The comic opera of England

From The Economist:

You lug your wicker hamper across the stiletto-punctured lawn and bag a spot beside the ha-ha. You say “ha-ha” a lot because this is the only chance you get. Smoothing your frock or tuxedo, you head inside for the opera—in this case, “L’elisir d’amore”, Donizetti’s comic delight of 1832—re-emerging at the long interval to picnic and covet your neighbour’s candelabra. Before the gong sounds for the second act, you stroll around the lily pad-crowded lake, to a soundtrack of popping corks and the distant bleating of doomed lambs.

Held on a Tudor estate in the blissful countryside of East Sussex, the summer opera festival at Glyndebourne, which opened on May 19th, tends to be described—often by foreigners—as the epitome of Englishness. In reality, it is more of a caricature: dressing up, drinking and ogling old houses are widespread English pastimes, but black-tie opera and Pol Roger are minority pursuits. In 2023, however, Glyndebourne does indeed offer a state-of-the-nation tableau, just not in the way you might expect.

The weather was kind on the opening weekend, so patrons didn’t need to summon the sangfroid to picnic in the rain, as occasionally they must. But a strike on the railways, a scourge of the times, complicated the trip. It nixed the train back to Victoria station, meaning Londoners had to petition for ticket refunds and drive. (A bank of electric-charging points has been installed in the car park, but it lacks another useful amenity: someone, perhaps a jobbing Old Etonian, to do up your bow tie.)

The opera-house stage, meanwhile, is a battlefield in the culture wars as well as a set for melodramas. Opera’s plots abound in toxic masculinity, abused heroines and ethnic stereotypes; left alone or revised, they are liable to upset somebody. Confessing that the “social assumptions” in some past productions “may offend audiences today”, Glyndebourne has vowed to do better. Settling into his seat, one regular dispensed with a printed synopsis as he already knew the story—that is, he groaned, unless they had changed it. Donizetti got off lightly, but the festival’s “Don Giovanni” has been accused of neutering the titular rake.

Then there is the old-fashioned politics, and recent scarcity, of money. Producing high-end opera is horribly expensive—and companies everywhere are feeling the pinch. Audiences are ageing. In America, philanthropy is erratic. In Britain, state funding has been slashed, leading Glyndebourne to cancel its usual autumn tour (it will instead put on some affordable shows at its home base). The glorious summer festival receives no subsidy, but tickets are pricey and go mostly to paid-up members. It will be sad if what, at its best, is the supreme art form is ever more a preserve of the rich.

Enjoying this European art in an English idyll, it is natural, too, to reflect on the underlying bonds. Glyndebourne’s story marries English eccentricity with continental talent: founding it with his wife in 1934, John Christie, then the estate’s master, drafted in starry refugees from Germany and Austria to give it some oomph. Gus Christie, his grandson and the current boss, has worried publicly about the impact of Brexit on the economy and the opera’s finances.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a look at Glyndebourne via Wikipedia

The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma

From Noema:

In 1929, one of Germany’s national newspapers ran a picture story featuring globally influential people who, the headline proclaimed, “have become legends.” It included the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and India’s anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi. Alongside them was a picture of a long-since-forgotten German poet. His name was Stefan George, but to those under his influence he was known as “Master.”

George was 61 years old that year, had no fixed abode and very little was known of his personal life and past. But that didn’t matter to his followers; to them he was something more than human: “a cosmic ego,” “a mind brooding upon its own being.” Against the backdrop of Weimar Germany — traumatized by postwar humiliation and the collapse of faith in traditional political and cultural institutions — George preached an alternate reality through books of poetry. His words swam in oceans of irrationalism: of pagan gods, ancient destinies and a “spiritual empire” he called “Secret Germany” bubbling beneath the surface of normal life. In essence, George dreamed of that terribly persistent political fantasy: a future inspired by the past. He wanted to make Germany great again.

George dazzled Germans on all sides of the political spectrum (although many, with regret, would later distance themselves). Walter Benjamin loitered for hours around the parks of Heidelberg that he knew the poet frequented, hoping to catch sight of him. “I am converting to Stefan George,” wrote a young Bertolt Brecht in his diary. The economist Kurt Singer declared in a letter to the philosopher Martin Buber: “No man today embodies the divine more purely and creatively than George.”

Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, met Stefan George in 1910 and immediately became curious. He didn’t buy George’s message — he felt he served “other gods” — but was fascinated by the bizarre hold he seemed to have over his followers. At a conference in Frankfurt, he described the “cult” that was growing around him as a “modern religious sect” that was united by what he described as “artistic world feelings.” In June that year, he wrote a letter to one of his students in which he described George as having “the traits of true greatness with others that almost verge on the grotesque,” and rekindled a particularly rare word to capture what he was witnessing: charisma.

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George.

I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’

— Ernst Glöckner

It certainly helped that George was striking to look at: eerily tall with pale blueish-white skin and a strong, bony face. His sunken eyes held deep blue irises and his hair, a big white mop, was always combed backward. He often dressed in long priest-like frock coats, and not one photo ever shows him smiling. At dimly lit and exclusive readings, he recited his poems in a chant-like style with a deep and commanding voice. He despised the democracy of Weimar Germany, cursed the rationality and soullessness of modernity and blamed capitalism for the destruction of social and private life. Instead, years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power, he foresaw a violent reckoning that would result in the rise of a messianic “fuhrer” and a “new reich.”

Many were immediately entranced by George, others unnerved. As the Notre Dame historian Robert Norton described in his book “Secret Germany,” Ernst Bertram was left haunted by their meeting — “a werewolf!” he wrote. Bertram’s partner, Ernst Glöckner, on the other hand, described his first encounter with George as “terrible, indescribable, blissful, vile … with many fine shivers of happiness, with as many glances into an infinite abyss.” Reflecting on how he was overcome by George’s force of personality, Glöckner wrote: “I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”

As German democracy began to crumble under the pressure of rebellions and hyperinflation, George’s prophecy increased in potency. He became a craze among the educated youth, and a select few were chosen to join his inner circle of “disciples.” The George-Kreis or George Circle, as it came to be known, included eminent writers, poets and historians like Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Kantorowicz, Max Kommerell, Ernst Morwitz and Friedrich Wolters; aristocrats like brothers Berthold, Alexander and Claus von Stauffenberg; and the pharmaceutical tycoon Robert Boehringer. These were some of the country’s most intellectually gifted young men. They were always young men, and attractive too — partly due to George’s misogynistic views, his homosexuality and his valorization of the male-bonding culture of Ancient Greece. 

Between 1916 and 1934, the George Circle published 18 books, many of which became national bestsellers. Most of them were carefully selected historical biographies of Germanic figures like Kaiser Frederick II, Goethe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, as well as others that George believed were part of the same spiritual empire: Shakespeare, Napoleon and Caesar. The books ditched the usual objectivity of historical biographies of the era in favor of scintillating depictions and ideological mythmaking. Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.

In 1928, he published his final book of poetry, “Das Neue Reich” (“The New Reich,”) and its vision established him as some kind of oracle for the German far-right. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler pored over George Circle books, and Hermann Göring gave one as a present to Benito Mussolini. At book burnings, George’s work was cited as an example of literature worth holding onto; there was even talk of making him a poet laureate. 

Link to the rest at Noema

The British Male!

From The Paris Review:

To be British is a very complicated fate. To be a British novelist can seem a catastrophe. You enter into a miasma of history and class and garbage and publication—the way a sad cow might feel entering the abattoir. Or certainly that was how I felt, twenty years ago, when I entered the abattoir myself. One allegory for this system was the glamour of Martin Amis. Everyone had an opinion on Amis, and the strangeness was that this opinion was never just on the prose, on the novels and the stories and the essays. It was also an opinion on his opinions: the party gossip and the newspaper theories, the Oxford education and the afternoon tennis.

The British male! Or at least the British bourgeois male, with his many father figures, both real and acquired. From certain angles, in certain photos, Amis looked like Jagger, and so he became the Jagger of literature. He was small, true—I feel a permanent pang of camaraderie at his line in The Pregnant Widow about a character who occupies that “much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—but he was also hypermasculine. It wasn’t just his subjects: the snooker and the booze and the obsession with judging all women “sack artists.” It wasn’t even just the style: an inability to leave a sentence alone without chafing at every verb, the prose equivalent of truffle fries. It was also the interview persona, all haughtiness and clubhouse universality, however much that could be contradicted in private by thoughtfulness and generosity of conversation.

But most of all, his British maleness was in the purity of his comic perception of the world. He practiced a very specific form of oral literature—anecdote, putdown, punchline, alcoholic joke: monologues from the ruined-dinner table. This morning I picked up an old copy of Money taken from my parents’ house and there they were, the riffs: “You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park round here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving.” Or: “I should have realized that when English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis. Americans mean that they can play tennis.” Or: “This guy had no future in the frightening business. He just wasn’t frightening.” A novel by Amis is an apparatus for each line to find its best exposure. ” ‘Yeah,” I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

This vision of the world as comedy is why the Amis novel that still seduces and alarms me most is Time’s Arrow, his first experiment into Europe. That novel famously tells the life of Tod T. Friendly in reverse, beginning in a postwar American suburb and ending with him transformed into Odilo Unverdorben, one of the psychopathic doctors at Auschwitz. This means that appallingly touching things happen in the camp: gold is carefully placed back into Jewish mouths; smoke becomes a corpse, which becomes a living person, who is then beautifully reunited with their family. Ghettos are dismantled. Meanwhile, everything is narrated in a tremulous high style: there is, for example, the shoe, in an antechamber to the gas chambers, “like a heavy old bullet thrown out of the shadows, and skilfully caught.” Naturally, our narrator is delighted by this beautiful arc of history, always tending towards improvement—“A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place. Women went out of that lab looking 20 years younger.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Germany: ‘IGLU’ Shows School Reading Skills Lagging

From Publishing Perspectives:

A regular analytical program called the International Primary School Reading Study (IGLU) in Germany has this month announced a disturbing result: the number of primary schoolchildren in that market who cannot read to adequate levels of skill continues to increase.

There’s some irony here, in that the report from May 3 made by the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, in coordination with the book wholesaler Libri found that 16- to 29-year-olds seem to be purchasing books at an accelerating rate.

The primary-school group, of course, is younger, but an uncomfortable implication here is that unless their reading skills make some progress, they may reverse the trend toward bookish consumerism that has gladdened the eye of many in the industry’s retail sector.

The new study from IGLU, carried out every five years, looked at the reading skills of some 4,600 students and encompassed data from 65 nations and regions. And as the Börsenverein puts it in its media messaging, “If you can’t read properly, chances are closed to you, first at school and then at work.”

The proportion of children who don’t have sufficient reading skills, the Börsenverein reports, “has risen significantly compared to 2016: every fourth child leaves primary school without sufficient reading skills.”

In its announcement, the publishers’ association says, “The Reading Foundation and the German Book Trade Association are calling for an immediate political and social rethink. Together with the German Book Trade Association, the Reading Foundation founded the ‘National Reading Pact.’ More than 180 partners from business, science, society, and politics have come together here to make reading promotion binding, so that educational justice can finally become a reality.”

And to that end, the initiative is striving for a nationwide package of measures,” the Börsenverein says, “that should ensure binding and uniform structures for all parties involved in reading promotion. The aim is for all children and young people in Germany to be able to read.”

‘Promoting Reading Must Have the Highest Priority’

Peter Kraus vom Cleff, general manager of the German Book Trade Association, says, “The results of the current IGLU study are alarming.

“They show once again how urgently we must act. Reading skills are essential for self-determined social participation and the key to a successful professional life. Thus, promoting reading is not only fundamental for the individual path through life, but for our entire democracy.

“Together with the Reading Foundation and a broad alliance from politics, business, and society, we strive for a well thought-out cooperation to improve reading skills in Germany. Because from now on, promoting reading must have the highest priority in Germany.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

In global rush to regulate AI, Europe set to be trailblazer

From The Associated Press:

The breathtaking development of artificial intelligence has dazzled users by composing music, creating images and writing essays, while also raising fears about its implications. Even European Union officials working on groundbreaking rules to govern the emerging technology were caught off guard by AI’s rapid rise.

The 27-nation bloc proposed the Western world’s first AI rules two years ago, focusing on reining in risky but narrowly focused applications. General purpose AI systems like chatbots were barely mentioned. Lawmakers working on the AI Act considered whether to include them but weren’t sure how, or even if it was necessary.

