an exquisitely crafted and conceptually complex story, I could share with my students the value of studying what you love. Unlike WVU’s leadership or the consultancies that it’s used to legitimize its actions, Liu rejects the oppressive dictates and dull uniformity of market logics. His account of the paper menagerie applauds experimentation and idiosyncrasy, curiosity and imagination—qualities that are not only dismissed by neoliberal advocates of market dominance but that cannot thrive under such conditions. Jack and the animals play together for years, sharing adventures that sometimes produce sheer pleasure and at other times lead to casualties: the water buffalo tries to wallow in soy sauce, only to discover that his paper feet soak up the liquid, damaging his capillaries and leaving him with a permanent limp. Laohu chases sparrows in the backyard but stops after “a cornered bird struck back in desperation and tore his ear.” And a shark drowns after Jack places him in water: the shark “became soggy and translucent, … the folds coming undone.” Yet these methods of failed experimentation also lead to discoveries: the buffalo learns to avoid liquids, Laohu learns to avoid sparrows, and Jack learns that paper sharks are not made for water—but that their tinfoil variant can swim. The process of deep learning, Liu suggests, requires imagination and creativity, experimentation and play, whether or not these activities yield profits or strengthen markets.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Having attended college in a different century, PG is in no position to provide informed commentary on the OP, but will say that shaking up need not be the same as shaking down.

The world’s most misunderstood novel

From BBC:

The Great Gatsby is synonymous with parties, glitz and glamour – but this is just one of many misunderstandings about the book that began from its first publication.

Few characters in literature or indeed life embody an era quite so tenaciously as Jay Gatsby does the Jazz Age. Almost a century after he was written into being, F Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed romantic has become shorthand for decadent flappers, champagne fountains and never-ending parties. Cut loose by pop culture from the text into which he was born, his name adorns everything from condominiums to hair wax and a limited-edition cologne (it contains notes of vetiver, pink pepper and Sicilian lime). It’s now possible to lounge on a Gatsby sofa, check in at the Gatsby hotel, even chow down on a Gatsby sandwich – essentially a supersize, souped-up chip butty.

Incongruous though that last item sounds, naming anything after the man formerly known as James Gatz seems more than a touch problematic. After all, flamboyant host is just one part of his complicated identity. He’s also a bootlegger, up to his neck in criminal enterprise, not to mention a delusional stalker whose showmanship comes to seem downright tacky. If he embodies the potential of the American Dream, then he also illustrates its limitations: here is a man, let’s not forget, whose end is destined to be as pointless as it is violent.

Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.

F Scott Fitzgerald

Misunderstanding has been a part of The Great Gatsby’s story from the very start. Grumbling to his friend Edmund Wilson shortly after publication in 1925, Fitzgerald declared that “of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.” Fellow writers like Edith Wharton admired it plenty, but as the critic Maureen Corrigan relates in her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, popular reviewers read it as crime fiction, and were decidedly underwhelmed by it at that. Fitzgerald’s Latest A Dud, ran a headline in the New York World. The novel achieved only so-so sales, and by the time of the author’s death in 1940, copies of a very modest second print run had long since been remaindered.

Gatsby’s luck began to change when it was selected as a giveaway by the US military. With World War Two drawing to a close, almost 155,000 copies were distributed in a special Armed Services Edition, creating a new readership overnight. As the 1950s dawned, the flourishing of the American Dream quickened the novel’s topicality, and by the 1960s, it was enshrined as a set text. It’s since become such a potent force in pop culture that even those who’ve never read it feel as if they have, helped along, of course, by Hollywood. It was in 1977, just a few short years after Robert Redford starred in the title role of an adaptation scripted by Francis Ford Coppola, that the word Gatsbyesque was first recorded.

Along with Baz Luhrmann’s divisive 2013 movie extravaganza, the book has in the past decade alone spawned graphic novels, a musical, and an immersive theatrical experience. From now on, we’re likely to be seeing even more such adaptations and homages because at the start of this year, the novel’s copyright expired, enabling anyone to adapt it without permission from its estate . Early calls for a Muppets adaptation may have come to nothing (never say never), but a big-budget TV miniseries is already in the works, and author Min Jin Lee and cultural critic Wesley Morris are both writing fresh introductions to new editions.

If this all leaves Fitzgerald purists twiddling their pearls like worry beads, it’s quite possible that while some such projects may further perpetuate the myth that throwing a Gatsby-themed party could be anything other than sublimely clueless, others may yield fresh insights into a text whose very familiarity often leads us to skate over its complexities. Take, for instance, Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, Nick. The title refers, of course, to Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby, who here gets his own fully formed backstory. It’s the tale of a Midwesterner who goes off to Europe to fight in World War One and comes back changed, as much by a whirlwind love affair in Paris as by trench warfare. There’s room for an impulsive sojourn in the New Orleans underworld before he heads off to Long Island’s West Egg.

. . . .

Like many, Smith first encountered the novel in high school. “I just completely didn’t get it”, he tells BBC Culture, from his home in Oxford, Mississippi. “They seemed like a lot of people complaining about things they really shouldn’t be complaining about.” It was only when he picked it up again while living abroad in his late twenties that he began to understand the novel’s power. “It was a very surreal reading experience for me. It seemed like something on almost every page was speaking to me in a way I had not expected,” he recalls.

