Stalin: Passage to Revolution

The information card on “I. V. Stalin”, from the files of the Imperial police in Saint Petersburg, 1911
via Wikipedia

From The Wall Street Journal:

Not surprisingly, Joseph Stalin has been the subject of many biographical studies, in recent years in particular, when formerly closed Soviet archives became open to students of history. Decades before, Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Adam Ulam and Robert Tucker, to name a handful of prominent authors, wrote hefty volumes on Stalin’s life, attempting to tell the story with limited information. Their work has been surpassed by another generation of scholars, led by Dmitri Volkogonov, Robert Service, Oleg Khlevniuk and Stephen Kotkin. They have plumbed the archives and benefited from a host of memoirs that have deepened our understanding of a murderous dictator whose legacy, nearly 70 years after his death, still haunts the countries he once ruled.

Ronald Grigor Suny’s “Stalin: Passage to Revolution” is a worthy contribution to this continuing enterprise. “The telling of Stalin’s life has always been more than biography,” Mr. Suny writes. “There is wonder at the achievement—the son of a Georgian cobbler ascending the heights of world power, the architect of an industrial revolution and the destruction of millions of the people he ruled, the leader of the state that stopped the bloody expansion of fascism.” It is the story of how the Romanov dynasty, convinced of its own divine right to rule the Russian Empire, confronted “a newly emerging social class” of industrial workers, a clash that “exploded into violence, bloodshed, and eventually revolution.” Reading Mr. Suny’s chronicle, one can’t help recalling John F. Kennedy’s remark, in a 1962 speech, that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

. . . .

Mr. Suny’s focus is Stalin’s early decades, from his birth and education to the eve of revolution in 1917. Born in 1878 in the Georgian town of Gori, on the southern periphery of the Russian Empire, Ioseb Jughashvili, as he was christened, was raised in a poor family. His father scratched out a living as a cobbler; his mother was a religious woman who worked as a seamstress. The couple had lost their first two sons in infancy, driving his father to become “violent, erratic, and drunk,” Mr. Suny says, and to abandon the family. Convinced of Joseph’s abilities, his mother worked to gain his admission to a seminary so that he could become a priest.

Using his access to archives in Georgia, Mr. Suny describes the milieu in which the young Joseph grew up—the children’s games he enjoyed and the literature and myths that animated his imagination. It was at the seminary in the Georgian capital of Tiflis that the teenage Joseph confronted the obstinacy of his teachers, who denigrated Georgian culture and insisted on the primacy of Russian language and history. Life at the seminary, Mr. Suny writes, was “colorless and monotonous . . . , a strict routine designed to inculcate obedience and deference.” It proved to be as much a “crucible for revolutionaries as for priests” and pushed “an intelligent but still quite ordinary adolescent into opposition.” At the seminary, Joseph “came to socialism through reading and the fellowship of classmates.”

. . . .

Stalin, known as Koba to his comrades, made a name for himself as a party organizer in the Caucasus, among miners and oil workers. Here confrontations with czarist officials were violent and bloody, marked by heists and assassinations.

Stalin closely studied the works of Marx and, not least, the writings of Lenin before he met the Bolshevik leader in 1905, an encounter that began a close and fateful association. Mr. Suny’s close study of these years uncovers the traits of suspicion and intrigue that came to define Stalin in power. Koba, he writes, “was not above using dubious means against comrades with whom he disagreed,” lying about them behind their backs to compromise their standing. In his encounters with Mensheviks, he indulged in anti-Semitic insults, knowing that there were more Jews among them than among the Bolsheviks he favored.

Mr. Suny’s account of the tensions between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is spirited and compelling, especially when he describes these ostensible allies splitting into “antagonistic cultures,” each demonizing the other over their motives, making reconciliation ever less likely. Lenin is often at the center of this story, engaging in vicious polemics against his ideological adversaries. 

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

French Publishers Appeal to Government: Leave Our Bookstores Open

From Publishing Perspectives:

In an extraordinary appeal to the Emmanuel Macron government today (October 28), France’s publishers’ association, the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), has joined with two of its associated organizations in issuing a “solemn, united, and responsible” request that French bookstores be allowed to remain open despite the anticipated announcement of new pandemic lockdown restrictions.

Perhaps the most compelling part of their letter: “We are ready to assume our cultural and health responsibilities.”

. . . .

Emmanuel Macron has been expected to make a televised address to the French people this evening, announcing new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that may go as far as a second national lockdown. Lauren Chadwick at EuroNews writes that such a confinement would not be expected to be as stringent as the spring lockdown but Kim Willsher’s write at The Guardian agrees with other press reports that the new constraint could be set to last as long as four weeks.

A curfew already has been imposed for at least eight major urban centers in the country, and the Worldometer tracking regime reflects the soaring numbers of new cases being registered in the French market. 

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Library ebook lending surges as UK turns to fiction during lockdown

From The Guardian:

They may have been closed for months during lockdown, but amid long days and many on furlough it has emerged that the nation turned to local libraries for cultural sustenance – with a surge in the lending of ebooks, and crime thrillers in particular.

In total, more than 3.5m additional ebooks were borrowed between the end of March and mid-August, according to the charity Libraries Connected, an increase of 146%. Adding audiobooks and e-comics, there was an increase of 5m digital items borrowed.

Gillian Galbraith’s Blood in the Water, the first of the Alice Rice mysteries featuring the Edinburgh detective, and published in 2007, was the most requested adult ebook. The former first lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, was also among the most popular lends. The comedian and TV show judge David Walliams claimed three of the top 10 slots in most-borrowed children and young people’s ebooks.

Library online membership in the UK increased more than six-fold during lockdown, with demand for ebooks and audiobooks one of the main drivers.

“Library membership has surged,” said Nick Poole, the chief executive of the UK library and information association CILIP. “The increase in registration for online membership cards was huge, between 600 and 700%, which is amazing.”

With library buildings closed for up to four months, and people at home, services had to move swiftly online. A survey by Libraries Connected found audiobook checkouts increased, overall, by 113%, magazines by 80%, newspaper by 223% and comics by 497%.

There was growth in digital offerings across many areas including rhyming and reading sessions for young children, instruction sessions to access online services, author-led events, school readiness programmes, and jobs and arts clubs.

More than 75% of libraries delivered online services during lockdown. Some reached more than 20,000 views, according to Libraries Connected. One toddler reading event, which was staged on Facebook, had a 400% increase in views.

While the borrowing of physical books still massively outnumbers that of ebooks, a report by the charity suggests digital borrowing is not just an early lockdown “fad”. After experiencing an initial surge, the higher level of demand has been sustained.

. . . .

As the licensing model for digital services continues to operate restrictively for public libraries, public expectation of availability may outstrip supply

. . . .

“One of the brilliant things that happened was publishers really stepped up,” said Poole. “Ebooks cost a lot of money. Publishers, during the lockdown, said they would either waive or reduce licence fees so they really helped us out in terms of making ebooks available.”

. . . .

“People might think we don’t need the physical places any more, which obviously we really, really do because the library is doing so much more to support the community than just reading,” he said, adding: “Yes, absolutely we have found this new digital audience [but] we also need to continue supporting [the] face-to-face audience.”

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

PG notes that the “Ebooks cost a lot of money” really means, “Traditional publishers charge public libraries extraordinary high fees for a license to lend a copy of an ebook.”

Duplicating the ebook itself and delivering it costs a fraction of a second of computer time and, depending upon the speed of the internet connection at the library on the receiving end, pennies at most to deliver (and more probably, no extra cost at all if the publisher or wholesaler has not been dumb in negotiating the terms of its access to the internet.)

As regular visitors to TPV will immediately understand, library licensing practices of traditional publishers are designed to prop up their sales of dead-tree-to-hell-with-climate-change printed books.

Graphic novels are overlooked by book prizes, but that’s starting to change

From The Conversation:

In the midst of a global pandemic, almost nothing is proceeding as normal. And yet, on a dim October morning, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist announcement went brightly, briefly and virtually streaming into homes and revealing the five books that had moved one step further towards winning Canada’s largest and arguably most prestigious literary award.

In some ways, however, this business as usual was a disappointment. After all, the Giller recently changed its submission guidelines to allow graphic novels to be submitted to the prize, and even more recently announced that a graphic novel was, indeed, included on the longlist — Clyde Fans, by highly acclaimed Canadian author and cartoonist Seth.

But after raking in praise and aplomb for featuring a graphic novel on its longlist for the first time, the Giller — like so many other book prizes — just couldn’t bring itself to put Clyde Fans on the shortlist. Business as usual, indeed.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

PG couldn’t find an ebook for Clyde Fans, but did discover some other ebooks written by Seth which included Look Inside feature, but that didn’t work with a WordPress embed block.

Here’s a link to Seth’s books on Amazon

HarperNorth in Manchester

From Publishing Perspectives:

Editor’s note: In recent years, a strong pushback against the London-centric structure of publishing and other creative industries has gathered energy in the United Kingdom. That dynamic is, in part, behind the creation of HarperCollins UK’s new HarperNorth division in Manchester–a development that has found itself arriving in a most challenging year for the business.

. . . .

On January 21, HarperCollins UK announced that it was launching a new publishing division in one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, Manchester. The next day, Public Health England raised the coronavirus risk level from very low to low. Two months later, the United Kingdom was in lockdown.

“I’ve always talked about trying to do things differently, but I never imagined just how different it would be,” Genevieve Pegg says with a laugh. She’s the publishing director for HarperNorth and a former editorial director of Orion.

Despite the twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, HarperNorth’s editorial and marketing team was recruited and offices were acquired. The division opened for submissions at the end of June and made its first acquisition a month later, Melissa Reddy’s Believe Us, which is scheduled to be published on November 12. Reddy is a senior football correspondent for The Independent.

“HarperCollins was moving at pace and keen to make it happen,” Pegg says. “I’m all the more grateful for that now, because if we’d been operating at the glacial pace that can happen in parts of this business, we wouldn’t have got over the starting line before lockdown.

. . . .

The question for cynics is how much North is there actually in HarperNorth. When the BBC opened its studios in the city of Salford, near Manchester, so many of its presenters commuted from London rather than live in Manchester that it became something of a joke.

“We’re not slingshotting people from London to a strange and unknown land” at HarperNorth, Pegg says. “It was about finding a bunch of people who feel connected to the place and were either already living here or were in the process of moving anyway.”

Pegg was born in Liverpool and grew up in North Wales. She gave up her job at Orion in London five years ago to move back to the North of England with her family and begin a new stage of her career, this time as a freelance editorial consultant.

“I kept having conversations with people like, ‘Oh, you live up in Cheshire now. One day publishing will catch up.’ It was only at the start of this year that the conversation felt different, like there was a sort of commercial aspiration to it, as well.”

“Publishing in the North has its own traditions,” she says. “There’s already an amazing tradition of the university presses and a bevy of really bold and inventive independents who are blazing a trail. There are also a lot of indie authors who’ve not gone down the traditional publishing route. There’s a lot of artistic energy here.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG recommends Des Moines as New York Publishing’s Manchester. PG has a number of relatives living in Iowa, so he visits from time to time.

He finds many Iowans to be intelligent, well-educated (Iowa has a long tradition of a lot of small colleges, some of which are very innovative, plus a couple of large state universities) plus you can live in a decent house in Des Moines for less than a cheesy apartment with roommates and rats would cost in NYC.

PG hasn’t seen any statistics, but he would bet that Iowans on average have a higher literacy rate than the the citizens of NYC. They certainly commit far fewer crimes and are much friendlier to strangers.

PG understands that an English Lit major from Wellesley might not find Des Moines an attractive location at which to intern with a publisher, but, on the whole, that might not be a bad thing.

A Des Moines publisher would find a lot of graduates of Grinnell, Drake, Coe and Cornell (the real one in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, not the poser in New York) who would work harder, perform just as well and not have that entitlement attitude going on.

C:\ Thinking in an http: World

From Publishing Perspectives:

The “Battle for Attention”—part of the title of Bookwire‘s conference report from Frankfurter Buchmesse—became a lot more vivid for many professionals participating in the digital evocation of the trade show last week.

That’s because the enormous fair, which draws more than 250,000 people annually in its physical setting at Messe Frankfurt, was, for once, almost entirely online.

. . . .

Without those beloved print volumes propped on shelves in stand and after stand, without the gliding moving sidewalks between halls, and without the beeping of catering trucks moving in reverse, the center of international publishing for a week was just a click or two from your Netflix and Amazon Music accounts.

. . . .

[W]hat Videl Bar-Kar, who heads up audio at Bookwire GmbH in Germany, presented Thursday (October 15) was the result of survey work that reached 2,335 people in Germany aged 16 to 65 about their media use. In addition, 1,000 consumers of ebooks, audiobooks, and/or podcasts were surveyed about their usage patterns.

A recording of Bar-Kar’s presentation, like others in the Frankfurter Conference series, has not been posted for review, so as yet we can’t offer you a link to see it. Frankfurt’s organizers say that these recordings of four days of conference programming and other events will be available “soon.”

. . . .

What develops as you look at the report is a question of the wisdom of gauging podcasts along with audiobooks and ebooks. Podcasting is not necessarily in the same vein as audiobooks and ebooks because a podcast (unless someone sits at the mic and reads a book to listeners) is not the delivery of a book. There are variations and content hybrids, of course—and a podcast certainly may make a powerful marketing tool for a book—but the inclusion here of podcasts with audiobooks and ebooks presents something like one apple (podcasting) and two oranges (audiobooks and ebooks).

. . . .

Digital Content Becoming ‘Mainstream’

What Bar-Kar and his research refer to as “mainstream” refers to people using two or three of the digital media in question—ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts. It’s not clear from this work if it’s possible to know what percentage these formats’ usage comprised of a user’s overall media array. If a user said she’d used an ebook or audiobook in the last six months, how does that compare with how many print books she’d read, how many films or television series she’d viewed, and so on?

  • Of those surveyed, 43 percent said they’d used at least one ebook, audiobook, or podcast within the last six months. Some 48 percent reported using “a number of these in parallel.
  • Twenty-one percent said they use all three formats, and 27 percent said they use two of them.

. . . .

A favorite question, of course, is whether audiobook, ebook, and/or podcast consumption tends to preclude a user’s consumption of other content. The standard response of those who work in audiobooks, ebooks, and/or podcasts is, “Of course not!” And this survey doesn’t disappoint.

“They only cannibalize each other to a minor extent” is the charming lead answer here. Nibbling on each other’s toes, as it were, nothing worse than that.

“Ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts hardly cannibalize each other at all,” the survey writers say. “A maximum of 14 percent of users said that they use ebooks, audiobooks, or podcasts at the expense of one of the other two media. While ebooks and audiobooks are used for relaxation and entertainment more so than podcasts, podcasts tend to expand knowledge and education and/or are more informative about current issues.”

Well-intended as it may be, this commentary is probably the least reassuring in the report. Unless one has a chart of one’s format usage and thus can tell, “Gosh, a half-hour of my podcast time was eaten up by my e-reading,” it’s quite subjective as to how much a user might feel is going into one mode or another.

And the more important area of inquiry here is about the challenge that other media (including podcasting may present to reading in various formats. Many people today say that with so much beautifully produced storytelling available in television and film formats, their reading in all modes is taking a hit. By contrast, attrition to other forms of reading is less a worry. If publishing “loses” someone from print to ebooks, publishing should feel relieved that they didn’t move to Streamer City and stop reading entirely.

. . . .

The survey does offer this comparatively useful point—still inside the publishing sector, but going beyond the three key formats in question: “Looking at cannibalization effects on traditional media, just under half of ebook users (44 percent) said that they read fewer printed books because of their digital counterpart. This figure was 25 percent among audiobook listeners.”

. . . .

In short, things are still unsettled in terms of where podcasts stand next to books, especially in the audio space.

If you’re fond of podcasts, you may call them complementary. If you’re not, you might call them competition.

. . . .

Perhaps easier to get our publishing heads around, a section of the survey asked “Which are Your Favorite Media”? Here, it looks as if reality has arrived at the door to reading’s future in this particular survey.

By far, the respondents went for video streaming and television as their favorite of several media.

Radio and print books were next, followed by gaming, online news, and newspapers.

Digital audiobooks and podcasts came in behind all of those. Ebooks fared a bit better, beating out online news and newspapers.

