The Truth Is

The truth is that Trout, like Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and many others, writes parables. These are set in frames which have become called, for no good reason, science fiction. A better generic term would be ‘future fairy tales’. And even this is objectionable, since many science fiction stories take place in the present or the past, far and near.

Philip José Farmer

How do you feel about Latest Comments as periodical post?

In the latest release of WordPress, a Latest Comments block has been added. PG has dropped it in this post right below this explanation. It shows the latest five comments in reverse chronological order.

Among other things, this means that if someone leaves a comment to a post that appeared two days ago, that comment will show up as the Latest Comment, above a comment made earlier on a post that first appeared an hour ago.

PG doesn’t think this would be objectionable (although, like all comments, it is subject to potential abuse). As with anything that appears on TPV, PG can be informed of any concerns a visitor has about any content via the Contact link on the top menu bar. PG can disenfranchise chronic abusers whose words appear anywhere on TPV by eliminating their accounts or taking other steps to help keep them off the blog. It’s not perfect, but PG hasn’t noted any regular bad actors who have reappeared after being removed.

PG would be interested in opinions concerning placing one of these on TPV every day or two. Feel free to share your thoughts via the Comments to this post (at the very bottom of the post).

Here’s the Latest Comments WP block in action:

The 35 Most Iconic Caper Movies, Ranked

Perhaps a writing prompt or two.

From Crime Reads:

Here it is—the other half of our endeavor to evaluate movies about large-scale theft! This is the accompanying list to our recently released ranking of the 50 most iconic Heist movies. We wrote at the start of the Heists list, “We will be releasing an accompanying list of the Best Capers shortly after this one, so if you don’t see a film with a great heist in it, keep your shirts on, because it’s probably on the other list” and this is that list. Ta-da. These two lists were written at the same time, so this is not some sort of amendment to the first list. It is the other half you’ve been waiting for!

Why are there two lists? Because the Caper is a sub-genre of the Heist film with its own specific rules and mood. Looking at each category of films (Heist versus Caper) specifically allows for more thoughtful ranking experience, between them. The Caper sub-genre features films which are (overall) lighter and wittier than the standard Heist movie. While characters in Capers also frequently pursue large sums of shadily-acquired money or other items of value, these films are not necessarily about the acts of committing robberies, as Heist films always are. This is important, so I’ll repeat it: for a film to be a heist movie, items have to be literally stolen. In a caper, items may be stolen, but they don’t have to be; there can be swindling and cons and money-laundering and other forms of theft. Not all con movies are capers. For example The Hustler is not on here, nor is Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens, perfect examples of “Con” movies that are neither Heist nor Caper.

. . . .

What else really makes a Caper different from a Heist? Unlike the traditional Heist movie, which is usually a slick, deft, high-octane practicum, a Caper can be madcap, zany, as well as, on a different note, extremely romantic or flirty. The Caper is where you’ll find clever banter, silly sidekicks, gags, slapstick, and things generally going hilariously wrong. It’s also where you’ll find, more often than not, men in well-fitting suits who can’t be trusted or other sexy cat burglars, and tons of romantic tension. These movies are hardly gritty, they’re frequently not about the underworld. If they are, they’re funny as a result. Generally speaking, in terms of tone, if the Heist is a stomp, than the Caper is a romp.

When a movie is remade, sometimes it will move from Heist territory into Caper territory, or vice versa. Remakes like The Ladykillers, The Italian Job, and The Thomas Crown Affair occupy different categories than their originals and are therefore on different lists. As with the Heists list, keep in mind the criteria we’re using: we’re looking at the most iconic movies in this category, and we are ranking them from “worst” to “best.”

. . . .

26. The Truth About Charlie (2002)

I wish this remake of Charade, starring Thandie Newton and Mark Whalberg, lived up with what Thandie Newton deserves from this world, but it doesn’t. Cameos include Agnes Varda and Anna Karina, and those are very charming.

. . . .

21. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Michael Caine and Steve Martin are two rival con men in a race to see who can swindle an American heiress out of her fortune, in this rollicking comedy set along the French Rivera. Apocryphally, David Bowie and Mick Jagger were supposed to star in this movie which would have been… a different film entirely. A classic: put it on and you’ll put on the ritz.

20. Charade (1963)

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Charade, as much as I am often entertained by many Stanley Donen movies. Maybe it’s because I’ve just never gotten the appeal of late-career Cary Grant or because Charade is too slow for a film whose Saul-Bass-designed credit sequence promised would twist and whip along. If I enjoy it, I enjoy it for the presence of James Coburn and especially for the casting of Walter Matthau as an exhausted, sardonic American bureaucrat stuck in Paris, but anyway… Audrey Hepburn is about to divorce her husband when she finds out he’s been murdered. Turns out, he was CIA, but more than that—he was part of a group who secretly stashed stolen money during WWII, and after he dies, all his old buddies assume Audrey Hepburn knows the actual location of the treasure, and come after her. George Kennedy chews the scenery nicely as one of these visitors, a loud assassin with a hook for a hand.

. . . .

11. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

This remake of The Thomas Crown Affair ditches its predecessors grasp on neo-noir and swaps it out for sexy intrigue. One of two art-theft-related romantic suspense movies to come out in 1999, Thomas Crowne stars Pierce Brosnan as a wealthy playboy who steals art for fun, and Rene Russo as the cunning detective on his case. It’s suave and sexy without being too heavy. It’s actually probably the perfect film to watch right now. Such an escape.

. . . .

5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are teenaged con man/forger Frank Abignale Jr., and uptight FBI agent Carl Hanratty (respectively) in this perfect cat-and-mouse caper from Steven Spielberg, which is equal parts fun and devastating. Tom Hanks is overdoing it on the Boston accent, yes, but once you get past that, the relationship between hunter and hunted becomes almost as enjoyable as watching young Frank slip in and out of various snags. Also, why Christopher Walken didn’t win an Oscar for Supporting Actor is beyond me. Must of slipped right off his neck. (Actually, I confess, it’s not beyond me… that category was insane that year! Paul Newman for Road to Perdition? Chris Cooper in Adaptation? Ed Harris in The Hours? John C. Reily in Chicago? I just really wanted to make that joke.)

. . . .

2. How to Steal a Million (1966)

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole light up the screen in this perfect little caper, about a young Parisian woman who disapproves of her jolly father Hugh Griffith’s penchant for art forgery. He’s an impeccable imitator of the Great Masters, and makes a pretty penny from selling them, but when he loans a priceless statue forged by his father to a museum for an exhibition, he finds out that the statue will have to be examined in order for it to be given its $1 million insurance protection. Knowing that an examination will expose her family’s history of art crime, she decides to steal it back from the museum, somehow. Only, since she has had no interest in a criminal lifestyle until now, needs to enlist the help of sexy cat burglar Peter O’Toole to help. The heist they pull off is one of the cleverest ones I’ve seen onscreen. And the scene where Audrey Hepburn sees Peter O’Toole for the first time, when he’s peeking out at her over the frame of the painting he’s swiping, and his eyes are super blue and when he puts it down it’s revealed he’s wearing a tuxedo… no better meet-cute in the history of cinema.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Nobody ever agrees with ranked lists of “Best” whatever.

PG will opine that Charade should be ranked much higher, however.

There are photos for each movie at the link. Plus a list of Iconic Heist movies – The Thomas Crown Affair is #9.

Scientists put visions of letters in blind people’s brains

From Massive Science:

Surrounded by the buzz of medical equipment, a blind man raises his hand to a touch screen. Pop! A vision of the letter “N,” placed in his brain, flashes through his mind. He traces his finger across the screen, replicating the vision with perfect form.

It sounds like science fiction. But in a recent study at Baylor College of Medicine, researchers made the blind see. A team led by neurosurgeon Daniel Yoshor “drew” letters of the alphabet on blind people’s brains by giving them specific patterns of electrical zaps. These patterns caused the participants to “see” the letters in their mind’s eye. The results could improve medical devices for people who have experienced other types of sensory or motor loss

. . . .

The researchers accomplished this by giving patterns of small electrical stimulations to the visual cortex. The visual cortex is one of the hubs in the brain that responds to what we see. This region contains a spatial map of our field of view, meaning particular sets of cells respond to visual information coming from particular locations in our line of sight. Turn on a light on the left side of your field of view, and one set of cells will respond by shooting off an electrical signal. Turn on a light on the right side, and a different set of cells will respond.

Yoshor’s team took advantage of this map in a clever way. Because the cells in the visual cortex respond to patterns of light in space, the scientists could reverse the process — give a tiny electrical zap to a particular group of cells and cause someone to perceive a spot of light at a specific location. They performed brain surgery on blind adults to implant a small electrical device with several points of contact to the visual cortex. Each point could be activated individually or in combination with others to stimulate the brain in precise patterns. By carefully controlling the combinations of activated areas, the researchers could cause someone to “see” a specific shape, such as a letter of the alphabet.

Link to the rest at Massive Science

US Book Publishing Remains Resilient: Print and Ebook Sales Are Growing

From Jane Friedman:

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US print unit sales are up by 3.6% so far versus 2019

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US ebook sales are up by 4% versus last year—an excellent result

US traditional publishers report 4.3% growth in ebook sales through May 2020, after years of decline. All of that growth is the result of the pandemic; during the first three months of 2020, NPD showed ebook sales down 18% versus 2019. Publishing Perspectives offers more detail on ebook sales trends, with category-specific information.

Bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales are down

The US Census Bureau publishes preliminary estimates of bookstore sales, and even though print unit sales are up according to NPD BookScan, the government report shows bookstore sales declining by 33 percent in March, 65 percent in April, and 59 percent in May. The most obvious explanation for why book publishing continues to perform well as an industry: print sales have drifted to online channels, such as Amazon or Bookshop, and to big-box stores.

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt says that its sales are down about 20 percent overall from last year.

. . . .

What might happen next?


According to Kristen McLean at NPD Books, it won’t be demand that determines the industry’s future. Rather, she says it will be driven by:

  1. The stability of the channels which are currently selling and delivering books. Will stores stay open? Will the supply chain (printers, print-on-demand facilities, other delivery channels) remain resilient?
  2. The length and depth of the economic crisis which has been unfolding. Will governments help consumers, businesses and others?
  3. The pre-existing (financial) health of the businesses in the traditional book industry. Do they have the capital and the resources to get through this?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Ms. Friedman has always impressed PG as an intelligent, articulate and insightful expert on the book business. However, the questions she includes at the end of her post from Ms. McLean are not those that come to PG’s mind after reading the OP.

Are traditional bookstores important any more?

Book sales seem to have done well during at least the early part of the pandemic, but traditional bookstores have, by and large, been pretty much shut down. How many of these generally thinly-capitalized businesses will be closed permanently is an open question.

But if traditional publishing sales have held up, perhaps Amazon really is the future for readers and publishers will be fine when competing head-to-head with indie authors on Amazon’s pages.

Anything troubling about strong sales of traditionally published books in Big Box stores?

PG only has current knowledge about the Big Box stores he slips into and out of, trying not to inhale too much. His experience is that Big Box stores had been reducing the amount of floor space devoted to books over the several months prior to the arrival of the current plague. He can’t say he’s paid much attention to that element of Big Box retailing recently.

However, Big Box stores routinely sell books at significant discounts from list price. The same book at the local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore will cost much more.

PG suspects that at least some serious readers may have previously ignored the book displays in the Big Box stores on their way to fill up their carts with large quantities of diapers, soup and chocolate-chip cookies.

If book sales at Big Box stores are strong during this current time period, are serious readers going to stop buying nicely-priced books at the local Big Box and pay more at their local B&N when Covid fades into history? Or will readers default to Big Box to pick up a current best-seller? As mentioned previously, it won’t take much of a permanent decline in business to close a lot of bookstores for good.

How many people will keep buying lots of stuff (including books) from Amazon?

PG believes that more than a few readers who regularly purchased books from their local bookstore prior to Covid have continued to buy books – from Amazon. (Yes, PG knows there are other online bookstores, but he’s looking at the big picture here.)

Just like the Big Box customer, some readers who have done serious book shopping on Amazon for the first time will have become accustomed to the experience and enjoyed it. Instead of asking their good friend at Friendly Books Bookstore for book recommendations, some of these readers have discovered AlsoBoughts and intelligent Amazon customer reviews. Since Amazon always pays attention to what its customers purchase, the Amazon computers will regularly be suggesting other books the reader might enjoy and getting smarter with those suggestions.

Better prices online are also a big plus, particularly if the family income has taken a hit from Covid and its consequences.

Some readers will recognize that nobody ever got Covid (or any other transmissible disease) from buying an ebook online. Plus ebooks are cheaper and you can get them right away, any time and anywhere.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about how many people were coughing, sneezing and caressing the books in the romance section before you arrived at your local Barnes & Noble. Plus+Plus, nobody will see you browsing through the steamy titles on Amazon.

What is the new normal going to look like?

PG believes we don’t really know what the mid-term and long-term economic results of Covid shutdowns will be. A great many people, at least in the United States, are operating on credit cards, savings, the occasional government Covid check and some sort of income generated via reduced hours, one of two working spouses still working, etc.

The big economic question for PG (who is a lawyer, not an economist) is how many businesses will reopen when the shutdowns end, how many will be closed for good and what will those businesses that do reopen look like. Half of their employees temporarily laid off until business picks up? How many will never be asked to return? Some business locations reopened and others permanently closed?

What will the new normal look like and how long will it take to arrive there?

Closer to home, PG is, unfortunately, quite confident that there will be significantly fewer retail locations in the business of primarily selling books. If the local bookstore closes, how many people will decide not to travel farther to the next-closest bookstore?

Uncrowned Queen

From The Wall Street Journal:

Margaret Beaufort was never queen, even uncrowned, but her only child became Henry VII when he defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, and Nicola Tallis, a British scholar and the author of a book on Lady Jane Grey, may reasonably style Margaret the mother of the Tudor dynasty. Margaret was married to Edmund Tudor when she was only 12. She was both a mother and a widow at 13.

Margaret’s own lineage was more distinguished than her husband’s. The Tudors were minor Welsh nobles, but she was descended from John of Gaunt (Shakespeare’s “time-honoured Lancaster”), the third son of Edward III. In “Uncrowned Queen,” Ms. Tallis makes much of Margaret’s “royal blood,” but it was tainted, for Gaunt had several illegitimate children by a mistress, each surnamed “Beaufort.”He did at last marry their mother, after his wife’s death, and they were legitimized thereby, but they were also, by some accounts, barred from the royal succession. Henry VII would win the crown by conquest; his hereditary right was dubious.

Margaret had two husbands after Edmund Tudor: a duke’s son and an earl. Both matches were prudent; she needed a husband to protect her extensive property during the War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster vied for the English throne. Ms. Tallis insists that the marriages were successful in other ways, too, even affectionate.

. . . .

Margaret was now engaged in plotting rebellion—and the return of her son. It is clear that she was an active conspirator, and one can only wonder at Richard’s continued tolerance of her. Henry’s invasion followed, and the decisive moment at Bosworth came when Margaret’s husband, Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, switched sides and secured his stepson’s victory.

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

What You’ll Be Reading in Fall 2020 and Beyond, According to Publishing Industry Insiders

From The Observer:

The coronavirus crisis has affected business on a global scale, and its impact has been felt throughout the world of publishing. But while most bookshops—both independent and chains—have been hard hit or had to shift their business model online, publishing itself remains buoyant.

