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 badmother. 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.
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.
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“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.”
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The Bookseller staff is expected to relocate, physically, to The Stage office space in Southwark’s brick-solid Bermondsey Street in the autumn.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.”
[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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
So, is it wrong for a publisher to consider whether consumers to purchase a book when deciding on the amount of an advance?
Is consumer confidence evil?
Recent bestseller lists demonstrate there can be no doubt there is a market for literature by black authors. Next we must ask: who profits?
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?
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?”
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?
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—an initiative funded by the Works Project Administration under the New Deal—provided employment for some 6,000 jobless writers [in the United States]. Today, as stunned authors in Australia and around the world come to terms with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, that experiment deserves reconsideration. As the ABC recently noted, Australian writers—who earn, on average, less than $13,000 directly from their work each year—will be affected on multiple levels: by the cancellation of festivals, talks, and other paying gigs; by the closure of bookshops; by redundancies and cuts in publishing houses; and by job losses in the related industries (from academia to hospitality) through which they supplement their incomes.
It was the American New Deal more than anything else that legitimated the kind of stimulus packages again being discussed in Australia not just for the arts but across the economy. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the crisis of the Great Depression forced him, despite his own fiscal conservatism, to rush through various rescue measures of a now-familiar nature. The US government guaranteed bank loans to prevent further financial collapses; it encouraged industrial cartels to control prices and production levels; it purchased unsold crops from farmers; and through the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and, eventually, the Works Progress Administration it sought to create jobs.
Recent calls for postpandemic bailouts for artists in general or writers implicitly evoke that legacy.
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Obviously, the publishing scene today—dominated by vast multinationals, for whom books are merely part of a broader engagement with the “entertainment industry”—differs greatly from the more small-scale milieu of the 1930s. Even so, it’s still worth noting how contemporary thinking about funding literature differs from the Federal Writers’ Project in several important ways.
Most importantly, the job schemes of the 1930s as a whole, including the Writers’ Project—emerged from intense class struggles in a way that today’s plans do not.
In her history of the Works Progress Administration, Nancy E. Rose writes:
Starting in early 1930, unemployed councils, organized by the Communist Party, began to lead hunger marches to demand more relief. On March 6, 1932, which was proclaimed International Unemployment Day, hunger marches took place throughout the country. … In general, cities with strong Unemployed Councils provided better relief.
Agitation by the unemployed coincided with intensified industrial disputation. By 1934, some 1.5 million workers were on strike and FDR went to the polls the following year in the midst of a massive wave of industrial action, in which the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations played an important role. Those titanic clashes paved the way for the Second New Deal, under which the most significant reforms (including the WPA) were implemented.
Crucially, writers themselves fought, through explicitly political groups like the Writers’ Union and [before that] the Unemployed Writers’ Association, for the program from which they benefited. In 1934, the UWA’s secretary Robert Whitcomb explained:
The unemployed writers of New York City do not intend to continue under the semi-starvation conditions meted out to them. If the government does not intend to formulate some policy regarding the class of intellectual known as a writer … then the writer must organize and conduct a fight to better his condition.
The following year, with something like a quarter of the entire publishing industry out of work, the two organizations launched a widely publicized picket of the New York Port Authority, in which their members carried signs reading: “Children Need Books. Writers Need Bread. We Demand Projects.”
. . . .
The authors employed by the FWP included many who went on to conventional success, people like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, and others. As David A. Taylor notes in Soul of a People, his history of the FWP, “four of the first ten winners of the National Book Award in fiction and one in poetry came from this emergency relief project.”
. . . .
Thus, even though the program did actively recruit some literary stars, the author Anzia Yezierska, who’d previously worked in Hollywood, experienced enlisting in the New York FWP as a kind of proletarianization. “There was,” she wrote later, “a hectic camaraderie among us, though we were as ill-assorted as a crowd on a subway express, spinster poetesses, pulp specialists, youngsters … veteran newspapermen, art-for-art’s-sake literati, clerks and typists … people of all ages, all nationalities, all degrees of education, tossed together in a strange fellowship of necessity.”
Not everyone approved of this camaraderie—W. H. Auden dismissed it as “absurd”; one of the project’s own directors complained that “all the misfits and maniacs on relief have been dumped here”
. . . .
The FWP faced especial hostility and ridicule, with one editorialist complaining that it meant that literary “pencil leaners” would join the “shovel leaners” of the WPA. Again, the authorities stressed the project’s utility, with its remit described in an official announcement as the
employment of writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, architects, archaeologists, map draftsmen, geologists, and other professional workers for the preparation of an American Guide and the accumulation of new research material on matters of local, historical, art and scientific interest in the United States; preparation of a complete encyclopedia of government functions and periodical publications in Washington; and the preparation of a limited number of special studies in the arts, history, economics, sociology, etc., by qualified writers on relief.
It duly enlisted its staff to labor on perhaps a thousand volumes, including 50 state and territorial guides, 30 city guides and 20 regional guides. David Taylor describes these texts, composed by a dazzling group of writers, as “a multifaceted look at America by Americans, assembled during one of the greatest crises in the country.”