“Then ChatGPT kind of boom, exploded,” said Dragos Tudorache, a Romanian member of the European Parliament co-leading the measure. “If there was still some that doubted as to whether we need something at all, I think the doubt was quickly vanished.”

The release of ChatGPT last year captured the world’s attention because of its ability to generate human-like responses based on what it has learned from scanning vast amounts of online materials. With concerns emerging, European lawmakers moved swiftly in recent weeks to add language on general AI systems as they put the finishing touches on the legislation.

. . . .

“Europe is the first regional bloc to significantly attempt to regulate AI, which is a huge challenge considering the wide range of systems that the broad term ‘AI’ can cover,” said Sarah Chander, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi.

Authorities worldwide are scrambling to figure out how to control the rapidly evolving technology to ensure that it improves people’s lives without threatening their rights or safety.

Link to the rest at The Associated Press

PG suggests that regulating AI is Act 2 of regulating the Internet.

He suspects that AI computer systems will locate in places that are interested in the benefits of high-tech business and the great jobs it can create. PG is not aware of any reason AI capabilities cannot be miniaturized into a smartphone. PG just checked and found several AI apps that are available for his iPhone already. He predicts that the AI app goldrush is just getting started.

The Soviet Century

From The Wall Street Journal:

We have had reason of late to think anew about the Soviet Union and the legacy of the Cold War—the fighting in Ukraine reverberates with the ruthless geopolitics of an earlier era. In “The Soviet Century,” Karl Schlögel takes us on a tour of the Soviet past in all its materiality, a tour that puts on display, as he puts it, the “archaeology of a lost world.”

He begins with a visit to the vast outdoor flea market at Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park, where, as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the early 1990s, “an entire world-historical era was being sold off on the cheap.” A modern-day refuse heap, the bazaar showcased the offerings of hundreds of individual households eager to turn their once-cherished tchotchkes into much-needed cash.

It wasn’t only in Moscow that such a selling-off was attempted. Haphazard bazaars, Mr. Schlögel says, sprang up across the country. Using blankets or folding tables, people displayed samovars, cups and saucers, Red Army hats, insignia pins, captured German military uniforms, pennants, Communist Party membership cards—“the debris and the fragments of the world of objects belonging to the empire that has ceased to exist,” as he writes. Anything that might attract a buyer.

Mr. Schlögel doesn’t mention the avoyska—a “just in case” knitted bag—that Soviet citizens routinely carried with them on the chance they would happen upon tomatoes or melons for sale on a street corner (something I used to see for myself on my visits to the Soviet Union in the 1980s). He does note that when urban dwellers lined up for goods—not only at bazaars but at the entrances to subway stations, where people sold loaves of bread and articles of clothing—they often did so without knowing what everyone else was waiting for and just assumed it would be for something they needed.

For Mr. Schlögel, an esteemed historian based in Frankfurt, such improvised markets are an emblem of a broader theme. His focus is not on the foreign relations or domestic crises of Soviet rule but on outward appearances: the look, the smell, the sounds of everyday life. Based on decades of research and an intimate knowledge of history and culture, “The Soviet Century” is a fascinating chronicle of a not-so-distant era.

Among much else, we learn about life in a typical communal apartment, where several families had to share a space that was now divided into single rooms for each multigenerational family. As late as the 1970s, 40% of Moscow’s population “enjoyed” such accommodations, with all of its inevitable tensions, petty disputes and invasions of privacy. We learn about the system of door bells: “Ring once for Occupant A, twice for Occupant B and so forth.” And about the lavatory as a semipublic space. “A toilet for over thirty people . . . was not untypical,” Mr. Schlögel writes. A gallery of toilet seats would hang on the lavatory wall.

Other stories in “The Soviet Century” (translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone) capture unique and surprising moments in cultural history. Who would have guessed that the original formula for the Soviet perfume Red Moscow—developed before the Revolution but introduced to the public in 1927—led to the creation of Chanel No. 5? Or that when the special archive of banned books and periodicals was finally made available to researchers during the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in 1987, it included “300,000 book titles, 560,000 journals, and a million newspapers”? Of course, the Soviet century included bannings of another sort. As Mr. Schlögel reminds us, more than 200 “philosophers, writers, university teachers, and agronomists” were personally chosen by Lenin and banished to Western Europe in 1922. Others were simply shot.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG suggests that, while some details have changed, Putin’s Russia still seems a lot like Stalin’s Russia.

BBC to tackle high proportion of women prosecuted for licence fee evasion

From The Guardian:

The BBC has set out plans to reduce the high proportion of women being prosecuted for licence fee evasion, after suggestions that the charge is sexist.

The measures including free debt advice and allowing all unlicensed households to spread payments, underlining the BBC’s determination to save the licence fee, which was frozen by the government at £159 until 2024.

Campaigners, including a woman who threatened to apply for a judicial review of the licence fee system on the basis of sex discrimination, said the changes did not go far enough.

Figures released last year showed that women made up 76% of the 52,376 people convicted in 2020 over TV licence evasion.

The figures have been seized on by politicians opposed to the BBC’s funding model. During last summer’s Conservative party leadership contest, Liz Truss said: “What I’m very concerned about on the TV licence fee is how many women have ended up in prison for non-payment, a disproportionate number.”

Full Fact pointed out that no one can be imprisoned for failing to pay the licence, only fined, and that while women were more likely to be fined for failing to pay the fee, since 1995 twice as many men as women have been jailed after failing to pay fines.

Earlier this year, the former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said scrapping the licence fee would stop the prosecution of “primarily women who don’t always remember to pay this poll tax”.

A BBC review led by the crossbench peer Lola Young concluded that the gender disparity in licence fee prosecution was due to societal factors outside the BBC’s control, including greater financial hardship faced by women; women making up more than 60% of single-adult households; and women being more likely to be at home and responsible for domestic bills.

The review also recommended increased support for those struggling to pay the fee, which the BBC has agreed to adopt. This includes extending a payment plan to help spread the cost of the fee in small instalments to all unlicensed households; a pilot scheme for free debt advice; and the offer of a two-month breathing space to those struggling to pay.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

For Americans and others unfamiliar with the British license fee: In the British Islands, any household watching or recording television transmissions at the same time they are being broadcast is required by law to hold a television licence. This applies regardless of transmission method, including terrestrial, satellite, cable, or for BBC iPlayer internet streaming. The television licence is the instrument used to raise revenue to fund the BBC. Businesses, schools and hospitals are also required to pay a license fee.

PG notes that the BBC license fee sounds very queer to most Americans, who are often happy to watch BBC programs when they are broadcast, typically on public television, in the United States. Public television stations often have annual campaigns to solicit voluntary contributions from their viewers who, of course, endure commercials which fund commercial television. (PG’s thumb automatically hits the mute button on his television remote whenever a commercial break appears. His conscious mind is not taxed in the least by his thumb’s auto-mute activities.)

The idea that someone could be imprisoned for failing to financially support the BBC strikes most Americans as extremely outlandish. The annual fee of £159 is the equivalent of about $200 per year, which could be very burdensome for more than a few women (or men) who work at low-paying jobs, especially if they are supporting other family members.

Having watched some British television while enjoying a trip to that lovely place, PG can assure one and all that the Beeb programs we see in the US are generally quite a bit better (in his humble American opinion) than those which aren’t picked up for broadcast by US public television.

The Last Secret of the Secret Annex

From The Wall Street Journal:

After two years in hiding in Amsterdam, 15-year-old Anne Frank was arrested in August 1944, along with her sister, mother, father and four other Jews. All but Anne’s father, Otto Frank, perished in Nazi concentration camps, along with three-quarters—more than 100,000—of the Netherlands’ Jewish population. Anne’s adolescent diary, first published in 1947, has since become one of the most celebrated and poignant artifacts of the Holocaust. A flood of literature on the Frank family and the Dutch people who helped them survive has followed. Among the nagging questions that remain: Who betrayed the Franks and the others in hiding with them?

The Last Secret of the Secret Annex” is both a fascinating attempt to unlock this mystery and a case study in how Holocaust trauma can ripple through the generations. It comes from the Belgian journalist Jeroen De Bruyn, who confesses a lifelong obsession with Anne’s story, and Joop van Wijk-Voskuijl, whose mother, Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, was, in her early 20s, the youngest of the Franks’ Dutch “helpers.” The authors met when Mr. De Bruyn was just 15, and eventually became partners in the enterprise.

Narrated in Mr. van Wijk-Voskuijl’s voice, “The Last Secret of the Secret Annex” updates and expands an earlier book by the duo, published in 2015 in the Netherlands, and self-published in the United States three years later as “Anne Frank: The Untold Story.” The current volume details the courage of the narrator’s mother, who foraged for food for those in hiding, and his maternal grandfather, Johan, who built the revolving bookcase that concealed the “annex” in which the Frank family lived. It also takes withering aim at the multiyear “cold case” investigation chronicled in Rosemary Sullivan’s 2022 book “The Betrayal of Anne Frank.”

Led by former FBI special agent Vince Pankoke, that inquiry—in which the authors cooperated—concluded that the culprit was likely the notary Arnold van den Bergh, a member of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council. Citing an anonymous accusation and other evidence, it posited that he traded addresses of Jews in hiding to the Gestapo in exchange for his family’s survival. Dutch scholars found that scenario far-fetched, and their criticisms led to the Sullivan book’s withdrawal from circulation in the Netherlands.

Messrs. De Bruyn and van Wijk-Voskuijl propose a different possible informant: Mr. van Wijk-Voskuijl’s maternal aunt, Bep’s younger sister Nelly. During the Occupation, the then-teenage girl was, in the authors’ words, “seduced by everything German.” High-spirited and combative, Nelly had Nazi boyfriends and worked for the German military. Two survivors of that period—another of Bep’s sisters, Diny, and Bep’s wartime fiancé, Bertus Hulsman—attested that Nelly knew her relatives were helping Jews in hiding. Both recalled her angrily saying “Just go to your Jews!”—or words to that effect—to other family members.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Knowing What We Know: How Information Was Born

From The Wall Street Journal:

Knowledge is power, Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, using a quill and the Elizabethans’ distinctive “secretary hand.” Thomas Hobbes, who started out as Bacon’s secretary, agreed: Scientia potentia est, Hobbes wrote in the 1668 edition of “Leviathan.” Generations of spymasters, dictators and tax inspectors concurred, and so, as the rubble of the Humanities confirms, did the French theorist Michel Foucault. Yet knowledge is no longer power.

Today digital information is power. The quantity of information debases its value: The printed newspaper is dematerializing before our eyes. The smartphone offers more than a different physical experience from its predecessors, the tablet, scroll, manuscript and printed book. It carries the entire history of information. Writing, Socrates warns in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” “will implant forgetfulness.” If we “cease to exercise memory,” we will be “calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” When we outsource the storage of information, we outsource our knowledge of the world and ourselves.

Philosophers agonize over how knowledge is made. Historians are more interested in its circulation and application. In “Knowing What We Know,” Simon Winchester dispenses with the technicalities. Mr. Winchester, a prolific author whose bestsellers include “The Meaning of Everything,” considers knowledge as per the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning no. 4b: “The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth.” With his typical fluency and range, Mr. Winchester then traces the intertwined evolution of knowledge, society and the individual, from ancient illiteracy to the wisdom of the hour, artificial intelligence.

The first transmissions of knowledge, Mr. Winchester writes, were “oral or pictorial.” As current indigenous practice shows, the collective cultural inheritance and identity of the tribe is transmitted by “knowledge keepers,” usually “designated elders or specially skilled custodians.” The oldest surviving written transmission, a “small tablet of sunbaked red clay” found recently in what is now Iraq, dates to around 3100 B.C. In the Sumerian city of Uruk, a man named Kushim, who “appears to have been an accountant,” issued a receipt in a Mesopotamian warehouse for a delivery of barley. He had created a piece of movable information. Anyone who could read it was educated: able to acquire information, able to pass it along. As scarcity ensured value, the invention of writing devalued knowledge. It also lowered the tone. When people started to write as they thought, Mr. Winchester argues, they aired the “more vulgar aspects of society.”

Mr. Winchester is adroit at arranging information in pursuit of knowledge, and he has an eye for the anecdote. The familiar prehistory of the Latin alphabet is here, but he emphasizes the simultaneous making of a cross-civilizational consensus on education and its methods.