Not even those podcasts were competitive to media outside the trio in the survey, except for physical audiobooks, which in most markets have long been on the decline as downloaded audio took over.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Although downplayed, the author of the OP seems to be feeling what came to PG’s mind as he read the OP:

WHAT CENTURY ARE GERMAN (AND MAYBE OTHER NATIONALITIES) PUBLISHERS LIVING IN?

Podcasts vs. print books?

PG is suspect of “cannibalization” studies in general.

The fundamental proposition is that if people start doing more of something, they are doing less of something else.

This assumes that “something” = an activity that makes someone, usually a large commercial organization, money directly or indirectly.

So, for example, if a meaningful portion of the populace starts spending more time in voluntary charitable activities, that activity is not part of the cannibalization equation.

Ditto if someone starts taking Yoga seriously and spends time thinking of Oneness.

Second Ditto if someone who is feeling overly confined due to a life-threatening pandemic goes to a restaurant that observes social-distancing by closing half of its seating, and hangs out while having a good conversation after lunch with someone else. (Coincidentally, this is exactly how PG and Mrs. PG spent a couple of hours this afternoon. The conversation included, but was not limited to, PG’s mostly-useless comments as Mrs. PG read a couple of the most recent chapters from her WIP.)

Podcasts?

PG is not a podcast person, but wonders if people who listen to podcasts do so instead of reading books of either the electronic or let’s-cut-down-another-forest variety.

PG is happy to be instructed/corrected/updated/straightened-out/brought-into-the-21st-Century, etc., by podcast people.

The switch to coal changed everything in Britain

From The Wall Street Journal:

The grimy furnaces and coal-stained cheeks of Dickensian Britain seem like an indelible birthright, but it wasn’t always so. As Ruth Goodman writes in “The Domestic Revolution,” Britons had for ages burned wood as well as peat and other plant fuels to heat their homes and cook their food. Then, in the late 16th century, London switched to coal.

This revolutionary change was carried out by ordinary families, the “ ‘hidden people’ of history,” as Ms. Goodman calls them. They switched to coal for the most prosaic of reasons—personal comfort, convenience, a small savings.

Yet the “big switch” set in motion a series of large transformations. Thousands of Britons found new work as miners and as merchant seafarers. The island’s fabled heathland, site of all those chest-throbbing novels, faded and disappeared as woodland, no longer needed for fuel, was given over to agriculture. To vacate sulfurous coal fumes, chimneys sprouted all over London, prompting homeowners to build more spacious layouts and second and third stories.

Since coal fires required a different sort of cookware, investment poured into brass and iron, hastening the development of pig iron—hastening, that is, the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Wall tapestries came down (in a coal-fired home, they quickly stained) and were replaced by smoother, washable surfaces and paint. There was a bull market in soap.

Not least, British cooking, which Ms. Goodman stoutly defends, was forced to adapt. Stirring a pot precariously dangled over a row of coals was difficult. Thick, starchy fare gave way to boiled puddings and kidney pies, which the author forgivingly describes as “democratic.” Thanks to the pleasing effects of roasting on an open grate, Ms. Goodman maintains, coal even led to the “modern British love affair” with toast. The new energy source touched every corner of life.

. . . .

Whatever the causes, the changeover to coal happened quickly. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, in 1558, London homes burned wood. A generation later, the increasingly crowded city was importing 27,000 metric tons of coal per year. By roughly the time of Elizabeth’s death, in 1603, imports had soared to 144,000 tons.

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

Vietnamese Publishing House Co-Founder Arrested

From Publishing Perspectives:

Scheduled to address an October 15 discussion at Frankfurter Buchmesse on the freedom to publish, a co-founder of the 2020 Prix Voltaire-winning Liberal Publishing House has been arrested. An alert from Amnesty International issued within an hour of this writing warns that Pham Doan Trang is “at grave risk of torture.”

Amnesty’s director of campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, says that Pham Doan Trang “may face up to 20 years in prison” as “an internationally-recognized author and human rights defender who has been repeatedly targeted by the Vietnamese authorities solely for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression.”

. . . .

One of the participants in the upcoming event at Frankfurt, Will Nguyen, has tweeted out a letter left by Pham Doan Trang in case of her detention. In “Just in Case I Am Imprisoned,” she writes, in part, “If prison is inevitable for freedom fighters, if prison can serve a pre-determined purpose, then we should happily accept it.”

. . . .

“The men and women who work for the Liberal Publishing House every day risk their freedom and even their lives just to publish books. The award that we receive today does not just recognize our tireless efforts but it represents the bravery of tens of thousands of Vietnamese readers who have been harassed, who have been arrested, and interrogated simply for reading our books.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests we all remember Pham Doan Trang in our thoughts and prayers and be thankful that many of us live in countries like the United States whose First Amendment to its Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

and the European Union, within which Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights applies. Article 11 reads as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

This also means the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.

PG was going to insert similar statements concerning freedom of expression in the UK and Canada, but his research did not locate any similar statement that does not include some parliamentary or judge-made exceptions.

It appears that libel and slander laws (which are also present in the United States) have been and, apparently, continue to be usable as a bludgeon to constrain freedom of expression to a greater extent than similar laws can be applied for such purposes in the US.

PG is happy to be corrected or have his understanding clarified by those who know more about this subject in Canada and the UK.

Resisting censorship

From The Bookseller:

Last month, 58 writers, journalists and artists signed a letter in the Sunday Times in support of JK Rowling, condemning the ‘onslaught of abuse’ she has received regarding her views on sex, gender and trans rights. Signatories included Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. Three days later, more than 200 writers, agents, editors and publishers published a statement in support of trans and non-binary people and their rights in a message of ‘love and solidarity’. Signatories included Jeanette Winterson, Malorie Blackman and Nikesh Shukla. The worrying implication in the timing of their statement appears to be that any public support for JK Rowling is perceived to be an attack on the transgender community. The magazine Mslexia dropped the author Amanda Craig as a competition judge following her signing the Sunday Times letter, because of views ‘that threaten to undermine Mslexia’s climate of welcome and inclusivity’.

All writers and publishers should be speaking out in support of JK Rowling, no matter where they stand on the transgender issue: whether they believe like Jeanette Winterson and fellow signatories that ‘transwomen are women’ or, like JK Rowling, that ‘if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased’. The treatment of Rowling is an attempt to censor, by intimidation as well as by discrediting her opinions as hate speech and discrimination. While it may not, fortunately, be possible to silence one of the most successful writers in the world, there are others whose livelihoods are at risk for daring to voice similar views. Anyone in the business of publishing or writing should defend Rowling’s right to express her opinions in support of the principle of freedom of expression. It is the principle that enables every writer and publisher who signed the statement in support of the trans and non-binary community to do their work – and also to sign such a statement.

We are currently witnessing a dangerous flight from that principle. It is group rights that now trump a precious universal right. The idea of tolerating views that you may disagree with or find offensive has been abandoned. That act of toleration, however uncomfortable, is essential for safeguarding an open society where ideas can be freely expressed, challenged and tested. Freedom of expression has always been one of the most vulnerable of all human rights, partly because it is not absolute, and it has taken decades to push the boundaries, often through the creativity and courage of writers, artists and publishers.

The current trend towards conformity risks creating a bland and fearful culture, and we can already see the damage: from the cancelling of the Philip Guston exhibition last month by four museums, including Tate Modern, to Hachette’s decision to drop Woody Allen’s memoir earlier this year. All these institutions, no doubt, will consider their decisions to be enlightened, wishing not to cause offence to vulnerable groups. But the right to freedom of expression includes the protection of speech that may offend, shock or disturb. If you close it down, then you also limit the ability of minorities to speak out.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Lover, Mother, Soviet Spy

From The Wall Street Journal:

Though little known to the broader world, Ursula Kuczynski, born in 1907 into a wealthy, cultured Jewish family in Berlin, was one of the most successful spies of the 20th century. She worked for the GRU—Soviet Military Intelligence—in China, Eastern Europe, Switzerland and, most damagingly, Britain. Beginning in the early 1930s as the provider of a safe house for spies to meet, she was soon trained as a radio operator, courier and liaison between communist underground activists and Moscow. Eventually she ran her own network of Soviet spies in Nazi Germany and, after war broke out, in Britain. There she served as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, the émigré physicist who later worked at Los Alamos and betrayed its secrets to the Soviet Union.

Kuczynski—whose code name was “Sonya”—never endured prison or torture or the other gruesome fates that befell many of her comrades, though she was pursued by the security services of the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese, the Nazis and various British governments. She spent most of her 20-odd years as a spy living in fairly comfortable surroundings with her children, posing as a middle-class foreigner and friendly neighbor. Only when Fuchs himself was arrested in 1950, and she faced the possibility of exposure and arrest, did she board a plane to return to East Germany. She then transformed herself into a novelist and published, under a pseudonym, an autobiography that resulted in a triumphant book tour in Britain, the country that had given her refuge and that she had betrayed.

With “Agent Sonya,” Ben Macintyre, the author of several popular works about espionage, has written a lively account of Kuczynski’s remarkable career. He has been aided by the cooperation of her family and by his research in the British and (in a limited way) Russian archives. Inevitably, as the reader should keep in mind, much of Kuczynski’s life is filtered through her autobiography, which was written in East Germany under the scrutiny of censors by a woman whose survival depended on lying about many of her activities. Her account of Stalin’s purges of the GRU, for example, is limited to the statement that, “unfortunately, comrades in leading positions changed frequently at that time.” While government files and private letters offer a partial reality check, GRU archives remain inaccessible, limiting the best source for our knowing how far-reaching her career was.

Kuczynski was an early rebel, Mr. Macintyre tells us, participating in communist demonstrations in Berlin at age 17. Her father, a demographer, and her brother, an economist, had connections to many government officials throughout Europe and the United States, and both later fed her information for transmission to the U.S.S.R. Jurgen, her brother, led the underground Communist Party in Britain during World War II and was the first to put her in touch with Fuchs.

Her entry into espionage came in Shanghai, where she was living in 1930 with her husband, Rudi Hamburger, an architect. Appalled by the poverty and brutality of the city, and repulsed by the racism and luxurious lifestyle of the Western community there, she was recruited by Agnes Smedley, the American journalist, and Richard Sorge, the legendary Soviet spy. Kuczynski and Sorge (a compulsive womanizer) ended up having a passionate affair. Mr. Macintyre observes that she was “intoxicated by the thrill of her own destiny, the entwining of danger and domesticity, living one life in public and another in deepest secrecy.”

. . . .

Fearing deportation from Switzerland to Germany in 1940, she concluded that marriage to a British citizen would enable her to obtain a British passport. She arranged to divorce Rudi and married Len Beurton, a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain.

One of the great mysteries of Kuczynski’s career is how she managed to avoid detection by British authorities. 

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

Smith lands Instagrammer’s guide to planning for Ebury

From The Bookseller:

Ebury Press editorial director Emma Smith has acquired Happy Planning, a “practical guide for those who like to prep” from Charlotte Plain, a.k.a. Instagrammer Princess Planning.

Smith bought world all language rights to the title directly from the author.

Plain is the person behind Instagram account and website Princess Planning, where she sells diaries, planners and stationery which aim to help organise and inspire positivity. Happy Planning will give readers the tools they need to plan every aspect of their life, from the weekly shop and daily meal prep to big occasions like weddings, parties and holidays.

The publisher explains: “Planning is about taking away last-minute panic pressure, gaining control and helping you to be the best version of yourself. Charlotte’s everyday approach has been so successful that she launched a business off the back of it, and is now sharing all of her practical and positive know-how in this book. As well as her planning mantras and toolkit, each section of the book is dedicated to an area of life that benefits from planning and is packed with personal learning experiences, planning methods, tips and tricks, practical guidance and interactive elements. It’s simple, positive and practical planning that will lead to a healthier happier you.”

Smith added: “We all need a good dose of practical positive planning in our lives (now, more than ever), so we are incredibly excited to be publishing an Instagram star”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG couldn’t resist visiting Princess Planning Ltd. on Instagram (192K followers). He found several Instagram star gems:

Weight loss is never just about losing the weight.

You have to lose the habits that got you there in the first place and replace them with better ones

Princess.Planning Ltd.

if 2020 was a chocolate it would be a turkish delight

Princess.Planning Ltd.

What would we do without traditional publishers to act as curators of culture?

When the Revolution Left Kate Millett Behind

From Public Books:

In March 1979, the white American feminist Kate Millett landed in Tehran, in the wake of one of the most significant revolutions of the 20th century. Just weeks earlier, the Shah—the monarch of Iran—had been overthrown. Millett arrived with a suitcase of recording equipment and her partner, filmmaker Sophie Kier. While there, Millett methodically recorded her whispered reflections on everything around her: the cups of tea with her hosts, the hours stuck in traffic, and the International Women’s Day celebration, which exploded into major protests against Ayatollah Khomeini’s new mandatory veiling laws.

Millett’s whispers were the raw material for her own Going to Iran (1982), but they have been newly transcribed and examined by Negar Mottahedeh in her new book, Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran. With the same recordings, Mottahedeh does something in Whisper Tapes that Millett never could. She listens closely to the women speaking, yelling, and demonstrating in Farsi around Millett, centering their voices in a radically new and vital account of the revolution.

By exploring the complexities of what Millett couldn’t hear, Whisper Tapes also reveals the narrowness of her white feminism and her lack of reciprocity. Yet, there is no need to “cancel” Kate Millett (who profoundly contributed to both feminist and literary theory, not least in her pathbreaking 1970 work, Sexual Politics). Instead, it is necessary to explore her particular brand of white, Western feminism critically, asking what Millett’s brief time in Iran might offer contemporary understandings of feminist solidarity.

. . . .

This paradox—between the book’s centering and decentering of its subject—mirrors a wider paradox: the tension between the alleged universalism of Millett’s feminism and the increasingly particular way in which she pronounces it. We might read Millett’s paradox against and alongside a revolutionary slogan pulsing throughout Mottahedeh’s book—one that Millett only “provisionally understood”: “Azadi, na sharghist, na gharbist, jahanist,” or “Freedom is neither eastern nor western, it is planetary.”

. . . .

Mottahedeh identifies the conceptual problem of misunderstanding—of a white ally who just doesn’t get it—largely as a problem of mistranslation. In an elegant anecdote, Millett is given some chaghaleh badoom, which she says on the tape are “beans,” while the women around her suggest—in English—that they are “walnuts.” In fact, neither translation is adequate, Mottahedeh tells us; the best approximation is “green, unripe almonds.”

A thirsty Millett struggles to comprehend going “through a whole revolution and not being able to have a glass of wine after it’s all over?” She declares Iran “joyless,” not understanding that there are so many versions of the good life, so many ways to be joyful. Millett can’t quite grasp why the revolution happened alongside, and so also included, men. “It’s important to ignore men,” she advises a demonstrator. “He is never gonna listen. Why waste your time?”

Millett’s unfamiliarity with Iran allows us, with the benefit of hindsight, to laugh at her presence as an awkward white woman. But this is not really the problem with Millett’s white feminism. What white feminism means, at least in the context of Whisper Tapes, is that Millett considers patriarchy to be the primary organizing structure in women’s lives, globally. This is despite the interactions she has with women who explain otherwise.

Millett reads Iranian women’s heterogeneous experiences of religion, demonstration, and revolution through this lens, and only this lens. It is this focus on patriarchy that allows her to quickly diagnose the women of Iran as being behind white American women on the path of liberation; the path that she herself, through Sexual Politics and her work in the women’s liberation movement, helped to pave. Millett’s white feminism means that she applies the logic and schedule of US women’s liberation to the Iranian revolutionary moment.

Mottahedeh’s careful treatment of Millett reveals that “white feminism” is not just a scolding charge. Instead, Millett’s white feminism is a generative and persistent world view that creates particular behaviors, blinkers, and blinds, while simultaneously proclaiming to be a universalist politics that speaks for all women. It means that Millett’s “ambitions and preoccupations are elsewhere.” She is always waiting for the moment of a radical global women’s uprising. She is “out of sync with what is right in front of her,” be it green-shelled, unripe almonds in their crinkled paper bag, or men’s crucial place alongside women in the ongoing Iranian revolution.