Many writers resented their tasks (at one point, Yezeriska was sent to catalog the trees in Central Park); many worked on their own manuscripts on the side.
. . . .
In books like Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, Bibliography of Chicago Negroes, and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, FWP employees collected the folklore that Zora Neale Hurston described as “the boiled-down juice of human living.” They interviewed people who had been enslaved, generating an astonishing assemblage of reminiscences. It’s thanks to the FWP that we have a small number of audio clips in which we can hear the actual voices of the survivors of slavery explaining what was done to them.
Alfred Kazin described how, in the late 1930s:
Whole divisions of writers now fell upon the face of America with a devotion that was baffled rather than shrill, and an insistence to know and to love what it knew that seemed unprecedented. Never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself.
Our regular readers will remember the formal establishment we reported on May 12 of the Global Association of Literary Festivals.
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And in a way, the development of the new association may well have come at a surprisingly good moment during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. With festivals driven to consider online evocations of their usual offers, there’s temporarily less organizational burden on them, a chance to reflect and strategize.
The downside, of course, is that revenue has also come to a standstill for many if not most festivals, and while we’ve seen one sterling example of a huge success on the ether this spring—the UK’s Hay Festival with its 490,000 streams served out in a two-week offer of sessions—few festivals start with the heft of the Hay and the fundraising capacity that program was able to mount so it could stage its digital presentation.
Wednesday’s session, then, is a consideration of the issues and the imperative faced by many faces during the pandemic–which health officials caution is still in its first wave, and not subsiding.
PG suggests that the timing of the creation of the Global Association of Literary Festivals is sadly ironic because, as indicated in the OP, literary festivals have stopped happening since last spring.
After sheltering in place and avoiding airline travel for several months (and likely several more to follow) PG wonders how many people who are not traveling on corporate expense accounts will be interested in flying to book festivals.
In the US, the National Football League, the source of more television and ticket revenue than any other sport, may well be operating under rules that will keep 50% or more of the seats in NFL stadiums empty. Both the pre-season, which attracts both fans and viewers, as well as the season itself are likely to have many fewer games than is normally the case.
PG wonders how many exhibitors, typically a large source of revenue for commercial gatherings, such as literary festivals, will be willing to pay the necessary exhibitor’s fees, pay for the creation and shipping of exhibits and pay travel, food and lodging costs for publisher’s personnel to staff and mingle, etc., with sales of traditionally-published books entirely in the tank (other than via Amazon).
As far as attendees are concerned, PG can’t help but believe that numbers will be impacted by the absence of a great many retiree readers who are likely to be extra-cautious about venturing forth prematurely.
If the Association of Literary Festivals is holding a webinar, why not webinars to introduce big books from traditional publishers? Or webinars for sci-fi or fantasy fans?
PG is not an expert on the world of romance and authors and fans, but why not a Romance webinar?
A commercial webinar need not consist only of individuals sitting at their desks peering into the screen. Nothing precludes a festival that features authors in local professionally-operated studios speaking about their books or being interviewed, perhaps from a distance, by an expert and experienced interviewer?
Publishing, including books, newspapers and magazines, could see a £7bn fall in revenue and 51,000 jobs axed due to Covid-19’s effect on bookshop closures and print sales, a report claims.
In total, 400,000 jobs could be lost across the creative industries amid projected weekly revenue losses of £1.4bn a week in 2020, according to research by global forecasting firm Oxford Economics. It predicts publishing will see a 40% decline while 26% of jobs could go.
However, its definition of publishing includes directories, newspapers, periodicals and other activities alongside books—a total sector employing 177,000 people with a total turnover at the start of the year of £16.3bn.
That is substantially more than the £6bn the PA says book publishing brings in alone each year. Figures for book publishing have not been broken out in the Oxford Economics report.
The Creative Industries Federation, which commissioned the research, has warned of a “cultural catastrophe” facing the entire creative sector. It predicts the sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy, with a combined revenue drop of £74bn this year and one in five jobs expected to be axed.
. . . .
“Publishing could lose £7bn in revenue and 26% of jobs, affected by the closure of bookshops and decline of print sales. As we emerge from lockdown, we will need imagination and creativity more than ever. We will need those who can take specks of ideas and carve them into a vision for the future. But for that, we need our creative industries.”
. . . .
“The freelance community has been hit really badly by Covid-19 and many freelancers haven’t been supported by any of the government schemes. People are losing their jobs and their businesses. I worked in publishing for 30 years, and know there’s an incredible creative and innovative eco-system in publishing, in and out of house, from editors and agents, to production, sales and designers. I think what’s been proven is those jobs aren’t going to go anywhere, they’re not going to be automated. The industry is still going to need that ecosystem and it will impact publishing if we lose it.”
Beetween December 1943 and June 1944, English author Evelyn Waugh took unpaid leave from the army to finish his novel Brideshead Revisited, now considered by many to be his greatest. The book (which Waugh first suggested calling “A Household of Faith”) has many themes — Catholicism, aristocracy, youth, redemption — but the author’s specific focus was, in his own words, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Today Waugh’s religiosity, much like his traditionalist tastes, may seem niche or archaic, but his treatment of the human experience of time is — well, timeless. In an updated preface, Waugh offered Brideshead “to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” While nostalgia functions both as a theme and a narrative device in the novel, what is often overlooked is how masterfully the two themes, nostalgia and grace, are interwoven.