Reaching the scene in which Carraway suddenly remembers it’s his thirtieth birthday, Smith was filled with questions about what kind of a person Gatsby’s narrator really was. “It seemed to me that there had been some real trauma that had made him so detached, even from his own self. The thought crossed my mind that it would be really interesting if someone were to write Nick’s story,” he says. In 2014, by then a published author in his forties, he sat down to do just that, telling neither his agent nor his editor. It was only when he delivered the manuscript 10 months later that he learned copyright law meant he’d have to wait until 2021 to publish it.

Maybe it’s not the champagne and the dancing, maybe it is those feelings of wondering where we are, the sense that anything can crumble at any moment, that keep Gatsby meaningful – Michael Farris Smith

Smith points to a quote from one of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries as having provided the key to understanding Carraway. “Ernest Hemingway says in [his memoir] A Moveable Feast that we didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t in the war, and to me that felt like a natural beginning for Nick.” Smith imagines Carraway, coping with PTSD and shellshock, returning home to a nation that he no longer recognises. It’s a far cry from the riotous razzmatazz of all that partying, yet Carraway is, Smith suggests, the reason Fitzgerald’s novel remains read. “Maybe it’s not the champagne and the dancing, maybe it is those feelings of wondering where we are, the sense that anything can crumble at any moment, that keep Gatsby meaningful from one generation to the next.”

William Cain, an expert in American literature and the Mary Jewett Gaiser Professor of English at Wellesley College, agrees that Nick is crucial to understanding the novel’s richness. “Fitzgerald gave some thought to structuring it in the third person but ultimately he chose Nick Carraway, a first-person narrator who would tell Gatsby’s story, and who would be an intermediary between us and Gatsby. We have to respond to and understand Gatsby and, as we do so, remain aware that we’re approaching him through Nick’s very particular perspective, and through Nick’s very ambivalent relationship to Gatsby, which is simultaneously full of praise and full of severe criticism, even at some moments contempt,” he says.

Like Smith, Cain first encountered the novel as a student. It was a different era – the 1960s – but even so, little attention was paid to Nick. Cain recalls instead talk of symbolism – the legendary green light, for example, and Gatsby’s fabled automobile. It’s a reminder that, in a way, the education system is as much to blame as pop culture for our limited readings of this seminal text. It may be a Great American Novel but, at fewer than 200 pages, its sublimely economical storytelling makes its study points very easy to access. Ironically, given that this is a novel of illusion and delusion, in which surfaces are crucial, we all too often overlook the texture of its prose. As Cain puts it, “I think when we consider The Great Gatsby, we need to think about it not just as a novel that is an occasion or a point of departure for us to talk about big American themes and questions, but we have to really enter into the richness of Fitzgerald’s actual page-to-page writing. We have to come to Gatsby, yes, aware of its social and cultural significance, but also we need to return to it as a literary experience.”

Cain re-reads the novel every two or three years but frequently finds himself thinking about it in between – last summer, for instance, when US President Biden, accepting the Democratic nomination at the DNC, spoke of the right to pursue dreams of a better future. The American Dream is, of course, another of Gatsby’s Big Themes, and one that continues to be misunderstood. “Fitzgerald shows that that dream is very powerful, but that it is indeed a very hard one for most Americans to realise. It feeds them great hopes, great desires, and it’s extraordinary, the efforts that so many of them make to fulfil those dreams and those desires, but that dream is beyond the reach of many, and many, they give up all too much to try to achieve that great success,” Cain points out. Among the obstacles, Fitzgerald seems to suggest, are hard-and-fast class lines that no amount of money will enable Gatsby to cross. It’s a view that resonates with a mood that Cain says he’s been picking up on among his students – a certain “melancholy” for the American Dream, the feeling fanned by racial and economic inequalities that the pandemic has only deepened.

. . . .

To an impressive degree, however, the renewed attention brought by the change in law shows not just how relevant and seductive the text of Fitzgerald’s novel remains, but how very alive it’s always been. Pick it up at 27, and you’ll find a different novel to the one you read as a teenager. Revisit it again at 45, and it’ll feel like another book altogether. Copyright has never had any bearing on the impact of the words it governs.

Link to the rest at BBC

Harvard Probe Finds Honesty Researcher Engaged in Scientific Misconduct

From The Wall Street Journal:

A Harvard University probe into prominent researcher Francesca Gino found that her work contained manipulated data and recommended that she be fired, according to a voluminous court filing that offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at research misconduct investigations.

It is a key document at the center of a continuing legal fight involving Gino, a behavioral scientist who in August sued the university and a trio of data bloggers for $25 million.

The case has captivated researchers and the public alike as Gino, known for her research into the reasons people lie and cheat, has defended herself against allegations that her work contains falsified data.

The investigative report had remained secret until this week, when the judge in the case granted Harvard’s request to file the document, with some personal details redacted, as an exhibit.

The investigative committee that produced the nearly 1,300-page document included three Harvard Business School professors tapped by HBS dean Srikant Datar to examine accusations about Gino’s work.

They concluded after a monthslong probe conducted in 2022 and 2023 that Gino “engaged in multiple instances of research misconduct” in the four papers they examined. They recommended that the university audit Gino’s other experimental work, request retractions of three of the papers (the fourth had already been retracted at the time they reviewed it), and place Gino on unpaid leave while taking steps to terminate her employment.

“The Investigation Committee believes that the severity of the research misconduct that Professor Gino has committed calls for appropriately severe institutional action,” the report states.

HBS declined to comment.