Innate human curiosity is the engine of knowledge, but the engine runs on two fuels, experience and facts taken on trust. Mr. Winchester’s own experiential curiosity was triggered at the age of two by a wasp sting. For his brain to develop into “some kind of mental context-cabinet,” he needed a mental filing system. Facts and memorization were emphasized in the imperial-minded curricula of ancient Sumeria, Confucian China and Mr. Winchester’s schools in England. The Chinese examination system ran for 1,316 years, until 1905. Mao revived the idea of early testing to identify a future elite in 1952, and the annual gaokao exams remain “an ordeal of the first magnitude,” requiring proof that “one’s degree of acquired knowledge is both immense and of the highest quality.” The American schoolroom may be a kinder place, but the rest of the world thinks that the SAT is “ridiculously easy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Bookwire integrates ChatGPT into its software

From The Bookseller:

Frankfurt-based publishing technology and distribution company Bookwire has integrated ChatGPT as a beta version into its “Bookwire OS – One Solution” software.

The organisation says that with the integration it aims to offer publishers “the latest technology and ensure the best service for the industry”.

During the beta phase, publishers will be able to test the benefits of the artificial intelligence tool for their digital book marketing. As an example, it says ChatGPT can be used to create automated blurbs and social media posts for Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

“As ChatGPT cannot access content from OS but only publicly available information on the internet, the tool is particularly interesting for backlist titles,” Bookwire states. “With just one click, publishers receive tailored texts for various scenarios from everyday publishing life. Publishers are free to decide whether they want to use the tool for their content.

“Bookwire will only submit requests to ChatGPT if the publishers have expressly agreed. Bookwire only provides the technical interface and does not assume any responsibility for the content created by ChatGPT.” It goes on that “it is important to emphasise that ChatGPT in Bookwire OS cannot access content or metadata but only uses publicly accessible information on the internet”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Even if it’s a lie

Even if it’s a lie, it’s a place of my own. That’s why I’m going to keep it. It doesn’t need to be a big lie—just big enough for one person. And if I can hold on to that lie inside my heart, if I can keep repeating it to myself, it might lead me somewhere. Somewhere else, somewhere different. If I can do that, maybe I’ll change a little, and maybe the world will, too.

Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void

Readers in the West are embracing Japan’s bold women authors

From The Economist:

Murata sayaka has long kept company with imaginary friends. She first conjured them up as a child, while enduring bullying at school and hectoring at home. Her parents forced her to practise cooking and encouraged “girlie” behaviour, thinking that would one day help attract a rich husband. “I didn’t feel like my body, my life, belonged to me,” Ms Murata (pictured) says. She dreamed of flying away, on a spaceship with her fantastical companions, to a planet where she would belong.

Throughout her fiction, Ms Murata questions what it means to be “normal” and writes sceptically about family life. Her work has struck a chord in Japan, her conservative home country. Her semi-autobiographical novel, “Convenience Store Woman”, won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in 2016. It has since been translated into more than 30 languages and sold over 1.5m copies.

Ms Murata’s work has helped usher in a new era of Japanese literature in translation. “Convenience Store Woman” came out in English in 2018 and its feminist undertones may have resonated amid the #MeToo movement, thinks Ginny Tapley Takemori, its translator. In 2020 “Breasts and Eggs”, a novel about pregnancy and beauty standards by Kawakami Mieko, another female Japanese author, also became an international bestseller. “Publishers used to ask for the next Haruki Murakami,” says David Boyd, a translator who has worked on Ms Kawakami’s books. “Now they ask: What’s going to be the next ‘Convenience Store Woman’?”

Though the settings may be unfamiliar to Western readers, these books examine universal themes, such as the challenges of family life. In “Weasels in the Attic” (2022), a novella made up of interlinking stories, Oyamada Hiroko portrays an unhappily married couple who seek fulfilment by having a baby. “In Japan, it seems as if women are seen as incomplete unless they have a child,” says Ms Oyamada. Her short story “Spider Lilies” explores the related obsession with breastfeeding. “When I had a baby, I felt like my breasts were a public asset,” the author says. “Strangers kept asking me: ‘Is the milk coming?’”

Ms Murata’s view of motherhood is even more caustic. The women in her fiction are often “monstrous”. In “Nothingness”, a short story, the female protagonist is incapable of maternal affection. Ms Murata once hoped her own mother would shower her with unconditional love. She now says the mother-daughter relationship usually involves “beautified abuse”.

Link to the rest at The Economist


From The Wall Street Journal:

When he was 28, Burkhard Bilger learned a jarring family secret: Shortly after World War II, his grandfather spent two years in jail while on trial as an accused Nazi war criminal.

The revelation shocked Mr. Bilger. His parents, who moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1962, seldom spoke about their Nazi-era upbringing. Mr. Bilger, who was born in Oklahoma a year and half after his parents’ emigration, similarly avoided calling attention to a heritage that could give pause to new acquaintances. “To be German, it seemed, was always to be one part Nazi,” he writes. “In my case, that part was my grandfather.” Rather than dwell on the past, for the most part he avoided it. Then the past found him.

In 2005, a package arrived from one of Mr. Bilger’s aunts in Germany containing a shoebox filled with letters dating from around World War II. Mostly handwritten, some in an old-fashioned German script difficult for contemporary readers to decipher, the documents propelled Mr. Bilger into a yearslong journey to make sense of how his grandfather, a reserved and seemingly upstanding schoolteacher, had entangled himself and his family in the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The result is Mr. Bilger’s resolutely unflinching and ultimately illuminating book “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.” In the course of his quest, Mr. Bilger, a staff writer at the New Yorker, interviewed far-flung family members as well as his grandfather’s long-lost neighbors, and scoured government archives in both Germany and France. As he pieces together the memories and documentary evidence, Mr. Bilger makes palpable the tension he feels between the wish to forget the past, in all its discomforting details, and the desire to understand behavior that might be easier to erase from memory than to confront and try to take in, much less forgive.

He begins by wondering how his grandfather Karl Gönner could have been both the father his mother loved and “the monster history suggested.” She was still a schoolgirl when her father finally returned from the war, and she remained too fearful to ever ask him if he was guilty of the crimes for which he was accused. What if Mr. Bilger discovered, now, that the answer was yes?

An authentic reckoning with his grandfather’s past demanded that he find out. Mr. Bilger charts his family’s history, generation by generation, back to the 18th century. Gönner himself had provided the roadmap in his personal “ancestry passport”—the official document laying out his “pure” Aryan genealogy over the centuries, as required for his membership in the Nazi Party as well as for his government-regulated teaching job.

Like his ancestors before him, Gönner was born in the Black Forest village of Herzogenweiler, founded in 1721 by a successful consortium of glassblowers. By the time of Gönner’s birth in 1899, though, the glass business had collapsed and the once-flourishing village had become derelict.

Religious and bookish by nature, Gönner set his sights on the priesthood as his best route to an education and a career away from poverty. Then came World War I. Drafted in 1917, Gönner arrived at the Western Front in time to join the German army’s battered retreat. In late September 1918, beaten down by hunger and the muck of the trenches, his troop arrived at Meuse-Argonne, the site of one of the war’s final and most brutal battles. A land mine blasted Gönner unconscious, its shards piercing his right eye, arm and thigh. Upon his release from the hospital several months later, Mr. Bilger writes, Gönner “came home hobbled and half blind, with a sense that never left him that the world was a shattered thing, in need of radical repair.”

Yet he was told he was lucky. After all, his brother Josef, who had been killed in Flanders, never returned from the war at all. But what kind of a life could Gönner have back in the impoverished villages of the Black Forest? The war cost him his religious faith and replaced his right eye with a sightless glass prosthetic. Eventually he married and started a family, became a teacher and, in 1933, joined the Nazi Party.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Beyond black

FromThe Bookseller:

This past week has seen the good and bad of the book trade writ large. The good was manifest in The London Book Fair, a return to a “proper” event packed full of agents meetings, seminars, parties and general all-round buzz. There was plenty of good humour too, and one or two decent rumours. We are an industry that wants to meet, and mischief make.

But we are also less than perfect. That is a polite reference to The Bookseller’s survey of author welfare that has rightly been the most read news piece across our website this week and sparked a robust online conversation.

The results were stark and, at times, depressing. More than half of authors (54%) responding to the survey on their experiences of publishing their début book have said the process negatively affected their mental health. Authors talked of a lack of attention from their publisher, and a lack of preparedness. In fact, just 22% of the 108 respondents to the survey described a positive experience overall with their first publication. As one author said: “It has taken me a long time to reconcile the train wreck of my début.”

Some hardened souls might shrug their shoulders at all this. The sample size is small, and no doubt skewed by those whose experiences prompt them to fill in such surveys. Besides, publishing is a tough business. A bad launch need not dictate a book’s fortunes in the same way that a great launch doesn’t guarantee success. I once went to a party at the Groucho Club for a book by a relatively well-known journalist and spent most of the evening talking to the author’s immediate family, the relations making up the bulk of the attendees. The book? Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’ve been to huge events for books long since forgotten, written by authors whose follow-ups were silently sidelined. Publication day—launch or not—tells us very little about future prospects.

At least that’s half-true. In reality trade book publishing works on a momentum model—titles build as word-of-mouth does its thing, with those books that bulk-up during the publication process likely to land with a greater thud at launch. This is as true for débuts such as Lessons in Chemistry as it was for Spare; quiet books can do well but their need for a slice of good fortune will be greater.

For authors, and particularly for début writers, this can be a chastening experience, and one that can feel increasingly futile as they see an arcane world united only by indifference. My concern reading the survey and the many other comments not reported is that as a sector we are doing too poor a job managing expectations; we focus too much attention on the race and not enough on the athlete.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says that traditional publishers regard authors as content providers, nothing more. And if an author gets uppity and forgets her/his place, there are always lots of other content providers banging on the door, begging to enter.

Manga Freelancers Say, ‘Show Me the Money’

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Despite some slowdown, manga is still leading graphic novel sales in North America. But that success hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the professionals who help bring manga to market: translators, letterers, and editors, including many freelancers.

After the last manga boom/bust cycle (roughly 2007-2008), which resulted in layoffs at many publishers, freelancer rates were cut dramatically. For the most part, rates haven’t returned to pre-2007 rates. For example, translation services companies MediBang and Amimaru have drawn criticism for paying letterers as little as $1 to $1.15 per page, as reported on Anime News Network.

M, a veteran Japanese-to-English manga translator who spoke to PW on conditions of anonymity, said that “some manga series move a few hundred copies. Others, millions. But I get paid the same for both.” They complained that the standard is flat fee payment for translation, without residuals, and bonuses and raises are atypical. The result, they said, is that “rates drop every year when taking inflation into account.”

But with manga publishers enjoying a period of prosperity, freelancers have begun speaking out and demanding pay increases. The United Workers of Seven Seas, the first US manga/light novel publishing union, was formed with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) last year; the union was recognized by Seven Seas Entertainment soon after. Two publishers, Yen Press and Viz Media, also reportedly responded by raising rates for freelancers. Specific payment terms were not disclosed by the publishers, who offered no comment. But according to M, between the two major manga houses, base rates rose between 10-20%. “We were thrown a long overdue bone,” says M.

That said, translation costs and time present a real concern for manga publishers, especially for digital releases, which may net less margin combined with shorter turnover time for simulpub print and e-pub volumes.

One possible solution being actively explored is machine or AI-assisted translation. As Beth Kawasaki, executive director of content and marketing at Media Do International, a leading digital manga distributor, put it, “human editorial expertise is still needed, but advances in tech may make (AI-assisted) localization more cost effective in the future.”

Machine learning and AI-assisted translation is a controversial topic, for both manga publishing professionals and readers.

“Quality comes a cost,” explained Kae Winters, marketing lead at Tokyopop. “I understand why there’s a lot of interest in machine translation as the technology progresses…but I think we’d all agree it’s got a long way to go. If you’ve ever run a Japanese book description through Google Translate, it’s a coin toss whether it’ll even be understandable.” And yet, she added, “I’m sure when the radio was invented, the idea of having moving images to go along with it sounded like science fiction, too.”

From the professional translator side, M defends the skills required by human translators in capturing the nuances of Japanese language and culture in manga storytelling. Manga is “filled with puns, jokes, cultural references, allusions, context-sensitive SFX (sound effects), callbacks, call-forwards, and unspoken nuance that all requires the deft touch of a fully bilingual human brain to parse, contextualize, reimagine, localize, and write,” M explains.