Kate Millett certainly does not understand that she is imposing a presumed universality steeped in the specificity of the American context. Indeed, this is just one of the things that she does not get.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Liu Cixin Writes Science Fiction Epics That Transcend the Moment

From The Wall Street Journal:

Science fiction can be hard to disentangle from the real world. Futuristic tales about advanced technology and clashing alien civilizations often read like allegories of present-day problems. It is tempting, then, to find some kind of political message in the novels of Liu Cixin, 57, China’s most famous science fiction writer, whose speculative and often apocalyptic work has earned the praise of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. The historian Niall Ferguson recently said that reading Mr. Liu’s fiction is essential for understanding “how China views America and the world today.”

But Mr. Liu insists that this is “the biggest misinterpretation of my work.” Speaking through an interpreter over Skype from his home in Shanxi Province, he says that his books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, shouldn’t be read as commentaries on China’s history or aspirations. In his books, he maintains, “aliens are aliens, space is space.” Although he has acknowledged, in an author’s note to one of his books, that “every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it,” he says that he writes science fiction because he enjoys imagining a world beyond the “narrow” one we live in. “For me, the essence of science fiction is using my imagination to fill in the gaps of my dreams,” says Mr. Liu.

In China, science fiction has often been inseparable from ideology. A century ago, early efforts in the genre were conspicuously nationalistic: “Elites used it as a way of expressing their hopes for a stronger China,” says Mr. Liu. But the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution banned science fiction as subversive, and critics in the 1980s argued that it promoted capitalist ideas. “After that, science fiction was discouraged,” Mr. Liu remembers.

In recent years, however, the genre has been making a comeback. This is partly because China’s breakneck pace of modernization “makes people more future-oriented,” Mr. Liu says. But the country’s science fiction revival also has quite a lot to do with Mr. Liu himself.

In 2015, he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science fiction prize. A 2019 adaptation of his short story “The Wandering Earth” became China’s third-highest-grossing film of all time, and a movie version of his bestselling novel “The Three-Body Problem” is in the works. His new book, “To Hold Up the Sky,” a collection of stories, will be published in the U.S. in October. (His American books render his name as Cixin Liu, with the family name last, but Chinese convention is to put the family name first.)

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

The Off-Kilter History of British Cuisine

Nothing to do with books, but PG had never heard of Fanny Cradock before.

From The Paris Review:

On the evening of November 11, 1976, the BBC broadcast the third episode of The Big Time, which followed members of the public as they tested themselves in high-pressure situations. It was what we’d term today a reality TV-style show, and that week was the turn of Mrs. Gwen Troake, a middle-aged woman from rural Devon in southwest England, who was being given the chance to design and cook a special banquet at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel in London. Troake, an amiable, soft-spoken lady any audience would root for, was assigned the most demanding mentor the production team could muster: Fanny Cradock, an extraordinary character who was the face and voice of cooking on British television  from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, and was once described by one national newspaper as “a preposterous character, the foodie you loved to loathe.”

Cradock built an entertainment brand on her putative brilliance in the kitchen, but also her superciliousness, hectoring her husband, mistreating her colleagues, and patronizing her audience, the great British public, whom she regarded to be gastronomic philistines. Evidently, this included Gwen Troake, the amateur cook on The Big Time. As Troake ran through what she was planning to serve at the banquet—a seafood cocktail, followed by duck, and rounded off with a rum and coffee cream pudding—Cradock rolled her eyes, gulped, and grimaced in a pantomime of disgust and disbelief at the overbearing richness of the menu, at one point blowing her cheeks out as though she were about to be physically sick. When Troake revealed that the duck would be served with a blackberry jam, Cradock could stomach no more and unleashed what she thought was the ultimate insult. “All these jams,” she said, “they are so English.”  Despite being stereotypically English in so many ways, in her mind the only really good English—or, indeed, British—food was really just French food by a different name. “The English have never had a cuisine. There’s nothing English. Yorkshire pudding came from Burgundy.”

She was probably wrong about Yorkshire pudding, but she definitely had a point, both about the heaviness of Troake’s menu, and the sorry state of her nation’s cuisine. In the postwar decades of Cradock’s great success, amidst heated debates about what it meant to be British in a post-imperial world, British food was an international laughingstockIt was fitting, then, that Cradock herself seemed to be in a perpetual identity crisis. Her personality was as peculiar as many of her famous recipes, and nobody was quite sure which of the stories she told about herself were true, and whether, despite her constant talk of refined French food, she was half as accomplished in the kitchen as she claimed to be. In the words of somebody who knew her well, “She wasn’t real … she didn’t know who she was. She made herself up as she went along.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Who let the dons out?

From The Critic:

Contrary to what you sometimes read in the newspapers, the media don has been going strong for upwards of 120 years. When English Literature started professionalising itself at the end of the nineteenth century and universities needed to fill their newly-created English departments, they tended to recruit from journalism.

That first wave of English professors consequently deposited such all-round pundits as John Churton Collins (Birmingham) and George Saintsbury (Edinburgh) on the lecture-room podium — all erstwhile hacks who, whatever the glamour of their academic gigs, could never quite abandon the trade that had brought them preferment.

Come the 1960s, as both universities and media doubled in volume, this wave turned into a torrent. Malcolm Bradbury (UEA), David Lodge (Birmingham again), the sociologist Laurie Taylor (often thought to be the original of Howard Kirk in Bradbury’s The History Man) each contrived to build a highly lucrative bridge between academe, the public prints, and the Today programme.

All of a sudden, the don could have it both ways — file that learned 5,000 words for Essays in Criticism and review for the Observer, publish a book with a title such as Foucault and the Structuralist Hegemony and judge the Booker Prize. Bliss it was to be alive in that cross-cultural dawn.

Half-a-century later, alas, the laudable aim of encouraging brainy specialists to share their knowledge with the world at large has turned into a complete disaster. Why is the presence of an academic on a book prize judging panel, fronting a BBC Four arts documentary or even reviewing for a national newspaper generally such an embarrassment? One reason, alas, is that fatal assumption of omnicompetence — the idea that talent translates from discipline to discipline which finds the titans of academe being employed to carry out tasks for which they may not actually be qualified. Mary Beard is a Classics professor. Why should she end up on poetry symposia or presenting arts docs about painting?

Another reason is the sheer inability of most academics to step down from the Parnassus of their specialist subject and engage with non-specialist hoi-polloi. This failing is particularly evident in the bread-and-butter world of book reviewing.

. . . .

As for mother Carey’s chickens, all avidly disporting themselves in the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the London Review of Books and countless other organs, their main limitation is that they possess all the book reviewer’s traditional faults, only more so. Item one on a pretty considerable list is score-settling (see Terry Eagleton’s decades-long spat with A.C. Grayling, or the multiple vendettas annually conducted by Craig Raine).

Item two, as immemorially practised in the LRB, is simply to use that new volume of essays about Harold Wilson as an excuse to drone on about your own opinion of the postwar Labour Party while barely mentioning the book that started you off.

Readers often complain about book-page glad-handing. No one, it might be said, glad-hands like an academic.

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

The art of the normal

From The Bookseller:

Super Thursday has arrived early this year. Thanks to some overexcited reporting, the annual media frenzy that follows the yearly revelation that a lot of new hardback books are published in the autumn, has been focused on early September, rather than October, as we used to know it.

For numbers people, here are a few. Yesterday (3rd September) around 260 trade hardbacks were released.

. . . .

Come “real” Super Thursday on 1st October, we go again with some 450 trade hardbacks, a healthy increase on 2019, but mercifully down on 2018’s record.

This is not new, of course. For as long as there have been books, there appear to have been more of them than there are readers. Overproduction has often been denounced as a plague, but rarely have we done much about it. For publishers, a book is the thing that can cure all of our ills—just one more, as I’ve been known to say while on my way to the bar. It is easy to scoff, but the media’s fascination with this subject should not be taken too lightly, not least because for all of the smart campaigns that will be launched between now and December, this one costs us not a jot (except perhaps in reputation). In fact, we ought to be revelling in this big moment for books, just as we can take solace from how books kept us entertained and informed during the lockdown.

The trade is not just about big books (though we might like them), but also about the people who write and sell them. As the author Joanne Harris argues, for writers these weeks will likely just be “confusing, stressful and culminating in annihilation”. For booksellers, as pictures circulating on social media of stacks of as-yet-unopened deliveries suggest, it is both a physical and mental assault course.

This time around there is the added spice of having to contend with the new normal. We are often accused, in this sector, of denying the obvious. This year we cannot. In his half-year results address, Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle talked about a world in which online book sales have become more important. He is not wrong; Covid has shown us all how fragile a supply chain can be when it is reliant on customers wanting to visit physical locations together.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG wonders if traditionally-published authors ever question whether it’s a good idea for their books to be released on the same day as hundreds of other books are released.

PG also wonders how good a job underpaid publicity people and unpaid interns do with providing excellent support for a massive launch of so many books at once.

PG will note that the OP is focused on the British book business, but large US publishers have similar and often synchronized book release schedules.

If your debut novel is released on the same day as Delia Owens’ second novel is released and JK Rowling’s US publisher releases a new Harry Potter sequel, guess how much attention your book will receive.

For publishers, building up enthusiasm among the literati and press might be a great idea.

For an individual author’s book dumped onto the market along with a bunch of other new books, maybe not so much.

Nonfiction, and the Past as ‘a Foreign Country’

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nonfiction publishing is often perceived by the outside world as somehow more predictable and less risky than fiction.

It’s certainly the case that betting on untried novelists is very high-risk. It’s even the case that lashing out large advances on established writers carries a degree of risk, should the writer have a declining fan base or say something to upset a special-interest group.

While some areas of nonfiction appear to be risk-free, it’s remarkable how often that’s only an appearance. The reality is that nonfiction is just as risky as fiction, just as hard to predict, and just as affected by vogue, trends, and demographics.

Per the opening line of LP Hartley’s 1953 The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But perhaps we can learn something from the past while we look to the future and try to discern how the publishing landscape might be once the clouds of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic have cleared.

. . . .

The first lesson comes from two of my ancestors.

Garment manufacturing in Clapham Square, London, 1910. Image by Toby Charkin, provided by Richard Charkin

One owned a wedding dress factory in Margaret Street, which was then the clothing district of London. The other oversaw the manufacture of underwear and dresses in Clapham Square for the city’s burgeoning middle class. The business principle that guided them both was, “The one who makes the most money is the one who is first out of a fashion craze—not the first in.”

The same might be true in nonfiction publishing.

. . . .

The first book craze I can remember was for illustrated nostalgia. Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady . . . was the front-runner, followed by Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.  They sold in their hundreds of thousands of units by satisfying a desire to enjoy what appeared to be a simpler and more perfect world.

Of course, publishers being the owners of excellent rear-view mirrors, they piled into the genre until the profit was eviscerated.

And there was the computer books boom of the 1980s: Fortran, Cobol, and all that.

. . . .

Right now, there seems to be an unquenchable thirst in the English-speaking world for books on politics, political scandal, and racial inequality.

. . . .

The overdue realization that health really matters will ensure that governments will prioritize the funding of primary and secondary health care, public health, and communication with the general public.

I suspect that there will be growing demand in digital and print for reliable and comprehensible information, formerly known as popular medicine.

In addition, we’ll see renewed research activity into all aspects of infectious disease and epidemiology with consequent growth in high-level open-access research and review publications. The distinction between general public, professional, and research information about health will narrow as more people want to know more about their own health—and as more professionals understand the need to communicate outside their own specialist communities.

. . . .

In this age of uncertainty, people will turn to books about happiness, de-stressing, self-awareness, empathy, and human interaction. “Mind, body, spirit” will emerge as a major genre, challenging even the dominance in British bookshops of celebrity-led cookery books.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Science Fiction Epics That Transcend the Moment

From The Wall Street Journal:

Science fiction can be hard to disentangle from the real world. Futuristic tales about advanced technology and clashing alien civilizations often read like allegories of present-day problems. It is tempting, then, to find some kind of political message in the novels of Liu Cixin, 57, China’s most famous science fiction writer, whose speculative and often apocalyptic work has earned the praise of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. The historian Niall Ferguson recently said that reading Mr. Liu’s fiction is essential for understanding “how China views America and the world today.”

But Mr. Liu insists that this is “the biggest misinterpretation of my work.” Speaking through an interpreter over Skype from his home in Shanxi Province, he says that his books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, shouldn’t be read as commentaries on China’s history or aspirations. In his books, he maintains, “aliens are aliens, space is space.” Although he has acknowledged, in an author’s note to one of his books, that “every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it,” he says that he writes science fiction because he enjoys imagining a world beyond the “narrow” one we live in. “For me, the essence of science fiction is using my imagination to fill in the gaps of my dreams,” says Mr. Liu.

In China, science fiction has often been inseparable from ideology. A century ago, early efforts in the genre were conspicuously nationalistic: “Elites used it as a way of expressing their hopes for a stronger China,” says Mr. Liu. But the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution banned science fiction as subversive, and critics in the 1980s argued that it promoted capitalist ideas. “After that, science fiction was discouraged,” Mr. Liu remembers.

In recent years, however, the genre has been making a comeback. This is partly because China’s breakneck pace of modernization “makes people more future-oriented,” Mr. Liu says. But the country’s science fiction revival also has quite a lot to do with Mr. Liu himself.

In 2015, he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science fiction prize. A 2019 adaptation of his short story “The Wandering Earth” became China’s third-highest-grossing film of all time, and a movie version of his bestselling novel “The Three-Body Problem” is in the works. His new book, “To Hold Up the Sky,” a collection of stories, will be published in the U.S. in October. (His American books render his name as Cixin Liu, with the family name last, but Chinese convention is to put the family name first.)

. . . .

His first book appeared in 1989, and for years he wrote while working as an engineer at a state-owned power plant. The publication of “The Three-Body Problem,” in 2006, made him famous, and after a pollution problem shut the plant down in 2010, he devoted himself to writing full-time.

Mr. Liu’s renowned trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” published in China between 2006 and 2010, tells the story of a war between humans on Earth and an alien civilization called the Trisolarans who inhabit a planet in decline. The story begins in the 1960s, in the years of the Cultural Revolution, and eventually zooms millions of years into the future. The aliens’ technological superiority and aggressive desire to exploit Earth’s resources have made some readers see them as a metaphor for the colonial Western powers China struggled against for more than a century. But Mr. Liu says this is too limited a view of his intentions. What makes science fiction “so special,” he says, is that its narratives often encourage us to “look past boundaries of nations and cultures and races, and instead really consider the fate of humankind as a whole.”

The English version of “The Three-Body Problem,” the first book in the trilogy, differs from the original in a small but telling way. In this 2014 translation, the story begins with an episode from the Cultural Revolution, in which a character’s father is publicly humiliated and killed for his “reactionary” views. The translator Ken Liu (no relation to the author) moved the scene to the start of the book from the middle, where Mr. Liu admits he had buried it in the original Chinese because he was wary of government censor

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

The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Costs of Humor in the USSR

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

“IF THEY COME for me, I won’t give you up. I won’t tell them what happened in this room.” Vasily Babansky let out a sigh and locked eyes with the four young men around him. It was February 1940 and 18-year-old Vasily had become increasingly sure that the NKVD was closing in on him.

The silence hung thickly in the air, so at odds with the laughter they usually shared here. The five students were gathered together in their usual haunt — one of the dormitories at the Zoological Institute in Stavropolsky District, southwestern Russia. The door was locked, as it always was when they wanted to speak freely, but now the bolt seemed woefully inadequate. If the NKVD was coming for them, all they could rely on was silence and their loyalty to one another.

Silence would be a problem, though. They’d have to tell the NKVD something if they were arrested; Stalin’s secret police didn’t take “No” for an answer. Aleksandr Mitrofanov proposed they should tell the truth, but not the whole truth — they would come clean about anything they’d said or done in front of witnesses at the Institute, “but keep quiet about what went on in our room,” recalled another of the students, Pavel Gubanov.

They all solemnly agreed, and then Mitrofanov rushed off to find the poem he’d written criticizing the Soviet regime. He was proud of his work, and the group had hoped to make anonymous copies and spread them across campus. Instead, after relocking the door behind him, he would ritualistically read the poem aloud one last time to his comrades, then set the paper alight and watch the flames consume his words.

It would be another 11 months before the NKVD descended, but when they did, the lives of these young men would be torn apart. Despite their earnest pact not to inform on each other, in the end they had little choice. The NKVD has gone down in history for its brutality and willingness to extract confessions by any means necessary. All five would break their vow of silence as the interrogators raked through the ashes of their lives at the Institute. Aleksandr Mitrofanov, Vasily Babansky, Mikhail Penkov, and Pavel Gubanov would all be sentenced for the crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for being part of a “counterrevolutionary organization” that, the authorities were sure, was actively plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mitrofanov and Babansky received 10 years, Penkov eight, and Gubanov seven. The fifth man, Damir Naguchev, was for some reason treated with a touch more leniency: he received “only” three years for failing to denounce his comrades.