This is partly due to the fact that although some release dates have been altered, and supply chains have had hold-ups, members of the public are turning to books for solace and entertainment during a trying time. “If there’s any good news to share at this moment, it’s that readers are coming to books. And books seem to be providing an escape of sorts,” Paul Bogaards, executive vice president of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group tells Observer.

That’s not to say the industry hasn’t had to adapt to changing circumstances. Unsurprisingly, throughout the crisis reading tastes have altered in response to events both globally and closer to home. “On a week to week basis, we’ve seen different categories of books doing well,” explains Bogaards. “One of the early trends was a spike in children’s books, workbooks, craft and game books. There was also a micro-trend which saw a spike in bread-baking books, which coincided with an 800 percent rise in yeast sales!”

. . . .

“As we got deeper into the pandemic, people started coming back to fiction,” explains Bogaards. “But they were coming back to fiction they were familiar with. Some of it was driven by viewership—for example Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In terms of hardcover fiction, familiar brands like John Grisham, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Steven King,” also proved popular.

Readers also favored backlist books (those titles published 12 months ago and more) rather than opting for newer releases. “Backlist books accounted for a higher percentage of sales than previous years, while new releases (front list titles) sales were roughly 1 percent to 20 percent lower than backlist sales,” Priya Doraswamy, a literary agent at Lotus Lane Lit, tells Observer.

. . . .

James Daunt, CEO of Barnes and Noble saw a similar trend, “We had significant bestsellers in non-fiction, and especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, books that deal with questions of race. Also books about empathy and understanding,” he said.

This increased desire for diversity in our reading may be a sign of a longer-term shift, according to Daunt. “We’ve been locked for a long time in a very static group of ‘brand name’ authors, James Patterson, John Grisham and others. And what’s astonishing is how little they’ve changed—the author can die, but brands can still carry on. For example, Virginia Andrews became Virginia Andrews ™. A lot of this is fuelled by sales in supermarkets and on Amazon. I think that may begin to change—we may start to see a more concerted effort to introduce new authors.”

. . . .

“We’ve seen a lot of submissions [from literary agents] by diverse authors, and that’s been a welcome change,” says Bogaan. “And we’ve made some acquisitions, which has been heartening.”

Link to the rest at The Observer

Plague Authors are Crushing It

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I recently heard someone refer to writers who have released books during the Covid era as “plague authors.” As a member of that illustrious group myself, I found that term spot on. No sugar coating, no euphemism, just telling it like it is. And my friends, let’s be clear: releasing a novel into a world where people are generally consumed bv much larger, more important, legit concerns than whether you can tell a good story is no easy feat.

While all the rational people out there are watching the headlines, figuring out appropriate precautions, muddling through complicated thoughts about politics, the economy, religion, health, and life as we know it, we plague authors are all like, “but, my book….”

And yet. 

I’ve made sure to tell everyone I know that my second novel, That’s Not a Thing, came out on April 14, 2020, which was the height of the pandemic in my home state of New York. The book, which is a love story set in New York City, felt like the perfect love letter to my floundering city. Even so, I wasn’t sure how or whether to promote it or if I should simply crawl under a rock and wait out the madness. 

Luckily, some of my sister authors had the good grace to release wonderful fiction during this same period, which has so greatly helped me to temporarily escape my own fears about the pandemic, my professional success, the germs on my groceries, the education of my four children, and what type of protective gear I would require before ever stepping foot on another airplane.  

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

Book Clubs and Other Cannibalization Scares

From Publishing Perspectives:

Out of the blue recently, I received a message by email, one that reminded me of Book Club Associates, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Stan Remington was the head of Book Club Associates, the biggest and arguably almost monopolistic direct-mail bookselling group in Britain and Australia.

“I’m writing on behalf of my father, Stan Remington, who is delighted to see you have set up your own publishing operation.

“He is still reading around three books a week and living in Oxfordshire. He keeps a keen interest in the world of publishing if only from the sidelines. He fondly remembers so many business lunches at Oxford. And what they led to.”

Well, I’m glad and proud that the lunches led to much new business for Oxford University Press.

In the days of retail price maintenance in the UK, Book Club Associates was the only significant place to buy bestsellers cheaply and have them delivered to your door. A reader had to commit to buying a certain number of titles every year. It worked. At its peak, more than a million households in the United Kingdom subscribed and the program’s database held the names of as many as 4 million book purchasers.

My lunches with Stan were focused on establishing whether Book Club Associates could enhance the sales of Oxford University Press books, which were rather different in content and status from the usual book-club fiction fodder. We did come up with some pretty good ideas in his and my opinions. But some at the publishing house thought we might be lowering standards or cannibalizing existing sales.

That was the first time I came across the concept of cannibalization in publishing.

The argument went that any book we sold through the book club would be one fewer we sold through bookstores, and at much lower revenue and margin. In other words, we’d be cannibalizing our own business. In the phrasing of Evelyn Waugh’s Mr Salter to his boss in Scoop (Chapman & Hall, 1938): “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

. . . .

Mass-market book clubs are a thing of the past in the English-speaking world, defeated by changing technology and business models, but their contribution to reading, writing, and publishing should not be underestimated. How we’d like to enjoy a bit of their form of cannibalization today.

. . . .

Cannibalization can be defined in many ways. According to my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1988) cannibalization means to take parts from one unit for incorporation in, and completion of, another of a similar kind. The first citation is 1944 and it relates to the breaking up of old aircraft and using the parts in new ones. Far from being a pejorative, it would seem that cannibalization was a forerunner of today’s environmentally friendly recycling movement and to be encouraged.

So my publishing tip of the month is to stop worrying about one channel for selling books potentially cannibalizing another. Instead, embrace every opportunity to reach a new audience or serve an author by saying yes first and worrying about the consequences later.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG will limit himself to two points:

A. During a meeting with a group of very good and well-compensated marketers many years ago, discounting from list price to access a new sales channel was under discussion. Someone (not PG), said something to the effect that we would be cannibalizing our own product if we did that.

The response from one of the more experienced people in the meeting was quick and concise, “If we don’t cannibalize our sales, someone else will.”

Meaning that if the price of a product was perceived by consumers as being too high, a competitor would offer a lower price and steal business.

If you successfully set an optimum price for a product, you will maximize both sales and profitability. The highest price you think the market will bear is seldom the optimum price.

B. The fact that this ancient misconception is still floating around the publishing business and requires mild correction by the author of the OP is an indication that really talented marketers coming out of college or graduate school have been and will continue to almost universally choose to use their talents in places other than traditional publishers.

Alternate employers will pay higher salaries for talent, provide an environment in which that talent will blossom and grow, and increase compensation quickly to retain the truly talented as they develop their talents.

PG finds it difficult to believe a marketing major from a quality business school would ever consider working for a traditional publisher.

Yet another reason why the field is ripe for smart indie authors.

The Forever War Over War Literature

From The New Republic:

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Jim Webb might have seemed like a weird candidate to give the keynote speech to a roomful of antiwar activists, journalists, creative writers, and academics in New York City. Remembered today as a rigid one-term Democratic Virginia senator who rode an anti-Bush wave to Capitol Hill during the worst years of the Iraq War, Webb had taken a wall of shrapnel in Vietnam, shielding his Marine Corps platoon mates from a fragmentation grenade. But by the opening of the Asia Society’s May 1985 conference on literature of the Vietnam War, he’d also become well known for the bombs he lobbed.

In 1979, Webb had penned a 7,000-word essay in The Washingtonian titled “Why Women Can’t Fight,” which got him briefly shadow-banned from the Naval Academy, his beloved alma mater. The year before that, when a California radio interviewer had joshingly asked Webb if he’d be catching a local appearance by antiwar actress Jane Fonda that weekend, Webb turned silent for a long time. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he replied, eventually. “I wouldn’t go across the street to watch her slit her own wrist.” (Among those listening were future Reagan White House personnel chief John Herrington, who would later enthusiastically recruit Webb into the administration.)

Webb was also a triple novelist, best known for the visceral 1978 Fields of Fire, the saga of a motley Marine platoon in Vietnam that he’d penned in law school, after being angered by his classmates’ reflexive antiwar politics. Now, a decade after the war had ended, Webb had been gifted an opportunity to blast the other war novelists, poets, memoirists, and critics—many of them veterans of the conflict, like him—that he thought had glutted the national conversation with anti-government narratives and leftist navel-gazing. “American society is too often narcissistic and riddled with vicious domestic debate,” he argued. “At the same time, during the war it was romantic about the Vietnamese Communists and completely ignorant, for the most part, about the implications of a North Vietnamese victory.”

He continued, decrying what he called the “Academic-Intellectual Complex.” Literary and journalistic awards, he insisted, “are lavished on those who discover new ways to question or attack government policy, to tell us where our government is failing us,” but “sometimes it takes more courage to confront the hostility of one’s peers than it does to attack that amorphous dragon called government policy.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. Webb’s speech hit the conference like a “lightning bolt,” one attendee wrote. John Del Vecchio—a self-described “token conservative” on war literature panels, whose debut Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, had been nominated for a National Book Award two years before—got stuck in Manhattan traffic on his way to the conference and showed up late. He walked in and “found the room already divided … leftist writers bunched over there, conservative writers bunched over here. It was quite a scene.”

. . . .

Perhaps broader America was ready to move on from the war, but many of its participants and chroniclers were not. “All wars are fought twice,” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would write decades later. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

This was a battle for memory. It would prove a defining one, worth revisiting today, as my generation of forever-war literati fights similar battles and, in many ways, stakes out similar paths.

. . . .

As contentious as Webb’s talking points were—his conference speech also inveighed against Soviet access to Vietnamese ports in the Pacific—the literary broadside had conveyed one hard truth. His call that Vietnam literature written by Americans should be less “narcissistic,” that it should consider the peoples, histories, and cultures impacted by foreign soldiering and not just dwell on the myopic American experience, resonated like mortar fire through the remainder of the conference.

. . . .

War literature tends to grow and evolve in this manner. First, war writers—like young writers of any subject—need time to mature their thoughts and art. (Slaughterhouse-Five took Kurt Vonnegut over 20 years to write, and rewrite, after surviving the firebombing of Dresden; Karl Marlantes took 30 years after he returned home from Vietnam to complete Matterhorn.) Similarly, the macro stories that Kakutani called for require distance to play out. Their chroniclers need clarity to wrest narrative from ruin. (Psychological trauma may have been considered a fringe idea during World War I, but it’s the bedrock of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–nominated 1991 historical novel of the Great War. Likewise, Corporal James Jones may have only had a small, frontline window into the Pacific theater in 1944, but after years of methodical research, he was able to blend his own experience and his broader understanding into The Thin Red Line.)

. . . .

“Are we going to learn, are we going to grow, are we going to repeat it again?” Ron Kovic had asked his fellow veterans and artists at the 1985 Vietnam conference. “What kind of country is this, if we would ever let it happen again?” Alas, in 2020, we have disheartening answers to those questions. The fierce resolve of “never again” turned to ash in a post-9/11 swirl of reckoning, vengeance, and yellow-ribbon patriotism. The battle for the memory of these brushfire wars has already been raging. American Sniper: for or against? In war, the only thing worse than picking a side is evading the choice.

. . . .

Our “long war” is not over. It just continues to morph into some other phase, on new fronts. Modern war writing is also shaped by the fact that our wars are now being waged by an all-volunteer force instead of draftees. If there’s one unifying principle to the work generated today, it’s a scream, a desperate howl, to pay attention to the foreign wars, to remind readers that they matter and belong to us all, even as our society gets better and better at shutting them out of our daily lives. Accordingly, the publishing world tends to treat war lit as a necessary curiosity, no matter how good or artful. (“Modern war writing is a strange thing to praise,” Sam Sacks wrote in a representative 2015 Harper’s essay, “because such praise ennobles the account while deploring the event.”) The acrimonious debates over ideology in 1985 now simply yield separate literary realities, like cable news channels: There’s war literature for liberals (moody meditations on combat like Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds) and war literature for conservatives (action-packed thrillers like those written by Brad Thor). It’s a rare work indeed that offers crossover appeal.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

PG has read a lot of 20th century history which, of course, often includes wars of various sizes, shapes and outcomes.

However, in his more limited experience with war fiction, he has observed that fiction and autobiography/biography are often blended together in sometimes obvious and on other occasions less-obvious ways.

That said, PG’s favorite book about war was written by a woman, Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth.

As many visitors will recall, Ms. Brittain’s book has been the basis of a motion picture and a BBC video series.

Note: When you click on the following YouTube video, you’ll be taken to a screen that says the video is unavailable for embedding, but you can watch it on YouTube. If you don’t mind going to YouTube, click on the link and you’ll be taken to the intended start point in a longer episode of Testament of Youth – BBC version

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

PG included this as part of a very long post earlier this month, but decided it deserved a repeat on its own for any who missed the first one or gave up partway through the earlier post.

From Harper’s Magazine:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.



Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Link to the rest at Harper’s Magazine

Ernest Hemingway’s Footsteps Through Havana

From Smithsonian Magazine:

When Ernest Hemingway penned his novel The Old Man and the Sea at his farm outside Havana, he likely had no idea the success it would receive, garnering him both a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1953 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 1954.

When it was announced, 65 years ago on October 28, that he had won the Nobel, Hemingway thought other writers were better suited to the award. “As a Nobel Prize winner I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen,” he told the New York Times, just two hours after the official word from Stockholm. “Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize. I would have been happy—happier—today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen, or to Bernard Berenson, who has devoted a lifetime to the most lucid and best writing on painting that has been produced, and I would have been most happy to know that the prize had been awarded to Carl Sandburg. Since I am not in a position to—no—since I respect and honor the decision of the Swedish Academy, I should not make any such observation. Anyone receiving an honor must receive it in humility.”

. . . .

The writer first found his way to Cuba with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in April 1928. It was a simple layover in Havana en route from Paris to Key West, but the city captured his attention enough for him to return to the country multiple times and eventually purchase his own residence there in 1940 (this time with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn). His farm was built by Spanish architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886 and sits about 15 miles outside Havana, with a guesthouse and a view to downtown.

La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway preferred to drink his mojitos.
(Creative Commons)

“I live in Cuba because I love Cuba—that does not mean a dislike for anyplace else,” Hemingway once told Robert Manning at The Atlantic. “And because here I get privacy when I write.”

Hemingway loved Cuba so much that he dedicated his Nobel Prize to the country, noting (according to the Independent) that “This is a prize that belongs in Cuba, because my work was conceived and created in Cuba, with my people of Cojimar where I’m a citizen.”

Finca Vigía

Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in Cuba. (Creative Commons)

Hemingway and his third wife, Martha, bought this 1886 house in 1940, after Martha discovered it in local ads the year before. The author lived here for 20 years, penning The Old Man and the Sea and finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, among other works, from within its walls. He and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh (who moved in after Ernest and Martha divorced in 1945) abandoned the house in 1960, following Castro’s rise to power. The house is now owned by the Cuban government and operated as a museum. Everything has been meticulously preserved as it was when Hemingway left—bottles still sit on a serving tray, thousands of books still line the shelves and magazines are still spread out on the bed. It’s all authentic to the day the author and his wife left. His fishing boat, Pilar, is preserved at the house as well, tucked inside a shelter on the property.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba 1946 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chinua Achebe

From The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell us something about the Achebe family and growing up in an Igbo village, your early education, and whether there was anything there that pointed you that early in the direction of writing?