The pitfalls of shoddy translation were evident in the recent release, then quick removal, of Blic Publishing/Book Live’s first digital release of The Ranking of Kings by Sousuke Toka from e-book stores due to complaints about the translation quality, followed by similar complaints about Titan Comics’s release of Kamen Rider Kuuga. Manga fans are eager for more manga, but as their taste for a greater variety of subgenres grows, so do their expectations for the quality of what they’re buying.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chances are, unless you’re a philosopher, you’ve never heard of Derek Parfit. A philosopher’s philosopher, he spent most of his career far from the madding crowd in the cloisters of All Souls College, Oxford, determined to demonstrate that there was an objective basis for secular morality rooted in rational foundations. He produced just two books—“Reasons and Persons” (1984) and the multi-volume “On What Matters” (2011, 2017)—but, as David Edmonds makes clear in his wonderful biography, “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,” they were outsize in both length and influence.

Mr. Edmonds, co-author (with John Eidinow) of “Wittgenstein’s Poker” (2001), one of my all-time favorite books of philosophy for non-academics, is ideally suited to write about Parfit. His Oxford BPhil and PhD dissertations in the late 1980s and early ’90s—both on ethical issues—were supervised, respectively, by Parfit and his longtime partner (and eventual wife), Janet Radcliffe Richards.

As in “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” Mr. Edmonds exhibits an impressive ability to explain complex philosophical arguments to the lay reader. He takes us into the nitty-gritty of Parfit’s reasoning, breakthroughs and responses to critics. He also locates Parfit in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries in the philosophical pantheon.

Most of this exegesis is remarkably accessible, though my mind balked at Mr. Edmonds’s three-point summary of Parfit’s conclusions and knotty ethical conundrums such as the Asymmetry Problem, the Non-Identity Problem and the wonderfully named Repugnant Conclusion. Offering more than a thinker’s life and career, “Parfit” is a crash course in the evolution of moral philosophy, and the best account I have read of what “doing philosophy” entails.

For Parfit, this entailed devising ingenious scenarios to tease out the ramifications of his ideas—about subjects ranging from the continuity of personal identity and our moral duties to future persons to questions about ideal population size and the intrinsic value of principles like equality. Many of his ideas involved issues concerning Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Henry Sidgwick’s utilitarianism. He addressed these via thought experiments that were often variants of the famous Trolley Problem, which involved “individuals endangered in unfortunate circumstances, where there is the option to help, but at the cost of harming others.” In one, you could use a lifeboat to save either a single person stuck on a rock threatened by rising tide, or five people on a second rock. In another, the only way to divert a train from a track that will kill five people is to activate a trap door which will cause a person standing on a bridge above to fall to his death in front of the train. In both cases, Parfit shows how different principles all indicate that choosing to save the five rather than the one is the preferable option.

. . . .

Parfit supplemented his All Souls income (for which he was not required to teach) and broadened his reach with regular half-term stints at American universities, mainly Harvard, NYU and Rutgers. But he was a perfectionist whose name has apt roots in the French parfait, or “perfect,” and he suffered from what Mr. Edmonds calls “chronic publishing constipation.” He tested and retested his theories, circulating draft after draft among dozens of fellow philosophers and graduate students. Spurred by a publish-or-perish ultimatum from All Souls, he became maniacally focused on completing “Reasons and Persons” in the early ’80s, causing him to further cut all social activity, prepare instant coffee with tap water to save time, and read even while brushing his teeth.

Such personal details—and splashes of humor—provide plenty of relief from the book’s abstruse material. Parfit’s succinct summary of the history of ethics is especially delightful:

1. Forbidden by God.

2. Forbidden by God, therefore wrong.

3. Wrong, therefore forbidden by God.

4. Wrong.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

New Data on the UK’s Translated Fiction Readers

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nielsen’s 2022 Books and Consumers data looked at monthly updates on 3,000 United Kingdom book buyers aged 13 to 84.

. . . .

In an age in which much of the world book publishing industry focuses a preponderance of its output—and workforce—on women as the majority consumers, it’s worth placing some of the gender-related data here first. Surely by now, a review of the “guys don’t read” trope is called for.

According to the newly released analysis, while only 32 percent of overall UK fiction buyers are male, 48 percent of translated fiction buyers are male.

“With reports that young men are reading less fiction than ever,” the foundation writes in its report, “publishers and retailers will be encouraged to see a publishing sector in which male readers are on a par with females.”

Here’s a bit more of a breakdown in regard to the gender criterion:

  • Females aged 13 to 24 make up the largest purchase group for translated fiction, with 15.5 percent of all buys
  • Females aged 25 to 34 are the next largest, at 13.7 percent of all translated fiction purchases

But then, women seem to pass the baton to men. The next highest purchase groups are:

  • Males aged 45 to 59 (13.6 percent, effectively the equivalent of the 15-t0-24 group at 13.7 percent led by females)
  • Males aged 25 to 34 (11.2 percent) register as the fourth purchase group

Overall, the Nielsen Book data indicates that readers of translated fiction in the United Kingdom in 2022 were “significantly younger” than readers of fiction generally.

Buyers aged 25 to 34 purchased almost a quarter (24.9 percent) of all translated fiction in the United Kingdom in 2022, an increase from 21 percent in 2021. The second highest purchase group is 13-24 year olds, indicating that book buyers younger than 35 account for almost half of all translated fiction purchases.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Hilary Mantel’s genius, ‘riotous’ humour and ‘innate goodwill’ celebrated at memorial

FromThe Bookseller:

Hilary Mantel’s immense legacy, “riotous sense of humour” and generosity to other writers have been celebrated at a memorial service in honour of the late author.

Mantel, the author of 17 acclaimed books including the Wolf Hall trilogy – two books of which won the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, died aged 70 in September 2022.

Speakers at the packed service at Southwark Cathedral on 20th April included HarperCollins c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne, A M Heath’s Bill Hamilton, Mantel’s long-time literary agent, and Nicholas Pearson, her editor. Authors Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and Anne Enright gave readings from Mantel’s work, and a fragment of the novel she had been working on before her death, Provocation, inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice told from the perspective of Mary Bennett.

In his welcome remarks, Redmayne said it had been HC’s privilege to publish Mantel’s work for the past 24 years, and that it was “wonderful” to see so many in attendance to remember Mantel “and what she meant to us, both as an incredible, one of a kind writer, and also individually, as a wife, sister, friend, colleague or peer”.

He added that it was fitting that, alongside her family and friends and those who worked with her on her books, stage and screen adaptations, there were “many among us who only knew her through her words, but who also felt compelled to come here today to pay their respects”.

“Aside from being one of the greatest writers that ever lived, Hilary was also a champion of the arts, she was generous with her time, and a mentor to many people, and also hugely supportive of other writers,” Redmayne said, a side of her “appropriately represented” by the children’s charity, Scene and Heard, of which Mantel was a patron and which attendees of the service were encouraged to support.

In a moving tribute, Mantel’s lifelong friend Anne Preston described her as “kind and funny, fierce and full of self-belief” and “a consummate craftsman and weaver of spells”, while her brother Brian Mantel, in a statement read by actor Ben Miles, said: “For Hilary, words were as a piano to Mozart. [She] engraved her legacy in mighty tablets of stone.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

La Fabrique’s Moret released from police custody

FromThe Bookseller:

La Fabrique’s foreign rights manager Ernest Moret has been released from police custody, after being arrested and detained by British anti-terrorist police upon his arrival at London St Pancras station, ahead of London Book Fair. 

The Metropolitan Police confirmed to The Bookseller that Ernest was bailed on the evening of 19th April.

His phone and work computer were seized by officers for interrogation, according to the French publisher and its collaborator Verso Books. Moret’s lawyer, Richard Parry from Saunders Solicitors, said that the rights manager will be required to return to London in May. 

Pension reform demonstrations have rocked France over the past three months, with the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, attributing any violence on those on the Left. Police were allegedly interested in Moret’s writing on recent events, and any participation he may have had in the protests, according to Parry.  

The publishers said in a statement: “Ernest was interrogated for several hours and asked some very disturbing questions: his point of view on the pension reform in France, on the French government, on Emmanuel Macron, his opinion on the Covid crisis… Perhaps most seriously, during his interrogation, he was asked to name the ’anti-government’ authors in the catalogue of the publishing house La Fabrique, for which he works.”

The Metropolitan Police refused to provide any comment regarding what was raised during police interviews.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

An easily-overlooked foreign rights manager by day, but . . . .

Self-published authors earn more than traditionally published counterparts, according to ALLi report

From The Bookseller:

New research by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) claims authors who self-publish currently earn more than traditionally published authors.

ALLi circulated the survey to its members and subscribers, as well as “through other key self-publishing and author organisations” in February 2023. It was answered by more than 2,000 respondents – 60% of whom were in North America, with 21% from the UK and 8% respectively for Australia/New Zealand, and Europe. It found the the median revenue for independent authors in 2022 stands at $12,749 (£10,229).

This compares to the findings of a report into authors’ earnings commissioned by The Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) and published in December 2022, which showed that median earnings from writing alone for authors with third-party publishers stands at approximately $8,600 (£7,000).

The ALCS’ report showed “a sustained fall in professional writers’ real terms income from writing over the past 15 years of around 60%, pushing median earnings down to minimum wage levels,” a trend which ALLi suggests self-published authors are “bucking” in light of its survey’s findings, which suggest average incomes of self-published authors are rising, with a 53% increase in 2022 over the previous year.

By contrast, its report goes on, “previous author income surveys, which have focused on revenues received by authors with third-party publishers, have repeatedly reported falling incomes.”

. . . .

ALLi has commissioned the UK Copyright & Creative Economy Centre, CREATe – which conducted the ALCS’ survey – to expand analysis of the findings, particularly in relation to “key demographic groups and factors that contribute to higher incomes.” ALLi will publish the full report including demographic data in June 2023, together with a collection of insights from several peer self-publishing organisations, as the Big Indie Author Data Drop. This compilation and final 2023 report will be presented at the Self-Publishing Live conference in London in June 2023 and will repeat as an annual event, which the organisation says will fill “a notable gap in author income research”.

Orna Ross, ALLi director, said of the findings: “ALLi has always believed that authors are financially better off self-publishing. Now that the results of this survey confirm that belief, we want to make sure all authors know that they can make a living as an author, if they do the work and acquire good publishing skills, alongside good writing skills. And that they are not alone. There is full support for talented and dedicated authors at ALLi and throughout the self-publishing community.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that Orna Ross, the founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, has been doing good things for indie authors for a long time (ALLI was founded in 2012).

Those who recall 2012 (including PG, just barely), will remember that this year included a notable antitrust suit filed by the U.S. Justice Department against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster for trying to fix prices for ebooks, and strangle Amazon’s ebook business in the crib.

Basically the five big publishers agreed to refuse to sell ebooks to Amazon unless Amazon sold their ebooks at the publisher’s list price. The agreement was made at the instigation of a top Apple exec and provided that Apple would sell the majority of e-books between $9.99 and $14.99, with new releases being $12.99 to $14.99.

Apple also adopted the agency model which it used in its App Store for distribution of e-books. This let Publishers control the price of the e-books with Apple receiving a 30% commission. The joint agreement provided that the Publishers would establish ebook prices on Amazon so ebook prices on both platforms would be identical.

On the day Apple launched its ebook store, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Jobs why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. In response Jobs stated that “The price will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.”

As PG has opined on more than one previous occasion, doing this reflected the rank business and legal stupidity of the major publishers. What Jobs and the publishers agreed to do was a classic example of illegal price-fixing that was (and still is) clearly prohibited by US antitrust laws.

Jobs was a highly magnetic and innovative individual who built Apple from nothing into a major world-wide computer brand, a wonderful American business success story.

However, Jobs was dying of cancer at the time, kept this information secret and (PG suspects) decided to propose this agreement without any input from Apple’s lawyers at all. A law student who had taken a single antitrust class would have recognized this was prohibited conduct.

After being sued, the publishers quickly caved, took their financial licks from the Justice Department and some state attorneys general who joined in the suit, and went back to business as usual. Apple lost at the trial level, lost at the United States Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court declined to take the case.

Amazon kept pushing ebooks, including more generous royalty terms than authors could get from traditional publishing, and never looked back. PG has suggested on numerous occasions that traditional publishers missed a wonderful opportunity to earn a lot of money from ebooks because they didn’t want to harm their printed book sales or relationship with traditional bookstores.