Locked doors, burnt evidence, and a plan for resisting interrogation: at first glance, it certainly sounds like conspiracy was afoot at the Institute. But if we take a closer look at the evidence left behind in the formerly secret Soviet archives, the fate of these five teenagers reveals a very different story. A story of how, under Stalin, a poem, a few jokes, and five open minds could spell disaster.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

As PG reviewed the OP and thought of a novel he is reading that is set, in part, in the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Red Army Air Forces. One of the characters has to flee from her regiment because her father has been convicted and executed for anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin outbursts and all his family members are to be arrested.

Back to the 588th regiment. This group, which flew all of its bombing missions at night, were called the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” by their targets in the Wehrmacht because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made as they dived into their attacks resembled that of a sweeping broom. There was no other noise because the pilots were instructed to idle their engines at altitude, prior to beginning their bombing glide to drop their bombs on the German troops.

The antiquated bombers, 1920s bi-plane crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles prior to being repurposed for night bombing were effectively invisible to German radar or infrared defense systems. They were unarmored, built of plywood with canvas stretched on top and most had no guns for defense. Machine guns and ammunition would be too heavy to carry in addition to the weight of a single bomb attached under each wing. Parachutes were also too heavy to carry.

These planes had a top speed of 94 mph and a cruising speed of 68 mph. The most common German fighter plane the Night Witches faced in battle was the Messerschmitt 109, which had a top speed of 385 mph. The maximum speed of the bombers was slower than the stall speed of the German planes, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target.

The Night Witches continued their attacks through three winters, 1942-43, 1943-44 and 1944-45. Their planes had open cockpits and no insulation. Flying them exposed their pilots and navigators to almost unimaginably bitter cold temperatures. During those Russian winters, the planes became so cold, just touching them would rip off bare skin.

The Night Witches ended the war as the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force.

On average, each pilot/navigator crew flew about 800 missions. For comparison, United States heavy bomber crews flew bomber crews’ obligations were between 25-35 combat missions.

(In fairness, since the Night Witches were stationed at airfields so close to the front lines, the flight time spent on each of their missions was much shorter. Many US crews spent far more time in the air because their missions involved much longer flights to reach their targets. On the other hand, the Night Witches were under direct enemy fire far more frequently, sometimes flying 8 missions in a single night.)

Kuwait amends censorship law for books, but many questions remain unanswered

From The New Publishing Standard:

Prior to the new law a 12-member censors committee met twice a month and decided which books would be permitted or banned. Now books can be published first, and banned after. Previously banned books remain banned.

Amendments to Kuwait’s notoriously restrictive press and publications laws were passed by the Kuwait National Assembly this week, in what was described as “an important step in terms of increasing freedom with a balanced commitment to moral, legal and national controls (and) a gift to writers, intellectuals, creators and everybody involved in culture.”

Amendments include a condition that for imported books the importer will bear the legal responsibility for the ideas and opinions expressed in the publication.

. . . .

Kuwaiti activist Abdullah Khonaini told Gulf News:

The freedom of expression is already restricted in Kuwait on multiple levels, this law doesn’t fix it. The amendment shifts the power of censorship away from the executive branch and to the judicial branch. We still need to work on the prohibition section in the law, which needs a stronger political lobby and mature political and societal awareness.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

The 22-Year-Old Blogger Behind Protests in Belarus

More under the category, “There are worse things than Covid.”

From The Atlantic:

In the videos posted last Sunday from Belarus, thousands of people can be seen streaming into the center of Minsk, walking up the broad avenues, gathering in a park. In smaller cities and even little towns—Brest, Gomel, Khotsimsk, Molodechno, Shklov—they are walking down main streets, meeting in squares, singing pop songs and folk songs. They are remarkably peaceful, and remarkably united. Many of them are carrying a flag, though not the country’s formal flag, the red and green flag used in the Soviet era. Instead, they carry a red-white-red striped flag, a banner first used in 1918 and long associated with Belarusian independence.

It was a marvelous feat of coordination: Just as in Hong Kong a few months ago, the crowds knew when to arrive and where to go. They knew what they were marching for: Many people carried posters with slogans like leave—directed at the Belarus dictator/president, Alexander Lukashenko—or freedom for political prisoners! or free elections! They carried the flag, or they wore red and white clothes, or they drove cars festooned with red and white balloons.

And yet, at most of these marches, few leaders were visible; no one ascended a stage or delivered a speech into a microphone. The opposition presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who probably won the contested election held on August 9, fled the country last week. How did everyone know exactly what to do? The answer, improbably, is a 22-year-old blogger named Stsiapan Sviatlou, who lives outside the country and runs a channel called Nexta Live on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

On Sunday morning, Nexta—the word means “somebody”—posted a red and white invitation to the march. “Ring the doorbells of your neighbors, call your friends and relatives, write to your colleagues,” the message instructed them: “We are going EXCLUSIVELY peacefully to the center of town to hold the authorities to account.” The invitation also contained a list of demands: the immediate freeing of political prisoners, the resignation of Lukashenko, the indictment of those responsible for a shocking series of political murders.

People went to the Minsk march, and to dozens of smaller marches across the country, because they saw that message. On subsequent days, many went on strike because they saw another message on that channel and on channels like it. Over the past 10 days, people all across Belarus have marched, protested, carried red and white flags and banners, and gathered at factories and outside prisons because they trust what they read on Nexta. They trust Nexta even though Sviatlou is only 22 years old, even though he is an amateur blogger, and even though he is outside the country.

Or to put it more accurately, they trust Nexta because Sviatlou is only 22, and because he is an amateur who lives outside the country. In Belarus, the government is a kind of presidential monarchy with no checks, no balances, and no rule of law. State media are grotesquely biased: Memo98, a media-monitoring group, reckons that Belarus state television devoted 97 percent of all political news programming to Lukashenko in May and June, with only 30 seconds devoted to opposition presidential candidates. Political leaders in Belarus are routinely repressed, and their voices are muffled: Tsikhanouskaya was running for president because her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested before he could start his own presidential campaign. Other candidates and politicians were also arrested, along with their staff. Some are still in prison. Human-rights groups have evidence of torture.

. . . .

Paradoxically, the Lukashenko regime is also the source of his unusual power. By suppressing all other sources of information, it has given him unprecedented influence. This also has its downsides. One member of the tiny but determined community of independent journalists in Belarus—I am leaving him unnamed because he remains in Minsk—pointed out that the administrators of Telegram channels outside the country (Sviatlou is one of several) have no way to check whether what they are publishing is true, and no way to coordinate what they are doing with anyone else. Although he does communicate with other channel administrators, as well as with coordinators in Minsk, mistakes are sometimes made. A couple of days ago, crosscurrents of information nearly led one group of opposition protesters into a public brawl with another.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Belarusian Writers Stand By Their People

From Publishing Perspectives:

As the Belarusian election protests expand, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has spoken from her exile in Lithuania today (August 21). She is urging widening strikes, asking citizens not to be “fooled by intimidation,” as reported by the BBC.

Days before the now-disputed election of August 9, PEN International issued a joint statement–writing for the 24 PEN centers that stand in various parts of the world. That statement of concern is focused on what the Belarus PEN Center’s Sviatlana Aleksievič has said were two dozen political prisoners whose freedom of speech the center believed was being suppressed.

“Among them are bloggers and journalists, patrons of culture, Aleksievič wrote, “those who in 2020 awakened the Belarusian society, and for the first time in 26 years create serious competition for the authoritarian regime of Aliaksandr Lukašenka [longtime Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko].

“Today, Belarusian writers stand by their people as the story is being written in the streets and squares, not at desks.”

. . . .

Indeed, this morning (August 21), The Economist (which does not allow its writers bylines) has released a story describing, as other media have reported, how “prisoners were forced to kneel with their hands behind their backs for hours in overcrowded cells. Men and women were stripped, beaten, and raped with truncheons.”

“The repression was ostentatious,” The Economist piece continues. “Some victims were paraded on state television. By August 19, at least four people had been killed. The aim was both to terrorize citizens and to bind the regime’s officers by having them commit atrocities together, a tactic used by dictators and mafiosi to prevent defections.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Alert visitors will have noted that there are worse things than Covid.

Literary world overwhelmed by 600 books to be published on one day

From The Guardian:

Over the summer, novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls has been something of a hero. With a humorous nod to the less glamorous aspects of publishing life – hastily defrosted canapés and eked-out warm white wine – the author of One Day and adaptor of the Patrick Melrose novels has thrown a series of Twitter book launches, amplifying new releases from writers including (but far beyond) the big names who will automatically elicit review space and window displays. The responses from the authors, especially the debutants, to gaining the imprimatur of a much-loved and huge-selling colleague, and from readers to discovering books to connect with in a time of such immense disconnection, has been powerful and touching. It’s a particularly nice example of someone paying it forward.

Nicholls’s virtual launches have been held every Thursday, the day new books are traditionally published in the UK, but this week’s will be his last. Quite possibly, his publishers have reminded him that the paperback edition of his own book, Sweet Sorrow, needs some love, or perhaps he wants to get on with writing another.

It’s fortunate for him – although arguably less so for the world of books – that he’s bowing out before 3 September. On that day, in a development that has provoked anguish among booksellers, editors, reviewers and readers, almost 600 new books will be published, an increase of about a third from last year. There is such a thing as a crowded market, and then there is this: an avalanche of words that no retailer or media outlet could hope to accommodate. Even Waterstones Piccadilly, the chain’s flagship London store, is feeling the strain, one of the team writing on Twitter: “We are big and I doubt we’ll stock them all. No one has enough space for this.” They added: “We’ll do what we always do. Choose the books we think our Piccadilly customers will love most and those that we can honestly recommend.”

Why the surge? Largely, of course, it’s the pandemic: with bookshops closed and literary festivals and events cancelled or significantly shrunk and moved online, publishers moved swaths of their publication dates to later in the year. Festivals are still in abeyance, albeit with virtual events, but publishing houses – and their authors, many in extreme need of their publication payments, which usually represent a third of their advance against royalties – had to do something. To shift entire programmes to next year, its landscape still highly uncertain, would be to kick the can down a highly congested road.

But 3 September – just the first of a series of similar days throughout the autumn – is a problem. Waterstones Piccadilly has vast premises, but others – including the independent bookshops attempting to weather 2020’s storm – must rely on heavily curated selections and hard choices. For an industry that has suffered a series of shocks – including the collapse of wholesaler Bertrams, owing £25m to its creditors – autumn will be tough. For literary editors presiding over fewer pages for book reviews the issues are similarly intractable.

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

Perhaps PG didn’t read the OP carefully enough, but he doesn’t see a lot of author nurturing going on with this plan.

Why Organizing Workers in the Book Industry Is So Damn Hard

From Jacobin:

Workers in the book industry often suffer poor conditions and low pay, but are supposed to feel grateful for the privilege of working near books. Casting off such illusions is the first step to organizing publishers and booksellers, and fighting the exploitation that thrives in the hallowed culture industry.

. . . .

As book industry workers around the world experience destabilizing changes to their employment because of COVID-19, we’re reminded of how fragile workers’ rights can be in industries that are yet to properly organize. In Australia, when book industry workers need collective action more than ever, organizing even the smallest workplaces has proven difficult.

Compared to other creative or retail industries, union membership in the book industry has been slow, with the lack of union support placing workers in vulnerable positions. But why is organizing the book industry such hard work?

Along with the suppression and stigmatization of unions in the book industry, one of the steepest barriers to organizing is the myth of “doing it for the love of books,” which employers perpetuate to create the illusion that publishing workers are somehow exempt from the inherent exploitation of wage labor. Add to this the exclusivity of jobs in publishing and bookselling, and you’ve got yourself a submissive workforce that is largely averse to rocking the boat.

. . . .

In 2019, Penguin Random House (PRH) achieved the first union-negotiated enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) in publishing, facilitated by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), while in 2018, workers at bookshops across Melbourne successfully won a landmark protection of penalty rates and higher health and safety standards through the new but militant Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU).

As union delegates in these cases, we learned firsthand what the barriers to unionizing the book industry look like, and how they might be overcome.

. . . .

Wage stagnation nonetheless reflects the relative weakness of the modern union movement which is especially pronounced in the publishing industry where salary secrecy is rampant and wage theft obscured.

Meanwhile, bookshop workers are subject to the same issues of wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and precarity as their comrades in other retail work. Some Melbourne bookshop workers are among a group of retail, fast food, and hospitality workers who recently won protection of their penalty rates — despite a 2017 ruling by the Fair Work Commission allowing employers to reduce them — and this was only achieved because they unionized.

. . . .

At PRH, management actively repressed past efforts to organize, fostering a culture of secrecy that left staff feeling understandably anxious about criticizing workplace culture because of fear of retribution.

As Australian writer and book editor Samantha Forge wrote in 2018, “There is a sense among well-meaning, book-loving publishing workers that to ask for more, collectively, would be to imperil literary culture itself.” This atmosphere holds back discussion about the actual issues workers are facing.

Because organizing itself is considered so taboo, workers trying to build a movement are often stuck making the most elementary argument: that a union is necessary or helpful at all.

. . . .

We found that one simple but powerful method for overcoming this was to privately ask our comrades at work to describe their frustrations in their own words. At PRH, staff had made repeated requests for increased wages and paid overtime, using all the “appropriate” channels, but were stonewalled.

After inviting colleagues to speak openly about their conditions, delegates could then point to union action as the next reasonable and effective avenue for making improvements. Hardie Grant likewise refused workers’ demands for negotiations and set up a “suggestion box” instead — which members flooded with suggestions that management come to the table.

The same dynamic was apparent in bookshops, where we had to rapidly educate ourselves — and, very often, management — about our legal rights. To our knowledge, no Australian bookshop has successfully organized and negotiated an EBA with a union. The book industry has little literacy about how organized labor interacts with management, which can cause initial confusion about which union to join, what to expect, or how formal negotiations work.

. . . .

Perhaps the most persistent canard in the book trade — and one of the biggest obstacles to organization — is the idea that the work itself is pleasurable enough to justify low wages and precarity.

Bookshops in particular glamorize themselves and present shop work as something other than the alienated labor it truly is. Anyone who has worked in a bookshop can attest to the typical comments made by customers about how they would love to spend “all day reading.”

As James Daunt — the millionaire CEO of Daunt Books, Waterstones, and now Barnes and Noble — said last year, in response to the campaign waged by Waterstones’s staff for a real living wage, “To retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job.”

This is not to overstate the difficulty of bookshop work compared to any other kind of shop work — but rather to stress that it is just that: shop work, requiring the worker to sort, shelve, and sell products.

Daunt’s attitude is emblematic of the ideological mystification employed in the culture industry to disguise this fact. In the words of one former Waterstones employee, the fact that “many staff members didn’t put themselves in the same category as McDonalds staff or Tesco checkout assistants” undermined their last attempt at unionizing.

Link to the rest at Jacobin

Once again, a reason for right-minded people to avoid physical bookstores altogether.

Tate to cut over 300 jobs at commercial arm

From The Bookseller:

Tate has announced it is making 313 redundancies in its commercial operations, Tate Enterprises, including at its bookshops and publishing branch.

An email to staff, leaked online, from director Maria Balshaw and c.o.o. Vicky Cheetham, was sent on Tuesday announcing the job cuts at Tate Enterprises, due to be finalised by mid-September. The figure represents more than half of the commercial branch’s employees.

Referring to “painful and difficult decisions”, the email said: “While we have done everything we could to save as many jobs as possible, we simply cannot afford to keep employing as many colleagues as previously. The long-term drop in visitor numbers we are expecting for the foreseeable future, and the consequent loss of revenue, have left us no option but to resize our businesses in line with future demand.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The mother load

From The Guardian:

Never in my life had I been so high.

I’d just given a reading in Amsterdam after which the gracious hosts of the evening took me out for drinks. Three young women asked me questions about sex and love and desire as though I were an expert and it was nice but I was tired and unused to being considered an expert in anything but panic.