CHINUA ACHEBE

I think the thing that clearly pointed me there was my interest in stories. Not necessarily writing stories, because at that point, writing stories was not really viable. So you didn’t think of it. But I knew I loved stories, stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder sister—such as the story of the tortoise—whatever scraps of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different, but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with his family to his ancestral village.

When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp . . . Fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal.

Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

INTERVIEWER

You were among the first graduates of the great University of Ibadan. What was it like in the early years of that university, and what did you study there? Has it stuck with you in your writing?

ACHEBE

Ibadan was, in retrospect, a great institution. In a way, it revealed the paradox of the colonial situation, because this university college was founded towards the end of British colonial rule in Nigeria. If they did any good things, Ibadan was one of them. It began as a college of London University, because under the British, you don’t rush into doing any of those things like universities just like that. You start off as an appendage of somebody else. You go through a period of tutelage. We were the University College of Ibadan of London. So I took a degree from London University. That was the way it was organized in those days. One of the signs of independence, when it came, was for Ibadan to become a full-fledged university.

I began with science, then English, history, and religion. I found these subjects exciting and very useful. Studying religion was new to me and interesting because it wasn’t only Christian theology; we also studied West African religions. My teacher there, Dr. Parrinder, now an emeritus professor of London University, was a pioneer in the area. He had done extensive research in West Africa, in Dahomey. For the first time, I was able to see the systems—including my own—compared and placed side by side, which was really exciting. I also encountered a professor, James Welch, in that department, an extraordinary man, who had been chaplain to King George VI, chaplain to the BBC, and all kinds of high powered things before he came to us. He was a very eloquent preacher. On one occasion, he said to me, We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know. I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

I once heard your English publisher, Alan Hill, talk about how you sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to him.

ACHEBE

That was a long story. The first part of it was how the manuscript was nearly lost. In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

I once heard your English publisher, Alan Hill, talk about how you sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to him.

ACHEBE

That was a long story. The first part of it was how the manuscript was nearly lost. In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored. I said, Maybe he doesn’t like it. But then why would he call me if he doesn’t like it. So it must be he likes it. Anyway, I was very excited. When I got back to London, he said, This is wonderful. Do you want me to show it to my publishers? I said, Yes, but not yet, because I had decided that the form wasn’t right. Attempting to do a saga of three families, I was covering too much ground in this first draft. So I realized that I needed to do something drastic, really give it more body. So I said to Mr. Phelps, OK, I am very grateful but I’d like to take this back to Nigeria and look at it again. Which is what I did.

When I was in England, I had seen advertisements about typing agencies; I had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed. So, foolishly, from Nigeria I parceled my manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world—wrapped it up and posted it to this typing agency that advertised in the Spectator. They wrote back and said, Thank you for your manuscript. We’ll charge thirty-two pounds. That was what they wanted for two copies and which they had to receive before they started. So I sent thirty-two pounds in British postal order to these people and then I heard no more. Weeks passed, and months. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Finally, I was very lucky. My boss at the broadcasting house was going home to London on leave. A very stubborn Englishwoman. I told her about this. She said, Give me their name and address. When she got to London she went there! She said, What’s this nonsense? They must have been shocked, because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa—well, there’s really nobody to follow it up. The British don’t normally behave like that. It’s not done, you see. But something from Africa was treated differently. So when this woman, Mrs. Beattie, turned up in their office and said, What’s going on? they were confused. They said, The manuscript was sent but customs returned it. Mrs. Beattie said, Can I see your dispatch book? They had no dispatch book. So she said, Well, send this thing, typed up, back to him in the next week, or otherwise you’ll hear about it. So soon after that, I received the typed manuscript of Things Fall Apart. One copy, not two. No letter at all to say what happened. My publisher, Alan Hill, rather believed that the thing was simply neglected, left in a corner gathering dust. That’s not what happened. These people did not want to return it to me and had no intention of doing so. Anyway, when I got it I sent it back up to Heinemann. They had never seen an African novel. They didn’t know what to do with it. Someone told them, Oh, there’s a professor of economics at London School of Economics and Political Science who just came back from those places. He might be able to advise you. Fortunately, Don Macrae was a very literate professor, a wonderful man. I got to know him later. He wrote what they said was the shortest report they ever had on any novel—seven words: The best first novel since the war. So that’s how I got launched.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

From Public Books:

Sci-fi veteran William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, presents two timelines, one in a postapocalyptic 2136 and the other in our own present. Or almost. In the latter timeline, Clinton beat Trump and Brexit was quashed, a veritable utopia by 2020’s standards. If you judge a world on how highly it values democracy, justice, or the health of the planet, ours does not come off well. What if, Agency suggests, ours is actually the worst of all possible worlds?

Well, maybe not the absolute worst, but certainly there are nefarious forces at work and people keen on making this world as difficult as possible for as many people as possible. And as the America of our actual timeline prepares for another very plausibly disastrous presidential election, this trend seems as though it will continue indefinitely. In this context, Agency and Charles Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown, ask vital questions about world-making and the agencies behind it. Whose world is this? To what ends do the powerful wield their power? And how many people are they willing to throw under the bus in order to keep their kleptocratic mitts on it?

While Agency illuminates the kleptocratic tendencies already at work in 2020, Interior Chinatown brings to the fore the intersections of those tendencies with race, immigration, and class. As our reality becomes ever more Gibsonian in its capacity for science fiction–y dystopias, Yu’s novel contends not only with the status of science fiction (SF) but also with the viability of genre storytelling writ large, a category that would include police procedurals, martial arts films, period dramas, and cartoons. Can such genres encapsulate the loss, or historical preclusion, of individual and collective agency, particularly when it comes to Asian Americans and immigrants? Building on his foray into TV writing (Yu has written and produced for HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Legion, among others), Yu has crafted his beautifully written Interior Chinatown in teleplay format. (It’s even typeset in that annoying Courier font.) In it, aspiring protagonist Willis Wu plays Generic Asian Man Number Three on the cop drama Black and White, hoping to one day land the ultimate role to which an Asian man can aspire in this universe: Kung Fu Guy.

In his short stories and in his brilliant first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu has always engaged with immigrant and Asian American experience and, in particular, with how these populations are excluded from the stories we tell about the future. Asian Americans, Yu writes, are “brochure Americans,” not the kind you picture when you close your eyes and think “American.” Interior Chinatown confronts this same racism in the binary world of Black and White’s plots and story arcs. The show can only tolerate an Asian American guest star for so long before the writers kill off the character: “There’s just something about Asians—their faces, their skin color—it just automatically takes you out of this reality.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

Five Novels Challenge Assumptions About Women in Midlife

From The Wall Street Journal:

Older heroines make a splash in this summer’s beach (or lockdown) reads.

A generation of readers is looking for characters who, like themselves, are seeking fulfillment as they age. Book buyers, the bulk of whom are women, want to see themselves in print in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and a new batch of fiction is obliging them.

“A lot of editors and readers are drawn to women who change after the long years of motherhood,” said Sara Nelson, vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp. “A very reader-friendly generation is looking for their life-changing experiences to be reflected back to them.”

There is no prototype for these characters. In Marcy Dermansky’s “Very Nice,” just out in paperback, a college-age woman pursues a romance with a famous male novelist but runs into formidable competition in the form of her own beautiful mother. Meanwhile, “The Weekend,” an international bestseller by Australian novelist Charlotte Wood that comes out in the U.S. next month, features a particularly biting scene where an older woman thinks she is seducing a man while he makes fun of her.

Older heroines have been redefining their identities in books for a long time— Amazon has a bestseller list devoted to “divorce fiction”—but often it has been their younger years that have mattered most. These novelists want to go further in challenging assumptions about their aging characters, trading away some of their melancholy for humor and drama.

Here, a sampling of the latest novels focused on older women.

The Motion of the Body Through Space

Lionel Shriver

Serenata, a compulsive runner sidelined by wrecked knees, is an iconoclast who disdains many things, including her nonathletic husband’s sudden decision to run a marathon. “She herself was only 60, though hers was the first generation to append ‘only’ to such a sobering milestone,” Ms. Shriver writes.

The couple can still remember each other as young people, which allows for a bit of forgiveness as they start to fall apart. But in Ms. Shriver’s hands, no marriage is safe. Coast at your own risk.

“I liked the idea of a marriage suddenly being put in this state of peril and fragility right at the point where they need to be able to rely on each other,” said Ms. Shriver, 63. “It has a kind of drama to it. If you’re writing about a youthful romance, it’s not on the same scale.”

Once an avid runner who also suffered knee problems, Ms. Shriver is interested in the fight to stay fit into older age. “No matter how many press-ups you do, you’re still going to get old, and then you feel as if that decay is your fault,” she said. “Experiencing that decay is at its least bittersweet. At its worst it’s simply bitter.”

‘All Adults Here’

Emma Straub

Astrid witnesses a school bus run over an acquaintance. The jolt convinces her to face her mistakes as a parent of three struggling adult children. A 68-year-old widow who loved her husband, Astrid also comes out to her kids about her new girlfriend.

“How long have you been lying to us?” her son sputters. One of her daughters is laughing: “Honestly, I’m impressed.” A supportive grandchild tells her “NFG.” (Look it up.)

Ms. Straub, 40, had assumed she would center her book on Astrid’s daughter, roughly the author’s age. But she gravitated to Astrid instead, interested in the older woman’s perspective, her ability to see her own role in the way her grown children turned out.

The novelist, who owns a bookstore in Brooklyn, is aware of all the young heroines out there. But she also is inspired by writers like Elizabeth Strout, who, in “Olive Kitteridge” and the 2019 follow-up “Olive, Again,” imbued her characters with what Ms. Straub called “more humanity and respect than old people often get in life and in fiction.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Reading Every Unread Book on My Bookshelf During the Pandemic

From The Literary Hub:

If you climb out my kitchen window onto the fire escape, you look down on our building’s tiny, lush garden. An elderly Polish couple used to live on the ground floor, with their toy-sized fluffball of a dog. The husband never acknowledged my greetings, but he and his wife brought the garden lovingly to life every spring. Two years ago, when they moved out, the landlord’s son moved in and left the garden to its own wildness. It’s choking to death now on its own weeds.

I’m out there all the time since New York’s quarantine began three months ago and left me feeling skittish about city parks—even a view of strangled greenery feels at least a little like summer. There is a tangible feeling of the neighborhood viewed from the fire escape that doesn’t exist from our other windows, which face a drab, imposing luxury building. Out there, I can see the neighbors’ back gardens, too. I can see the roof deck two blocks away, where a young (usually shirtless) father brings his baby out to wave to neighbors. I watched new construction climb on the lot behind ours, its crew working throughout the pandemic. I saw their communal lunch hour become socially distanced, their Friday evening drinks (beer in Solo cups, still wearing hard hats) suspended.

As a child, I watched Rear Window and told myself that city life would be just like that; I would know my neighbors’ routines and foibles and secrets as well as I knew my own. I haven’t seen any murders from the fire escape, and I’ve restrained myself from peering into any windows. But only in this unusual season, out there more often than ever before, have my own daily rhythms come to match those of my neighbors. In the evenings, I climb out with a glass of wine for a muted happy hour, just before everyone floods their windowsills for the seven o’clock appreciation cheer. In the mornings I sip my coffee in the sunshine, nodding to the neighbors on balconies sitting hunched over laptops, answering emails. And always, at whatever time of day, I take the book I’m reading.

. . . .

I flew home to Los Angeles. The visit had been planned for weeks. My mother’s February visit to the ER resulted in her being rushed into emergency surgery, and a month later, she was still recovering.

The thing about my mother’s house is that books cover, and I mean this quite literally, every single available surface. Stacks clog the living room floor, spread across her bed like laundry dropped from an upturned hamper, Jenga themselves to precarious heights on side tables. When I visit at Christmas, I behave like a Victorian invalid: curling under cashmere blankets, accepting endless cups of tea, reading for hours on end.

But in March she was the invalid, and I was purportedly the nurse. I stocked her pantry, retrieved her medications from the pharmacy, frantically pounced on any stray bottle of cleaning product I spotted on her drugstore’s desiccated shelves. But I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus on anything but Twitter. I watched Governor Cuomo’s press conferences for no discernible reason, frozen in a benumbed slouch. I fretted that my flight back would be canceled, then read about super-spreading and felt like a villainous moron for having made the trip at all. I drank far too much of the wine my mother always lays in for my visits and tried to read a Russell Banks novel about the brutal callousness with which our society treats sex offenders. It was not a book for the moment. 

. . . .

Safely back in Brooklyn, I decided that I couldn’t live that way for months, my thoughts never alighting on anything longer than a news graf. I needed to impose some discipline. I needed to escape from my own brain, and the only way I’ve ever understood how to do that (without recreational substances) is reading.

I make that distinction with only a slight wink: the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I’ve arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of “research” or “craft,” as if I only dip into someone else’s fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own. I gushed once, at a reading for my first novel, that I “would never love writing the way I love to read,” then felt my cheeks burn when the acclaimed novelist next to me arched one eyebrow.

. . . .

There have been various times, though, when I’ve found myself unable to read anything at all. Those are warnings, usually my first indication that I’m slipping into a blackness that will be slow to shake, periods when what I usually regard as an innate “moodiness” verges into something less manageable.

I sat in my living room in late March and knew that I wanted to guard against this. My fear, my paralysis, was no longer a question of my own projected failures and cultivated neuroses. It was, frankly, a logical response to the roiling world outside the apartment where I’d be hunkered down for the foreseeable future. I needed a reading project, I thought, and the libraries were closed. I stared at my bookshelves.

My books are arranged by color, alphabetized within each shade. The first shelf holds the blue spines, and as you move down the line you pass the reds, the yellows, the blacks and the whites and the shelf reserved for colorful, unclassifiable jackets. In quarantine, I decided, I would read through the shelves in order. I would read every single book I had never picked up. There would be no skipping allowed and no rereading of old favorites permitted. I would have to finish every book. I posted a picture to Instagram, just to make it official, and started the next morning.

. . . .

The “project” did not begin auspiciously. The very first book was A Death in the Family, by James Agee. It was quiet and gray and mournful. It was not what I wanted to read in the third week of March. I would never have picked it up of my own volition, but this felt like someone else’s volition. It was a relief, some organized authority telling me what to do amidst an apocalyptic lack of organization, even if that someone was an amorphous force I’d made up. My brother teased me—why wasn’t I allowed to “break the rules?” But I wasn’t.

I read Lucia Berlin, whose stories I had been “meaning to read soon” for four years. I read All the Light We Cannot See, a book I’ve discounted in the past surely just because I’m jealous of its eye-popping success, and found it an absorbing, delightful distraction. I read White Noise, which I’m pretty sure I had previously claimed to have read but absolutely never had.