Like The Great Gatsby, Brideshead is narrated by a protagonist who is also a character in the story — Charles Ryder, now a commander officer in the British army. Ryder reflects back on his life before the war. He is temporarily stationed in the English countryside, where he stumbles across an abandoned manor. He was once intimately connected with its former inhabitants, an eccentric aristocratic Catholic family. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks, beginning with his student days at Oxford.
At Oxford, Ryder meets and befriends the impossibly charming Sebastian Flyte, who, though later redeemed (unlike the similarly flawed protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), squanders his youth and beauty through foolish and hedonistic pursuits. Julia, Sebastian’s sister and, later, Ryder’s love interest, parallels her brother’s self-destruction in her ill-advised marriage to the agnostic Canadian businessman and politician Rex Mottram. At one point Julia and Sebastian’s pious younger sister, Cordelia, references G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story in which the thief is attached to “an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Such is the operation of divine grace upon the soul, and “Twitch upon the Thread” is, not by coincidence, the name given to the novel’s third part.
Nostalgia, in terms of character psychology, allows for a certain plasticity of time. From the outset, for instance, there is something peculiarly childish about Sebastian. At Oxford, he carries around his teddy bear, eccentrically named “Aloysius,” calls his mother “mummy,” and is emotionally dependent on his nanny. When the young Ryder (prior to his conversion to Catholicism) asks how Sebastian can possibly believe the wackier tenets of the Catholic faith, he answers that he thinks it “a lovely idea.” That, to Ryder, seems proof enough that the whole thing is ridiculous, a belief he repeats to Julia more forcefully when she feels incapable of “living in sin” with him. He tells her “it’s a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery.”
. . . .
Orwell was right that the first-person narration can at times feel mawkish. Waugh himself worried about this. “The book is infused with a kind of gluttony,” the author wrote in a later edition, “for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” Take, for instance, Ryder’s longing for the interior decoration at Brideshead (the name of Sebastian’s lavish family home): “I often think of that bathroom — the water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair — and contrast it with the uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chromium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.” Nevertheless, the point of this is how such objects, as they were, or are, influence how a character conceives of himself. A good example of this is Anthony Blanche, who, Ryder tells us, in later life “lost his stammer in the deep waters of his old romance. It came floating back to him, momentarily, with the coffee and liqueurs.”
It’s been so long since we heard anything negative about Sweden’s experiment as the world’s audiobook subscription Petri dish that it sometimes seems digital subscription, led in the Nordics by audiobooks, can do no wrong.
But if a Mediavision survey is correct, the good times may be coming to an end.
According to the Swedish news site BreakIt (auto-translated),
One in four subscribers to the audiobook companies plans to cancel the subscription or change service within 12 months.
This says BreakIt, equates to 195,000 households.
. . . .
It’s not clear from this how much the anticipated shrinkage will be due to genuine disaffection with the service and format, or how much any particular operator is likely to be hit or to benefit.
PG doesn’t watch audiobook pricing as closely as he does ebook pricing.
When PG checked, the top five New York Times Best Sellers for audio versions of bestselling books were priced as follows on Audible (a quick check of Barnes & Noble audio CD prices for these books surprised PG because the CD pricing was very close to and sometimes lower than the downloadable audio price from Amazon):
Each of these tradpub audiobooks have a price tag which is about twice what the ebook version of the same title is.
Is the price of audiobooks too high?
PG understands that a narrator who has likely spent time developing his/her talents is involved and will require payment. He also understands that audiobook recording studio time and/or recording equipment and a home audio setup won’t come free, but, is the price of audiobooks depressing sales?
Particularly during a serious world-wide economic downturn?
Just as with ebooks, once the original version of an audiobook is created and uploaded to Amazon, all each purchaser is receiving is a bunch of organized electrons. (He’ll set aside CD version as the equivalent of a hardcopy printed book.)
For an organization with as many hard drives as Amazon, electrons are pretty close to free. Delivering 100 copies of an audiobook to 100 purchasers doesn’t cost much more than delivering a single copy of an audio to a purchaser.
What would happen to audiobook sales if an audiobook was priced at 99 cents? Or $2.99?
Or if someone purchasing an ebook could get an audiobook of the same title for $1.99 more?
Is the best opportunity to sell an audiobook at the same time a customer is purchasing an ebook of the same title? Or vice-versa?
Sophisticated retailers, online and offline, work hard to increase the amount of money their customers spend with them. Cross-selling, up-selling, free shipping thresholds, selling related products are goals for any smart retailer. Gaining a greater share of the customer’s purchasing activity is an obsession with well-run business organizations.
Which, of course, raises the perennial question about why commercial publishers aren’t managed very well. Maybe publishing is just too special to be subject to market forces.
That would be of little concern to PG if authors didn’t ultimately bear a great deal of the financial burden created by ineptly-managed publishers.