I thanked the hosts and slipped out. I’d always wanted to visit Amsterdam and I had only two nights. I wanted to walk the streets alone. I wanted to walk across the bridges and look at the waving water and look inside the windows of the closed shops. I wanted to find the loveliest cafe and mark it for the morning. I wanted to eat bitterballen and wash them down with stroopwaffel. And I wanted to get high.

The streets were dark with rain. I found a deli. It wasn’t one of the coffeeshops with the meticulously bagged furry sativa. This was just a deli, cartons of milk, packs of gum. Before leaving I bought one large plastic tub of marijuana brownies. It seemed wasteful not to, and the man assured me I absolutely could take the cookies on my flight to Romania early the next morning. OK yes why not yes yes is OK yes. He was equal parts aloof and confident and not understanding what I was saying. So it felt right.

In the hour that followed I held the joint with one hand and a broken umbrella with the other. I walked and smoked and the cherry kept going out on the joint and I didn’t have a lighter and so twice I stopped to ask strangers for a light and tried to balance the umbrella and the joint and the unwieldy weight of my embarrassment. I got so high that I didn’t feel panic about my imminent flight. I got so high that I didn’t get lost. I found my pretty hotel but had gotten so high that I forgot my four-year-old daughter was sleeping in a room upstairs.

Hang on now. Her father was in the room with her. But I almost forgot I was a mother. But that’s not it. I forgot enough about my panic that I wasn’t acting like the neurotic mother that I am. I rarely drink and when I do, I don’t drink much. So that getting high (so high) felt like a real breach. I got so high that I didn’t care that I got so high.

To some (or many!) I’m sure I would be considered in that moment (or many!) a bad mother. I know it for a fact because I spoke to hundreds of women for my book – many of them mothers – and they all had at some point been called “bad”. Many of them believed it to the extent that they felt they weren’t good enough for their children.

One of the women I spoke to was a talented musician. She told me that the only one of her singles that underperformed told the story of a bad mother. It was one of her favourite songs, but she had to stop singing it at concerts because she would receive death threats on Twitter. One listener threatened to kidnap her child, because she was too bad a mother to keep her.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Nigel Roby Sells the UK’s ‘The Bookseller’ to Stage Media Company

From Publishing Perspectives:

The United Kingdom’s longstanding news medium of record for book publishing, The Bookseller, has announced this morning in London (August 7) that it has been acquired by Stage Media Co., publisher of The Stage–the counterpart trade medium to The Bookseller for the British theater and performing arts industry.

Terms of the deal have not been made public, and media messaging from The Bookseller says that the new ownership is effective immediately, a result of talks that began in the autumn.

While The Bookseller is only being sold for the third time–a remarkable thing in itself for a an operation more than 150 years old–some may feel it’s had too short a time under the leadership of Nigel Roby, who bought the publication 10 years ago when Nielsen was divesting itself of its magazines, which included  The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard.

. . . .

“This is a bittersweet moment,” Roby says in a prepared statement for today’s news. “Owning and running The Bookseller has been the greatest privilege of my working life.

“I have put all of my care and energy into The Bookseller so leaving was never going to be easy. And it isn’t.”

. . . .

The Bookseller staff is expected to relocate, physically, to The Stage office space in Southwark’s brick-solid Bermondsey Street in the autumn.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

When PG first saw the headline of the OP, his initial thought was that The Bookseller is another victim of the Coronavirus.

If negotiations for the sale began last Autumn, that would seem to scotch questions about the victim narrative. However, finally coming to terms during the pandemic might imply tight finances at the publication helped move sales negotiations forward when they otherwise might have stopped.

All conjecture, however, on PG’s part.

3 New Thought-Provoking Horror Novels

From Book Riot:

I love how thought-provoking horror novels can be. Along with romance, horror is probably my favorite genre to read, and for similar reasons. That may seem counterintuitive, but I promise you it isn’t! Horror novels do not always end optimistically, the way romance novels guarantee. When they don’t, it’s a call to examine what justice looks like in the world of the novel. If, at the end, the monstrous force is winning, perhaps it’s not so monstrous after all. We should always be asking who the monster really is, what made it, and what it wants. That process of reckoning with monsters is a kind of optimism, because we believe it can be done.

Some readers are eager to “elevate” certain pieces of genre fiction from their genre into the realm of capital-L Literature. I don’t think that’s a worthwhile distinction to make. All fiction, genre or literary, makes a comment on the time of its writing and the society that produced it. The best thought-provoking horror novels are, like these, ones not trying to defy their genre. Completely entrenched in horror, the books celebrate and subvert tropes in turns. The authors are giving faithful horror readers the monsters, demons, and frights they desire, all while leaving eager readers with plenty of grist for the old brain mill.

. . . .

MEXICAN GOTHIC BY SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA

Mexican Gothic is, in many ways, a more honest version of classic gothic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The story begins when Noemí receives a letter from her newlywed cousin indicating she’s in mortal peril. This prompts Noemí to travel to the creepy manor her cousin lives in, where she too gets tangled in the mystery.

When a Gothic manor sits on a windswept moor, far from the place where the wealth was extracted to fund it, it’s tougher to see why it should be haunted. High Place, the house in Mexican Gothic, is in Mexico, a monument to a mining empire and geographically close to the mines themselves. The supernatural forces don’t have as far to travel. The connection becomes clearer. This book elegantly ties rotten families, marriage, childbearing, race, and capitalism together, without ever forgetting to be a wild, spooky, trope-y gothic ride.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

English Has Its Own Music

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

TRANSLATORS PLAY A crucial role as gatekeepers of world literature. We are currently witnessing an important era in literary translation where many platforms and institutions dedicated to the art and craft of literary translation recognize and celebrate this essential role played by translators.

. . . .

Ottilie Mulzet’s recent recognition on the global stage is a case in point. She has made a name for herself as translator of both contemporary Hungarian and Mongolian literatures. Most recently, her rendition of László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming received the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Her text clearly displays not only the brilliance of the author but also Mulzet’s own genius in recreating his characteristically unwieldy, bleak yet surprising, somber yet agile prose. Despite the long — and, at first glance, unnecessarily detailed — lines that run, more often than not, across half a dozen pages, the text is remarkably accessible.

. . . .

CHAMINI KULATHUNGA: Most of the books you’ve translated have won or been nominated for major translation awards. And others have attracted a considerable amount of attention in the contemporary literary world. What are some of your early attempts at translation? How were they received by readers?

OTTILIE MULZET: My first attempts at translating occurred a few years after I began learning Hungarian. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a closed adoption in Canada, and I never even knew the background of my birth parents until I was in my late 20s. At the time, I was still deep in my love affair with French literature (I had studied for 18 months in Paris), and as I began my search — a long, tedious, draining, and partially underground process due to the records being permanently sealed — I was unrealistically hoping that one of them might turn out to be French. When I received the letter from the agency telling me only the “non-identifying information” that my mother’s background was Hungarian, I only had the vaguest of ideas concerning Hungary. To be honest, I was somewhat influenced by the portrayal of Eastern Europe in US mainstream media, and I imagined it to be a rather gray, sad communist country. My first visit there occurred before 1989, and what I found instead was a really vibrant place where the importance of literature and music seemed palpable. I immediately became fascinated and intrigued by this very strange language and its meter-long words (visible on the country’s signage, etc.). When I came home, I was determined to start learning it. For quite a while, I did my translations only for myself. Hungarian was quite literally a “graspable foreignness” to me — a foreignness I had to grasp, linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, in the endeavor of trying to understand something about my own maternal background.

Somehow, the whole project of translation only really took off for me once I moved to Europe in the late ’90s. I began attending the Attila József Circle Literary Translation Camp, and I began working at the Hungarian Translators’ House in Balatonfüred. I did translations into English and wrote articles for Soumar, which was an early internet literary magazine run by the Hungarian Institute in Prague. Soumar is no longer around, but I also ended up doing many translations and essays for Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu), which is still very much active.

My first published book was an earlier version of Szilárd Borbély’s Berlin-Hamlet, put out by FRA in Prague, which is an excellent small press working mainly in Czech. Trying to get attention for Borbély’s work while based in Prague was challenging: I mailed out review copies myself, even sending copies to various libraries in the US and UK so that the book would be available in some library collections (the publisher, understandably, had little budget for distribution). I had a reading in the tiny but atmospheric FRA basement café in Prague, attended by a few appreciative friends. One of my first big breaks was when George Szirtes included some poems from Berlin-Hamlet in his anthology New Order back in 2010. I had mailed him a copy, too. Beginning in 2008, I also did a lot of translations, and wrote essays, for the website Hungarian Literature Online.

. . . .

What is the nature of your editing process? What do you pay special attention to when editing your translations?

I line-edit against the original at least two or three times, then I edit for clarity and, hopefully, ever greater nuance, at least two or three more times, and this, of course, is still before the beginning of publisher’s editing process. I don’t use any kind of software, but rather have a printed PDF in front of me with the translation on my laptop. I like to have the PDF to scribble notes about rhythms in the text, special vocabulary, and other observations. It feels important to me to still have this one tactile link to the text. In some instances, for example, as with some of Krasznahorkai’s longer sentences, I sometimes mark up different sections of the sentence in different colors. I have a special set of colored markers and pencils for that.

. . . .

In one of your interviews with The Paris Review, you used this interesting simile to describe the extreme elasticity of the Hungarian language: “[I]t’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words.” What are some of the linguistic resources you make use of in English when you’re translating a text from Hungarian?

Probably the most salient example of this would be “The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine” in Seiobo There Below, which is one sentence running to 46 pages in the Hungarian and 50 pages in my English translation. I kept reading it aloud to myself over and over to make sure that the English flowed. I don’t so much use specific techniques as try to ensure that the reader stays anchored without over-explaining. A lot more can be suppressed in a Hungarian sentence, and in narrative in general. For example, in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, every section begins in medias res, in the middle of a character’s dialogue or ruminations: the narrative has shifted either slightly forward or backward in time (like a tango step), and no indication is given as to who is speaking; this emerges usually after five to 10 lines, although the English reader has more clues than the Hungarian one because Hungarian doesn’t need gender. Interestingly, I was about to write “Hungarian lacks gender,” which demonstrates how easily one internalizes English-language norms!

In general, I think that monolingual English readers are far less tolerant of ambiguity. “Lack of clarity” is perceived as a defect of style in standard English, but for me a great deal of the aesthetic pleasure in a Krasznahorkai text lie in his deliberate disorientating strategies. Another example of a Krasznahorkai narrative strategy would be the final walk of the Baron in the City Forest, when suddenly he is accompanied by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, and the current Roman Catholic pope. The entire incident is written as if it were really happening, but since it is a memory, it must be occurring in the Baron’s head — and yet for me, at least, these passages exist in a liminal space: what they describe is both real, and a dream. Perhaps there is something in the grammar of Hungarian, and the fact that it is a heavily contextual language, that allows for that kind of hovering quality. In a recent conversation, Krasznahorkai said that these figures are absolutely real for him: elsewhere, he has stated that also, for him, Josef K. and Prince Myshkin are not fictive characters. For me, Krasznahorkai’s figures are real: I have bumped into the characters from Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming while in Hungary. And so if Krasznahorkai is channeling something while he writes (he has referred to himself “taking dictation” from these figures), then I am also just channeling what he has already channeled.

In terms of linguistic resources, more than anything else, I feel that I have to suspend a lot of what I’ve absorbed as “good normative English,” while at the same time very much drawing upon everything I’ve ever read in English. I think reading as widely as you can in your target language is very important. Maybe it’s also about having a good technical repertoire as to how to construct a sentence, while at the same time forgetting about it while you’re translating. Perhaps it’s something like being a musician who has to try to thoroughly master technique, so as not to be confined by it.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG had never thought much about the process of translation of a book from one language to another.

After considering the OP, he suspects that machine translation programs likely have a very long way to go.

Longest running conservation journal goes Open Access

From The Bookseller:

Oryx, the international journal of conservation published by Cambridge University Press, is to become Open Access from January next year, in a move made possible by a grant from The Rufford Foundation.

From January 2021, the journal–which is the world’s longest running conservation journal–will be free to anyone with an internet connection. Past content dating as far back as 1950 will be made freely available, as well as all new research which will be published Open Access from next year. Meanwhile unfunded authors will benefit from a new APC (article processing charge) waiver policy, also thanks to The Rufford Foundation, dedicated to nature conservation.

CUP publishes the journal on behalf of wildlife conservation charity Fauna & Flora International, and it is billed as the “go-to publication for anyone interested in biodiversity conservation, conservation policy and related social, economic and political issues”.

Editor Dr Martin Fisher, who has overseen Oryx for almost 20 years, said: “This is the most significant development in the journal’s eminent history. Thanks to the support of the Rufford Foundation and Cambridge University Press’ commitment to Open Access publishing, the research published in Oryx will be freely accessible to all readers, no matter where they live or work.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

China Bestsellers in June

From Publishing Perspectives:

In our look at China’s January-to-June statistics for this unusual year, one of the most interesting trends our associates at Beijing OpenBook had spotted was an ongoing struggle for the larger bookstores in the largest cities to reopen. Major chains and recognized big-store hubs were encountering sales drops of 50 and 55 percent by comparison to the first six months of 2019, as digital retail gained some traction.

Parallel to this, bestseller lists, research shows, in June were reflecting a logical interest not only in self-help and self-realization, but also in books directly related to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and prevention of a pathogen’s spread. In fiction, the concerns continued to drive sales of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 Love in the Time of Cholera, in an anniversary edition selling 3 million copies.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

6 Tips To Translate Your Work Effectively

From Writers in the Storm:

A few months ago, my editor and translator colleague Luis Pelayo asked me, “Why aren’t more US authors publishing in Spanish?” He shared a 2019 report titled El Español: Una Lengua Viva from the respected Instituto Cervantes, a non-profit organization devoted to the study and teaching of Spanish language and culture. The study states that Spanish is a first language for 483 million people around the world and that in the US, Spanish is the second most learned language at every academic level. What’s more, because of demographical reasons, the percentage of Spanish speaking persons continues to increase.

. . . .

If your book is doing well in your native language market, it will probably do well with a similar audience elsewhere. For this blog post, I’m focusing solely on literary translations. Here are my six tips on how to do it effectively and efficiently.

1. Hire a human being to translate your work.

Don’t attempt to translate the book yourself. If you’re not a native speaker of the language you’re trying to publish in, don’t even attempt it. Google Translate or Deepl is not for that. Nor is any other translation software. You need a human being to interpret your work and ideas and put them on the page in the way it would be said in their language.

A literary translator understands tone, voice, style, and can interpret meaning. What’s more, they know of the target language (TL) culture—therefore making sure you don’t offend anyone either. Remember, your time is probably better spent being creative and writing your next piece.

2. Calculate a budget and set aside funds.

A professional translator is going to cost money, whether you go through an agency or hire a freelancer. The agency advantage is that they can translate your work into many languages at the same time. However, freelance translators are often more accommodating, have flexible schedules, and are available for direct consultations.

Literary translators are professionals who study, are continually educating themselves, take tests, get certifications, are qualified, and excel at translating literary works. Search a reputable online directory of translators like Proz.com or The American Translators Association, or ask fellow writers or editors for recommendations.

Most translators can translate between 300-400 words per hour, with rates starting at $50 per hour. Some translators may bill by project depending on the topic or difficulty of the text. Calculate how many hours it should take to translate your work and budget accordingly (if it’s a book, count the cover, front matter, and back matter too.) Don’t skimp on translation. A bad translation may earn you negative reviews, decrease your sales, and damage your reputation.

3. Vet your translator, then book them.

Hire a professional translator whose native language is the TL you want your work translated into. They should have good reviews and samples of work you can check out. You could even ask them to translate half a page of your work, and then have their work reviewed by someone who speaks the TL.

Once you’ve chosen a translator you like, book a spot in their calendar. Good and reliable translators are booked in advance (they might not live in your country or time zone.)

A client of mine recently asked her American-raised German colleague to translate her memoir. My client thought it would be fun to involve her friend. Her friend thought she was doing my client a favor. When I hired a native German speaker to proofread the book, the feedback I received was, “It reads like a book that’s been translated into German. Not written in German.”

Don’t distract your reader from your text because of incorrect word choice, awkward vocabulary, or inaccurate TL sentence structure. You want the reader to enjoy the story without being taken out of it because something doesn’t sound right. Your translated book should read like it was written in the TL. If you want to involve your friends, use them as beta readers instead.