In a serendipitous turn, I picked up The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Mother’s Day, when I was already thinking about my Australian grandmother. She moved to Los Angeles after the war to marry the young American naval officer she met in Sydney, a boy who had survived Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal. Richard Flanagan’s novel is a grueling read, moving from rural Tasmania to mainland Australia to a Japanese POW camp in Burma. But it made me feel, as I read, close to my grandparents again. They are both dead now, and neither one of them was ever greatly interested in telling me about their lives before they settled together in southern California. I asked my grandmother once what had drawn her to him, and she shrugged as she told me simply that he was the first boyfriend who survived. They were two unhappy people, irreversibly scarred by a war that began when they were little more than teenagers. But they stayed married until the day he died. I finished the novel just before Memorial Day.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

How to Survive a Pandemic, According to an Academic Publisher

From Publishers Weekly:

Like all businesses, Oxford University Press has responded rapidly to the changing market conditions and customer needs resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. The stages we’ve gone through will be recognizable by anyone in the sector: an initial rush to enable remote working, extensive financial scenario modelling, and then accelerating digital programs and sales in anticipation of a very different-looking post-pandemic world. It’s been demanding, but with lots of learning points along the way.

After reviewing the past four months of our activity and talking to colleagues at other houses about how they’ve responded, I recommend publishers and IP businesses take these five steps to stabilize their operations and position themselves for what comes next. Most of these are simply good business responses, but I hope they are helpful as a checklist.

1.Shorten your planning time horizon and carve out spare bandwidth. In publishing, planning horizons are generally 18–24 months. We’ve shifted ours to six. Which of your activities have the most immediate return? Could longer-term projects be put on hold? Carve out capacity (even if you’re not sure where to deploy it yet) by deciding what you can afford to stop. This shift in perspective will help you identify and redeploy resources to support short-term, opportunistic activities.

. . . .

4. Adopt a short-term omni-channel approach to exploiting your IP. Leaning more on licensing and digital sales distribution can generate fast, incremental income and yield new customers. We are often guilty of foregoing immediate sales because of a bigger potential sale down the line. But right now users want easy access to more digital content; they are more likely to select yours if it is available in the services and vendors they already use. If you’re holding off on activating indirect routes to market for your content to protect high-margin direct business, rethink that strategy. Consider experimenting with new aggregator relationships. Take more risks licensing your IP. It might be messy, but it will maximize short-term return when you need it most.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

For Eons, Iceland Has Endured Calamity Through Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

When the volcano Eyjafjallaljökull erupted in Iceland in 2010, the curator of the nearby Skógar Folk Museum took with him only one thing. He had 15,000 objects to choose from in the museum, and he paused, surrounded by the personal and material history of a nation. He walked out with a book in his hands.

The great question that has always loomed over Iceland is how anyone has survived there. It is a legacy not of Viking swagger but of literacy. We cannot fully know how Iceland will fare during the current crisis, although its civil sensibility—alert to data and determined to look after everyone—has left the country, six months into the global pandemic, monitoring just 12 cases. We do know that for generations, austere Iceland has had a surprising history of weathering calamity through books.

Iceland is home to 366,130 people, and when the world could still travel, it was attracting 2 million tourists a year. That is more visitors in a year than the sum total of all the Icelanders who have ever lived.

. . . .

Yet the Icelanders found ways to survive. Iceland is inhabited only along the edges, its highland heart too capricious and punishing to be livable. It has no metal, hardly any workable clay, lumber more often in the form of driftwood from Siberia than trees grown on its own volcanic soil. For a very long time, it was among the poorest countries in Europe. But Iceland invested a long time ago in language and literacy and books.

Poetry was sung across valleys from one shepherd to another. The island’s famed sagas, and much more, were written out as early as the 12th century. Manuscripts were copied at a prodigious rate. Around 1530, the first printing press on the island was shipped to a Catholic bishop. Catholic clergy were killed when Iceland converted to Protestantism in 1550; the altars of churches were burned. But the printing press was untouched, and afterward, the bishop at Hólar used it to produce the first complete Bible in the Icelandic language.

At least one was distributed to every church on the island. Published in 1584, that Bible was 600 pages long, printed in an edition of 500 books, each one valued at the price of three cows. Every parish in Iceland had to pledge to buy one. A few remain in their original houses of worship. This is the book that the curator of the Skógar museum elected as the only thing to save.

In that same century, Iceland instituted mandatory literacy. By the 17th century, every Icelander was guaranteed the right to an education, with a tutor sent to each farm for a month every year. By the end of the 18th century, according to the sociologist Richard Tomasson, Iceland was the only country in the world to have achieved near universal literacy.

. . . .

This is the wisdom of a country that touts a 100% literacy rate, publishes the most books per capita of any nation and reports that 10% of its citizens will not just write but publish a book in their lifetimes. Iceland refers to itself as a bokathjod, a book nation.

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

Crime Fiction Is Complicit in Police Violence

From Electric Lit:

Every genre has its preoccupation, and the central preoccupation of crime fiction is justice. But in this moment of political upheaval, where our notions of justice are subject to intense scrutiny, we must ask what role has crime fiction played in getting us here. 

In a traditional mystery, the plot begins with a crime and we follow a character seeking to find out what happened. We are satisfied when we finally find out who did it and the guilty party gets their comeuppance. This effective plot structure has time-tested stakes and conflicts. We can explore political issues that drive or motivate individual acts of violence or law-breaking. Cops, private eyes, FBI agents, amateur detectives, attorneys, forensic scientists and others can all get in on the action. 

Crime fiction has also been a site to explore the shadow side of the law: corruption, brutality, and misuse of authority. Many endings are not so neat, with ambiguities and gray-area solutions. 

Yet overall, the genre has validated the underlying assumption that police are the good guys, and if they’re not, they should be. There is no widespread critique or questioning of the whole paradigm of police and prisons as a system. And even less envisioning of any alternatives. 

The typical perspective of police procedurals has helped create the myth of police as heroes. White male police have dominated decades of crime literature, TV, and film, with Black people and people of color stereotyped as violent criminals. Since the first half of the twentieth-century, our popular culture has shown the world of crime from a white male perspective and has validated white male characters’ right to use violent and deadly force according to their own judgment.

Intentionally or unintentionally, crime fiction has been a propaganda machine of fictional stories to back a central lie of our culture: that police are here to protect and serve everyone. In the current political moment, when this myth has been exposed, TV shows are being cancelled. Unscripted TV shows like the COPS and Live PD are being taken off the air, despite their success, because the producers know they are heavily edited narratives that manipulate viewers. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “How White Crime Writers Justified Police Brutality,” author John Fram traces how fictional police shows, from the ‘50s to the present, have had to be produced in partnership with police departments. Show creators were keenly aware that they would need to provide an overall sympathetic portrayal of the police in order to survive. Yet as Black people have been saying for a long time, the good guy vision of police is a cultural myth. And the latest police murders of Black people are not an aberration, they are a natural consequence of the systemic racism embedded in the institution. George Floyd’s death actually means that the system is working as it should.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The OP neglected to mention that, before crime fiction, police brutality and race-based violence were unknown.

While PG does not defend the improper use of force by anyone, police officer, bank robber, participants in bar fights, etc., etc., the author of the OP operates under an unspoken premises that a great many people of every race and ethnicity who write this type of article do:

  1. The author is the only one who sees things as they really are. Everybody else is an idiot who believes everything he/she sees on television or in motion pictures is true.
  2. The author never comes to conclusions which are incorrect based upon what the author has heard, read, seen in various places, etc.
  3. The author is the one of the very few who is in a position to sort others and their behaviors into clear-cut categories of good/not good.
  4. The author is a mind-reader, capable of discerning the thought processes of others, how and under what influences their thoughts are formed and identifying the flaws in those thought processes and their creation of which the individual with those thoughts is unaware.

Authors Guild Signs Letter in Support of Anti-SLAPP Statute

From The Authors Guild:

On July 14, the Authors Guild, along with many publishers and other media organizations, signed a letter to Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature urging them to pass a bill designed to update and strengthen New York State’s current anti-SLAPP statute. As the letter states, “SLAPP lawsuits are an intolerable form of private censorship. It is more critical than ever that New York, the media capitol of the world, provide robust protection against meritless claims designed to chill speech.”

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—or “SLAPP” suits—are baseless lawsuits intended to keep individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights to speak about and act on public issues. There has been a dramatic increase in litigation designed to chill constitutionally protected speech in recent years; within the past month alone, there have been two separate lawsuits brought to quash books critical of President Trump. Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to provide defendants with a mechanism to resolve lawsuits that implicate defendants’ First Amendment rights without incurring the kind of devastating legal fees that the plaintiffs of these baseless lawsuits can otherwise force defendants to incur. As the New York State Bar Association Committee on Media Law stated in its memo in support of the bill, “funds that would have gone to reporters, editors, and producers are instead spent in a defense of a lawsuit.”

New York’s current anti-SLAPP law is less protective of free speech than the laws of 30 other states and is in dire need of amendment to protect the state’s thousands of journalists and authors.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

PG is generally supportive of Anti-SLAPP protections.

He will point out that lawyers will be representing people and organizations on both sides of such litigation.

For any who take offense at that idea, PG will go back to his early years in the private practice of law in a low-income rural area.

Before the advent of Public Defenders, when a destitute individual was charged with a crime, providing that individual with an attorney was the responsibility of the judge presiding in that case.

PG’s first appointment was made by a judge who correctly concluded that PG had extra time on his hands and he proceeded on his first criminal case. The individual implied that he might possibly have done something he shouldn’t have done.

The practice of most criminal defense attorneys is to never ask a client if she/he is guilty of the committing a crime. A recommended approach is to ask the client what the police claim she/he has done, then ask about where the police went wrong, whether anyone can testify that the defendant was somewhere else at the time the alleged crime was allegedly committed, etc.

The overall idea is that, when the state focuses its powers and authority for the purpose of punishing an individual who is probably unfamiliar with the law and its complexity, the accused should have access to someone with legal expertise to provide assistance and require that the prosecutor prove the state’s case as required by applicable laws before the individual may be punished.

It is not unusual for a prosecutor to over-charge a defendant. The defendant may have done something wrong, but the prosecutor files a charge that is more severe than is likely supported by the facts or is not appropriate if the facts are different than the prosecutor or police believe they are.

PG could go on (there’s a first time for everything), but he’ll stop now.

over-egg the pudding

The title is a delightful Britishism PG stumbled upon earlier today while reading an article he deemed too obscure for even him to post (even for him to post?).

From The Phrase Finder:

To ‘over-egg the pudding’ is to go too far in exaggerating or embellishing something – to adorn or supply to excess.

. . . .

‘Over-egg the pudding’ is an English phrase and first appeared in the mid-19th century. It originated as a simple literal phrase alluding to the way that baked foods may be spoiled by using too many eggs.

The earliest examples of the phrase in print that I know of are from 1845 Robert Smith Surtees’ novel Hillingdon Hall, 1845:

‘We mustn’t over-egg the pudding,’ as the Yorkshire farmers say.

Francis Kildale Robinson’s A glossary of words used in the neighbourhood of Whitby, 1876:

He ower-egg’d his market.

As the first of these refers to ‘over-egg the pudding’ as a Yorkshire expression and the second relates to the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby, it’s reasonable to surmise that the pudding in question is a Yorkshire Pudding.

Link to the rest at The Phrase Finder

And regarding  A glossary of words used in the neighbourhood of Whitby, from Google Books:

Link to the rest at Google Books

The Allure of the Celebrity Outlaw

From The Wall Street Journal:

Near the midpoint of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director George Roy Hill’s 1969 buddy movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the outlaws barge into the office of a Wyoming sheriff. Anxious to evade the hard-charging posse tracking them after a pair of train robberies, the duo beseeches the lawman—who has a soft spot for the rogues—to intercede on their behalf with the federal government. Butch explains that they would happily serve in the Spanish-American War, adding gamely: “They don’t even have to make us officers.” But the sheriff demurs, insisting, in one of the film’s most quoted passages: “Now you shoulda let yourselves get killed a long time ago, while you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing ever hit this area, but you’re still two-bit outlaws. . . . Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody! And all you can do is choose where.”

Some readers of journalist Charles Leerhsen’s new biography of Cassidy will come to share the sheriff’s dim view of the sweep of Butch’s life and career, agreeing that he was scarcely more than a charming desperado. But Mr. Leerhsen himself drinks deeply from the watering hole of myth. The author of three previous books as well as the co-writer of Donald Trump’s “Surviving at the Top,” Mr. Leerhsen asserts that, contrary to the less-flattering portraits offered by scholarly “sourpusses,” Cassidy was “a good guy, a curiously good guy, a friend to you and the bane of your oppressors—a kind of hero, really, at a time when something like war was brewing between the haves and the have-nots of the intermountain West.” Alas, little in “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw” supports such a generous assessment.

Robert LeRoy Parker was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah Territory, the eldest child of young Mormon émigrés who had fled the grim industrial conditions of mid-19th-century England. As a boy, Bob seems to have tired quickly of his family’s destitution; according to lore, he committed his first theft—if one can call it that—at the age of 12, when he liberated a pair of overalls from a local store, leaving behind a signed IOU. By the early 1880s, he had earned a reputation as an excellent ranch hand, skilled with cattle and horses and apparently not above stealing the occasional animal, though never from his employer—“honor among thieves” was his credo, Mr. Leerhsen notes. It was also around this time that he adopted his alias, deriving, it seems, from a stint he pulled as a meat cutter coupled with an homage to an early criminal mentor named Mike Cassidy.

Butch graduated to bigger capers in the late 1880s when he fell under the sway of a bandit named Matt Warner. On June 24, 1889, Warner and Cassidy held up the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, Colo., making off with $22,350 (more than $600,000 today). For the next decade, Cassidy worked long stretches as a cowboy throughout the West punctuated by bank and train heists committed by his gang, the Wild Bunch, which in 1896 added a moody and laconic Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka “the Sundance Kid.” Hounded by lawmen, the two escaped to South America in 1901, joined by Ethel Place, Longabaugh’s girlfriend. They went straight for a time but found the bandit life difficult to resist. Shortly after waylaying a mining-company courier and making off with the payroll, the two were discovered in San Vicente, Bolivia, where, after a shootout with soldiers and local police, they took their own lives on Nov. 7, 1908. Butch was 42.

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

While offensive TV shows get pulled, problematic books are still inspiring debate and conversation

As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogues looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”

“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.

Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.

. . . .

The great reckoning now sweeping across pop culture has been working through the stacks of literature for far longer. The effects of time are twofold: Most books have fallen into dust, along with the racist values they imbibed. And those few texts that survive have been subjected to rigorous — and ongoing — debate.

Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”

As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?

. . . .

Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.

. . . .

That is the nature of literature. The words on the page may be frozen, but we’re not. To engage with them carefully and with each other civilly is to reap a better understanding of who we were and are.

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Is PG the only one who is revolted by the constant use of the term, “problematic”?

YOU get an open letter!

From Nathan Bransford:

This week in open letters! I mean books!

This was the week of Open Letters to Solve Everything. First, a group of luminaries led by Thomas Chatterton Williams including J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Malcolm Gladwell published an open letter that bemoaned an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” and, though it wasn’t named as such, “cancel culture”:

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

The letter was swiftly ridiculed, the ridiculers were ridiculed, and then we got a new open letter by a separate group of luminaries who questioned the accuracy of the first letter’s claims and criticizing it for ignoring the problem of who has the power.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG wonders if open letters are the next big literary genre.

Far easier than writing something people will pay to read.

Artists and Writers Warn of an Intolerant Climate

From The New York Times:

The killing of George Floyd has brought an intense moment of racial reckoning in the United States. As protests spread across the country, they have been accompanied by open letters calling for — and promising — change at white-dominated institutions across the arts and academia.