The investigative report offers a rare look at the ins and outs of a research misconduct investigation, a process whose documents and conclusions are often kept secret.

Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at the University of Oxford whose work has drawn attention to research problems in psychology, praised the disclosure. “Along with many other scientists, I have been concerned that institutions are generally very weak at handling investigations of misconduct and they tend to brush things under the carpet,” Bishop said. “It is refreshing to see such full and open reporting in this case.”

Harvard started looking into Gino’s work in October 2021 after a group of behavioral scientists who write about statistical methods on their blog Data Colada complained to the university. They had analyzed four papers co-written by Gino and said data in them appeared falsified. 

. . . .

Academic Misconduct

Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at the University of Oxford whose work has drawn attention to research problems in psychology, praised the disclosure. “Along with many other scientists, I have been concerned that institutions are generally very weak at handling investigations of misconduct and they tend to brush things under the carpet,” Bishop said. “It is refreshing to see such full and open reporting in this case.”

Harvard started looking into Gino’s work in October 2021 after a group of behavioral scientists who write about statistical methods on their blog Data Colada complained to the university. They had analyzed four papers co-written by Gino and said data in them appeared falsified.

An initial inquiry conducted by two HBS faculty included an examination of the data sets from Gino’s computers and records, and her written responses to the allegations. The faculty members concluded that a full investigation was warranted, and Datar agreed.

In the course of the full investigation, the two faculty who ran the initial inquiry plus a third HBS faculty member interviewed Gino and witnesses who worked with her or co-wrote the papers. They gathered documents including data files, correspondence and various drafts of the submitted manuscripts. And they commissioned an outside firm to conduct a forensic analysis of the data files.

The committee concluded that in the various studies, Gino edited observations in ways that made the results fit hypotheses.

When asked by the committee about work culture at the lab, several witnesses said they didn’t feel pressured to obtain results. “I never had any indication that she was pressuring people to get results. And she never pressured me to get results,” one witness said.

According to the documents, Gino suggested that most of the problems highlighted in her work could have been the result of honest error, made by herself or research assistants who frequently worked on the data. The investigative committee rejected that explanation because Gino didn’t give evidence that explained “major anomalies and discrepancies.”

Gino also argued that other people might have tampered with her data, possibly with “malicious intent,” but the investigative committee also rejected that possibility. “Although we acknowledge that the theory of a malicious actor might be remotely possible, we do not find it plausible,” the group wrote.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The history of the West is not quite what you learned in school

From The Economist:

Asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi is said to have quipped that such a thing “would be a good idea”. (The West, he suggested, was not so enlightened.) But as Josephine Quinn makes clear in her new book, Western civilisation has always been a bad idea, or at any rate a wrong-headed one. To compartmentalise history into a set of distinct and essentially self-contained civilisations is a misguided quest that has dangerously distorted our understanding of the world, Ms Quinn asserts: “It is not peoples that make history, but people, and the connections that they create with one another.”

Ms Quinn, a historian and archaeologist who teaches at Oxford, does not spend 500-odd pages trashing what generations of schoolchildren have been taught to take pride in as European achievements. Instead, she demolishes the underlying concept of what she calls “civilisational thinking”. Her argument is simple, persuasive and deserving of attention.

The idea of civilisation, Ms Quinn points out, is relatively recent. The word was first used only in the mid-18th century and did not take hold of Western imaginations until the late 19th century. In that imperialist age, historians found that Greek, Roman and Christian civilisations made nice building blocks that could be stacked into a grand-looking construct, which they labelled “Western” or “European” civilisation. To this they attributed a host of inherited “classical” virtues: vigour, rationality, justice, democracy and courage to experiment and explore. Other civilisations, by contrast, were regarded as inferior.

It does not take much unpacking by Ms Quinn to expose the folly of this approach. Behold, for instance, John Stuart Mill, a philosopher in the 19th century, claiming that the Battle of Marathon, Persia’s first invasion of Greece in 490bc, was more important to English history than William the Conqueror’s triumph at Hastings in 1066. (Without an Athenian victory, the logic goes, the magical seed of Greek civilisation might never have grown into Western civilisation.) Or consider “Clash of Civilisations” (1996) by Samuel Huntington, an American historian, who declared it impossible to understand history without classifying humanity into mutually hostile civilisations between which, “during most of human existence”, contact has been “intermittent or non-existent”.

What is non-existent is any truth to that notion. Ms Quinn’s brisk, scholarly romp across the arc of European history shows that, far from being rare, contact across and between cultures, often over surprisingly long distances, has been the main motor of human advancement in every age. Rather than being prickly and inward-looking, most societies have proved receptive to ideas, fashions and technologies from their neighbours.

Ancient Greece, for example, was less a place of origins than of transmission from Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Phoenician cultures, which themselves had mixed and exchanged ideas. And rather than being the wellspring of democracy, Athens was “something of a latecomer” to a form of governance that appears to have been first tried in Libya and on the islands of Samos and Chios. Persians, eternally cast as Greeks’ polar opposites, actually imposed democracy on Greek cities that they ruled, suggesting “considerable Persian faith in popular support for their own hegemony”, Ms Quinn notes.

This retelling of the West’s story scintillates with its focus on the unexpected and on the interstices between realms and eras rather than on history’s big, solid bits. But it is also an admirable work of scholarship. Ms Quinn’s 100-plus pages of footnotes reveal that she relied not only on a wide range of primary sources, but also on scientific studies on climate change and very recent archaeological research.