It was a classic example of one bad decision after another.

Orna Ross and ALLI have provided a lot of help for indie authors ever since the Apple antitrust case was still roaring along, so she’s seen the thick and thin of indie authors. You may want to check out the membership benefits the organization offers.

Google Becomes a Client of MVB’s Metabooks

From Publishing Perspectives:

As MVB Books UK marks its anniversary at London Book Fair this week (April 18 to 20), the news today (April 17) is that MVB’s Metabooks has signed a contract to become an official metadata supplier to Google.

The deal guarantees Google receipt of metadata from Metabooks Brasil and Metabooks Mexico, as well as future MVB databases in Latin America. Google and MVB will work in cooperation with a goal of “improving the user experience for people on Google searching for books and authors, using quality metadata guaranteed by Metabooks,” according to today’s media messaging.

Crucially, the program is also expected to boost sales results of publishers, booksellers, and customers who are looking for books to buy and read.

In a prepared statement, Ronald Schild, the international CEO of MVB says, “The constant search for the improvement of our services is one of the pillars of our company.

Ronald Schild

“Bringing more and more benefits and solid results to our customers and book lovers is one of our objectives.

“The partnership with Google represents an important reinforcement for the books on our platform to be—and always remain on—the ‘right shelf’.

. . . .

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Metabooks provides publishers and bookstores in Brazil and Mexico with an infrastructure for uniform, complex metadata management.

The technological basis of this is the central platform for the automated exchange of product information in the German-language book industry: Verzeichnis Lieferbarer Bücher (VLB). VLB plays a key role in helping to shape international standards, and this is part of what the system then provides to retailers and other buyers with optimized metadata.

MVB essentially makes books visible by surfacing them on major platforms—operating on international metadata standards—to enable publishers and bookstores to promote their products successfully and efficiently in their home markets and abroad.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Paying attention to numbers can open up meaning in books

From The Economist:

The members of Oulipo—an abbreviation of ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”—gathered in a café in Paris in November 1960. The avant-garde group sought new ways to tell stories; they revelled in constraint. In 1947 Raymond Queneau, the collective’s co-founder, had imagined a single short story in 99 different ways in his “Exercises in Style”. In 1969 Georges Perec wrote a novel that omitted the letter “e”. Three years later he produced a novella in which “e” was the only vowel used.

Sarah Hart describes the work of Oulipo in “Once Upon a Prime” as part of a wide-ranging analysis of the links between maths and literature. The author—who in 2020 became the first woman to hold the position of Gresham Professor of Geometry, thought to be the oldest maths professorship in Britain—seeks to prove that the disciplines are profoundly intertwined. “The perceived boundary between them is a very recent idea,” she says.

Professor Hart argues, convincingly, that paying attention to numbers can open up meaning in novels and poems; she explores the role maths plays in literary works such as “Jurassic Park”, “Life of Pi” and “Moby Dick”. Mathematical allusions can provide insight into a writer’s psyche, too. In “War and Peace” Tolstoy “uses calculus as a metaphor for understanding the whole of human history”.

Some novelists make maths the theme of their work. Lewis Carroll, a lecturer at Oxford University, combined fantastical escapades with references to puzzles, sums and numerical games in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Alice uses a “proof by contradiction” to expose the Mock Turtle’s lies about studying arithmetic. The theme of “Through the Looking-Glass”, the sequel, was chess; Carroll included descriptive notation as part of the front matter. His abiding interest was in “the power and possibilities of logic”, Professor Hart writes.

Amor Towles, a banker turned bestselling author, gave his novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” a unique, “accordion-like” structure inspired by the power of two. The book covers a period of 32 years. The story starts on a summer solstice—the midpoint of a year—and returns to the characters in roughly doubling time spans (one day after, two days, five days, ten days, and so on) until the midpoint of the story. From there, the time frames grow shorter again: from eight years to four years, two years, and beyond. The effect, Professor Hart avers, is to mimic “the way human memory works, and how we experience the passage of time”.

Once Upon a Prime” analyses the “counting, pattern, and therefore mathematics” involved in rhyme schemes and points out writers’ love of prime numbers. (Consider the three witches in “Macbeth” and Snow White’s seven dwarves.) The book shows how seemingly random dates or figures can contain hidden clues for the reader or hint at the theme of a story. It makes for illuminating prose and the reader may feel better equipped to tackle the books on their nightstand afterwards.

Link to the rest at The Economist

A thrilling account of a shipwreck in the Pacific in 1741

From The Economist:

A largely forgotten chapter of a little-remembered war between England and Spain provides the setting for this gripping study of human nature in extremis. Wager, a British frigate, crashed onto rocks off the coast of Patagonia while pursuing the enemy into the Pacific in 1741. The seas in that remote part of the world are infamous. “Below forty degrees latitude, there is no law,” went a sailors’ adage. “Below fifty degrees, there is no God.”

A non-fiction account of the chase, the wreck and what followed might have been told as a typical maritime adventure. Those who love yarns involving cannon fire, sea-chests, plum duff and mainmasts will find “The Wager” riveting, as will those less intrigued by the age of sail. In the hands of David Grann, the story transcends its naval setting. The author, whose previous bestsellers include “The Lost City of Z” and “The White Darkness”, is a master of exciting tales in far-flung places. He has produced a volume so dramatic and engrossing that it may surpass his previous books.

The tale revolves around three complex figures. Wager’s captain, David Cheap, began to lose sway over the men as soon as the ship foundered. The crew became castaways on a small island in the Golfo de Penas (“Gulf of Pain”). Just over half the original complement of 250 had survived outbreaks of typhus and scurvy onboard. Aloof and slow to adapt, Cheap derived his authority from the chain of command rather than natural charisma. But he was also physically brave and loyal to the mission, at one point single-handedly facing down a band of armed mutineers without a weapon of his own.

By contrast, John Bulkeley “emerged as a leader on his own merits”. A working seaman whose job, as gunner, was to oversee the ship’s cannon, he started foraging food, constructing shelter and bartering supplies from the moment his feet touched land. Others began looking to him for answers. Mr Grann writes that little is known about Bulkeley except that he was a devout Christian who swung hard in a fight. Yet he was no brute: he kept a detailed journal of Wager’s travails, peppered with verse.

John Byron, a midshipman, bore witness to the ensuing power struggle. Sixteen years old when he volunteered for naval service, the young gentleman came from one of the oldest noble families in Britain. (His grandson would be the poet Lord Byron.) Mr Grann deftly shows how the trainee officer’s allegiance shifted between the captain and the gunner, swayed by notions of pragmatism, duty, survival and, above all, decency. Like Bulkeley, Byron kept a journal that proved an important source for Mr Grann’s book.

The marooned crew feuded over where to assign fault and how to get home. They soon split into bitter factions. An indelible scene portrays Cheap and Bulkeley shaking hands as they part ways, never again to reunite. The privations that the men endured over the following months and years are almost unimaginable. After the ravages of shipbound disease and a desperate rounding of Cape Horn, they faced starvation, cannibalism, exposure, abandonment and return journeys to civilisation in small, unseaworthy boats. Only a fraction survived. “I believe no mortals have experienced more difficulties and miseries than we have,” wrote one of their number.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Games are a weapon in the war on disinformation

From The Economist:

The mayor of your city has announced a strange new public project: a lavish park especially for cats. It seems like a waste of money so, with the help of some activists you have met online, you campaign against it on social media. You start with rousing posts—“Breaking News: Outrageous! City prioritises elitist pets over our kids!”—and funny memes. You soon move on to doctoring images to make it look like the mayor is part of “an ultra-secret cat-worshipping cult”. You galvanise your followers to take violent action.

In “Cat Park” players learn to become disinformation warriors. The free 15-minute online game explores the dark art of spreading lies online; players get points for the passion of their posts and shareability of their memes. It is good fun, with a witty script and futuristic cyberpunk style. It is also an educational tool, funded by the Global Engagement Centre (gec), a branch of the us State Department which aims to “recognise, understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts”.

Games such as “Cat Park” are an ingenious response to a widespread problem. Fake news and conspiracy theories are in rich supply; demand for them is high in polarised countries across the world. Many governments are mulling policies to try to limit their spread, since internet users often struggle to discern legitimate sources from nefarious ones. Last year a study by Ofcom, a British regulator, found that 30% of the country’s adults hardly consider the truthfulness of information they read online. About 6% give no thought to the veracity of stories. Around a quarter failed to spot fake social-media accounts.

. . . .

Tilt Studio, the Dutch developer behind “Cat Park”, has also worked with the British government, the European Commission and nato to create games that “help tackle online manipulation head-on”. In 2020 it collaborated with the gec on “Harmony Square”, in which players seek to destabilise an idyllic neighbourhood by using falsehoods to foment disunity. During the pandemic, it released “Go Viral!”, a five-minute game that gets players to scrutinise misleading information about covid-19.

“Rather than simply waiting for lies to spread, and then debunking them with a fact-check, we can leverage games like ‘Cat Park’ to practically educate ourselves about common disinformation techniques,” says Davor Devcic of gec. Aimed primarily at citizens in the West, the games are based on the idea of “active inoculation”: just as individuals build up resistance to a disease after a vaccine, after playing “Cat Park” or “Harmony Square” they are more wary of internet skulduggery. A study by the University of Cambridge found that players of “Harmony Square” were better at spotting dodgy content and less likely to share it. The effect was consistent across right-wing and left-wing players.

. . . .

The Canadian government, meanwhile, helped fund “Lizards and Lies”, a board game about information warfare. It takes the form of a traditional map-based war-game, which you play as one of four characters: an “edgelord”, “conspiracy theorist”, “platform moderator” or “digital literacy educator”. (You are either a “spreader” or a “stopper” of lies.) Cards and tokens help you win over enclaves of supporters. Points are scored for each social-media network you control. It pays to focus on areas of the map that are winnable: as with their real-life counterparts, certain online networks are more amenable to wild conspiracism than others.

Scott DeJong, the designer, says he was partly inspired by the QAnon conspiracy theory, which itself makes use of gaming techniques to acquire and motivate followers. “Disinformation and conspiracy-theory processes are often like puzzles. They draw people in by seeming to ask questions, while really directing the target towards a specific answer,” he says. The originator of the theory, Q, posts “drops”, or cryptic clues, “that the community works together to interpret and resolve”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a link to Cat Park, which says is a 15-minute game and Lizards and Lies

The Culture of Bloomsbury and Industry Progress

From Publishing Perspectives:

The four founders of Bloomsbury in 1986 included Liz Calder, the legendary editor who had also helped to found the Groucho Club and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Although Liz had left by the time I joined and the company had grown considerably, the culture she had established was very much still there, and this included the prominent roles taken by women–not least, Alexandra Pringle, who was a superb editor-in-chief for 20 years. Across the company as a whole, probably 70 percent of the staff were female during my time there. This was a reflection on Bloomsbury, but also how the overall culture of publishing had changed over the years – according to the Publishers Association’s most recent survey, women now occupy just over half of the industry’s senior management positions.

Despite this progress for women in the industry, it has not always been straightforward. Take the instance of The Society of Bookmen, which had been founded in the 1920s as a monthly dining club for professionals from across the book trade, bringing together publishers, booksellers, printers, librarians and the occasional author. The dinners, held at the Savile Club in Mayfair, had long been an important part of London’s publishing scene – a place to socialize and do business, and for younger publishers to learn and make contacts. Forty years into its existence, the Society had belatedly admitted women in 1972, and I joined in 1988 shortly after I started at Reed. But by the 21st century, with 40 percent of the members being female, many felt that the name “Bookmen” was increasingly problematic. There had been two attempts to get it changed, but it required at least two thirds of the members to vote for change in a ballot and had failed to pass. In desperation, the chair of the Society called an emergency motion at one of the monthly dinners and, in a show of hands held there and then, it was renamed The Book Society.

I had been at this dinner and obviously voted for the change of name, but was troubled by the use of an emergency motion as a way of avoiding a full democratic ballot and submitted my resignation to the Society’s management committee. Instead, as is the way of things, I accepted their suggestion that I should become president of The Book Society and work with the chair to help ensure that principles of good governance were upheld in the future. A couple of years after this, a member of the Society pointed out that membership of the Savile Club where we regularly dined was restricted to men, and so an unsuitable host venue. I spoke with the Club manager who confirmed that this was the case and was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future – their only female member being someone who had joined as a male and then subsequently undergone a sex change! And so we moved to the Conduit, a club in Covent Garden. It was a shame to end the long association that the Society had enjoyed with the Savile Club but also, I strongly believed, the right thing to do.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Another adjective to be applied to traditional publishing: misogynistic.