But on Tuesday, a different type of letter appeared online. Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” and signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals, it began with an acknowledgment of “powerful protests for racial and social justice” before pivoting to a warning against an “intolerant climate” engulfing the culture.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter declared, citing “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” it continues. “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

. . . .

The letter, which was published by Harper’s Magazine and will also appear in several leading international publications, surfaces a debate that has been going on privately in newsrooms, universities and publishing houses that have been navigating demands for diversity and inclusion, while also asking which demands — and the social media dynamics that propel them — go too far.

And on social media, the reaction was swift, with some heaping ridicule on the letter’s signatories — who include cultural luminaries like Margaret Atwood, Bill T. Jones and Wynton Marsalis, along with journalists and academics — for thin-skinnedness, privilege and, as one person put it, fear of loss of “relevance.”

“Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago,” Richard Kim, the enterprise director of HuffPost, said on Twitter, “because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much.”

. . . .

Mr. Williams, a columnist for Harper’s and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, said that initially, there was concern over timing.

“We didn’t want to be seen as reacting to the protests we believe are in response to egregious abuses by the police,” he said. “But for some time, there’s been a mood all of us have been quite concerned with.”

He said there wasn’t one particular incident that provoked the letter. But he did cite several recent ones, including the resignation of more than half the board of the National Book Critics Circle over its statement supporting Black Lives Matter, a similar blowup at the Poetry Foundation, and the case of David Shor, a data analyst at a consulting firm who was fired after he tweeted about academic research linking looting and vandalism by protesters to Richard Nixon’s 1968 electoral victory.

. . . .

Mr. Williams said the letter was very much a crowdsourced effort, with about 20 people contributing language. Then it was circulated more broadly for signatures, in what he describes as a process that was both “organic” and aimed at getting a group that was maximally diverse politically, racially and otherwise.

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

“We believe these are values that are widespread and shared, and we wanted the list to reflect that,” he said.

. . . .

Nicholas Lemann, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former dean of Columbia Journalism School, said that he rarely signs letters, but thought this one was important.

“What concerns me is a sense that a lot of people out there seem to think open argument over everything is an unhealthy thing,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life having vigorous arguments with people I disagree with, and don’t want to think we are moving out of this world.”

The principle of open argument, he added, becomes especially important outside liberal-leaning enclaves, “where people don’t have the option of shutting down these supposedly completely unacceptable views.”

Mr. Pardlo said that as somebody who has felt the “chilling effect” of being the only person of color in predominantly white institutions, he hoped the letter would spark conversation about those “chilling forces, no matter where they come from.”

He said he was surprised by some of the blowback to the letter.

“It seems some of the conversation has turned to who the signatories are more than the content of the letter,” he said.

. . . .

Amid the intense criticism, some signatories appeared to back away from the letter. On Tuesday evening, the historian Kerri K. Greenidge tweeted “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter,” and said she was in touch with the magazine about a retraction. (Giulia Melucci, a spokeswoman for Harper’s, said the magazine had fact-checked all signatures and that Dr. Greenidge had signed off. But she said the magazine is “respectfully removing her name.”)

Another person who signed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to stay out of the growing storm, said she did not know who all the other signatories were when she agreed to participate, and if she had, she may not have signed. She also said that the letter, which was about internet shaming, among other things, was now being used to shame people on the internet.

But Mr. Betts, the director of the Million Books Project, a new effort aimed at getting book collections to more than 1,000 prisons, was unfazed by the variety of signers.

“I’m rolling with people I wouldn’t normally be in a room with,” he said. “But you need to concede that what’s in the letter is worthy of some thought.”

He said that as someone who had spent more than eight years in prison for a carjacking committed when he was a teenager, he was given pause by what he called the unforgiving nature of the current moment. “It’s antithetical to my notion of how we need to deal with problems in society,” he said.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

And here’s a copy of the complete Harper’s Letter:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Link to the rest at Harpers

The recent craziness in the United States (PG doesn’t know if Bizzaro World has also set up shop elsewhere) reminds PG of the protests which characterized the Vietnam Antiwar era in the US when PG and others like him voiced a few truths and a truckload of stupidity with the volume set to maximum.

About fifteen years ago, we learned about The Wisdom of Crowds. Today we are relearning that crowds can be extraordinarily stupid.

From The Atlantic, July, 2013:

The theory of the “wisdom of the crowd” has been used to explain everything from the overall accuracy of Wikipedia to the logic of democracy. And in general, that principle is true: Choices made by many are usually better than those made by a few or one.

But new research from Arizona State University and Uppsala University in Sweden adds a caveat to that notion, showing that while crowds might indeed be wise when it comes to making tough, close calls, they are actually worse than individuals at choosing between two options, one of which is vastly superior to the other. When the choice is easy, in other words, the crowd can actually be pretty dumb.

. . . .

“I went to buy something on Amazon, and I was supposed to compare options and features and cost,” he said. “But what I did instead was just buy the most popular thing.”

The study authors write that such quirks in group decision-making are “known in many animal groups, including humans, fish, and cockroaches. Studies in honey bees have shown that social interactions do not always improve collective foraging.”

Personally, these ants reminded me of soccer riots, mob attacks, or even the decision to join terror groups. 

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

When Art Is Life, but All Life Is Work

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

WEN ZHUANG: Are you currently teaching? I realize the school year has come to a close somewhat. But I wonder, if you are, how you’ve found the adjustment. If you aren’t, are there things you’ve noticed about the so-called “Zoom University”? It’s attracted largely critics, but also some hopeful supporters.

LEIGH CLAIRE LA BERGE: I’m on a research grant this semester, so I’m not teaching. For me, personally, it has not been a radical change. I certainly have done online teaching before. This question about the “Zoom University” I talk about in my article “The Market Correction in the Humanities.” This is sort of distinct from the book, but it’s been my impression that — to use a sort of financial metaphor — universities, particularly private, particularly smaller schools, they’re overleveraged, right? They’re not secure financially. They rely on the federal government to indebt a huge number of students to be able to function. I wrote that piece 10 months ago, last August. The idea that universities would encounter something that would cause mass closings seemed very likely. I had no idea that what would happen would be a global viral pandemic. That was the furthest thing from my mind. Certainly a financial shock of the kind that we saw in 2007 and 2008 with the global credit crisis could do that. This seems to have engendered something very similar, even if its origins are very different.

Because of how these dormant issues against higher education, especially art education, have been dredged up due to this pandemic, I was most curious about the first and second chapters of your book. Could you reframe the ideas — about the art student as laborer and the art institution — in the context of right now?

I can see why you would be drawn to those chapters. So, I think it’s a scary moment for education; I think particularly for liberal arts and art schools. That said, I think we were already in a scary moment for them. Not to be too sanguine about it. I do think the model of private education that requires a huge amount of student debt is one that needs to be really questioned and rendered obsolete. The reason I start chapter one of my book with the organizing students were doing in the 1970s is to highlight how we might think of “studentdom” completely separately. Rather than something one purchases, it’s something that one works for and gets paid for. I mean, it’s still the model in parts of the world — parts of Mexico, parts of Europe — you get paid to get an undergraduate education. It’s considered a form of labor, there’s no tuition. To me, that’s a much more equitable model, a much more sustainable model. Will this crisis lead to that? I don’t know, but I think it’s important to point out that history.

. . . .

Yes, I was curious about the two examples you use in your book, in chapter two, when you speak about art institutions, the art practices of Caroline Woolard and Renzo Martens. Do you see these “new institutions” brought about by artists like Woolard and Martens as having the potential to be replacements for the institutions we abide by today?

I would almost combine that question with your last, on if these platforms are becoming art institutions. I think the question of building new art institutions as art works, what Caroline and Renzo are trying to do, is more distinct than just building a new institution. With that said, I know that those two artists in particular are very interested in transforming art education and the way art education is taught. They are rightly very skeptical of the model of the MFA, or maybe even the BFA. When you go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in a professional credential in a tradition that doesn’t necessarily need to be credentialed. I mean, the main point of that credential is to go back and teach in universities, and there are no jobs there. It could be a very interesting moment to look at what kind of artist-run institutions perhaps rise out of this moment to challenge a sort of MFA dominance. I wouldn’t presume to say that they can, or what form they would take, but the work of these artists has amazing organizing potential, in terms of infrastructures and working with artists. How would that be received? Would people engage with that? Would people flock to that? Is there a critical mass willing to turn away from the MFA? I think that’s going to be the really interesting question to come out of this panic. I think we thought there would be in 2007 and 2008, and that was not the case. In fact, since 2008, we’ve seen a continued proliferation of new MFA programs. We’ll see.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG doesn’t agree with some of the statements included in the OP, but he heartily supports the idea that college expenses have grown far too large and students graduating with hundreds of thousand dollars in student loan debt are at risk for impaired “take-home pay” – gross income less income tax deductions less college loan payments – for a large proportion of their working life.

And, as the OP suggests, as lesser-known colleges ape the behavior and costs of prominent colleges and universities, the net lifetime dollar value of a degree – net-income less total college costs, including loans and interest payments – becomes smaller and smaller.

PG is aware that the benefits of a college education go beyond the purely monetary, but that’s an idea that is built upon a model that assumes upper-class resources and lifestyles of entering and exiting students. The non-monetary benefits of a college education are, in PG’s impecuniously humble opinion, a luxury good, like fine china or original art on the walls — desirable and nice to have if you can afford them.

In the United States, if one wishes to practice law, she/he must usually graduate from a 4-year college or university, then attend law school for three additional years.

PG had a great time as an undergraduate, but very little of what he learned during that four years has contributed to his success as an attorney. PG was fortunate to receive large scholarships during his undergraduate years, but was still paying for student loans many years into his law practice.

In retrospect, although it would have required a stretch, PG suspects he could have gone straight from high school to law school and managed to pass all his courses. One year as an undergraduate would have made the transition to law school easier, but four years as an undergraduate were really not necessary. PG believes that he would have been just as good at his profession with a much-shortened undergraduate experience.

As a side note, law schools are relatively recent inventions. For most of the history of the United States, a person who wanted to become a lawyer did so by apprenticing in the office of a practicing attorney for a period of time. As PG understands the historical practice, a formal education might have been helpful, but was not required under the apprenticeship model. Abraham Lincoln is often cited as an example of an outstanding practicing attorney who never attended law school.

Indeed, per Wikipedia, Lincoln, who grew up on the American frontier was essentially self-educated. Historians estimate that Lincoln’s attendance at organized schools of any kind totaled about twelve months. He was, however, an avid reader.

PG doesn’t recommend the Lincoln educational path for anyone but a bonafide genius, however.

For all its pretenses of liberal open-mindedness, the post-high-school educational establishment in the United States is really quite rigid and obsessively focused on credentials. Conveniently, these institutions have what amounts to a monopoly on granting those credentials.

Exceptions to the lock-step bachelors degree before masters/professional education norm are so rare as to be meaningless. An uncredentialed Abraham Lincoln would not stand a ghost of a chance of becoming an attorney in the United States of the 21st century.

7 Books About New York City’s Drastic Economic Divide

From Electric Lit:

It’s been said many times already that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the dramatic economic inequality in New York City—which of course ties into deeper systemic issues around race. But to pretend those inequalities haven’t been obvious before this time—to pretend they haven’t always been part of the city’s history—is a serious fiction. I grew up as the daughter of a building superintendent on the Upper West Side. In a single morning my father might be asked to prevent a homeless man from stealing the newspapers out of the lobby to re-sell on the street, to manage a group of contractors who were re-tiling someone’s bathroom, and to massage the haunches of the cat in the penthouse while the tenants were away at their summer house. In the course of a very short time period and in a very small space, all sorts of examples of vast inequalities occurred in the building where we lived.

In my novel, The Party Upstairs, I wanted to draw on the setting of a single building on the Upper West Side to explore some of the complicated power dynamics that emerged between residents there. Throughout the course of a day, a building super and his daughter try to navigate between different socioeconomic worlds they must inhabit and perform in. They have to reckon with their own past mistakes, with their wildest hopes, and with the facades they must keep up in day-to-day life in order to survive in the city.

In writing the novel, I was drawn to other books that approached socioeconomic inequality in the city in a way that neither fetishized the wealthy nor seemed to exploit the suffering caused by poverty. I wanted to tackle my characters’ anger at the city’s inequality while also recognizing the many moments of joy and connection the city brings too.

. . . .

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

In The Friend, a writer in New York inherits a Great Dane from her recently deceased friend and fellow writer. The novel grapples with sitting with grief, but there’s also a real sense of financial strain and risk: In order to keep her rent-controlled apartment in a building that doesn’t allow for pets, the narrator must hope that nobody reports the dog to her landlord. “It’s not like you’ll be put out on the street overnight,” a friend assures her. The super warns the narrator about the threat of eviction, which the narrator understands: It’s his job on the line as well. Nunez’s book demonstrates the way that housing instability in the city and the weight of class don’t need to take center stage in a narrative to make their presence felt on a character in the midst of great loss.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes the obvious – large cities in all times and everywhere have featured large economic divides.

Large cities and the buildings in large cities cost a lot of money to build, so whoever builds them over a period of years will, of necessity, have wealth well in excess of that necessary to provide for his/her/their basic needs.

If people have enough collective wealth to build a large city with its related infrastructure, at least some will have enough wealth to build large residences and obtain the services of others in maintaining those residences and providing for the wealthier occupants’ needs.

Ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, included an average of three or four slaves per household. Ditto for the Roman Empire, where slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves

The only exception wealth being necessary to build large cities that comes to PG’s admittedly hazy mind is places like the favelas in Brazil, slums/shantytowns located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities. According to PG’s quick research, an estimated 12 million people live in Brazil’s favelas.

Of course, despite their size and hazy legal status as an only semi-recognized element of the adjoining cities, favelas are, in fact, part of cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and, absent those cities, would probably not exist at their present locations.

PG’s comments are not intended to minimize the sufferings of the poor in any age nor are they intended to imply that charitable and other assistance to the poor are not important and necessary, but simply to point out that income inequality is a condition as old as organized towns and cities.

Light Blogging

Today, July 5, is the last day of a three-day Independence Day weekend in the United States.

Between sheltering in place and holiday activities, the publishing industry will be in full hibernation mode until at least tomorrow, probably longer.

Charlie Kaufman Says Old Hollywood, Not Netflix, Killed Movies

From The Wall Street Journal:

“My box office has been terrible,” says screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman, describing the commercial flop that led to his first novel, “Antkind,” a 705-page comedy about a failed film critic and a destroyed movie.

Mr. Kaufman’s playful, mind-bending screenplays for other directors, including “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” are among the most acclaimed of recent decades. But the two films he has directed were critical hits that made no money.

. . . .

The novel’s unreliable narrator, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, exalts the work of Judd Apatow and considers Charlie Kaufman a hack moviemaker. Mr. Kaufman tweaks his own image here, as he did in his screenplay “Adaptation,” which depicts a fictional Charlie Kaufman as a down-in-the-mouth screenwriter. B. also has a tendency to fall into manholes. He discovers a stop-motion film that is three months long—yes, months—only to see it lost in a fire.

As he tries to reconstruct the film from memory, believing that will bring him the stature he deserves, he moves into imaginary worlds, fictions within fictions that include a slapstick comedy duo and a president called Donald J. Trunk. Throughout, B. reflects on his awareness of sexism, racism and his own white privilege, although his own thoughts suggest he might be more biased than he knows. “Antkind” also overflows with obscure references, some invented and many not, including a real 1914 film, “A Florida Enchantment,” in which a woman swallows a magic seed and becomes a man.