Link to the rest at The Economist

What’s a 21st Century historian to do to gain press coverage? Agree with the best minds in her field of study?

Of course not. That sort of thing would be very unfashionable. Debunking generally agreed-upon historical verities will be much more shocking, although PG wonders if this sort of history hasn’t been over-tilled by previous debunkers.

Of course, looking back through a contemporary lens is always going to reveal happenings that are quite stupid and barbaric by contemporary Oxonian faculty luncheon standards.

Of course ancient Greeks borrowed ideas from other cultures. Intelligent groups of people have always done that. Oxford borrows from Cambridge and vice versa. What are sabbaticals for other than spending time away from one’s own campus looking for good ideas to steal from other sources?

What are (some of) the best comic novels?

From The Economist:

It’s a fraught business picking the funniest novels ever written, so we’re not going to. Instead, we’ve picked eight of the funniest, recognising that many, perhaps equally uproarious tales are not on the list. Nor are humorous books that aren’t novels—the works of S.J. Perelman and Stephen Potter, for example. Our comedic finalists range in age from nonagenarian (“Right Ho, Jeeves”) to teenaged (“Nature Girl”). Our geographic spread is less diverse. England is overrepresented, but so is Ukraine, which in 2019 elected its funniest citizen to be its president. We’ve followed each of the write-ups below with snippets from the book, which, we hope, will send you chuckling to the bookseller.

The Loved OneBy Evelyn Waugh. Back Bay Books; 176 pages; $16.99. Penguin; £9.99

The greatest comic novelist in English is Evelyn Waugh. But which is his funniest book? Many people favour his first, “Decline and Fall”; others tout “Scoop”, a satire of mid-20th-century journalism. But for sustained comic brilliance our vote goes to “The Loved One”, published in 1948. During the previous year Waugh had visited California, at the invitation of Hollywood studios. Tiring of agents and producers, he became fascinated by the local mortuary and embalming business. “The Loved One”, set in the Whispering Glades Memorial Park, was the result. The story concerns a doomed love affair between a failed poet, Dennis Barlow, and a prim funerary cosmetician, Aimée Thanatogenos. It’s a hilarious dissection of the English in Hollywood, of American business ethics and of Hollywood itself.

Snippet. The first description of Aimée:

“Her full face was oval, her profile pure and classical and light. Her eyes greenish and remote, with a rich glint of lunacy.”

A Confederacy of Dunces. By John Kennedy Toole. Grove Paperback; 416 pages; $16. Penguin; £16.99

The charms of Ignatius Reilly will be lost on some, but the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s novel is a comedic colossus. At odds with the modern world, this slothful behemoth of a man-boy farts, belches and bickers his way through a succession of lowly jobs in New Orleans to pay off his drunken mama’s debts, the erratic Mrs Reilly being his only consistent companion. The laughs are all in Ignatius’s haughty, misanthropic reflections on those unfortunate enough to come into his odorous orbit. Several publishers rejected Toole’s book—one reason why he committed suicide in 1969, aged only 31. It was due to the persistence of his mother Thelma, clearly a more capable woman than Mrs Reilly, that “A Confederacy of Dunces” was published 11 years later.

Snippet.  A policeman rides his motorcycle up a New Orleans street:

“The siren, a cacophony of twelve crazed bobcats, was enough to make suspicious characters within a half-mile radius defecate in panic and rush for cover. Patrolman Mancuso’s love for the motorcycle was platonically intense.”

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. By Helen Fielding. Penguin; 352 pages; $17. Picador; £9.99

Starting life as a newspaper column, the Bridget Jones novels of the 1990s spawned an entire genre, “chick lit”. Its heroines, like Bridget, are often SINBADS (Single Income, No Boyfriend and Absolutely Desperate). “Bridget Jones’s Diary” started the series, but its sequel, “The Edge of Reason” (published in 1999), is even funnier, partly because Bridget at least starts off with “boyfriends 1 (hurrah!)”, Mark Darcy. This allows Ms Fielding to get into Bridget’s pantomime of a love life that much quicker. Our heroine tries to be a liberated, independent woman, if fortified by chardonnay and self-help books. But too often she slips into slavish dependence on unsuitable men with questionable taste in jumpers. The enemy? Smug Married Girls. It’s not exactly radical feminism, but the combination persuaded women (and men) to buy Bridget Jones books in the millions. Box-office hits, starring Renée Zellweger (pictured), followed.

Snippet.  Bridget’s diary entries, Wednesday March 5th:

“7.08 pm  Am assured receptive, responsive woman of substance. My sense of self comes not from other people, but from…from…myself? That can’t be right.

7.09pm  Anyway. Good thing is am not obsessing about Mark Darcy. Am starting to detach.

7.15pm Goody, telephone! Maybe Mark Darcy!

Lucky Jim. By Kingsley Amis. NYRB Classics; 296 pages; $15.95. Penguin; £9.99

Kingsley Amis’s first novel is probably his best and certainly the funniest. Published in 1954, “Lucky Jim” established him as a leader of a new literary movement of “angry young men”. But the tone of “Lucky Jim” is not so much angry as irreverent and waspish. It chronicles the misadventures of an inept young history lecturer, Jim Dixon, in a provincial university in repressed, dreary post-war Britain. Academic life, amateur choirs and middle-class sexual mores are all skewered, often in hilarious set-pieces. Just as Bridget Jones inspired chick lit, “Lucky Jim” spawned the campus novel.