Inside Kenya’s booming podcast scene

From Chatham House:

I am eating a pre-hiking meal of oatmeal with espresso on the side at a local coffee house while waiting for my hiking buddies to join me at 7am on a Sunday. Even though it is January, we are experiencing an intense heatwave and I am trying to calculate how many litres of water I will need to face the challenge ahead.

The plan is to trek the 16km-plus out-and-back route through the seven Ngong Hills, lying in the Great Rift Valley about an hour from Kenya’s capital. During the group catch-up beforehand, I give a quick rundown of my latest favourite podcasts and remember one I had come across that Emily, an avid art lover, would enjoy, Art Fraud.

The smartphone revolution

Storytelling is a core part of Kenya’s history and a surge in the number of podcasts in the region comes as no surprise. We love a good story. Podcasts are especially popular with the under-35s living in urban areas.

Improved technology coupled with better access to the internet and more user-friendly software have led to a boom in podcasting. This is helped by the growth in 4G and 5G wireless access available in parts of Nairobi and its outskirts.

Smartphones are the real reason the popularity of podcasts has taken off. In Kenya, 46 per cent of connections were made by smartphones in 2021 and this is predicted to grow to 68 per cent by 2025, according to figures from the GSM Association, which represents the interests of the mobile network industry.

According to a podcasting report by Baraza Media Lab, which I work for, and made in collaboration with Africa Podfest, some of the most popular themes in podcasts are culture, media and the arts, health and wellness, current affairs and news, science and technology and business in that order.

People listen to them while carrying out their daily tasks such as working out, running errands, on the commute to-and-from work or school, or in their leisure time. It is an exercise that continually raises awareness, entertains, educates and helps unravel some of the most complex issues from around the world.

. . . .

Spotify’s popularity increased when it teamed up with the mobile money service Mpesa which is available to anyone with a registered SIM card and a mobile phone.

This mobile money payment option is used by millions of Kenyans each day and it allows more customers to buy audio and streaming services. Other streaming platforms demanded debit or credit card details, or PayPal and E-wallet apps which are rarely used in the region, for the prepaid option.

With as many as 68 languages spoken in Kenya, podcasts are now being produced in Sheng’, Kamba, Maasai, Kikuyu, Kiswahili and Luo among others.

While radio is still the most popular medium for news and entertainment, audio storytellers are using podcasts to share topics that range from local and global news, politics, money management, sex education, lifestyle to sports and that cater to their audience profile.

Podcasts have provided a platform for women, young people, disabled people, LGBT+ groups and other marginalized communities to share their experiences without editorial distortions that can apply on mainstream media platforms. This moves away from Kenya’s traditional media platforms that are mostly privately owned, supported by large budgets and studio-structured production and which rely on advertising to hold their bottom line.

Link to the rest at Chatham House

7 Books About the Scam of Wellness

From Electric Lit:

It’s no coincidence that wellness has become a trillion-dollar industry at the same time that most people have been affected by failing public health systems and government agencies. Self-care has become a best-selling product, a buzzword that anyone can use to increase their bottom line. Because of this, it can be impossible to parse what wellness is, and to imagine methods of self-care that don’t come with a staggering cost. 

In my novel Natural Beauty, a talented pianist is forced to give up a promising career in order to care for her ailing parents. She stumbles upon an opportunity to work at Holistik, a high-end wellness and clean beauty store, and finds herself seduced by the promise of becoming her best self. She slathers on products, ingests pills, and submits to procedures, all in the name of endless self-optimization. But something sinister lies beneath Holistik’s glossy veneer, an ugly truth that threatens to consume her. Natural Beauty is ultimately a journey of self-love through the horrors of a commodified wellness industry. 

Below, I present a list of books that, together, begin to form a clear picture of what wellness is and what it isn’t, who it currently serves, and who it excludes. The illness of wellness lies in wellness that tries to exist within capitalism, participating and becoming an extension of it. All of these books have also informed me, one way or another, in my own journey with self-care. 

Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom

Former influencer Anna Wrey seeks to undo  all of her previous surgeries with a new procedure, Aesthetica, which promises to restore your natural face. Scenes of her readying for the procedure in the present are cut with flashbacks that show the harrowing history that brought her to this point. She has spent her life learning to read the desires of men, ignoring her own, and surgically adapting to exterior preferences. It’s a deeply powerful and sad depiction of influencer culture, the pursuit of beauty and youth as leverage for power, and the choices women make, which are limited and designed to make us believe we are in control. Rowbottom is so effective at showing the absolute hollowness of getting all the things we’ve been conditioned to want, it’s frightening. This anti-fairy tale cautions us: be careful what you wish for, because your wishes are not your own. 

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu

Hu moves to Seoul as the first-ever Korea and Japan bureau chief for NPR correspondent and takes a deep dive into South Korea’s beauty industry and how it impacts society and women at large. In this astonishingly researched and unputdownable book about topics like the prolific plastic surgery procedures being invented everyday to burgeoning feminist movement, she dissects the myriad ways beauty ideals intersect with geopolitical tensions, class, and societal issues, as well as articulating technology’s part in enabling and accelerating beauty culture. Among the many pressing questions Hu asks: How does beauty intersect with sexist power structures? Who benefits when women expend so much energy enhancing themselves?  Where is unchecked consumer beauty culture leading us to? Nowhere in the world are there such clear lines drawn between beauty and social and economic success than in South Korea. Flawless manages to provide an in-depth look at the history of Korea, which very well may be the future for the rest of the world. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The topics in the OP and each of the books it mentions are terra icognita for PG. So, for once, he has no opinon regarding the OP.

Amazon is Closing Book Depository at the End of April

From The Guardian:

The online shop Book Depository is due to close at the end of April, vendors and publishing partners have been told. This comes after the bookseller’s parent company Amazon announced it had decided to “eliminate” a number of positions across its Devices and Books businesses.

The Gloucester-based bookseller was founded in 2004 by Stuart Felton and Andrew Crawford, a former Amazon employee, with the mantra of “selling ‘less of more’ rather than ‘more of less’”. It aimed to sell 6m titles covering a wide variety of genres and topics, as opposed to focusing solely on bestsellers. While originally a rival to Amazon, it was acquired by the retail giant in 2011, causing some in the publishing industry to worry about the tightening of the American company’s “stranglehold” on the UK book trade.

According to the trade magazine the Bookseller, an email sent out to vendors and publishing partners explained that Book Depository will be closing, and that the last date customers will be able to place orders is 26 April. “Over the coming weeks we will complete a winding down of the business, including discontinuing our listings as a marketplace seller and closing our website,” Andy Chart, head of vendor management, wrote.

“I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you, from everyone at Book Depository and our book-loving customers, for your supportive partnership over the years in helping us to make printed books more accessible to readers around the world,” he concluded.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG doesn’t take any pleasure in anyone losing her/his/their job. That said, shipping physical books around is an expensive proposition compared to ebooks.

Like many US tech companies in the aftermath of COVID shutdowns, Amazon needs to cut costs.

On Mary Wollstonecraft

From The Paris Review:

Around the time I realized I didn’t want to be married anymore, I started visiting Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. I’d known it was there, behind King’s Cross railway station, for at least a decade. I had read her protofeminist tract from 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, at university, and I knew Saint Pancras Churchyard was where Wollstonecraft’s daughter, also Mary, had taken the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when they were falling in love. When I thought about the place, I thought of death and sex and possibility. I first visited at thirty-four, newly separated, on a cold gray day with a lover, daffodils rising around the squat cubic pillar. “MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN,” the stone reads. “Author of A Vindication of the rights of Woman. Born 27th April, 1759. Died 10th September, 1797.” I didn’t tell him why I wanted to go there; I had a sense that Wollstonecraft would understand, and I often felt so lost that I didn’t want to talk to real people, people I wanted to love me rather than pity me, people I didn’t want to scare. I was often scared. I was frequently surprised by my emotions, by the things I suddenly needed to do or say that surged up out of nowhere.

Unexpected events had brought me graveside: when I was thirty-two, my fifty-seven-year-old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t genetic; no one knew why she got it. We would, the doctors said, have three to nine more years with her. Everything wobbled. This knowledge raised questions against every part of my life: Was this worth it? And this? And this? I was heading for children in the suburbs with the husband I’d met at nineteen, but that life, the one that so many people want, I doubted was right for me. I was trying to find my way as a writer, but I was jumping from genre to genre, not working out what I most wanted to say, and not taking myself seriously enough to discover it, even. Who do you tell when you start to feel these things? Everything seemed immovable. Everything seemed impossible. And yet I knew I had to change my life.

There were a string of discussions with my husband, threading from morning argument to online chat to text to phone to therapy session to dinner, where we floated ideas about open marriage and relationship breaks and moving countries and changing careers and dirty weekends. But we couldn’t agree on what was important, and I began to peel my life away from his. We decided that we could see other people. We were as honest and kind and open as we could manage as we did this, which sometimes wasn’t much. The spring I began visiting Wollstonecraft’s grave, he moved out, dismantling our bed by taking the mattress and leaving me with the frame. I took off my wedding ring—a gold band with half a line of “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath etched on the inside—and for weeks afterward, my thumb would involuntarily reach across my palm for the warm bright circle that had gone. I didn’t throw the ring into the long grass, like women do in the movies, but a feeling began bubbling up nevertheless, from my stomach to my throat: it could fling my arms out. I was free.

At first, I took my freedom as a seventeen-year-old might: hard and fast and negronied and wild. I was thirty-four and I wanted so much out of this new phase of my life: intense sexual attraction; soulmate-feeling love that would force my life into new shapes; work that felt joyous like play but meaningful like religion; friendships with women that were fusional and sisterly; talk with anyone and everyone about what was worth living for; books that felt like mountains to climb; attempts at writing fiction and poetry and memoir. I wanted to create a life I would be proud of, that I could stand behind. I didn’t want to be ten years down the wrong path before I discovered once more that it was wrong. While I was a girl, waiting for my life to begin, my mother gave me books: The Mill on the Floss when I was ill; Ballet Shoes when I demanded dance lessons; A Little Princess when I felt overlooked. How could I find the books I needed now? I had so many questions: Could you be a feminist and be in love? Did the search for independence mean I would never be at home with anyone, anywhere? Was domesticity a trap? What was worth living for if you lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman’s life? What was worth living for at all—what degree of unhappiness, lostness, chaos was bearable? Could I even do this without my mother beside me? Or approach any of these questions if she was already fading from my life? And if I wanted to write about all this, how could I do it? What forms would I need? What genre could I be most truthful in? How would this not be seen as a problem of privilege, a childish demand for definition, narcissistic self-involvement, when the world was burning? Wouldn’t I be better off giving away all I have and putting down my books, my movies, my headphones, and my pen? When would I get sick of myself?

The questions felt urgent as well as overwhelming. At times I couldn’t face the page—printed or blank—at all. I needed to remind myself that starting out on my own again halfway through life is possible, has been possible for others—and that this sort of life can have beauty in it. And so I went back to the writers I’d loved when I was younger—the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft, the novels of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. I read other writers—Elena Ferrante, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison—for the first time. I watched them try to answer some of the questions I myself had. This book bears the traces of the struggles they had, as well as my own—and some of the things we all found that help. Not all of the solutions they (and I) found worked, and even when they did, they didn’t work all the time: if I’d thought life was a puzzle I could solve once and for all when I was younger, I couldn’t believe that any longer. But the answers might come in time if I could only stay with the questions, as the lover who came with me to Wollstonecraft’s grave would keep reminding me.

. . . .

A Vindication was written in six weeks. On January 3, 1792, the day she gave the last sheet to the printer, Wollstonecraft wrote to Roscoe: “I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject.—Do not suspect me of false modesty—I mean to say that had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book, in every sense of the word.” Wollstonecraft isn’t in fact being coy: her book isn’t well-made. Her main arguments about education are at the back, the middle is a sarcastic roasting of male conduct-book writers in the style of her attack on Burke, and the parts about marriage and friendship are scattered throughout when they would have more impact in one place. There is a moralizing, bossy tone, noticeably when Wollstonecraft writes about the sorts of women she doesn’t like (flirts and rich women: take a deep breath). It ends with a plea to men, in a faux-religious style that doesn’t play to her strengths as a writer. In this, her book is like many landmark feminist books—The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique—that are part essay, part argument, part memoir, held together by some force, it seems, that is attributable solely to its writer. It’s as if these books, to be written at all, have to be brought into being by autodidacts who don’t know for sure what they’re doing—just that they have to do it.