4. Have a Contract, be flexible, and available when needed.

A professional translator should offer you a contract that states word count, “start-by” and “deliver by” dates, how many rounds of revisions they’re willing to do, and the approximate cost for the whole project or each work hour. You’ll need to be available if the translator has questions about interpreting parts of your work. Don’t be surprised if they make a re-write suggestion because “in their culture, they don’t say things that way.” 

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Jamaica: Anatomy of an Uprising

From The Wall Street Journal:

Just after Christmas in 1831, the British Empire’s wealthiest island exploded. “Five weeks of burning, looting, crop destruction, courts-martial, on-the-spot executions, severed heads mounted atop poles, and outright human hunting for sport . . . shook slaveholding Jamaica to its foundations.” So writes Tom Zoellner, a professor at Chapman University, in “Island on Fire,” a pounding narrative of events that led to the end of slavery in the British colonies. “Soon the hills were on fire, each spiky leaf of sugar like a small torch or match head. Millions of yellow, flaming pinpricks spread in all directions in the velvety Caribbean night.”

Hundreds of slaves, having been pushed beyond endurance, attacked hated overseers and their masters’ property. “We have worked enough already, and will work no more,” striking laborers told a pair of plantation owners. “The life we live is too bad; it is the life of a dog.” In all, 145 estate houses were destroyed and many others severely damaged. Mr. Zoellner’s vigorous, fast-paced account brings to life a varied gallery of participants, black, white and “colored”— the then-standard designation for quasi-free people of mixed race.

Among these figures are Richard Barrett, one of the island’s richest sugar growers and a relative of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who passed for a moderate in the island’s reactionary society; the remarkable, precariously positioned “colored” newspaper editor Edward Jordon, who had only gained full civil rights the previous year; and the revolt’s tragic central figure, an enslaved Baptist deacon named Samuel Sharpe. An apparently gifted speaker, Sharpe preached the equality of man based on the teachings of the Bible. He also believed inaccurate rumors that the king had already declared slaves free but that their masters were keeping the news a secret. In response, Sharpe surreptitiously planned a peaceful work stoppage. He may have ultimately hoped for the establishment of an independent republic similar to the one that had come into being a generation earlier in Haiti. Whatever his intentions, the stoppage quickly spiraled beyond his control and into full rebellion.

The uprising was soon over, having been weakened by its poor organization and thwarted by the failure of the island’s 300,000 slaves to rise en masse. It was also overwhelmed by the firepower of British troops. Few whites were killed, but the colonial elite’s confidence in its ability to defend itself was deeply shaken. Hundreds of enslaved men and women were killed in battle or summarily executed, some simply because they had attended a Baptist meeting. The exact number is unknown.

The revolt failed to improve conditions for the enslaved in Jamaica, but it crucially wounded the institution of slavery itself. Mr. Zoellner acknowledges that it was only one factor in the ending of slavery, along with surging abolitionism in Britain, an increasingly muscular reform movement in Parliament, and the falling price of sugar, the islands only export crop. But the revolt, he says, “sent an unambiguous message to London that slavery was no longer sustainable—not economically, not militarily, and not morally.”

The challenge to slavery in Jamaica and the rest of Britain’s Caribbean possessions had been a long time coming. As Trevor Burnard, a professor at the University of Hull, amply shows in his expansive and scholarly “Jamaica in the Age of Revolution,” colonial Jamaica was characterized by extreme systemic violence against enslaved people. It was also ruled over by a dissolute planter class obsessed with short-term profits that made it cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to sustain them into their later, less productive years.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG has read more than one article about slavery that has described the practice as a “uniquely American” or “peculiar” institution found only or almost-only in the United States.

This is, of course, not correct. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome each had large numbers of slaves. A great many Christians were enslaved during the Ottoman invasions of Europe. White slaves were common in Europe from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages. China formally abolished slavery in 1909.

Serfs in feudal Europe were not personal property that could be bought and sold, but, rather, they were attached to land. If a landowner sold a piece of land, the serfs living on the land went with it and were obligated to give a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors to the landowner and could be compelled to cultivate other land of their owner that was not occupied by serfs.

Russian serfdom was even more rigid.

From JSTOR Daily:

[Peter[ Kolchin writes that the Russian nobles “invented many of the same kinds of racial arguments to defend serfdom that American slave-owners used to justify” slavery. Some nobles went so far as to say they had white bones, while the serfs had black bones. Kolchin calls this an “essentially racial argument in defense of serfdom, even though no racial distinction divided lord and peasant.”

Then there was the aristocratic paternalism of the arguments that bondage was a humane institution in comparison to the precariousness of the free labor market. Both Russians and Americans argued that their systems of bondage resulted in a superior society.

Kolchin quotes American slave-advocates who argued that the race of slaves was actually immaterial. Absent Africans, these defenders of American slavery said whites would do just as well as blacks. Because planters needed the support of non-slaveholding whites, however, such arguments never dominated the defense of slavery.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG intends none of this be any sort of excuse for or defense of slavery in any form or fashion. It is always and everywhere a despicable evil. However, unfortunately, while it has been an American evil, it has also been a British, Russian, Chinese, Arabian, etc., etc., evil

Publishers who didn’t care about digital are putting a lot of money into that now

From The New Publishing Standard:

Arts Council England is, for those unfamiliar with the UK’s troubled political divisions, the government-funded arts body for the southern part of the UK, England, as opposed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This week the Council’s literature director Sarah Crown has been warning that despite spring 2020 financial support from the Council and from government furloughs, many independent publishers are struggling, and with the imminent threat of renewed lockdowns as autumn and winter loom, small publishers are “not out of the woods” yet.

The comments came in the UK trade journal The Bookseller’s webinar on the future of small presses where Crown stressed that while the literature sector of the arts scene was faring better than the performing arts, with theatres and cinemas closed, the survival of small presses was essential to the overall health of England’s arts.

. . . .

As summarised by The Bookseller, Crown said:

A priority for the literature sector of ACE is to help small presses move from “the fragile business models they are operating in currently”, and emerge from the pandemic with more sustainable structures that are not dependent on the next book sale.

At which point one might expect that digital-first publishers would be faring better than those who placed too much reliance on print and were hardest hit by the lockdown, but digitally-focussed publishers like Hera Books were finding that’s not the case, not because demand was low, but because competition was fierce.

Hera Books’ Lindsey Mooney explained the company was experiencing a plateau in sales:

This month, the trajectory we’re on is not great, we’re not doubling sales every month like we were (in part due to) big name authors discounting heavily” (but also because) publishers who didn’t care about digital are now putting a lot of money into that.

Cherise Lopes-Baker, commissioning fiction editor at Jacaranda Books, said that Jacaranda was commissioning fewer titles because of the uncertain future for bricks & mortar sales and consequently had,

pivoted to digital,

meaning investing in an online bookstore as well as digital books.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

The Baudelarian Horsewoman

From The Paris Review:

Most of the écuyères or horsewomen of the nineteenth-century circus left no trace of their own thoughts behind. Jenny de Rahden wrote a book. Whether she did it because she needed money or needed to put down her own side of the story after years of being spoken for in the European press—or both—is unknowable but she called it a roman or novel. I can’t tell how much of it is genuine. Jenny lived in an era before fact-checking and though her life was undoubtedly tragic, her style is sometimes melodramatic. “Does life really throw up these bizarreries, of which novelists and playwrights seem to possess the only secret?” she asks at one point. Perhaps calling it a novel gave her freedom to rewrite a messier past and fit it into more conventional romantic feminine tropes, rejecting the saltier stories written about circus horsewomen by male writers of the period. She was, after all, writing in 1902 when the century had barely turned and respectability remained a stifling life vest for women. She’d known its constrictions and buoyancy since birth: Jenny was not circus-born and she had become an artiste to support her father when he bankrupted them by gambling on the stock exchange. As a performer, her reputation as a lady was constantly at risk, not least because she supported not one but two men with her earnings. This dance around sex, money, masculinity, and respectability deformed her whole life—and resulted in a murder in her name.

Le Roman de l’Écuyère tells a familiar tale of a girl from a good family whose mother, as in the best fairy tales, died on hearing her first cries on a stormy night full of omens, and a father who, like Beauty’s, ruined the family with foolish business decisions. The good heroine refused to sell herself in a marriage that would restore the family, and instead bought three magical horses with the last gift her mother left her: an Arabian, a Trakehner, and the spotted Csárdás. Aged just seventeen, she took her father and her faithful aunt Tantante from Breslau (then part of the German Empire, now Wrocław in Poland) to Riga where a circus director and his jealous wife cheated her and stole one of her horses, and a distinguished gentleman at a local newspaper came to her aid like an excellent fairy godmother and ensured her success. On she went on a path through the woods peopled by circus directors who pinched wages, by their wives and daughters who did not want her above them on the bill, and by men who threw roses at Csárdás’s hoofs and rattled the door of her dressing room.

From Riga she went to Moscow, from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, where she was adored. One local aristocrat presented her with a huge golden stirrup as a tribute to her skill and charm. Another Baron asked the circus director, “Is there a way of doing something with the little one?” He was told that she was a good girl with a father and aunt in tow. He stared at her with such intensity that she fell off her horse, and of course he was there to scoop her up and take her home.

. . . .

In Copenhagen, a young Danish lieutenant called Frederick Castenschiold befriended both Jenny and the Baron but fell in love with Jenny. The Baron could not withstand the insult, and a duel was called. Jenny was told the men were going duck hunting. When she arrived in the aftermath, breathless from a performance and a train ride, dazzling circles vibrating before her eyes, she found her Baron bandaged with a Turk’s turban, smoking and laughing with his friends. Castenschiold was the army’s best fencer and her sailor husband preferred pistols—he had taken a saber swipe to the temple from the Dane. The matter resolved, they proceeded to the actual duck hunt. The Baron gave Castenschiold a photograph of Jenny. Castenschiold was reprimanded in person by King Christian for dueling over a circus performer.

. . . .

When Jenny first appeared at the Nouveau Cirque in Paris in October 1890, the critic and dramatist Jules Lemaître noted her conformation and that of Csárdás: “Very thin and very supple: a black thread; an elegant, dry little head, pale blonde hair tucked up under a top hat, with long kiss curls that cover half her cheeks and reach to the bottom of her ears, giving her pointy face a bizarre and disturbing air. She rides an equally bizarre big horse, pied as you’ve never seen before, riddled with ugly spots like ulcers, and which seems to be made of damp cardboard. She’s a Baudelairian horsewoman.”

Lemaître could not look away. “I don’t know if what she does is difficult, but it’s very arresting. At one point, the horse rears straight up, and the slender horsewoman bends right over backwards and dangles her head low … She has a bizarre fashion of saluting too, a composite of a feminine curtsey and a masculine salute. Go see her. In short, she’s very fin de siècle. I don’t know exactly what that means, but that’s what she is.”

. . . .

In Turin in May, the Baron managed two duels in one day after a count sent Jenny love letters “in the language of Dante” and, peeved that she did not respond, brought friends to her next performance and blew a whistle throughout. The Baron slapped him; honor was demanded. The Baron slashed the count’s neck with a saber (the count survived), refreshed himself with some marsala, then tackled the count’s friend, the best fencer in Italy, who caught the Baron’s face and then, after “halt” was called, stabbed the Baron in the shoulder. The Baron throttled him and knocked him over. Nobody’s honor was satisfied, but the duels were at least over.

At Asti, another man threw white roses into the ring as Jenny performed, and her horse, startled, leapt into the audience and landed on an old lady, who had to be paid off from Jenny’s meager buffer against destitution. In Lisbon, there was a man who was sure he could perform Jenny’s best trick. He came to the circus with his wife and son, strapped a Mexican saddle to his horse so he would stick, and up he and his horse went in a rear and didn’t stop till they were both on their backs and his leg was broken. So then all of Lisbon was angry that their best “sportsman” had been injured by a woman’s circus trick.

. . . .

Madrid. Seville. On an afternoon’s outing, Jenny seized a man’s revolver and shot a runaway fighting bull that had disemboweled two mules and turned on her carriage. Malaga. Barcelona. Here, as Jenny joined the Circus Allegria, the Danish lieutenant Castenschiold reappeared like a bad penny, trailing tales of Monte Carlo debts and army discharges. He had been, he said, in Egypt and fighting rebels in the Sudan. He had no money and would like to work in a circus. When the Baron questioned him, he waved a knife at the Russian. The Baron turned his back, and the next day word in the circus said that Castenschiold had left for the Americas. He had not.

. . . .

August 23, 1890. Jenny was standing backstage beside her horse before her performance, the Baron at her shoulder, when Castenschiold materialized before them in the corridor that ran around the circus arena. The Baron, seeking to avoid what was barreling toward the three of them, turned and walked away around the curve of the corridor. Castenschiold spun on his heels and ran in the other direction, hurrying to meet him. They clashed. The Dane raised his stick and struck the Russian. The Russian drew his revolver and his fingers convulsed on the trigger. Jenny, buttoning her gloves, heard the two shots. Then two more.

She found the Dane bleeding on the floor, asking for someone to bring him two photographs—of his mother and of Jenny. The Baron walked past Jenny without seeing her. “Tell my wife I did my duty,” said his mustache, as he asked for an absinthe at the circus bar. The police took him into custody. Castenschiold died twenty hours later. In his rooms, they found a portrait of Jenny and a box containing unsigned letters from a woman, and more photographs of the Baronne de Rahden. In accordance with Castenschiold’s dying wish, this box was burned.

. . . .

The Paris papers sent their best men to cover the Baron’s trial, and when Jenny was fenced into another cramped space—the witness box—another story emerged in the questions the lawyers put to Jenny and her father. That tale splits away from the spare account of proceedings that Jenny the author later gave.

. . . .

Jenny stood with her teeth gritted, refusing to answer most of the questions posed to her:

“You perhaps encouraged Castenschiold a little to pursue you?”

She lowers her head without saying yes or no.

“The evening before the murder your husband hit you and your father.”

“I don’t remember.”

The Baron was unmoved. When the jury withdrew, the reporters saw her go to him, “with the moist eyes of a beaten dog that wants to be beaten again,” and say a few words in German to her grim, furious husband. He smiled.

The judge told him off for letting his wife risk her life in the circus. One reporter suggested that he was defending his meal ticket as much as his wife’s honor. But the Baron was deemed not guilty—this was self defense, not premeditated murder—and finally, his composure cracked and he cried. The women in the courtroom swooned at the romance of it. Jenny nearly collapsed; she had leapt out of the square of fences once again, but where had she landed? One reporter saw the Baron as he went to collect Jenny after the trial: “They remained silent for a moment; he always glacial; her frozen, cheeks scarlet, eyes shining.” As he took a step toward her, she backed up in fear and ran away weeping.

Who is being melodramatic here? Jenny, the landlady, or the court reporter? Jenny sums up the court case in a brief chapter of her memoir and does not mention the heliotrope dress or her own interrogation. She is a faithful, distressed wife willing the jury to set her husband free. One journalist notes that the Baron was the “defender of her glory and her virtue,” and “she loved him in that role.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Baroness reminds PG a bit of a woman he dated prior to meeting Mrs. PG. No horses or duels were involved, however.

Spain’s Book Market: 40 Percent More Online Buying During Lockdown

From Publishing Perspectives:

[Spanish] consumers cited entertainment and disconnection from the situation (97 percent), relaxation (93 percent), and tranquility (90 percent) as the key values of reading during the lockdown. And 72 percent of respondents reported buying books online.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG doesn’t usually include two posts in a single day from the same source, but the confluence of the Spanish and US ebook market reports was too much for him to resist.

Wordsworth at 250

From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s time to celebrate the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, born 250 years ago in a picturesque market town in northern England. One way to size up his achievement is to venture backward, beginning in the present day and drifting past the postmodernists, the modernists, the Edwardians, the Victorians, until we finally reach Wordsworth, who for all his distance seems a kindred soul. We “get” him. Ours is an age rich in self-reflection and memoir writing, hospitable to a poet who chose himself as his primary subject. Wordsworth’s masterpiece, “The Prelude,” an endlessly revised unrhymed poem of 13 books that was never published in his lifetime, is often called the finest 19th-century English autobiography.

Another way—a better way—to size up Wordsworth is to begin some 250 years before his birth and march forward: Along the way, you encounter Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” and Shakespeare, Donne and the Metaphysicals, Pope and the Augustans, and none of these prepares you, quite, for Wordsworth. You don’t get him at all. Pursuing him in this fashion, you behold how singular his feats were as he examined how the “infant sensibility, / Great birth-right of our Being, was in me / Augmented and sustained.”