. . . .

Mr. Kaufman talked to the Journal about creating novels and movies. Edited excerpts:

. . . .

Why did you create a main character, B., who is a wrong-headed, self-involved, failed film critic?

I’m not questioning your description, but I want to make clear those are your words, not mine. I have a lot of sympathy for B. I feel like he’s distinctly human in all of his failings. I like the idea of impossible things, like when [the late science fiction writer ] Stanislaw Lem writes book reviews for nonexistent books, so I liked the idea of describing a film that does not exist and probably could not exist. That seemed like it would lend itself to a book about a film critic.

. . . .

Your new film is adapted from a novel. How did that project come to you?

I was looking for something that somebody would let me direct and it’s easier to get something made if it’s based on a book or a comic book or a movie that’s already existed. The producer I work with happened to have a deal with Netflix. I don’t know that Netflix knew going in that I was going to make it into something that was less of a thriller than the book, and I don’t think I knew that either. The book is leading you to a reveal, and I felt like that might be obvious and disappointing in the movie. Things are more mysterious in words than they are in images.

Was it easier to get an original screenplay made earlier in your career?

Definitely. Earlier in my career, I could play around and experiment, but the business has changed enormously, and it all happened around 2008 when studios stopped making movies and started making tentpoles. The reason something like Netflix attracts filmmakers is because there’s nowhere else to make those things. It’s infuriating to me when people say Netflix is ruining movies because—no, movies ruined movies, studios ruined movies, and that’s the truth.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

PG notes that the upcoming Netflix movie is based on I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid.

The Declaration of Independence

In Congress, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Georgia

Button Gwinnett

Lyman Hall

George Walton

North Carolina

William Hooper

Joseph Hewes

John Penn

South Carolina

Edward Rutledge

Thomas Heyward, Jr.

Thomas Lynch, Jr.

Arthur Middleton

Massachusetts

John Hancock

Maryland

Samuel Chase

William Paca

Thomas Stone

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia

George Wythe

Richard Henry Lee

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Harrison

Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Francis Lightfoot Lee

Carter Braxton

Pennsylvania

Robert Morris

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Franklin

John Morton

George Clymer

James Smith

George Taylor

James Wilson

George Ross

Delaware

Caesar Rodney

George Read

Thomas McKean

New York

William Floyd

Philip Livingston

Francis Lewis

Lewis Morris

New Jersey

Richard Stockton

John Witherspoon

Francis Hopkinson

John Hart

Abraham Clark

New Hampshire

Josiah Bartlett

William Whipple

Massachusetts

Samuel Adams

John Adams

Robert Treat Paine

Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island

Stephen Hopkins

William Ellery

Connecticut

Roger Sherman

Samuel Huntington

William Williams

Oliver Wolcott

New Hampshire

Matthew Thornton

The Partners Behind Great Writers in Literature

From Electric Lit:

Many writers’ spouses have influenced or made possible the great books we still read today. Some, it’s true, have not been quite so helpful. Below are glimpses of a few relationships, ranging from the indispensable to the disastrous.

. . . .

Count Leo Tolstoy and Countess Sofia Tolstoy (née Behrs), 1862-1910

Determined to be entirely honest, 34-year-old Count Leo Tolstoy gave the 18-year-old Sofia Behrs all his diaries to read in the week between his proposal and their marriage. Sofia was extremely upset by the revelations in these diaries, particularly on reading of Leo’s early exploits with peasant girls. Still, the couple read each other’s diaries for their entire marriage, only stopping in the final year of Leo’s life where he controversially vowed to keep a diary for himself only. Over the course of the marriage, Sofia raised their 13 children, copied out his voluminous works many times over, and despite being married to one of the most famous men in the world, was left nothing when her husband died because he did not believe in property or copyright. In Leo’s diary from 1897, he wrote: “So[fia] has read this diary in my absence and is very distressed that people might afterwards conclude from it that she was a very bad wife.” The year after, one of Sofia’s diary entries reads:

“I was wondering today why there were no women writers, artists or composers of genius. It’s because all the passion and abilities of an energetic woman are consumed by her family, love, her husband – and especially her children. Her other abilities are not developed, they remain embryonic and atrophy. When she has finished bearing and educating her children her artistic needs awaken, but by then it’s too late.”

. . . .

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and Leonard Woolf, 1912-1941

Reporting the news of her marriage, the 30-year old Virginia Stephen announced: “I’ve got a confession to make. I’m going to marry Leonard Woolf. He’s a penniless Jew. I’m more happy than anyone ever said was possible.” Of the marriage itself, she wrote that they both wanted “a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we?” The marriage was not without obstacles; there were sexual problems from the beginning. The Woolfs wanted to have children but were advised against it because of what was referred to as Virginia’s “mental instability.” Over the course of their marriage, Leonard would help Virginia through multiple bouts of depression and numerous suicide attempts. For some years, Virginia had an affair with Vita Sackville-West with Leonard’s blessing. 

In 1917, the couple set up the Hogarth Press—publishing Virginia’s novels as well as works by T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and Sigmund Freud—and Leonard wrote in a letter: “I should never do anything else, you cannot think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.” A writer, publisher, and former colonial administrator, Leonard appeared content at the end of his life that he would be remembered as Virginia’s husband. Virginia famously wrote in her suicide note in 1941: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good . . . I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Teaching Shakespeare Under Quarantine

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY VIII (also performed under the title All Is True) is not a popular play. Its plot structure might best be described as unfortunate, and it is largely the reason the play gets overlooked. Modeled on the medieval de casibus genre — collections of tales of the downfall of great people — Henry VIII’s characters are a gaggle of would-be protagonists who hardly get an hour to strut and fret before they are ushered away. Yet its disordered and unpredictable plot makes the play perfectly shaped for our present moment.

The Duke of Buckingham, who first takes center stage, opens the play by making a dangerous political enemy in the powerful Cardinal Wolsey; we expect to see Buckingham fall, but not as swiftly as he does. Buckingham is gone by the early part of Act II, and our attention shifts to Wolsey, who is out by the end of Act III; then, we focus on Catherine of Aragon, who falls in Act IV. Death spreads at such an unpredictable and breakneck pace that no catharsis is possible. The tragedy of this play is that no one, including the audience, gets the dignity or meaning a true tragedy would provide.

Although the play ends with the birth of Elizabeth I, the hope for the future that she might provide rings hollow in light of the fact that those celebrating her birth are also doomed. Thomas Cranmer, whose encomium to the infant closes the play, will be executed before he sees her reign, as will her mother, Anne Boleyn. The play concludes less with the promise of a better future than by underscoring the fact that the one thing that is sure about the future is that none of us will get to see most of it.

During the last few weeks of online teaching under quarantine, I have felt some of the strongest moments of solidarity with students that I have experienced as a teacher — a feeling arising from the fact that we have all had to recalibrate how we understand the narrative arc of our lives. We had been operating under the assumption (even if we knew better, in theory) that we moved through a predictable and coherent trajectory, and now we have been forced to confront the fact that meaningful, human-centered plot structures do not govern our lives.

The upper-division students in my “Shakespeare: Later Plays” elective at Boston College, which wrapped up with our reading of Henry VIII, articulated this realization especially well. Their most common sentiment was that they have nothing to look forward to — a view expressed not as an anxious complaint but as a clear-eyed observation. Their college education won’t lead to a job (or even a ceremony to mark the end of a life-stage), their semester of assignments won’t culminate in a feeling of mastery (or even a grade), and many meaningful relationships they have made will be cut off without resolution.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that, absent any sort of plague, many meaningful relationships made in college are still cut off without resolution.

He doesn’t remember anyone who did anything formally to continue a relationship or terminate one because of graduation. He said his goodbyes and goodbyes were said to him and everyone wanted to keep in touch.

A handful of people did keep in touch for a while, PG bummed overnight stays in the apartments of friends who lived in New York, but after a few years, absent accidentally bumping into someone at the airport or a restaurant, everybody seems to have moved on to newer relationships. He suspects that the great majority of shared college experiences (not involving marriage, etc.) contain an unwritten expiration date.

In his recollection, the college relationships developed by PG’s parents traversed a similar path (except for the one between his mother and father which resulted in marriage and a cute little baby PG).

New to Working from Home? Here Are Some Tips to Help You Meet Like a Pro

From Zoom Blog:

With many businesses now encouraging or even mandating that employees work from home amid global health concerns over the coronavirus, millions of people can expect to have their daily routines and work styles impacted. But not everyone is accustomed to working from home, and getting into work mode from a space that’s not your regular one can be a huge adjustment.

The bright side of working from home is that you save time on a commute, spend more time with family, and maybe get a few more things done around the house. But the challenges, including loneliness, staying connected, and a heightened penchant for distraction, can have a significant effect on your psyche and productivity. So, we’re here to help!

Whether you’re relegated to working from a spare bedroom, coffee shop, the library, or the lobby of your apartment building, we’ve compiled some tips to help you get set up, limit distractions, maintain confidentiality, and meet like a pro, no matter where you are.

. . . .

Let’s talk about your setup

Your laptop (Mac or PC) will likely have a built-in camera and audio, but it makes a big difference in the experience for you and others in the meeting when you have a quality webcam and a good microphone. 

To be your best self on camera, I recommend getting a Logitech Brio webcam and a set of Airpods (or the Plantronics Focus UC or Logitech Zone wireless headsets) if you can make the investment. Even a pair of wired mic-enabled headphones can go a long way. Check out this test I did. You can see my quick audio and video demo of the different set-ups I commonly see:

Great lighting also is crucial. Try and have your face be lit by a nearby window or get a small webcam light.

Link to the rest at Zoom Blog

PG Agrees and Disagrees with the OP.

Agrees

  1. A good webcam is important
  2. Good lighting is important
  3. PG would add that a professional background (or a blurred background) is also important. Chaos behind a video call participant doesn’t convey a particularly professional image.
  4. PG would add that placing a webcam so others on the call are looking up a speaker’s nostrils with ceiling lights in the background is also not a good look.

Disagrees

Webcams

  1. While the Logitech Brio is an excellent webcam, it’s also an expensive webcam. When PG was writing this post, Amazon’s price was almost $300. Ever since the explosion in web conferencing that accompanied the pandemic lock-down, the prices for Logitech’s high-end video cameras have gone up and stayed up. Plus it may be difficult to find these webcams in stock. The same Logitech Brio webcam was $199.99 at Adorama when PG built the link, so high-end webcams are one product category where Amazon may not be your automatic place to go for best prices.
  2. The Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam is on a lot of lists of best webcams for videoconferencing. When PG checked, it was out of stock on Amazon, but the link takes you to Adorama where the price was $89.99 when PG built the link. Another option, again out of stock at Amazon but offered by Adorama when PG built the link is the Logitech C922 Pro Full HD 1080p Stream Webcam listed at $114.99.
  3. Amazon lists a boatload of Logitech lookalike webcams, most manufactured in China by companies you may not have heard of before. (PG hasn’t) The products may be great or they may be terrible and it is close to impossible to determine quality by photos and product descriptions. Don’t be fooled by fake ratings that sing their praises. One technique that may help identify someone creating fake ratings (and often being paid directly or indirectly by the manufacturer for doing so) is to click on the icon identifying the reviewer to see how many reviews he/she has created. Quite often, knowledgeable tech types will write a lot of reviews about a variety of electronics products. Paid creators of fake reviews tend not to do so. On some occasions, grammar can be another red flag. If you’re relying on reviews, do a bit of forensic content analysis.
  4. Based upon his photography experience, PG is comfortable in saying that image quality can be a very subjective thing and opinions will vary from person to person. Images produced by webcam A may look great to Bob, but terrible to Phyllis. Remember also that what looks great on your laptop screen or your desktop monitor may (and probably will) look at least somewhat different on someone else’s laptop or monitor.
  5. The best way for borderline OCD personalities to deal with comparisons is to acquire two (or more) different webcams, and plug in one, then plug in the other to see which images you like the best (this technique works even better if you have two identical computer monitors and jump through the hoops to get images from Webcam A on one monitor and images from Webcam B on the other one. (No, PG is not certain about exactly how you would set this up but has been told it can be done.)
  6. PG suspects the person in the OP video was using a webcam her employer purchased for her and that she likely participates in Zoom conferences several times each day. The benefits of an excellent webcam may be different for her than they might be for an indie author who participates in a writing group Zoom session every month and videoconferences with Grandma or Granddaughter every few days.

Lighting

PG thinks good lighting is more important than good webcam quality for a lot of web conferences. The best webcam with fluorescent overhead light fixtures behind the individual will almost certainly result in a bad image.

Light from a window can be very nice if the window is in the right place and the sun is in the optimum position. If not, it won’t be so good.

The OP suggests using this light. PG hasn’t used the particular light recommended, but from the product photo, he’s pretty certain that it is a point light source. All the light comes from a single small point and hits the subject from a single direction. As a general proposition, you need more than one point light source, each positioned correctly, to get the best lighting for a person’s face.

PG suggests that, unless you have room to set up a photo studio, if you’re going to use a single light, a ring light is a much better choice. Here’s what one of those looks like.

There are a zillion different ring lights for sale on Amazon, varying in size and price. The idea is that light comes from all points on the ring, so they reduce or eliminate dark shadows like those that result from a single point light. (A teeny-tiny ring light may well be less-expensive but acts pretty much like a point light. A 10-12 inch diameter ring light will usually work well for a single individual.)

For webcam purposes, the ring light is placed in front of the person on the video call. Positioning the webcam in the middle of the ring light pointing at the subject generally results in nice lighting for a face.

For a videoconference, however, the most common practice is that, when a person is speaking, the other person (or people) is looking at the image of that person on their computer screen. Typically, the person speaking is looking directly at his/her webcam which gives the appearance that the speaker is looking each listener directly in the eye. Per meatspace face-to-face discussions (at least in many western nations) an attentive listener will also look back at the speaker on a fairly consistent basis.

A ringlight with a webcam mounted in the center certainly has the potential for obscuring the computer screen, so the illusion of face-to-face conversation suffers a bit. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to use a ringlight that allows you to vary the intensity of the light so you can adjust lighting for the best look for yourself while also allowing you to look through or near the ringlight at your screen.

PG says that if all this seems like a lot of trouble, he has had videoconferences of acceptable quality using an iPad and decent quality ambient light or a ringlight. For him, an iPhone screen is a bit too small for comfortable views of the face of the person on the other side of the call, but if you’re the principal speaker, that may not be important.

Sound

PG is aware that he has blathered on at great length about videoconferences, so he will be brief.

Almost any sort of corded microphone you can plug into your desktop or laptop will make you sound better than using a laptop’s built-in microphone. Desktops don’t usually include microphones, so an external mike will be necessary.

The woman in the OP recommended wireless headphones that utilized both ears combined with a noise-reduction/cancelling microphone either in the Airpods, which act a little like earplugs or integrated with headphones that covered both ears.

This could be very important in a busy (and noisy) open-space office in which the person might be using the same headset for telephone calls for several hours each day, but for an author sitting by herself in a comfortable writing space with (hopefully) not a lot of loud ambient sounds who may have one or two video conferences/calls per day, such a headphone/microphone set up might be expensive overkill.