On my first reading of A Vindication as a twenty-year-old undergraduate, I looked up the antique words and wrote down their definitions (to vindicate was to “argue by evidence or argument”). I followed Wollstonecraft’s arguments in favor of education. I knew she’d been a teacher, and saw how reasonable her main argument was: you had to educate women, because they have influence as mothers over infant men. I took these notes eighteen months into an undergraduate degree in English and French in the library of an Oxford college that had only begun admitting women twenty-one years before. I’d arrived from an ordinary school, had scraped by in my first-year exams, and barely felt I belonged. The idea that I could think of myself as an intellectual as Mary did was laughable. Yet halfway into my second year, I discovered early women’s writing. I was amazed that there was so much of it—by protonovelists such as Eliza Haywood, aristocratic poets like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and precursors of the Romantics like Anna Laetitia Barbauld—and I was angry, often, at the way they’d been forgotten, or, even worse, pushed out of the canon. Wollstonecraft stood out, as she’d never been forgotten, was patently unforgettable. I longed to keep up with her, even if I had to do it with the shorter OED at my elbow. I didn’t see myself in her at the time. It wasn’t clear to me when I was younger how hard she had pushed herself.

Later in her life, Wollstonecraft would defend her unlettered style to her more lettered husband:

I am compelled to think that there is something in my writings more valuable, than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm elogiums—I mean more mind—denominate it as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers—

I wish I had been able to marshal these types of arguments while I was at university. I remember one miserable lesson about Racine, just me and a male student who’d been to Eton. I was baffled by the tutor’s questions. We would notice some sort of pattern or effect in the lines of verse—a character saying “Ô désespoir! Ô crime! Ô déplorable race!”—and the tutor would ask us what that effect was called. Silence. And then the other student would speak up. “Anaphora,” he’d say. “Chiasmus. Zeugma.” I had no idea what he was talking about; I’d never heard these words before. I was relieved when the hour was over. When I asked him afterward how he knew those terms, he said he’d been given a handout at school and he invited me to his room so that I could borrow it and make a photocopy. I must still have it somewhere. I remember feeling a tinge of anger—I could see the patterns in Racine’s verse, I just didn’t know what they were called—but mostly I felt ashamed. I learned the terms on the photocopy by heart.

Mary knew instinctively that what she offered was something more than technical accuracy, an unshakeable structure, or an even tone. Godwin eventually saw this too. “When tried by the hoary and long-established laws of literary composition, [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] can scarcely maintain its claim to be placed in the first class of human productions,” he wrote after her death. “But when we consider the importance of its doctrines, and the eminence of genius it displays, it seems not very improbable that it will be read as long as the English language endures.” Reading it again, older now, and having read many more of the feminist books that Wollstonecraft’s short one is the ancient foremother of, I can see what he means.

There are funny autobiographical sketches, as where Mary is having a moment of sublimity at a too-gorgeous sunset only to be interrupted by a fashionable lady asking for her gown to be admired. There is indelible phrasemaking, such as the moment when Mary counters the Margaret Thatcher fallacy—the idea that a woman in power is good in itself—by saying that “it is not empire, but equality” that women should contend for. She asked for things that are commonplace now but were unusual then: for women to be MPs, for girls and boys to be educated together, for friendship to be seen as the source and foundation of romantic love. She linked the way women were understood as property under patriarchy to the way enslaved people were treated, and demanded the abolition of both systems. She was also responding to an indisputably world-historical moment, with all the passion and hurry that that implies. Specifically, she addressed Talleyrand, who had written a pamphlet in support of women’s education, but generally, she applied herself to the ideas about women’s status and worth coming out of the brand-new French republic. In 1791, France gave equal rights to Black citizens, made nonreligious marriage and divorce possible, and emancipated the Jews. What would England give its women? (Wollstonecraft was right that the moment couldn’t wait: Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in October 1791 and ironically dedicated it to Marie-Antoinette, was guillotined within two years of its publication.)

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Putin, Trump, Ukraine: how Timothy Snyder became the leading interpreter of our dark times

From The Guardian:

Last September, seven months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder took a 16-hour train ride from Poland to Kyiv. Snyder knew the city well: he’d been visiting since the early 1990s, when he was a graduate student and the newly post-Soviet Ukrainian capital was dark and provincial. In the decades that followed, Kyiv had grown bigger and more interesting, and Snyder, who is now 53, had become an eminent historian of eastern Europe. On disembarking at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station, he found the city transformed by war. There were sandbags everywhere, concrete roadblocks and steel “hedgehogs” designed to stop Russian tanks. Air raid warnings blared from phones in pockets and handbags.

Not everything was unfamiliar. The first months of the war had gone relatively well for the Ukrainians – a fact that surprised many observers, but not Snyder – and by September, Kyiv was no longer in imminent danger of occupation. Life, while not normal, was regaining some of its prewar rhythms. You could get a haircut at a barbershop, or hear standup at a comedy club, or sunbathe on the shores of the Dnieper River.

Snyder had come to speak at an annual conference, Yalta European Strategy (YES), which was founded in 2004 to promote ties with Europe. Funded by a Ukrainian oligarch, the conference had become an occasional stopover for the gladhanding global elite. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Elton John and Richard Branson had all participated in previous years, and the roster for the 2022 meeting included the American national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.

Though he is not a natural gladhander, Snyder had attended the conference before. His first visit came in 2014, a few years after he published Bloodlands, a provocative and emotionally devastating account of Nazi and Soviet atrocities, which established him, in the words of one reviewer, as “perhaps the most talented younger historian of modern Europe working today”. The book was a crossover success, and in the years that followed Snyder began to write more about contemporary issues, including the climate crisis, healthcare and Ukrainian politics. But it was his writing about two figures, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that turned him into one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the past decade.

Snyder’s mainstream breakthrough, in 2017, was On Tyranny, a bestselling little book that helped make him the house intellectual of the centre-left anti-Trump movement sometimes known as #resistance liberalism. The book earned him regular invitations to appear on television. (“Whether or not you talked to your friends about it, everybody you know has been reading and re-reading On Tyranny,” Rachel Maddow said on her show.) The news Snyder brought his audience was almost unremittingly bleak, yet it also offered a strange kind of reassurance. You are not wrong to feel that the situation is grievous, Snyder told them. Take it from an expert in political barbarism: things are exactly as bad as they seem.

Snyder’s dire warnings were easy to caricature as bourgeois-liberal doomerism, yet Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election allowed him to claim vindication for what his critics had seen as hyperbole. On 9 January 2021, three days after a mob laid siege to the US Capitol, Snyder published an essay in the New York Times that made another prescient prediction. Trump’s failed putsch was more like the beginning than the end of something, Snyder argued. Since Trump’s “big lie” – that he won the election – “was now a sacred cause for which people had sacrificed”, it would remain a potent force in American politics unless a concerted effort was made to stop it.

Snyder’s view of Putin was still more ominous. In Putin’s Russia, Snyder sees a corrupt autocracy that has turned to neo-fascism in an attempt to regain its imperial glory. He was one of the few anglophone commentators to anticipate Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – a prediction that even his friends scoffed at – and warned in his book Black Earth that “a new Russian colonialism” threatened European stability. In his opinion, the full-scale invasion that started last year was not, as some saw it, a minor regional conflict, but rather an atrocity of epochal significance: “It is about the possibility of a democratic future,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Over the past year, Snyder has been one of the most eloquent interpreters of the war in Ukraine. He writes and speaks frequently about the conflict – including, in mid-March, to the UN security council. He has established a project to document the war, and more controversially, has raised more than $1.2m for an anti-drone defence system. A course on Ukrainian history that he taught at Yale last autumn has had hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and he has become one of the most famous western intellectuals within Ukraine itself. “He used to be a celebrity in historical circles and among intellectuals,” his friend, the Ukrainian rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, told me recently, “but now even ordinary people know a lot about him.”

. . . .

It was a sign of Snyder’s standing that the YES conference was only the second-highest-profile stop on his Kyiv itinerary. The main reason for his trip, Snyder told me, during one of three long conversations we had recently, was a private meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Ukrainians, Snyder said, “think I’m much more important than I actually am”. Zelenskiy, he went on, “thought of me mainly as somebody who had some kind of voice. I’m not under the illusion that … ” Snyder stopped himself. “Well, no, that’s not true. He said: ‘My wife and I have read On Tyranny.’ That’s the first thing he said when I met him.”

Sitting in green leather wingbacks in Zelenskiy’s presidential office, the men talked for more than two hours. They discussed Shakespeare, the Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel, and the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. They talked about freedom, too, the subject of a new book Snyder is working on, and particularly about Zelenskiy’s decision to stay in Ukraine once the invasion began. Zelenskiy said that while most western observers had expected him to flee, he had never felt as if he had any real choice. “That’s an argument that he helped me to make,” Snyder told me. “Being free means that you actually end up in situations where you won’t actually feel like you have a whole bunch of options.”

Snyder’s fascination with what he has described as Zelenskiy’s “choiceless choice” is not surprising: he had predicted that, too, on the eve of the war. As an academic and a public intellectual, Snyder has long operated on the belief that “there are moments in the world where your actions are magnified. It may be that you can take things that were going to swerve in a particularly bad direction, and you can push them with relatively little effort.” Zelenskiy’s decision, like the Ukrainian resistance writ large, was for him a vivid demonstration that this belief was well justified.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Kurkov introduces essay by imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Dzhelyal

FromThe Bookseller:

International Booker-longlisted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov has written the introduction to an essay by imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal.

Written by Dzhelyal from jail, the full essay with the title “Dignity cannot be annexed” will appear in the spring 2023 issue of the Index on Censorship magazine, published in early April. A non-profit that campaigns for free expression across the world, Index on Censorship publishes work by censored writers and artists and monitors threats to free speech. 

With his introduction, Kurkov aims to draw attention to the plight faced by the leader of the persecuted Ukranian group, who was sentenced last year to 17 years in prison “for a crime he did not commit”.

In August 2021, Dzhelyal left Crimea for Kyiv for the first meeting of the Crimean Platform, a newly created international organisation whose goal is the de-occupation of Ukrainian Crimea. On 4th September 2021 Dzhelyal was arrested and charged with an attempted terrorist act.

Kurkov wrote: “There is an urgent need to raise the profile of this case before the final judgement of his appeal, after which he could be transferred to one of [the] most remote Russian prisons and we risk losing touch with him.”

Kurkov said he was struck by Dzhelyal’s “determination to act on his principles and beliefs with a calm understanding that this is the only way to fight injustice and create a path for a positive outcome for the Crimean Tatar people”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet

From The Wall Street Journal:

Megan Buskey was raised in a middle-class suburb of Cleveland, a place she describes as “emphatically incurious.” We’re lucky that she is the emphatic opposite, not merely curious—about her own world and the world that her Ukrainian grandmother and mother fled from for America—but driven by a kind of spiritual passion to uncover the secrets that her family had left unaddressed for years.

These secrets were dark, many rooted in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists had the “uncomfortable history” (in Ms. Buskey’s words) of being allied with Nazi Germany. Her people, she says, “had their reasons for staying quiet about their pasts.” This reticence was compounded in the postwar Soviet Union, in which Ukrainians were “schooled in the consequences of revealing too much to the wrong person.”

Born in 1982, Ms. Buskey now lives in New York, where she makes a living as a writer. “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet,” her first book, is the story, foremost, of her grandmother Anna Mazur. The book’s title is derived from the first line of Ukraine’s national anthem. Although it resonates in the present day, with Ukraine fighting hard to get out from under Vladimir Putin’s jackboot, the title was chosen, Ms. Buskey tells us, well before the Russian invasion. More than just a commentary on the country’s condition, the fragment from the anthem reminds Ms. Buskey of how Ukraine “lived on” in her grandmother’s memory, “often as a site of trauma,” long after she came to the U.S.