Snippet. Anxious to ingratiate himself with a professor, Dixon contemplates the title of his one academic article:

“It was a perfect title, in that it crystallised the article’s niggling mindlesness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

Reading is so sexy

From The Guardian:

They have killed skinny jeans and continue to shame millennials for having side partings in their hair. They think using the crying tears emoji to express laughter is embarrassing. But now comes a surprising gen Z plot twist. One habit that those born between 1997 and 2012 are keen to endorse is reading – and it’s physical books rather than digital that they are thumbing.

This week the 22-year-old model Kaia Gerber launched her own book club, Library Science. Gerber, who this month appears on the cover of British Vogue alongside her supermodel mum, Cindy Crawford, describes it as “a platform for sharing books, featuring new writers, hosting conversations with artists we admire – and continuing to build a community of people who are as excited about literature as I am”.

“Books have always been the great love of my life,” she added. “Reading is so sexy.”

Gerber isn’t alone. Last year in the UK 669m physical books were sold, the highest overall level ever recorded. Research from Nielsen BookData highlights that it is print books that gen Z favour, accounting for 80% of purchases from November 2021 to 2022. Libraries are also reporting an uptick in gen Z users who favour their quiet over noisy coffee shops. In the UK in-person visits are up 71%.

While the BookTok charts – a subsection of TikTok where avid readers post recommendations – are regularly topped by fantasy and romance titles from authors such as Colleen Hoover, gen Z are reading a diverse range of genres.

“The gen Z book sphere is incredibly broad,” says Hali Brown, the 28-year-old co-founder of Books on the Bedside, a popular TikTok account dedicated to gen Z reading habits. “There is a lot of appreciation for literary fiction, memoirs, translated fiction and classics in particular,” says Brown.

Gerber’s first literary guest was the Iranian-American writer Kaveh Akbar, who joined the model on a video call to discuss his debut novel, Martyr! On the Library Science site, a curated collection of recommended reads include Joan Didion and Jia Tolentino.

“There is a bit of a subculture within the gen Z book world which is ‘hot girl books’ or ‘sad girl books’,” explains Brown. “These largely skew towards literary fiction and memoir and deal in some way with girlhood or womanhood.”

The 28-year-old model Kendall Jenner became the unofficial face of this new “Lit Girls’ Club” when she was pictured on a yacht in 2019 off the Côte d’Azur reading Tonight I’m Someone Else, a collection of essays by Chelsea Hodson musing on the objectification and commodification of the body. Jenner’s copy was covered in green Post-it notes.

She has also been photographed by a pool in the south of France reading Darcie Wilder’s Literally Show Me a Healthy Person, which explores grief and anxiety, alongside Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Both Hodson’s and Wilder’s books sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of the photographs being published.

. . . .

After the photos of Jenner and Elordi were published there was a stream of online discourse stating we had entered an era of performative reading. Elsewhere, meme accounts regularly satirise readers of titles from the indie publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, which have become known for their identical Yves Klein-blue covers.

Brown says she dislikes this type of discourse. “I think if they’re both keen to explore the world of reading, they shouldn’t be shut down in this way because they’re beautiful or have large internet presences. Book clubs imply that these are titles they’d like to explore with a community of like-minded people; that’s never a bad thing. If it gets more people reading, then that’s great.”

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

If Books Could Kill

From Wikipedia:

If Books Could Kill is a podcast hosted by Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri about popular nonfiction books about ideas in American culture and politics. It is based around criticising bestselling nonfiction books of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Books featured on the podcast include Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama.

. . . .

If Books Could Kill is hosted by Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri. Hobbes is a journalist known for hosting You’re Wrong About with Sarah Marshall (until 2021) and Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon. Shamshiri was previously known for his hosting the podcast 5-4, along with Rhiannon Hamam and Michael Liroff.

The show targets “airport books”, popular nonfiction books often marketed as pop science or smart thinking that might be found in airport bookshops, which Hobbes describes as “the superspreader events of American stupidity”. Each episode is dedicated to the discussion of a single book, along with the book’s wider cultural influence. The hosts focus on flawed arguments, poor uses of data, factual errors, and the drawing of unsound conclusions or overgeneralizations. They often take a comic tone and will poke fun at the books and their authors.

. . . .

Episodes

No.Book featuredBook authorRelease date
1FreakonomicsSteven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerNovember 2, 2022
2OutliersMalcolm GladwellNovember 10, 2022
3Bobos in ParadiseDavid BrooksNovember 17, 2022
4The GameNeil StraussDecember 1, 2022
5The Population BombPaul R. Ehrlich and Anne Howland EhrlichDecember 15, 2022
6The SecretRhonda ByrneJanuary 12, 2023
7Men Are From Mars, Women Are From VenusJohn GrayJanuary 26, 2023
8The End of History and the Last ManFrancis FukuyamaFebruary 9, 2023
9The Clash of CivilizationsSamuel P. HuntingtonFebruary 28, 2023
10The Coddling of the American MindGreg Lukianoff and Jonathan HaidtMarch 9, 2023
11Hillbilly ElegyJ. D. VanceMarch 23, 2023
12Rich Dad Poor DadRobert KiyosakiApril 6, 2023
13The 5 Love LanguagesGary ChapmanApril 20, 2023
14NudgeRichard H. Thaler and Cass R. SunsteinMay 4, 2023
15May 19, 2023
16The World Is FlatThomas FriedmanJune 1, 2023
17Atomic HabitsJames ClearJune 15, 2023
18The RulesEllen Fein and Sherrie SchneiderJune 29, 2023
19Liberal FascismJonah GoldbergJuly 27, 2023
20God and Man at YaleWilliam F. BuckleySeptember 7, 2023
21The 4-Hour WorkweekTim FerrissSeptember 21, 2023
22San FransickoMichael ShellenbergerOctober 19, 2023
23The 48 Laws of PowerRobert GreeneNovember 2, 2023