Radical Wordsworth” is the title of Jonathan Bate’s appealing new biography. Its chief concern is young Wordsworth, who was indeed politically radical, though a staunch conservative later in his long life. (Of the major Romantic poets—a tragically short-lived lot—only Wordsworth entered the reign of Victoria, who appointed him poet laureate in 1843, seven years before his death.) Young William’s imagination was inflamed by the French Revolution. He sojourned in France during a tumultuous stretch (1791-93), consorting with revolutionaries while fathering a child out of wedlock. Returning alone to England, he watched with dismay and disbelief as France’s ever-growing danse macabre skidded and slipped in a pool of blood.

But Mr. Bate’s radical focus is less political than literary. He illuminates Wordsworth’s poetic originality, beginning with the introducing (or reintroducing, after a century dominated by courtly verse) of an often rural plainspokenness. Wordsworth’s goal, as he stiffly put it, was “to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” It’s a voice one hears in “The Solitary Reaper” and “The Ruined Cottage” and “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” and so many other anthology pieces.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The History of Lucy Gray, William Wordsworth, McGill University Library

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

William Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, Stanza II, 1798
The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Wikimedia Commons

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. —Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

                       Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

                                If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft,
In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create, 
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

                       Nor, perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me, here, upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! And this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our chearful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance,
If I should be, where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence, wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came,
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.

William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798

China’s Book Retail Market: Down 9.29 Percent in First Half of 2020

From Publishing Perspectives:

n a new report on the Chinese book market amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing OpenBook sees a 9.29-percent decline in performance year-over-year.

Digital retail is seen as increasing by 6.74 percent, while physical bookstores are down 47.36 percent as compared to the first half of 2019.

. . . .

The main point of comparison our associates in Beijing are making today (July 17) is to their first-quarter report, which showed a January-to-March decline of nearly 16 percent over the same Q1 period of 2019.

What’s interesting to note is the relative continuation of pandemic trends in digital vs. physical bookselling. In Q1, when the pathogen’s first major outbreaks were wracking parts of the mainland, online retail in China gained by 3.02 percent and physical sales points for books had dived 54.8 percent.

Compare those figures to today’s report of a six-month gain for digital retail of 6.74 percent and of physical sales regaining some traction to the point of being down 47.36 percent over the same six-month period of 2019, and it’s tempting to think we’re seeing new momentum gathering in online retail and a comparatively slow recovery for bricks and mortar. This, however, may be deceptive.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

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)

On the Diaries of Helen Garner and the Quagmire of the Fictionalized Self

From LitHub:

The Australian writer Helen Garner published her debut novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. It was an immediate sensation. The novel follows a doomed love affair between the protagonist Nora and a heroin addict named Javo, amid the countercultural milieu of Melbourne’s inner north. Reviews were positive, but many were dismayed at what they considered Garner’s shameless use of autobiographical material. The crime writer Peter Corris was scathing: “Helen Garner has published her private journal rather than written a novel,” he said. “The “I” of the book, Nora, is indisputably the author herself and the other characters are identifiable members of the… Pram Factory set in Melbourne.”

. . . .

Writing things down can be compulsive for those of us who’ve formed the habit. These are people who have notebooks always tucked in a shirt pocket or a grubby tote bag, who have scraps of paper they do not throw away, who type homilies into the Notes app on their phones. We write things down because we want to remember, and to save things. In her essay “Woman in a Green Mantle,” Garner references poet Philip Larkin, who once said, “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art. Garner writes that she has “had it up to here with rhetoric about art, but the urge to preserve—I understand that. I’ve been a captive of it for most of my adult life.”

. . . .

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1942, the eldest girl in a working-class family. She attended the University of Melbourne, where she studied English and French. She married young, had a daughter, and then quickly divorced. For most of the 1970s, she lived in the communal counterculture of Melbourne’s Carlton and Fitzroy North, in a milieu which had strong ties to the influential performance collective La Mama, based at the Pram Factory, and to the feminist consciousness-raising groups that proliferated early in that decade.

In 1972, Garner was sacked from the education department after she taught an impromptu sex education lesson to a class of thirteen-year-olds at Fitzroy High School. “Getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living,” she wrote.

. . . .

With her daughter at school, Garner began to write. She spent mornings in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, poring over her old diaries and working on what she thought might be a novel. The novel was Monkey Grip, and it launched her career as a writer. It also launched the debate, which has never ended, about how much of her self was in her work, and whether it was somehow unseemly, or inappropriate.

So Monkey Grip did emerge from Garner’s diaries. It was in the diary that she found a shape and a story. But Bernadette Brennan, Garner’s biographer (and, in all transparency, my former professor at the University of Sydney), notes in her book A Writing Life that “Reading Monkey Grip as poorly disguised reality not only dismisses the creative process of shaping the story, it also ignores how and why the diarised basis for this novel contributes to its meaning.”

Link to the rest at LitHub

PG is of the (always and eternally) humble opinion that whatever an author puts into a novel, true or false, is just fine, absent copyright infringement or libel.

Who cares if the novel is based on the author’s life and acquaintances or on Hobbits?

There is likely something of a fiction author’s actual life and experiences in almost every novel, even if it is incorporated in the predilections of one or more fictional characters, the point of view and attitude of a disembodied narrator or the author’s ideas about what a truly evil person would think.

If a book purports to be non-fiction, PG prefers either a fairly-close approximation of reality or clearly-identified speculation about what might have happened when there is no reliable record or recollection available.

In a cookbook, for example, PG would be a bit put-off if fictional ingredients were required (unless it was a fantasy cookbook).

That said, all books are artificial creations. General Douglas MacArthur, as portrayed in many and various biographies and accounts of his participation in two world wars of the Twentieth Century, is not the real Douglas MacArthur, but a Douglas MacArthur created from facts selected by a biographer from the much larger group of facts contained in the man’s life.

A biographer focused on MacArthur in the Philippines may quite likely not include a complete, accurate and detailed account of his actions and experiences during the 1914 United States occupation of Veracruz.

Libraries could be leaders once again

From The Bookseller:

As they try to re-open, public libraries have two big problems and three large advantages.

The first problem, obviously, is that they have to be so safe that people actually want to work in and visit them. I don’t think anyone anywhere has solved that problem yet – but I’m sure there are experts who are trying to find a way. Without the answers, those who open aren’t being brave; they are being stupid and placing other people at risk. It is the absolute and top priority.

The second problem, which the library sector has been reluctant to face for far too long, is that their reputation with the public has declined. They are no longer respected in the way they once were. They have represented themselves too much as caring for the needy, and they have to do more than that. They have to be useful to everyone, otherwise they are not worth the £750 million each year we pay for them. They have to give dignified expert service. Most people don’t want feel they are being treated as poor and needy, even if they are. Their greatest audience lies with people who like and want to read, but at present public libraries only appeal to about 10% of people who read. They need to treble that number – and that won’t happen unless they become serious about acquiring and paying for better collections. They also need to get better at  capturing and responding to data around their performance, otherwise they don’t know where to direct their resources.

These are both hard problems.

The first advantage they have is that there are nearly 3000 public libraries in England. So, if a small group of architects, designers, medical experts and appropriate scientists could find a way to make a public library into a beacon of good health, they could apply the lessons they learn with sensible economy to the entire estate. That’s important because at the moment no one is thinking that way. The work is being done by 150 councils with very little substantial investment in finding the solution. It would be worthwhile.

The second is that public library buildings are mostly quite big. It’s not hard to imagine that most retailers, faced with the problem of making their buildings safe to visit, wish they had more cheap space. Schools and colleges must feel the same. Yet, thanks to some historical quirk of philanthropy, public library buildings are usually very spacious; certainly many times larger than a local book store. If that space could be re-organised, it provides an opportunity to model best practice in terms of public health.

The third lead is, for me, the one with the potential to impact the wider book trade the most. The last few months haven’t just been about the spread of viral infection – they have highlighted a huge issue of our understanding, appreciation, acknowledgement of and writing for the diverse people of our world. This topic is not about whether graduate publishers with ambitions to work in London can be forced to work in Grimsby. Or whether the head count in an office meets some standard of an ethnicity table. It’s about what is written and where it is available to be read. The issue of diversity is much larger than that – and for a long time, public libraries held the answer.

. . . .

Libraries seemed genuinely to have found a way to respond to the real variety of local taste, cultures and interests. They sought out and served. They didn’t preach. They didn’t suffer from the same kind of snobbery that runs through the veins of elite publishers and booksellers. Inclusive not exclusive, they had something to teach.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG will mention once again that ebook lending by libraries in many different places has most certainly moved to much greater prominence during the last few months.

Gardners to reopen Bertrams’ Norwich warehouse

From The Bookseller:

Gardners will reopen the Bertrams warehouse in Norwich after buying the assets of the stricken business. Gardners said the move would give it extra warehouse capacity in addition to the Eastbourne operation and allow it to continue to expand its range and stockholding.

However, the move won’t help those owed money by the now defunct Bertrams business, with publishers still advised to petition the administrator for the payment of their debts; it is also as yet unclear how many of the staff made redundant will be taken on by Gardners, as it works to reopen the operation. Nevertheless, the move is a positive one for the trade, as it increases the capacity of the Gardners wholesaling business, and re-establishes a second operation in the middle of the country.

The wholesaler and distributor purchased the assets of Bertram Trading Limited, which includes the assets of Bertram Books, Bertrams Library Services, and Dawson Books–including the physical building for five years on the lease and some machinery–though it has not bought the trading company and will not trade in Norwich as Bertrams using its name or brand.

. . . .

Nigel Wyman, head of sales and marketing at Gardners, confirmed that although the company had acquired Bertrams’ assets, it had not taken on any of its liabilities. 

He said in a statement: “We strongly believe this will further enhance the opportunity to work even closer with retailers and publishers to grow sales in all channels at home and abroad in these very changing and varied times.

“For our suppliers and customers there will be little visible operational change and all will continue to interact, communicate and order with their established Gardners contacts and departments from the Eastbourne operation as they do now.”

He also said: “We have been looking to expand for some time and ultimately, by having an additional warehouse in Norwich, this gives us the capacity, especially going into Q4.

“Our main driver behind that purchase was to enable us to support the industry over the coming six months and beyond and make sure we have the stock range and availability to support booksellers, whether they’re an independent or an online seller or any type of bookseller really.

“We have purchased the assets, so what we have built is a ready-made warehouse, which we have to bring into line with our own business. This is a positive message: it is to support that growth and to support the industry.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Lots of bargains in many business bankruptcies if the purchaser has cash.

PG predicts more bargains in the future from the traditional publishing business.

A Woman’s Life in Letters

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘To be A woman is to grow up and leave for another household.” So begins “The Great Learning for Women,” an 18th-century Japanese primer attributed to the neo-Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken. As generation after generation of girls sat down to study, learning the texts and skills that would prepare them for adulthood, this was among the first and most fundamental precepts: They would grow older and, in time, depart their family home to marry into another. Biology and society admitted no alternate possibility.

In the snowy town of Ishigami at the beginning of the 19th century, a girl named Tsuneno likely read this text. The oldest daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno was expected to be disciplined, skilled and quiet; to marry the man her parents selected from within her family’s social network and raise another generation of devout sons and obedient daughters.

As Amy Stanley, a professor of history at Northwestern University, recounts in her absorbing new book, “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” Tsuneno would try, more than once, to fulfill the mandate set out by her family and society. By the age of 35 she had been married and divorced three times, each union shorter than the previous one and none yielding any children. Quarreling with her older brother and desperate to avoid a fourth arranged marriage, Tsuneno left—not for another husband or household, but for the bustling city of Edo (now Tokyo).

With her departure, Tsuneno changed course in dramatic fashion and initiated a furious exchange of correspondence to explain her decisions and persuade her relatives to support them. That trove of letters, carefully preserved by Tsuneno’s family, eventually became part of the Niigata Prefectural Archives. Ms. Stanley read Tsuneno’s words online and followed them to the archive, painstakingly deciphering one messily handwritten document after another until she could assemble the events of Tsuneno’s life. The resulting book is a compelling story, traced with meticulous detail and told with exquisite sympathy.

Other parts of the globe were deep into the Age of Revolution when Tsuneno was born in 1804, but peace had reigned over Tokugawa Japan for nearly two centuries. While Japan was not the “closed empire” others have depicted, Ms. Stanley writes, “it was a sheltered place, inaccessible to most foreigners and at a remove from global markets.” Ishigami, about two weeks’ walk northwest from Edo when the roads were passable, sat even further removed. As Tsuneno and her seven siblings grew up surrounded by the cyclical rhythms of religious ritual, it must have seemed unthinkable that anything would ever change.

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

What we’ve learnt about lockdown reading

From The Bookseller:

The past few months have restricted physical access to bookshops, interrupted supply chains and created a raft of logistical complexities for the publishing industry. Even with restrictions easing, traditional consumer marketing and PR are trickier to execute safely. However, our data at The Pigeonhole over the past few months demonstrates that readers are embracing digital in a big way.

Launched in 2014, The Pigeonhole is on online book club which serialises books and hosts an interactive, review-driven community that discusses the books, both on the app and through Google Hangouts. In the past 12 months, we serialised 180 books for our community, including The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Double Agent by Tom Bradby, Buried by Lynda La Plante and Humankind by Rutger Bregman. We have over 12,000 active members including over 700 Amazon/Goodreads reviewers, and also provide book club services to schools and companies.

The good news for us, and the book industry in general, is that more time has been spent on our apps during lockdown than ever before. Engagement has increased by 80%, with more than one million monthly page swipes during the past four months. Demand for serialisation places has increased by 56%, and the average number of reviews has increased by 78% since late-March – now averaging 57 reviews per title (with that number regularly topping 100 in projects where the author has been a hands-on presence). Readers have also migrated to our digital book club to partake in an established reading community during this prolonged period of isolation.

1.    An author’s digital involvement moves the sales needle

Readers love it when authors take an active part in their digital serialisation, reading along with participants, responding to comments, and providing digital media to enrich their book’s digital edition. Our review figures correlate with the level of author involvement; a conversational author provides a more powerful message than a review request. The conversion rate is even higher for those readers who take part in our Google Hangout events with the author.

2.    Readers are not 9 – 5

The average length of a reading session has gone up by 60% to an average of 21 minutes. A lack of commuting has actually increased the length of time users are on the platform. Activity on the platform spikes at 5 – 7 am (even on the weekends) and again at 2 – 3 pm. There is a surge on Wednesday afternoon when we send our 12,000 strong userbase email exhibiting all our new books – many of which now often sell out within hours.

. . . .

4.    Digital non-fiction is consumed in a different way to digital fiction

To keep up with the increased demand for content from our community, we have started serialising non-fiction. With 2-3 nonfiction titles available each month, our understanding of how different genres are consumed is deepening. Broadly speaking, non-fiction serialisations have smaller groups, readers take longer to finish books, and the conversation is more considered. Readers are more likely to consume a non-fiction book over 20 days rather than the usual 10 for a fiction title, dipping in and out in a more staccato pattern.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

How the U.S. and European Union pressured South Africa to delay copyright reform

From Politico:

When South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent a copyright reform back to the parliament last week, he raised constitutional concerns as a reason to delay the bill.

But in the preceding months, the United States and the European Union — encouraged by the powerful cultural industry — had pressured him to postpone the legislation with threats of tariffs and withdrawing investment.

. . . .

While the U.S. tariff threats were out in the open, the European Commission’s campaign to hold up the legislation has been exposed in dozens of internal Commission documents, obtained by former MEP Julia Reda via access to document requests, and shared with POLITICO.

Documents include letters from Hollywood studios, record labels and publishers urging the EU’s executive branch to intervene with the South African government, as well as communications between the Commission’s directorates general and missives from the EU’s delegation to South Africa asking the government to delay the reform.

“That [kind of unilateral pressure] is not terribly surprising from the current U.S. administration. What is surprising is that the European Commission seems to have joined in,” said Andrew Rens, a copyright expert at Research ICT Africa, adding that “the U.S. has been absolutely explicit about their intentions. The European Commission has been a little more discreet.”

Ramaphosa’s decision not to go forward with the bill highlights the sway of the cultural industry, which has opposed the reform for fear it would set a standard for the rest of the African continent.

. . . .