The Cure For Loneliness Is A Good Murder

From HuffPost:

Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “Death in Her Hands,” opens with a note written in “neat, impersonal printing” on ruled notebook paper. 

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”

When Vesta Gul, an elderly woman out for a morning walk with her dog Charlie, finds the note on the ground in the birch woods near her lonely cabin, she looks for Magda nearby but finds nothing, not even a “tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches.” Is there really a body? Is it a prank, a trick, the first line of a short story?

Vesta soon becomes convinced that the murder is real, despite the absence of a body, and begins to investigate haphazardly. It’s impossible to ignore, reading “Death in Her Hands,” how much detective work resembles writing a story. In fact, Vesta lingers over it, looking up “top tips for mystery writers” to aid her investigation and deeming the task “a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.”

The gumshoe reaches for stock characters to populate a suspect list; dreams up possible motives, behavioral patterns, hidden veins of rage or perversity; tries out narrative after narrative of the fateful event to find an order of events that rings true. If Vesta’s array of suspects is suspiciously untethered to reality — one, she decides with some sense of portent, should be a ghoul named “Ghod” — and her theories of the murder arise from nothing more than her own lurid imagination, well, she’s only a bit further down the continuum toward pure storytelling. 

. . . .

In a New York Times interview this spring, Moshfegh called “Death in Her Hands” a “loneliness story.” Widowed and friendless in her twilight years, Vesta lives in an isolated cabin, in an area she just moved to, with only her big, lumbering, loyal dog for company. She despises the locals, who she sees as uncultured, impoverished, unhealthy. Her daily schedule revolves around walks with Charlie and a weekly grocery trip for rubbery bagels and rotisserie chicken. It would be mind-numbing — the loneliness, the boredom — were it not for the urgent task that falls into her lap: solving a murder.

Link to the rest at HuffPost

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

From The New Yorker:

At the end of “Crime and Punishment,” which was completed in 1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s hero, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has a dream that so closely reflects the roilings of our own pandemic one almost shrinks from its power. Here’s part of it, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s rendering:

He had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate.

What is this passage doing there, a few pages before the novel concludes? Recall what leads up to the dream. Raskolnikov, a twenty-three-year-old law-school dropout, tall, blond, and “remarkably good-looking,” lives in a “cupboard” in St. Petersburg and depends on handouts from his mother and sister. Looking for money, he plans and executes the murder of an old pawnbroker, a “useless, nasty, pernicious louse,” as he calls her; and then kills her half sister, who stumbles onto the murder scene. He makes off with the pawnbroker’s purse, but then, mysteriously, buries it in an empty courtyard.

. . . .

Is it really money that he wants? His motives are less mercenary than, one might say, experimental. He has apparently been reading Hegel on “world-historical” figures. Great men like Napoleon, he believes, commit all sorts of crimes in their ascent to power; once they have attained eminence, they are hailed as benefactors to mankind, and no one holds them responsible for their early deeds. Could he be such a man?

In the days after the crime, Raskolnikov vacillates between exhilaration and fits of guilty behavior, spilling his soul in dreams and hallucinations. Under the guidance of an eighteen-year-old prostitute, Sonya, who embodies what Raskolnikov sees as “insatiable compassion,” he eventually confesses the crime, and is sent to a prison in Siberia. As she waits for him in a nearby village, he falls ill and has that feverish dream.

For us, the dream poses a teasing question: Is it just a morbidly eccentric summation of the novel, or is it also an unwitting prediction of where we are going? Dostoyevsky was a genius obsessed with social disintegration in his own time. He wrote so forcefully that Raskolnikov’s dream, encountered now, expresses what we are, and what we fear we might become.

. . . .

I first read “Crime and Punishment” in 1961, when I was a freshman at Columbia University, as part of Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, as everyone calls it, a required yearlong course for entering students. In small classes, the freshmen traverse such formidable peaks as Homer’s and Virgil’s epics, Greek tragedies, scriptural texts, Augustine and Dante, Montaigne and Shakespeare; Jane Austen entered the list in 1985, and Sappho, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison followed. I took the course again in 1991, writing a long report on the experience. In the fall of 2019, at the border of old age—I was seventy-six—I began taking it for the third time, and for entirely selfish reasons. In your mid-seventies, you need a jolt now and then, and works like “Oedipus Rex” give you a jolt. What I hadn’t expected, however, was to encounter catastrophe not just in the pages of our reading assignments but far beyond them.

. . . .

In April, when the class began eight hours of discussion about “Crime and Punishment,” the campus had been shut down for four weeks. The students had arrived in New York the previous fall from a wide range of places and backgrounds, and now they had returned to them, scattering across the country, and the globe—to the Bronx, to Charlottesville, to southern Florida, to Sacramento, to Shanghai. My wife and I stayed where we were, in our apartment, a couple of subway stops south of the university, sequestered, empty of purpose, waiting for something to happen. I trailed listlessly around the apartment, and found it hard to sleep after a long day’s inactivity. I loitered in the kitchen in front of a small TV screen, like a supplicant awaiting favor from his sovereign. Ritual, the religious say, expresses spiritual necessity. At 7 p.m., I stood at the window, just past the TV, and banged on a pot with a wooden spoon, in the city’s salute to front-line workers in the pandemic. Raskolnikov has been holed up in his room for a month at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment.” Thirty days, give or take, was how long I had been cut off from life when I began reading the book again.

. . . .

Nick Dames led the students through close readings of individual passages, linking them back, by the end of class, to the structure of the entire book. He is also a historicist, and has done extensive work on the social background of literature. He wanted us to know that nineteenth-century Petersburg—which Dostoyevsky miraculously rendered both as a real city and as a malevolent fantasy—was an impressive disaster. In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great had commanded an army of architects and disposable serfs to build the place as a “rational” enterprise, intended to rival the great capitals of Western Europe. But, Professor Dames said, “ecologically, it was a failure.” Prone to flooding, the city had trouble disposing of sewage, which often found its way into the drinking water; in 1831, Petersburg was devastated by a cholera epidemic, and ordinary citizens, battered by quarantines and cordons, gathered in protests that turned into riots. After 1861, when Alexander II abolished serfdom, Professor Dames said, peasants came pouring in, looking for work. It was an unhealthy place, and it “wasn’t built for the population it was starting to have.” He put a slide on the screen, with a quotation from “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), by the German sociologist Georg Simmel:

The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli . . . the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.

“The rootlessness that Simmel writes about comes from detachment and debt,” Professor Dames said. “And it produces a constant paranoia—a texture of the illogical. And dreams become very important.”

Dostoyevsky ignores the magnificent imperial buildings, the huge public squares. He writes about street life—the voluble drunks, the lost girls, and the hungry children entertaining for kopecks. His Petersburg comes off as a carnival world without gaiety, a society that is neither capitalist nor communist but stuck in some inchoate transitional situation—an imperial city without much of a middle class. It seems to be missing the one aspect of life that insures survival: work. “With very few exceptions, everybody in the novel rents,” Professor Dames observed. “They are constantly moving among apartments that they can’t afford.” 

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Place In A Book – Do You Need To Go There?

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Place in a book – do you need to go there?

Some years ago I went to a talk by the award-winning Irish writer Colm Tóibín. It was after the launch of his much acclaimed novel, Brooklyn, and I remember him telling the audience that when he wrote Brooklyn he had never been to the city himself. For his research he had relied on maps, read books and talked to people who lived there. I found this startling, as I’d recently read the book myself and the sense of place was profoundly believable and authentic. It went against that old adage ‘write what you know’ and made me rethink my ideas on how to write a book, on developing the setting for a story. 

As it happens I was working on my first novel at the time. Elastic Girl is an emotional story about a young girl called Muthu who is sold into the Indian circus. The idea had come to me after hearing about this horrific problem on the radio, and it was a story that I felt compelled to write.

However, I wasn’t sure if I was best placed to write it. I wasn’t from India, I knew little or nothing of children being sold into the circus, and I had only been to India a couple of times, and not extensively to the locations where I had intended to take my main character. But, after Colm Tóibín’s talk I felt bolstered. I began to look at all the ways I could make my setting as evocative and believable as he did.

My in-laws are from India, so I did have some understanding of India’s culture, and when I had travelled to India I had kept detailed diaries that were full of information on places, sounds and smells that served to remind me of what it was like. I began to do extensive research on locations in India, the layout of cities, the food, the traditions, and then of course on the subject of children being sold into the circus.

I connected with a charity who helped to rescue children from circuses in India and I absorbed the photographic work of Mary Ellen Mark, an American photographer who spent a lot of time in the circuses in India, capturing images of child performers and acrobats. It’s amazing how much you can learn from an image, how it evokes such visceral emotions, and some of her photography was fundamental in helping to form my central characters.

. . . .

“As outsiders looking in, we see the physical landscape, colours and experience the odors of India and the heartbeat of Indian culture through her (Muthu’s) eyes. You listen to the throb and vibrations of living households and the circus in this case. The reader moves with the moods, noises and visions as if experiencing it first hand.” (Amazon review)

The approach to my second book was different, because I did travel to the setting of my story for research purposes. Black Beach is set in Iceland and I had initially come upon the idea for my book following a conversation with one of my close friends, who is from Iceland. She intrigued me with stories of the Hidden People in Iceland, known as Huldufólk.

These creatures are believed to live inside the rocks in Iceland and there are still many superstitions surrounding their existence. It reminded me of the stories I grew up with in rural Ireland around the existence of fairies, and perhaps that’s why it sparked my interest, this common cultural belief. In contrast to my first book, I had never been to Iceland, but it was definitely on my list of places I wanted to visit.

I was very fortunate to receive an award from the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, and I used that money to go to Iceland to do research. My friend came with me and she was able to help me make contact with some people who were instrumental to my writing of Black Beach. I spent time with the renowned psychic and friend of the Huldufólk, Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir. She was a great source of help in informing my central character, a girl called Fríða who also has the gift of seeing. Ragnihildur continued to help with my many questions in the years after I’d been to Iceland, and was one of the first people to read a draft of my book. 

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

For (perhaps simple-minded) PG, the answer is simple: Fiction is fictional, it describes people, places and things that probably don’t exist in the real world in precisely the same form and nature they do in the fictional world.

Likely in the first lecture of a semantics class in college, students learn a mantra, “The word is not the thing.”

A character in a book that commits a murder is not a real murder and vice versa. Mount Everest in a book is not the actual Mount Everest. A character in a book who is Pentecostal is not a real Pentecostal man or woman.

William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is not a real county in Mississippi. Many who study Faulkner believe it was modeled on Jefferson County, Mississippi, but if you were to travel to Jefferson County, you would find a university town, built around University of Mississippi.

PG has not read all of Faulkner’s works set in Yoknapatawpha County, but he does not recall any of Faulkner’s writings set in a university town. PG is 99% certain Faulkner never wrote about a fictional version of Vaught–Hemingway Stadium, the home of the University of Mississippi Rebels football team, seating about 65,000 people. Since construction of the stadium was begun in 1915, when Faulkner was about 18 years of age, he would certainly have been intimately familiar with it.

PG’s mental image of Yoknapatawpha County does not include a football team.

PG has read that Faulkner’s writings include over 1,000 named persons in his 19 novels and 94 short stories. None of those is an actual person. None ever lived in Jefferson County.

BONUS FEATURE!!

William Faulkner provides the proper pronunciation of Yoknapatawpha

END OF BONUS Feature

A standard disclaimer at the beginning of a novel often reads something like:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

As perceptive readers will have concluded, PG dislikes the idea that people, places and things included in a work of fiction have to have any connection with reality at all, let alone be a faithful rendition of an actual person, group of people, town, city, state, country, planet or universe that actually exists.

PG knows next to nothing about the nation of India. However that lack of knowledge does not prevent him from writing a good work of fiction set in India, perhaps relying on National Geographic magazine for local color.

If a person mistakes the contents of PG’s fictional creation for the actual nation, such a person is probably not able to understand much about what PG has written at all (PG is, after all, an attorney, a member of a group not known to consistently produce prose easily grasped by a normal, sane person).

PG has read fiction set in places where he has actually lived. None has reproduced what those places are actually like. A faithful reproduction would not be fiction and would probably be boring as well.

End of Rant. PG feels much better now. He should probably lie down and take a nice nap.

The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time

By Franz Kafka.

A large loaf of bread lay on the table. Father came in with a knife to cut it in half. But even though the knife was big and sharp, and the bread neither too soft nor too hard, the knife could not cut into it. We children looked up at Father in surprise. He said, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails? Go to bed, perhaps I’ll manage it later.”

. . . .

Perhaps I could help — he’d had a falling out with his wife, and their argument was wrecking his life. He also had some simple-minded children who hadn’t turned out well; they just stood around or got up to mischief.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker, excerpts from The Mookse and the Gripes

OverDrive to Acquire RBdigital from RBmedia

From PR Newswire:

OverDrive, the leading digital reading platform for libraries and schools, announced today that it is acquiring the assets of RBmedia’s library business, including the RBdigital platform in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.  

The acquisition of RBdigital will bring enhanced content and features to the OverDrive platform, enabling it to better serve the needs of libraries around the world, including access to new release Recorded Books audiobooks. Moreover, OverDrive will be exploring the addition of popular RBdigital services like digital magazines from ZINIO to the OverDrive platform. As the owner of both RBmedia and OverDrive, KKR is uniquely positioned to facilitate this transaction and help bring libraries the best solutions possible.

“Combining the RBdigital library business with OverDrive’s industry-leading technologies will greatly benefit libraries and their readers worldwide,” said Steve Potash, founder and CEO of OverDrive. “We’re proud to enhance our value proposition for libraries by delighting readers with this new content on the award-winning Libby and Sora reading apps.”

. . . .

The terms of the acquisition were not announced.

Link to the rest at PR Newswire and thanks to DaveMich for the tip.

PG notes the typical/classic PR release style and format of the OP which may or may not indicate that it was drafted quickly. Or simply designed not to make a big splash.

PG doesn’t know if this was a good price for the sellers or a good price for the buyers. He doubts it can be both.

This announcement has certainly attracted immediate attention from Amazon executives, whether they are sheltering in place or not.

Is the acquisition calculated to combine the capabilities of the two companies so they can squeeze more money out of public libraries? PG doubts this could be a strategy because libraries are not sitting on any sorts of cash troves that can be plundered. Indeed, he understands that many libraries have laid off staff during the last few months.

Particularly during the extended period of time following COVID when average personal incomes are dropping from coast-to-coast, PG suspects only a politician with a death-wish would support taking money out of a much-reduced municipal or state budget to allow libraries to pay higher fees to KKR.

Sometimes, venture capital/private equity, etc., organizations acquire an asset with a view to fluffing it up financially, then selling it to a willing buyer. On occasion, such organizations make long-term investments (or act on behalf of a shy long-term investor that/who desires to remain behind the scenes) with the idea of increasing the value of the acquired business over several years by providing needed capital, installing better management, etc., then selling pieces of the company to others, sometimes privately or sometimes via a program of either taking a private company public or adding substantial value to an already public company, then issuing and selling more shares.

PG doesn’t think Amazon is in this particular business – providing ebooks and digital audio books to libraries – or contemplating getting into this business. He suspects Amazon has reached a position where any major acquisition or other move into a market segment related to its current book business would attract a lot of undesired attention from antitrust agencies.

Besides, even if it dominate the business of selling/licensing ebooks to readers, PG doubts major commercial publishers would willingly cooperate in permitting Amazon to take over the library market for ebooks.