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

Readings for Writers: How to Avoid Grifters; Or, Why the Humanities Matter

From Writer Unboxed:

“Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” The line, written in 1764, belongs to Oliver Goldsmith, an English poet and novelist barely anyone reads anymore. His words could have served as an epigraph to Nathan Heller’s essay, “The End of the English Major,” which appeared in The New Yorker in February of this year. But these days, who lingers over an epigraph? And who would dare make the counter-intuitive argument that “underserved” students of every race and ethnicity should pursue a degree in the Humanities?

I would.

About a million years ago, I was an English major. On breaks, I worked at the up-town dress boutique where my mother, the seamstress who spoke broken English, knelt before wealthy women, pinning up hemlines. Their husbands, often retired leaders of industry, sat in plush chairs waiting for their spendthrift wives, killing time asking me whether I could sew and why I had no accent. When I told them I was an English major at a private university, they snorted and hiccupped, amused that a working-class Cuban immigrant would take such a ludicrous, impractical path.

I had no conscious understanding then about my drive to conquer the language that had conquered my parents, separating us from family and culture. All I had was a heart ignited against tyranny and the will to intervene between my parents and those members of the English-speaking world who mocked them.

“I can’t understand you,” the woman on the other side of the notions counter sneered at my mother.

“I think you can,” I countered.

Embarrassed, the woman counted out the zippers and buttons, the packets of sew-on snaps and spools of hem tape my mother had requested. She had never expected anyone like me, like my mother, to challenge her assumptions about the humanity of others.

In a recent Substack post, the self-styled Democratic populist, Jim Hightower, calls out right-wing politicians in North Carolina, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Mississippi for doing their best to eliminate the Humanities from university curricula:

“The right-wing’s shriveled view,” Hightower writes, “is not about expanding one’s horizon and enriching America’s democratic society—but solely about training students to fit into a corporate workforce, sacrificing the possibility of a fuller life for the possibility of a fatter paycheck.” (11/14/2023)

Hightower is correct, though the shift from teaching students to think, as opposed to teaching them how to make a widget, is at least three decades old now. I have witnessed that shift from the podium at the front of a college classroom.

The decline in the Humanities began the day a rapacious politician, masquerading as an intellectual (“thought leader”), defined higher education as an “economic engine.” Suddenly the process of education became a cumbersome means to a lucrative end, the fastest possible monetization of a young student. The question of how we develop a thoughtful, well-rounded, contributing member of society was dispatched, usurped by a different question. How will the graduate, degree in hand, serve the interests of specific business sectors?

With far too few exceptions, exceptions that break along economic class, we are no longer teaching students to think or asking them about the distance between how the world is and how it could be. We are training students to serve as cogs in a great economic engine. The difficult and slow process of helping them understand their humanity, their position in relation to the past and the future, has been shunted aside. Only students who will never have to worry about money, about steady work, can afford to study literature and philosophy, music and art history, modern languages and the performing arts, to name only a few disciplines within the arc of the Humanities.

I hold to the now quaint idea that education is a means to emancipation. Emancipation is more than physical freedom. Southern slave owners knew that. That’s why slaves caught learning to read and write were beaten to within an inch of their lives, their fingers often amputated. That’s why Frederick Douglass, after risking his life to escape physical shackles, set his sights on the dangerous venture of clear thinking and clear expression. In divisive times, moral persuasion requires full and eloquent sentences; it requires minds broad enough to consider facts and to recognize the corrosive sentimentality and fear that drives so much disinformation.

It has always been difficult to make the grubby, materialistic world care about beautifully balanced periodic sentences or the droll brevity of heroic couplets. No news there, especially not for contemporary writers who, try as they might, cannot make a living writing full time. But a materialistic world without the counterweight of the Humanities is a world with fewer readers interested in complexity, interested in more challenging, less formulaic literary forms. So if anyone should be advocating for the Humanities, it is writers in search of an audience, and isn’t that most of us so much of the time?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG generally agrees with the OP, but he’ll add that the huge increase in the cost of higher education means that a great many students end up owing a zillion dollars in student loans these days. Paying off such loans while living in an expensive city absent family wealth can be a steep hill to climb.

It’s not irrational for a student to regard college as an overpriced luxury absent college delivering a meaningful contribution toward gaining more remunerative employment.

There are a variety of ways of “learning to think” that don’t involve paying tens of thousands of dollars to a college or university.

The Stories of William Faulkner: Mississippi’s Talebearer

From The Wall Street Journal:

William Faulkner told all sorts of tall tales about his life and work. During World War I he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in Toronto (having given his birthplace as Middlesex, England). He returned home to Mississippi sporting RAF wings to which he was not entitled, his experience having amounted to six months of ground training. The notion that becoming a novelist was some kind of literary consolation prize is another fabrication. Faulkner said that he began his literary career writing poetry. “I’m a failed poet,” he told the Paris Review in 1956. He then turned to the short story, “the most demanding form after poetry,” and only after failing at that, too, he said, did he resign himself to the novel.