“[Pressure from the cultural industry has] gone as far as mobilizing the U.S. and EU trade authorities, threatening repercussions against South Africa were the reform to receive presidential assent. Clearly … these threats have proven quite effective,” said the International Federation of Actors’ General Secretary Dominick Luquer, who expressed concerns about the delay of “a long-awaited and much-needed copyright reform.”

. . . .

The reform — made up of the Copyright Amendment Bill and the Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill — introduced the notion of “fair use,” a general exception to copyright for research, teaching and caricature, among others.

The Commission was involved very early on and wrote to the government in 2015, 2017 and 2019 to raise concerns about fair use and compliance with international treaties. A Commission official said the EU’s executive body was not against the introduction of the fair use provision in third countries’ legislation but called for “a balanced approach and legal certainty.”

The concerns revolved around “clear delineation of the scope of exceptions, the application of exceptions to commercial uses and the issue of compensation for uses under exceptions,” the official added.

Championed by tech companies such as Google, fair use is usually opposed by rights holders because it allows others to use content they have created or own for free. Fair use exists in U.S. copyright law, although the reform’s critics argue the South African text is much broader. European copyright rules don’t include a fair use provision.

Other disputed provisions include additional remuneration rights for authors and performers, supported by some local creators but rejected by companies such as movie studios and record labels who argue they interfere with contractual freedom.

The Motion Picture Association (MPA), which represents Hollywood studios and Netflix, welcomed the president’s decision. “The MPA was part of a cross-creative sector group which included publishing, music and author societies (among others), which worked closely with local creators to voice concerns transparently across many engagements with the relevant authorities,” a spokesperson said, referring to an open letter sent to Ramaphosa in August 2019.

. . . .

“I don’t think [the president] had constitutional issues, I think he was scared by the pressure from the Americans,” said Christo de Klerk, who works for Blind SA and backs the reform because it includes a general copyright exception for people with disabilities. Blind SA, an NGO helping visually impaired people find jobs, filed a legal proceeding against Ramaphosa to force him to act upon the bills, which had been waiting on his desk for over 15 months.

Link to the rest at Politico

Books by black authors have topped bestseller charts in recent weeks. Next we must ask: who profits?

From NewStatesman:

After the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Instagram and Twitter feeds were filled with recommendations for books by black authors. As well as classics by the US writers James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, two contemporary British titles have been at the top of book-stack photos everywhere: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which won last year’s Booker Prize, and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017).

Bestseller lists from the first week of June show these posts are not purely performative: Evaristo has become the first woman of colour to top the paperback fiction chart (fellow Booker winner Marlon James is the only other writer of colour to have done so), while Eddo-Lodge is now the first black British writer at No 1 on the paperback non-fiction list (Why I’m No Longer… jumped 155 places from the previous week, according to data from Nielsen BookScan). These positions were maintained for a second week, with Eddo-Lodge now the first black British author to top the overall UK book chart.

. . . .

On 15 June the newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, led by authors Afua Hirsch and Nels Abbey and publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, issued an open letter to the UK publishing industry. “Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their black authors,” they wrote, but “we are deeply concerned that British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.” The UK’s five largest publishers (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster) all separately welcomed the demands and said they would address the points in the letter, which include carrying out audits of books by black authors and of black publishing staff.

The disparity in commercial success between white authors and authors of colour starts at the beginning of a writer’s career. Authors have recently used the Twitter hashtag #publishingpaidme to share the advances they received for their books, in an effort to highlight racial disparities. The white British author Matt Haig revealed he received £600,000 for his tenth book. The Noughts and Crosses author and former Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, wrote, “I have never in my life received anything like the sums being posted by some white authors”.

Advances are not indicative of a book’s quality. “What, then, do they indicate?” asked the US novelist NK Jemisin. “Let’s call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence’. Specifically the publisher’s confidence in consumers.”

As recent bestseller lists demonstrate, there can be no doubt there is a market for literature by black authors. Next we must ask: who profits?

“All of these issues are long-lasting, and therefore one would hope that the books that encourage understanding remain popular and at the forefront of what we sell,” Waterstones’ managing director, James Daunt, told me over the phone. This month Waterstones staff set up a petition calling for the retailer to financially support the Black Lives Matter movement. It now has over 6,000 signatures. The firm has said loss of revenue because of Covid-19 means a charitable donation is not currently possible.

One of the letter’s authors, a Waterstones bookseller, told me they saw the company’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement as “optical allyship”: “All of our social media posts in support of Black Lives Matter include links to buy books from our website. How repulsive is that?” The employee said they learned that on 2 June alone, Waterstones sold 7,943 copies of Why I’m No Longer… online. “And they’re saying that we don’t have money to give to the Black Lives Matter movement? I find it morally reprehensible.” Waterstones has since announced to staff that Why I’m No Longer… will be July’s Book of the Month, and 10 per cent of sales, matched by the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury, will be given to Black Lives Matter organisations.

Eddo-Lodge has asked interested readers to borrow her book from a library or a friend; if they must buy it, she asks that they match its cost with a donation to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “This book financially transformed my life and I really don’t like the idea of personally profiting every time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”, she wrote. 

. . . .

Tighe said Alex S Vitale’s The End of Policing, which was available for free up until the end of last week, “absolutely exploded online”, having been downloaded more than 210,000 times in recent weeks. “We’ve always had a very informed, politically aware readership,” she said. “But these numbers show that the book has gone beyond our immediate readership. There has been a seismic shift in the mainstream.”

Link to the rest at NewStatesman

PG is confused.

  1. The Noughts and Crosses author and former Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, wrote, “I have never in my life received anything like the sums being posted by some white authors”.
  2. Advances are not indicative of a book’s quality. “What, then, do they indicate?” asked the US novelist NK Jemisin. “Let’s call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence’. Specifically the publisher’s confidence in consumers.”
  3. So, is it wrong for a publisher to consider whether consumers to purchase a book when deciding on the amount of an advance?
  4. Is consumer confidence evil?
  5. Recent bestseller lists demonstrate there can be no doubt there is a market for literature by black authors. Next we must ask: who profits?
  6. If one assumes that black authors profit from the sale of literature by black authors, is that a good thing or a bad thing? If a black-owned publisher profits, is that OK? Should a conscientious reader investigate the race of the author or the race of the publisher’s owners or the race of the publisher’s top management? If two of these factors show as black and one as white, how should the reader make a decision? Does the ethnic nature of the author’s agent play any role in this decision? If a black author is represented by a white agent, who profits?
  7. This month Waterstones staff set up a petition calling for the retailer to financially support the Black Lives Matter movement. Waterstones bookseller, told me they saw the company’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement as “optical allyship”: “All of our social media posts in support of Black Lives Matter include links to buy books from our website. How repulsive is that?”
  8. So is Waterstones supposed to financially support Black Lives Matter? Can Waterstones employees financially support Black Lives matter if their financial support originates with a salary paid by Waterstones? What does it take to purge the Waterstones’ money from its taint?
  9. So Waterstone’s social media posts supporting Black Lives Matter are repulsive if Waterstones, a bookseller, offers to sell some books to readers who wish to support Black Lives Matter? What if Waterstone’s social media posts supporting Black Lives Matter link to books by black authors? Presumably, Waterstone’s makes money from selling books written by black authors just as it does from selling books written by authors of other ethnic groups. Does mingling the sales revenue from books by white authors with revenues generated from books by black authors cleanse or taint Waterstone’s profits? What about the portion of revenues used to pay employee salaries? Does the conscientious employee refuse to accept any money Waterstone’s generated from selling books from links in its social media supporting Black Lives Matter because it’s repulsive.
  10. Eddo-Lodge has asked interested readers to borrow her book from a library or a friend; if they must buy it, she asks that they match its cost with a donation to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “This book financially transformed my life and I really don’t like the idea of personally profiting every time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”
  11. It sounds like a committed supporter of Ms. Eddo-Lodge would refuse to purchase any of her books. Perhaps that supporter might organize a consumer boycott of Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s books and any bookstore that sells them. Perhaps organized groups of the right-minded should purchase a single copy of each of Ms. Eddo Lodge’s book and set up their own library to supplement the public library’s lending capabilities. Such groups might conduct social media campaigns urging people not to purchase Ms. Eddo Lodge’s book and, instead, provide links to a wide variety of libraries where people could borrow it.

PG is still uncertain what a sincere and socially-aware reader of NewStatesman is to do to erase any possible doubt of their virtue:

  • Cancel their subscription and borrow NewStatesman from the library?
  • Purchase a book written by a black person or not? Does this decision depend upon whether a black person has recently been wrongfully killed? Wrongful killing, no. Natural death, ok.
  • When a book financially transforms a black author’s life, is the proper response of a NewStatesman reader to boycott the book and put their name on a library’s waiting list for the book?

And, by the way, what is the race of the owner of the NewStatesman? The chief editor? The other editors? The custodial staff?

The front page of this digital issue of the NewStatesman featured a prominent headline titled, “From Our Authors” under which four authors were named and cute drawings accompanied their names. Three of the authors appeared to be female. One appeared to be male. All appeared to be white.

PG performed a quick visual scan of the many photos of people on the NewStatesman‘s digital front page. The overwhelming majority of photos depicted individuals who displayed the typical coloring of an Anglo-Saxon.

Dear black publishers and creatives…

From The Bookseller:

I have been writing children’s books for over 10 years now. I have worked as an editor in children’s publishing houses for 15. For the last 18 months, I have been mentoring writers and illustrators of colour, and doing my best to try and explain how publishing works. How to navigate this industry whilst sharing my experiences of being an author and editor who is black. Thing is, this navigator is on new terrain now!

Publishing as I have always known it is changing. The honest conversations I am having with industry professionals around race and the marginalization of certain voices is unprecedented. Often, these conservations feel raw and personal and even exhausting – but they are all necessary.

The letter from the Black British Writers’ Guild, which I was proud to sign, and the recent Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report are forcing a long-overdue examination around the lack of equality when it comes to the careers of black creatives and publishing professionals.

It is an exhilarating time to be a black creative or publisher right now because we are pushing for parity and it feels like the industry aren’t just listening – they are actually taking action.

It is an uncomfortable time to be a black creative or publisher right now because we are in the spotlight and the focus is intense.

The door to opportunity seems to be wide open. Offers of work and amazing prospects may well be pouring in for you as the industry looks inwards and realizes that they have got to reflect the whole of society. That’s their job.

Do you hover at the threshold of that door? You remember when it was most definitely shut and you were left knocking. You wonder how long it will really remain open. Does it bother you that opportunities that seemed impossible weeks ago are now in your inbox? That they are born of the epiphanies of a mostly white industry? That some opportunities perhaps come from a place of fear and anxiety? That it has taken this long?

I dwell in this place between exhilaration and uncomfortableness. I am eager to champion and showcase the talent from marginalized communities that I work with, but I still fear this industry might let them down. 

I am excited for my future as a creator in a way I have never allowed myself to feel before. Yet, I remember what it felt like to encounter that shut door. To find success in other countries but not my own.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Google will start paying some publishers for news articles

From The Verge:

Google will pay for news content from select publishers as part of a new licensing program announced today. It says the content will form part of a “new news experience” coming later this year, launching first on its Google News and Discover services. In some cases, Google says it could offer free access to paywalled articles by paying content owners on the user’s behalf.

Google says it’s starting the program with publishers in Germany, Australia, and Brazil, but says that it’s got “more to come soon.” Publishing partners include Der Spiegel in Germany, and Schwartz Media in Australia, according to the Financial Times.

Google’s announcement comes after multiple countries have stepped up efforts to have the search giant compensate publishers for the news content it links to. Australia recently unveiled plans to force tech platforms to help pay for the free content they profit from. In April, France’s competition authority ordered Google to pay for content from French publishers.

. . . .

However, the FT notes that such schemes have been criticized for only including some publishers and for not paying enough. Some would reportedly prefer legal backing to such initiatives, rather than relying on the goodwill of large tech firms.

In comments published by Google, Spiegel Group managing director Stefan Ottlitz said its partnership with Google “will allow us to curate an experience that will bring our award-winning editorial voice into play, broaden our outreach and provide trusted news in a compelling way across Google products.” The FT notes that Google’s announcement did not disclose the financial terms of its deals.

Link to the rest at The Verge

Bertrams goes into administration

From The Bookseller:

Bertrams is confirmed to have gone into administration as of this afternoon (19th June) and will be making company-wide redundancies.

Administrator Turpin Barker Armstrong said in a statement: “We can confirm that Bertram Trading Limited, the global book wholesaler, has entered administration along with Education Umbrella Limited, a supplier of textbooks and digital education resources and Dawson Books Limited, an academic and professional library supplier. Book wholesalers have suffered from falling demand in recent years due to changes in the distribution model for literature and the rising popularity of e-books.  These factors, combined with the Covid-19-related closure of many public libraries and educational facilities, meant these businesses could no longer operate viably.

“Sales have been agreed in principle with two unconnected parties for the tangible assets and unencumbered stock of Bertram Trading Limited and for the intangible assets of Education Umbrella Limited and it is hoped that these will be completed shortly.

“Unfortunately, the majority of employees have been made redundant with immediate effect with a small number retained to manage the winding down of operations. We are liaising with all employees impacted regarding their statutory rights and to direct them to support from the relevant government agencies.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes The Bookseller is an overflowing fountain of positive joy today.

Publishing must decolonise

From The Bookseller:

The movement of protests, riots and direct action that has sparked across the globe following the death of George Floyd has now entered the offices of creative industries such as publishing, and been swallowed up by the yawn-inducing language of “diversity and inclusion” that is all too familiar to those of us working within the industry.

While calls for reflection are being made, “anti-racist” reading lists are being circulated and the mantra of “we will do better” rolls of the tongue of our White publishing friends, it is unclear why anyone should expect meaningful change from an industry that has already spent decades bemoaning the diversity problem. It is difficult to view these statements of support as anything but performative zeitgeist from an industry keen to present itself as well-meaning and socially conscious without divesting from its imperial roots.

What does “inclusion” in this industry, as currently conceived, offer people of colour? The publishing industry does not need to be diversified; it needs to be decolonised.

Of all the creative industries, publishing is the most explicitly imperial. An open letter from the Publisher’s Association in 2018 argued without irony or acknowledgement of its own imperial history that “UK publishing is world-leading and a cornerstone of Britain’s cultural and economic influence.” Books have always been an important propaganda tool and the flow of writing and information from West to East has been central to the colonial project.

Little has changed to this day. Multinational publishing companies work in an explicitly colonial framework; they distribute books acquired in the UK wherever they have rights, but rarely would a book published first by a division in South Africa or India, say, be picked up by the UK head office. The few books that do make it over traffic in exploitative tropes, pushing a singular narrative and feeding into a limiting and caricaturish portrayal of people in the global South.

The foundations of the publishing industry are white, male and middle class and a simple look at the demographic of an average mainstream UK white publishing house makes it clear how closely the industry is still tied to these roots, albeit now with more women. A recent survey found that only 13% of respondents identified as BAME, and that a disproportionate number of respondents were from the South East, and had been to fee-paying schools.

This has created an industry that not only caters wholly to that target group but refuses to embrace even the diversity inherent within itself, let alone those it considers external to it. Bookshops judge what books to acquire based on reviews in newspapers, written by similarly white and middle-class reviewers and selected by literary editors who believe that their readers won’t want to read books about Africa because it is too “niche”, as one such editor informed me. As long as the gatekeepers of the industry remain invested in this white supremacist and elitist framing, where only white narratives are mainstream and everything else is ghettoed (with a few miraculous exceptions held up as proof of the publishing industry’s diversity), this will remain the case.

For those books by writers of colour that do make it to publication in mainstream UK publishing, that imagined middle-class white reader is still seen as the target audience. Writers are told that their work is not universal enough, code for “it does not centre whiteness”, which often means narratives about black and brown characters angsting over their identity. Similarly, anthologies abound – about immigrants, Black men, Muslim women – all unwittingly explaining their otherness to an unnamed white audience. These anthologies also prove that there is an abundance of talented writers from the margins, and yet the only way for many of these writers to be published is as part of a collection with 20 other writers, writing about experience of racism or other “isms.”  When writers of colour are championed by the media, they are invariably published by large multinationals or medium-sized publishing houses who are always on the first tiers for reviewing, again as revealed by a book editor at a major newspaper.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Sounds like an industry that deserves to die. PG will formalize the de facto boycott he has been conducting for years.