One prediction PG is confident in making is that the combined businesses that will likely result from this acquisition will not need two Vice Presidents of Information Systems, Marketing, Human Resources, etc. On top of COVID, PG suspects, employees of Overdrive and RBmedia are extremely nervous these days.

Three-Step Crisis Management for the High-End Karen

From The New Yorker:

A 30-ish white woman calls the police on an 8-year-old black child selling water “illegally” on the sidewalk. Pure Karen. You’ve probably seen the name “Karen” bandied about a lot lately. She is a meme popularized over the past few years.—The Los Angeles Times.

So someone caught you on camera, aggressively not minding your own business. What now? Our crisis-management firm will walk top-drawer Karens like you through these three simple action items in response to this unforeseen incident.

Step One: Erase

Immediately scrub the crap out of your social-media accounts. Delete your Twitter, your Instagram, your LinkedIn, your Facebook. That way, your enemies and/or the media cannot find more incriminating evidence of your Karenness. Also, they will not have a ready-made Venn diagram of your affiliates to badger into making your life even more miserable than it currently (clearly) is.

Step Two: Apologize

Immediately issue our patented Karen Redemption Script: “I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, and especially to [_________], for my shameful behavior, which was caught on camera. The video was unacceptable. I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen the video and been offended. I also apologize deeply and humbly to everyone who now sees me in a lesser light. I understand why they do. When I think about law enforcement in America, I realize that I am such a blessed, privileged white person. I’ve come to understand, especially after the uproar over the video, that the police are not my personal protection agency. With great sadness, I have come to comprehend that there are so many people in this country who don’t have the luxury that I had of calling the police. I am not a racist. I do not foster any ill will in my heart toward [_________]; I was just scared because of where I was. When you’re alone in [_________], you don’t know what’s happening. My behavior is not excusable. It’s not defensible. I reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about [_________] and his/her intentions. I should have minded my own business. The last forty-eight hours have made me a better person, and definitely not a racist. This incident has taught me that my actions were those of someone who was not aware of the damage caused by being uninformed and naïve to racial bias.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker (you’ll probably hit a paywall)

Don’t Do Business with Crazy People

From Publishers Weekly:

For many writers without platforms or a field of expertise, collaborations can help keep those book contracts and, if they’re lucky, royalties coming in. Unlike with ghostwriting, having an and or with before one’s name on a book jacket is also a way to get credit for doing the heavy word lifting, even if the coauthor gets the glory. And while many writing collaborations can be like happy marriages, some end up in holy acrimony.

Although nearly all my book collaborations have garnered heartfelt acknowledgments, I’ve had a few less-than-perfect unions. One particularly egregious partnership was with a coauthor, “Cindy,” who, during a celebratory lunch with our publisher and literary agent, asked the agent if she could borrow money against her advance to fix her mother’s furnace. I later discovered, as we began working together on her relationship book, that she was functionally illiterate. Even with spell check, she could not string a proper sentence together. Nevertheless, I persevered, turning a booklet of bromides she had stapled together into a bestselling book that still earns royalties after 20 years.

Then, when the time came to promote the book, I learned to my horror that Cindy hadn’t bothered to read it. She’d done a lot of TV appearances in the past to promote her business and was arrogant enough to think she could wing it. But when asked about a tip from the book during a segment on a major network, Cindy stared blankly at the show’s host, like a deer in klieg lights. The interviewer kindly prompted her with the answer so she could regain her footing. After this incident, I demanded that she read the book three times and commit its contents to memory, so neither one of us would be humiliated in the future.

Having finally read the book, Cindy continued the publicity tour, using the publisher’s credit card to send me a bouquet of flowers (how thoughtful) and charge other personal items, including numerous lattes from Starbucks, long after the tour had ended. The editor sent our agent the bill requesting that Cindy reimburse the publisher. Fortunately, she did.

With book sales climbing, our publisher offered us another book deal that Cindy turned down, saying her “Hollywood people” told her the advance was insultingly low (it was substantial) and that she was the next Kelly Ripa, destined to become a TV star. The media attention had gone to her inflated head. The TV offers never came, but she was outraged that books were being published with similar titles. After I explained that a book title can’t be copyrighted, she hired a lawyer to send cease and desist letters to the book title thieves, who included a celebrity comedian whose book sold in the millions. “Why is he allowed to profit off of our ideas?” Cindy whined in a flood of emails. “We were first!”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The title of the OP was When Book Collaborations Go Bad, however, since continuity on TPV is something that crosses PG’s mind once in awhile and since PG had previously written classic posts entitled, Don’t do Business with Jerks and Don’t Do Business with Crooks, Don’t Do Business with Crazy People seemed to knit together three scattered parts of PG’s mind into a facsimile of intellectual continuity.

Most of PG’s Don’t Do advice arises from many years of helping sane but exasperated clients extricate themselves from various types of binding relationships.

Of course, divorces immediately come to mind.

While Don’t Get Married to the Wrong Person is broadly correct, it provides only general guidance that may not be useful to someone nearing the heated throes of a serious relationship. While PG could speak/write on this topic for hours (while increasing his appreciation for Mrs. PG and her extended willingness to tolerate him around the house), following are a few divorce-minimization categories preceded (of course) by disclaimers.

Like all general categories, these will inevitably be over-broad, so PG apologizes in advance to those who may posses one or more of the following characteristics or are in long-standing and joyful marriages in which one or both parties possess one or more of the following characteristics. In the interests of the aforementioned Continuity, PG will use the familiar advice structure, but feel free to substitute terms like “Think twice before marrying” or “You can have a happy marriage even if your husband/wife is”.

One more preliminary technical note: PG will use the term “mostly” because perfectly wonderful spouses have in the past and will in the future manifest the potential warning signs.

  • Don’t get married to someone mostly because of his/her present appearance.
  • Don’t get married to someone mostly because of his/her current or future financial circumstances.
  • Don’t get married to someone mostly because you had a fabulous weekend/vacation/trip with them.
  • Don’t get married to someone mostly because they come from a family containing many members who display one or more admirable virtues.
  • Don’t get married to someone mostly because of what happened last night.

Since PG’s last Diet Coke is wearing off, he will stop now. Feel free to add more wisdom born of experience (good or bad) in the comments. The contributions of visitors to TPV just might boost this post into the Blogging Hall of Fame (not, of course, located in any old-fashioned city like Cleveland, but forever existing as a shining star in the online firmament).

(Apologies to residents of greater metropolitan Cleveland. Take comfort from the fact that PG could have substituted the names of many, many other cities. You are not alone.)

Diversity: Macmillan USA Makes Major Changes in Management Approach

From Publishing Perspectives:

In two memos to staffers, the Big Five publisher Macmillan in New York City has signaled a substantial change in its management arrangement.

The effort is described by CEO John Sargent as “an exercise in changing power dynamics, and in making sure we have diverse perspectives in the decision-making process.

“We will make better decisions,” Sargent says, “if our company structure is more representative of the world around us, and we can only do that if we align recruitment, training, and retention with our day-to-day business decisions.”

And with that, Sargent is unveiling an approach that could resonate with other companies, establishing one model of how to start making the American publishing industry something that more accurately reflects the multicultural range of the United States’ market itself.

. . . .

In his introductory memo, Sargent is announcing that he is stepping back “from day to day management to make room for new voices.”

And to that end, he–with Don Weisberg, president, and COO Andrew Weber–have put together a 13-person group of leadership players “who will meet regularly to decide on the key issues for Macmillan Publishers.”

Sargent writes, “The committee will form a different and more inclusive management team, representing a wider range of experiences.”

He goes on to say, “This level of change is difficult, but I believe it is necessary. For some in the company this will be challenging, while others will see tremendous new opportunities. For the company as a whole I am confident that this will make us better and more capable in the years ahead.”

. . . .

“We need to change as a company. We need more diversity in the titles we publish, more committed positioning and marketing of these titles, more hiring and promotion of diverse staff, more inclusivity in the decision-making process, and more open dialogue throughout the organization.

“As John [Sargent] mentioned [in his memo], we have been planning a new leadership structure, one that fundamentally changes the group of people at the table where key decisions are made concerning our company strategy and priorities.

“An organization that is more representative of the company we need to be for our employees, our authors, and our readers.

“Today we are announcing the creation of the Trade Management Committee. This committee will set the goals and objectives for the publishers, divisions, and departments that comprise US trade and shared services. In order to ensure accountability, the committee will track the progress of key initiatives, including diversity and inclusion across the company and in our publishing programs, and report on results.”

As they’ve put the trade committee together, the two write that they’ve worked for “a mix of publishing, operational, and human resources representatives, which will allow us to tackle the management of the company while ensuring increased diversity across functions. The group will include others on a project-by-project basis and will regularly solicit feedback and support from a broad cross-section of staff from throughout the organization.”

One technical point that Sargent has made in his own memo: “This new management group will focus on running the overall company. The publishing houses will remain as independent companies, and the publishers will continue to report to Don directly.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Color PG skeptical10

Here is PG’s stereotypical profile of the ideal minority hire for Macmillan or any other large NYC publisher.

  1. Appropriate skin color or surname
  2. Mother is a Wall Street lawyer and father is a heart surgeon
  3. Attended one of a short list of academic institutions located in the Eastern United States
  4. Achieved a B average (At these institutions, that would place the hire in the bottom 20% of the class, but every graduate with better grades can easily locate a job that pays much more than a traditional publisher will. Besides, it’s the name of the institution on the diploma that counts, not what the applicant did or didn’t do (or smoked) while hanging around campus. Any major will do, although it’s a plus if the major was an ethnically-trendy term followed by the word, “Studies”)
  5. Either shows or cleans up nicely
  6. Doesn’t mind being placed in any photo of a group of employees intended for the publisher’s website. Willing to spend time (with pay) being photographed sitting at a conference table making a profound gesture or standing at a whiteboard pointing to a pie chart.
  7. Is willing to have the PR department write a quote attributed to them for inclusion in the publisher’s annual diversity report, for example, “Working at Macmillan has allowed me to reach my full potential without abandoning my ethnic and cultural roots.”

Four authors leave Blair Partnership over Rowling controversy

From The Bookseller:

J K Rowling’s agency The Blair Partnership has lost four of its author clients over the controversy surrounding the Harry Potter author’s views on transgender law reform. 

Fox Fisher, Drew Davies and Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir–all of whom identify as LGBTQIA authors–quit the agency saying they were unconvinced it “supports our rights at all avenues”. One further author, who opted to remain anonymous, has also departed.

According to the Guardian, Jónsdóttir–who is also known as Owl Fisher and is the co-author of the Trans Teen Survival Guide (from the Hachette-owned publishing company Jessica Kingsley Publishers)–suggested the literary agency should conduct staff training with the group All About Trans but “these requests weren’t met positively by the management”. The Blair Partnership declined to comment to The Bookseller on whether such a suggestion for staff training was rebuffed but as part of a broader statement said it would not “meet [the authors’] demands to be re-educated to their point of view”.

The authors leaving the agency wrote in a joint statement: “This decision is not made lightly, and we are saddened and disappointed it has come to this. After J K Rowling’s — who is also signed to the agency — public comments on transgender issues, we reached out to the agency with an invitation to reaffirm their stance to transgender rights and equality. After our talks with them, we felt that they were unable to commit to any action that we thought was appropriate and meaningful. Freedom of speech can only be upheld if the structural inequalities that hinder equal opportunities for underrepresented groups are challenged and changed.

“Affirmations to support LGBTQIA people as a whole need to be followed up by meaningful and impactful action, both internally and publicly. As LGBTQIA writers ourselves we feel strongly about having an agency that supports our rights at all avenues, and does not endorse views that go against our values and principles.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG wonders if Ms. Rowling is inclined to shelter in place somewhere with no newspapers and no internet service. There must be a placid island for sale in the South Atlantic that would serve.

Jargon Alert

PG receives a number of technology-focused epublications. Here’s an excerpt from one that just arrived:

The thing I’ve tried to do the last few years is really barbell the inputs.

Any thoughts on the meaning of this sentence?

Day Off

PG will not be making any blog posts today.

Nothing bad has happened.

He’ll be back here tomorrow with even more vim (is that still a word?), vigor, vitality and vitriol than usual.

What seemed delicacy

What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to prevent trouble before it started. It was hard to see what growing older would mean to such a person. His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether. Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Hong Kong Publishers

PG realizes he went on a rant titled, “Don’t Do Business with Crooks” yesterday.

He’s going to post another rant today, but promises not to become a Serial Ranter.

For one thing, the internet already has more Serial Ranters than any one person, even if she/he were very, very, very angry or the hugest giganticast Ranter Fan ever, could read in a hundred lifetimes.

(Incidentally, rant.com is for sale.)

PG has had several people ask him to review an unsolicited publishing contract the have received from a “Hong Kong publisher” with a name that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere online.

At least some of the Hong Kong contracts PG has scanned are pretty close to identical in their wording and others are a bit different.

However, all of these contracts share some similar features, including:

  1. The author hadn’t pitched a book to any publisher in Hong Kong.
  2. From front to back, each contract was terrible.
  3. There were no audit rights (PG isn’t certain, but there might have been one contract that included an audit clause, but the audit had to take place in Hong Kong and only what appeared to be Hong Kong’s version of a Certified Public Accountant could conduct such an audit.
  4. When PG did a short bit of online searching, he couldn’t find a website for the Hong Kong publisher.
  5. Ditto for a publisher search on Amazon (US).
  6. The contract granted the publisher rights to the book for the full term of the copyright (sometimes in Hong Kong and sometimes everywhere) and for all languages.
  7. If the author got mad and hired a (Hong Kong) lawyer, the dispute would be heard in Hong Kong pursuant to the laws of Hong Kong in front of a Hong Kong judge.

How could anything go wrong?

The reason the indie authors (they were all indie) gave was that they didn’t have anything going in Hong Kong and probably wouldn’t, so, what the heck?

Yes, some people will just pirate your book outright. You send notices to Amazon (does anyone bother to send notices to Nook?) and Amazon pulls the book down.

Such actions may not stop a dedicated thief, but they may deter a thief with an IQ above room temperature.

The thief wants to stay below Amazon’s radar. If the thief is posting copies of dozens of books online, it’s safer for the thief to put up books that don’t generate an objection than to face Amazon freezing the thief’s account (which may have some royalties on sales of other counterfeit books that haven’t been paid yet the thief may forfeit) so the thief has to open another account and start again.

(PG has heard unconfirmed rumors that if a book is pirated on more than a few occasions, Amazon may require a more complex process for anyone who wants to post the same or similar book again. If Amazon wanted to do so, since it owns owns the largest cloud computing platform in the world, PG speculates that the company could set up a system that would do a quick textual analysis of every book uploaded and compare the analysis against those already uploaded (PG suspects a unique digital fingerprint for each book might be involved if Amazon were to do something like this) to help identify book thieves.)

PG apologizes for his digression, but his bottom line is, if an indie author receives an unsolicited proposal or publishing contract from Hong Kong, that author should:

  • Stop.
  • Think.
  • Don’t feel flattered that someone noticed your book.
  • If you want to waste the scammer’s time, ask for an advance payment from the “publisher” to demonstrate that the publisher is operating in good faith and is really interested in your book. PG might call such a payment an Advanced Advance.

Same advice for a publishing contract from Moscow.