The Faulkner oeuvre is vast, and not all of it bears revisiting, but between 1929 and 1936, he produced a body of work unmatched in American literature for inventiveness in form and content. His fourth published novel, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929), introduced this catalog, followed by “As I Lay Dying” (1930), then “Sanctuary” (1931), “Light in August” (1932), and “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936), one of the most astonishing novels in the English language.

The high period was also filled to the brim with short stories: 16 in 1931 alone, published in journals such as the Saturday Evening Post, the American Mercury and Harper’s. The year before, the Post paid $750 apiece for two stories, “a better price than he had received for any novel,” according to the substantial chronology in “Stories,” the sixth and final volume in the Library of America’s splendid Faulkner edition. Edited by Theresa M. Towner, it largely follows Faulkner’s own arrangements, using his “Collected Stories” of 1950 as a backbone. The six stories of “Knight’s Gambit,” focused on the lawyer Gavin Stevens, are also included, as well as miscellaneous works.

Faulkner’s poetry has scarcely made it out of the bottom drawer, but short stories are integral to his achievement. As with the novels, the majority are set in Yoknapatawpha County, his fictionalized corner of Mississippi, with the town of Jefferson standing for Oxford. One of the pleasures of reading this book is seeing how certain stories shimmer as invisible chapters from familiar novels. “That Evening Sun,” published in 1931, links “The Sound and the Fury” to a later one, “Requiem for a Nun” (1951), yet the events it describes feature in neither. In the story, the black servant Nancy passes an anxious evening in her cabin at the Compson place, anticipating the return of a violent man. The three children with her, Caddie, Jason and Quentin, understand little of the situation and concentrate on making popcorn. In “Requiem for a Nun,” Nancy is on trial for the murder of the infant child of Temple Drake and Gowan Stevens, whose appearance whisks the reader back 20 years to “Sanctuary.”

 Another much-anthologized story, “Barn Burning” (1939), provided the seed for “The Hamlet” (1940), the first volume of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. In the novel, Ab Snopes’s arson habit is merely suggested, while in the story, written earlier, it is, so to speak, fully lit.

The Compsons and the Stevenses are among Yoknapatawpha’s prominent families, a grouping that also includes the Sutpens, the McCaslins and the clan of Ikkemotubbe, chief of the Chickasaw tribe that occupied the territory when the first white settlers arrived. “A dispossessed American king,” Faulkner called him. Among several good stories involving Indians are “Red Leaves” and “Mountain Victory.” There are no prominent “Negro” families, to use Faulkner’s preferred word, unless we count the indomitable figure of the sharecropper Lucas Beauchamp and his brood—Lucas features in the interconnected stories of “Go Down, Moses” (1942), included in an earlier Library of America volume—or the Compsons’ servant and moral compass, Dilsey Gibson.

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

PG remembers one of his college professors mentioning”Yoknapatawpha, ” but can’t recall what the word sounded like. However, that didn’t prevent PG from being a big fan of Faulkner’s work in high school and college. As I Lay Dying was PG’s favorite.

What are the best ways for an author to use AI to write a book?

From ChatGPT:

Prompt: What are the best ways for an author to use AI to write a book?

ChatGPT Response:

Incorporating AI into the book writing process can be a great asset for an author. Here are some of the best ways to use AI in this creative endeavor:

  1. Idea and Concept Generation: AI can help brainstorm ideas for your book, including themes, plot elements, character concepts, and settings. Feeding the AI specific genres or themes can yield creative and unexpected suggestions, which can inspire or enhance your own ideas.
  2. Outline and Structure Development: AI can assist in structuring your book. By providing a basic plot or concept, AI can suggest a detailed outline, helping to organize the narrative flow and ensuring a cohesive structure for your story.
  3. Character Development and Dialogue: AI can generate character profiles, including backstories, traits, and motivations, based on initial inputs. It can also suggest dialogue, offering different styles and tones to match the characters and situations.
  4. Writing and Editing Assistance: AI can be used for drafting certain sections or chapters. You can provide a brief and let the AI generate a draft, which you can then refine. AI tools are also helpful for grammar checking, style improvement, and suggesting alternative phrasings.
  5. Research Support: For books requiring extensive research, AI can quickly sift through large volumes of data to find relevant information, saving time and ensuring accuracy.
  6. Genre-Specific Assistance: Depending on the genre of your book, AI can provide genre-specific assistance. For instance, in science fiction, it can generate futuristic technology or alien species; for historical fiction, it can provide historical details and context.
  7. Feedback and Revision: Some AI tools can analyze your writing and provide feedback on aspects like pacing, tension, and character development. This can be particularly useful during revisions.
  8. Interactive Elements: For more experimental authors, AI can help create interactive or branching narratives, particularly for digital formats where readers choose different paths through the story.
  9. Title and Blurb Creation: Coming up with a compelling title and blurb can be challenging; AI can generate multiple options based on your book’s content and themes.
  10. Market Research and Publishing Strategy: AI can analyze market trends and reader preferences, helping you position your book effectively in the market.

While AI can greatly assist in the book writing process, it’s important to remember that it serves as a tool to augment the author’s creativity and vision, not replace it. The unique voice, perspective, and imagination of the author remain irreplaceable in crafting a compelling and meaningful story.

AI Prompt/Response of the Day

Prompt:

In a time when information is instantly available and content creation is a few clicks away, academic integrity can easily become a gray area for students. Explicitly teaching skills and concepts associated with academic integrity and providing feedback throughout the research and writing process can build a culture of academic honesty in classrooms.

ChatGPT Response:

You’re absolutely right. In the digital age, where information is abundant and easily accessible, maintaining academic integrity has become both more challenging and crucial. Here are some strategies educators can employ to foster a culture of academic honesty:

  1. Educate About Academic Integrity: Clearly define what constitutes plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty. Ensure students understand the importance of citing sources and the proper ways to do so.
  2. Use Technology Wisely: Employ plagiarism detection software to check student work. This not only helps in identifying potential issues but also acts as a deterrent against dishonest practices.
  3. Encourage Original Thought: Design assignments and assessments in a way that encourages students to think independently and apply their understanding, rather than just repeating information found online.
  4. Provide Resources for Research and Citation: Offer students access to resources on how to conduct research ethically and cite sources correctly. This could be through workshops, guides, or online tools.
  5. Model Academic Integrity: Teachers and faculty should lead by example, demonstrating integrity in their own work and interactions.
  6. Create a Supportive Environment: Build a classroom culture where students feel comfortable asking for help and understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process. This can reduce the pressure to achieve perfection through dishonest means.
  7. Personalize Learning: Tailor assignments to individual student interests where possible. Personal connection to a topic can motivate students to engage deeply and honestly with the material.
  8. Frequent Feedback and Drafts: Incorporate multiple stages of feedback and revision in assignments. This process helps students improve their work and understand the value of iterative learning, reducing the temptation to submit dishonest work.
  9. Discuss the Consequences: Make students aware of the academic and professional consequences of academic dishonesty. Understanding the long-term impact can discourage them from taking such risks.
  10. Collaborative Learning: Encourage group work and peer reviews. Collaboration can build a community of learning and integrity among students.

By integrating these strategies, educators can help create an academic environment where integrity is understood, valued, and practiced.

Grammarly

PG watched a Grammarly for Business Webinar earlier today and was very impressed by what the company showed with respect to AI writing.

Per the demos, Grammarly has taken AI to a higher plane than PG has seen before. Features that impressed him were:

  • Analysis of the user’s writing voice to help Grammarly be more helpful in shaping future creations for a variety of purposes.
  • The ability to have Grammarly go through a document you or someone else has written, summarize it, and use it as a sort of electronic style guide in the future
  • The ability to assist in quick creation of documents for a wide variety of purposes, blog posts, text messages, emails, etc. In at least some uses, Grammarly will create the appropriate format for the written message, for example by creating and inserting bullet points from a longer text.

For the moment, it looks like the super AI will be limited to Grammarly for Business, which is an enterprise-scale program.

PG looked for an online link to a recorded version of the webinar but was unable to find it. If visitors to The Passive Voice can locate one, feel free to include a link in the comments to this post.

Face Surveillance Was Always Flawed

From Public Books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

From The MIT Press Reader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at The MIT Press Reader

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

The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Iconic downtown Ann Arbor bookstore will close early next year

From Michigan Live:

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Michigan Live

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

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

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

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

Heavy Lifting

From The Offing:

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Offing

Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows

From Publishers Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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

From BookRiot:

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at BookRiot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Mother

From Vogue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because life makes no sense.

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

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

Link to the rest at Vogue

Mapping Utopia in the Dark

From Public Books:

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

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

A Love Letter to Tackiness and Bad Taste

From Electric Lit:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

CK: What were your shoplifting techniques?

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

. . . .

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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

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

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

Death of an Earl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italians and fishermen are involved.

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

Outcasts and Desperados

From The London Review of Books:

The Man Who Lived Underground 
by Richard Wright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Who doesn’t read books in America?

From The Pew Research Center:

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Pew Research Center

How a book goes from acquisitions to bookstore shelves

From Nathan Bransford:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Determining the publication date

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

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

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

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

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

Editing

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

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

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

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

. . . .

Launch meeting

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

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

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

. . . .

Production

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

Publicity, marketing, and sales

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

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

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

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

Book promotions and publication


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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

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

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

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

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

Long ago in the octagonal gloom

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

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence 2008

Ponte Vecchio

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

Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy

From Writer Unboxed:

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

I would like to see more passive protagonists in fiction.

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

The importance of intent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for the gap in posting

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

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

7 Novels For Living Out Your Cottagecore Fantasies

From The Literary Hub:

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

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

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

Sarah Hogle, Twice Shy

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

Talia Hibbert, Act Your Age, Eve Brown

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

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

The Top 10 Party Girls in Literature

From Electric Lit:

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

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

. . . .

Mr. Right is Dead by Rona Jaffe

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

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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

. . . .

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Zorba

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

Will a Traditional Publisher Republish My Self-Published Book?

From Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant

Politics and the English Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Orwell Foundation:

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

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

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

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

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression).

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

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia).

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

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York).

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

Communist pamphlet.

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

Letter in Tribune.

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Orwell Foundation

Should MFA Programs Teach the Business of Writing?

From Jane Friedman:

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

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

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

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

Writers should focus on craft first, business later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Inside Higher Ed:

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

Yikes.

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

Can we charge tuition?

Should we charge tuition?

Must we charge tuition?

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed

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

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

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

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

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

Farming

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

President Dwight D. Eisenhower