It was through her grandmother, and her “foreignness,” that Ms. Buskey became conscious of Ukraine. She and her siblings, ensconced in their Cleveland life of almost embarrassing material excess, were particularly “flush with clothes.” Grandma Anna, who lived nearby, would box up the most neglected of these garments and mail them to family members back in Ukraine. In the months that followed the dispatch of the care packages, Ms. Buskey would find photos of relatives at Anna’s house and feel jolts of recognition: “That was my sweater with the rainbow stripes!”

Growing up, Ms. Buskey wasn’t overly enamored of Ukraine, the land that Grandma Anna and her two daughters (Olga and Nadia, Ms. Buskey’s mother) had left in 1966. Nadia was 12 at the time and integrated quickly into Midwestern America. The more tongue-shy grandmother, by contrast, avoided speaking English in public to her dying day. A resentful Ms. Buskey was made to attend Ukrainian school every Saturday morning and dragged to Ukrainian-language services at an onion-domed church just outside Cleveland’s western boundary.

Church was her grandma’s social highlight, a place where her “small, hobbling friends would flock to her like pigeons spying a bread crust.” It was not until Ms. Buskey went to the University of Chicago that she embraced her own Ukrainian identity with anything approaching enthusiasm. After she graduated, a Fulbright fellowship took her to Ukraine, where she immersed herself in her family’s story and in the history of that “beautiful, imperfect, singular country.”

It is a country we are all now coming to know, so that Ms. Buskey’s personal journey into historical comprehension has a rough parallel with our own fitful attempts to grasp the geopolitical conundrums that beset the Ukrainians. Part of such understanding is an awareness of Ukraine’s long and tangled history with the Russian Empire and, in the modern era, with the Soviet Union, from which Grandma Anna and her daughters had been able to emigrate—a near-impossible feat at the time—only because Anna’s father was an American citizen.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Book fraudster Filippo Bernardini spared jail

From The Guardian:

The man who stole more than 1,000 manuscripts so he could be “one of the fewest to cherish them before anyone else” will not be jailed.

Filippo Bernardini, who worked as a rights coordinator, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in New York in January.

He was yesterday sentenced by judge Colleen McMahon to time served, meaning he will not be imprisoned, according to the Bookseller. He has agreed to pay $88,000 (£72,700) to Penguin Random House to cover the legal and expert fees the company paid as a result of his scheme.

Bernardini has also been sentenced to three years of supervised release, and will be deported from the US to the UK or Italy, where he grew up.

The former publishing employee, who worked for Simon & Schuster in the UK – the company has not been implicated in any of Bernardini’s crimes – had said in court documents that he had a “burning desire” to feel like he was a publishing professional. He added that he had no desire to leak the manuscripts he acquired.

After seeing scripts being shared among colleagues, he set up a spoof email address and managed to obtain a manuscript.

“When that request was successful, from that moment on, this behaviour became an obsession, a compulsive behaviour,” he wrote in papers submitted to the court.

During the scheme, in which he impersonated agents and publishers over email, Bernardini obtained manuscripts of books by Margaret Atwood, Sally Rooney and Ian McEwan, among others.

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

February’s China Bestsellers: A Crime Drama Knockout

From Publishing Perspectives:

In a change to the recent leadership of the key bestseller list in mainland China, the Beijing OpenBook fiction chart is being led by a crime-drama tie-in novel from a trio of authors.

The Knockout (Qingdao Publishing House)—by Zhu Junyi, Xu Jizhou, and Bai Wenjun—has vaulted to the No. 1 spot on the fiction list from no previous ranking, effectively blindsiding consumers and the industry.

The trilogy that The Knockout has shoved down to Nos. 2, 3, and 4 is the mighty “Three-Body Problem” series by Liu Cixin, which, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, has been surging to the tops of the monthly lists on the strength of both an animated and a live-action television adaptation.

True to form for the Chinese readership, The Knockout is—you guessed it—being fueled by the dynamic popularity of a new television series, itself.  Xu Jizhou directs this CCTV-8 and iQIYI series, which premiered on January 14 this year. Xu has written the adaptation along with Junyi Zhu, and Jijun Xue produces with a cast featuring Xi Zhang, Songwen Zhang, Gang Wu, Jianyi Li, and Danping Shen.

The show is about a 20-year struggle by a police officer against an organized crime mob operating in Jinghai, which borders Hebei province and Beijing.

The popularity of the show “has been soaring since its launch,” OpenBook’s Wendy Pan says, having watched it gain traction in social media during the spring festival earlier in the year.

The book, a film tie-in edition, has leapt onto the February chart in the first month of its eligibility, those sales fueled by what’s described as “bizarre plot twists” in the television series. Qingdao Publishing has also used interactive elements to bond viewers and readers to the content, and has produced live events on various platforms, featuring actors from the cast.

Oriental Selection—one of the influential book-friendly shows we hear a lot about—is among shows used to raise the property’s visibility.

No need to cry for Liu Cixin and his “Three Body Problem” success—his work occupied seven slots on the February chart.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Angel Makers of Nagyrev

From The Economist:

When the people of Nagyrev had a problem, they went to Auntie Suzy. Though she had no formal training, she was the Hungarian village’s appointed midwife and the closest thing it had to a resident doctor. Men used her homemade tinctures for relief from the aches and pains they sustained toiling in the fields. Women, too, turned to her for help, and not just with the delivery of their babies. Alongside rubs and salves, Auntie Suzy produced another concoction: arsenic, made from boiling flypaper in vinegar.

Some women used the solution out of desperation—to avoid having another mouth to feed or to get rid of a violent spouse or relative. Others, however, dispensed it to deal with less urgent personal inconveniences. One woman had tired of her clingy husband, so fed him contaminated duck soup. Another, weary of her adult son, mixed some of the elixir into his goulash; later, when she suspected her third husband of having an affair, she reprised her technique. The arsenic was an open secret. If a woman complained of her partner’s behaviour, a friend would suggest a visit to the midwife.

Patti McCracken’s new book, “The Angel Makers”, is a detailed account of the killing spree in Nagyrev and other nearby villages in the early 20th century. It took prosecutors several years to grasp its scale. Eventually 29 women and two men were put on trial in 1929 for the murders of 42 men; 16 women were convicted. Scores of bodies were exhumed and examined for traces of arsenic. Some think as many as 300 people could have been killed. “The boldness and utter callousness with which they carried on their criminal activities seems to have been equalled only by the stupidity of the men who were their victims,” the New York Times reported.

The author weaves in character sketches that suggest the perpetrators’ various motives. Her portrait of Auntie Suzy, a buxom woman fond of her pipe and brandy, is particularly evocative. When questioned by the police about a pattern of infant deaths, she described her role in benevolent terms: she helped poor people with family planning. In fact, she was motivated by money and status.

She plundered goods from clients’ homes and charged exorbitant fees for her potions. (From Maria, the woman who killed her son and husband, she hoped to extract a house.) Occasionally Auntie Suzy or one of her helpers would bump someone off unprompted. A baby was killed without the mother’s say-so. A war veteran was dispatched so that Auntie Suzy’s son might marry his wealthy widow.

Ms McCracken also lays out the context in which these misdeeds took place. She describes regional customs and the effects on the village of the first world war and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Link to the rest at The Economist

Why Marie Antoinette’s Reputation Changes With Each Generation

From The Smithsonian Magazine:

Approximately 230 years after Marie Antoinette’s execution by guillotine at the hands of revolutionaries, the French queen remains one of history’s most recognizable royals. Depicted alternatively as a materialistic, self-absorbed young woman who ignored her people’s suffering; a more benign figure who was simply out of her depth; and a feminist scapegoat for men’s mistakes, she continues to captivate in large part because of her tragic fate.

“[Marie Antoinette] has no official power. She’s just the wife of the king of France, and yet she’s put to death,” says Catriona Seth, a historian and literary scholar at the University of Oxford. “It seems like an almost gratuitous action on the part of the revolutionaries. … [If] they had sent her back to Austria or put her in a convent,” she would be far less famous.

Marie Antoinette’s exploits at the glittering court of Versailles, coupled with her dramatic fall from grace during the French Revolution, have inspired numerous silver screen adaptations, from a 1938 film starring Norma Shearer to Sofia Coppola’s sympathetic 2006 biopic. But “Marie Antoinette,” a new series premiering in the United States on March 19, is the first major English-language television show to tell the queen’s story. Much like Marie Antoinette herself, it’s proving controversial, with biographer Évelyne Lever deeming the production a “grotesque caricature” and a “litany of historic aberrations.”

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the series’ debut on PBS.

Is “Marie Antoinette” based on a true story?

Yes, but with extensive dramatic license. Created by British screenwriter Deborah Davis, who co-wrote the 2018 period drama The Favourite, “Marie Antoinette” originally premiered in Europe in 2022. Featuring Emilia Schüle as the queen and Louis Cunningham as her hapless husband, Louis XVI, the show’s first season (one of three planned installments) covers roughly 1770 to 1781, beginning with Marie Antoinette’s journey to France and ending with the birth of her first son. In between these milestones, she struggles to win the affection of both her husband and her subjects, all while navigating the competing interests of her birth kingdom of Austria and her new home.

In keeping with the recent period drama trend of presenting historical figures and settings through a thoroughly modern lens (see “Bridgerton,” “The Great” and “The Serpent Queen”), “Marie Antoinette” offers a feminist take on the queen’s life. As Schüle told Variety last October, Marie Antoinette was a “rebel” who was “modern, emancipated, and fought for equality and for her personal freedom.”

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian Magazine

The disabled villain: why sensitivity reading can’t kill off this ugly trope

From The Guardian:

Some years ago, I decided to read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It may have been a fit of nostalgia for the Roger Moore films I grew up watching, or perhaps I was bored with writing short stories for a minuscule readership and wanted to know what mass-market success read like.

It was quite an experience – and one I found myself recalling recently, when I read that Fleming’s books were being revised, chiefly in order to remove some, though not all, of the casual racism. Also some of the misogyny, though likely not all of that either.

My first question, on reading the news, was what kind of reader exactly was the publisher, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, envisioning. Presumably someone who would, were it not for the most explicit slurs, really enjoy the ethnic stereotypes. Or someone who would, were it not for the full-on rapes, really enjoy the pervasive sexism. (Come to think of it, there are probably quite a few of these readers.)

The other question that struck me was this: what on earth are they going to do about disability?

As a wheelchair user, I could not help noticing that the original Bond books had, shall we say, an interesting relationship to embodied difference. It was a feature of Fleming’s writing that would be all but impossible to alter through the interventions of a sensitivity reader, hired by the publisher to make the books more palatable to contemporary readers. Fleming’s attitude to disability was encoded not only in words and phrases, but in characterisation and plot – that is, in the stories’ most fundamental qualities.

It is not a novel observation that Bond villains tend to be, to use a less sensitive register, disfigured and deformed. Dr No with his steel pincers instead of hands, Blofeld with his scars, Hugo Drax, the villain from Moonraker, with his facial disfigurement and his pathetic attempt to conceal it with a “bushy reddish beard” (reddish hair may itself count as a deformity in these stories). Were they not successfully self-employed, most of Bond’s enemies would likely qualify for disability benefits.

. . . .

In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is a striking example of the narrative logic at work. He at first appears handsome and polished (if effete, which in Bond territory is always a warning sign), but something about his face seems a little … off. He then reveals himself as a villain by removing a set of hidden facial prosthetics. As his visage literally collapses, his inner monstrosity comes into view. Now Bond, and the audience, can see who he really is. And that is the main function of disability in these stories – an outwardly visible sign of an inner quality.

This particular trope, wherein a character’s moral and physiological natures mirror each other, is as universal as it is ancient. It is reflected in the philosophy of Plato, in commonplaces like “a healthy mind in a healthy body”and in the foundational texts of the cultural canon. In Buddhist tradition, too, disability has been construed as an impediment to understanding and enlightenment – and even, for some, as a punishment for actions in a past life.

As disability scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have pointed out in their books Narrative Prosthesis and Cultural Locations of Disability, using disability as a means of characterisation is an intrinsic feature in the storytelling tradition. It provides not only a shorthand for separating good characters and bad, but explains their motivation and narrative function.

Sometimes, this connection between embodiment and motivation is made fully explicit. In the opening monologue of Richard III, Shakespeare’s version of the king – made significantly more disabled than his historical counterpart – takes pains to establish that he will be the villain and not the hero of the play. This, he argues, is a logical consequence of his embodiment:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

What is a sensitivity reader to do with this? Does it make a difference if the Yorkist king is referred to as “differently abled” and not a “cripple”?

Undoubtedly – but I don’t think the change would be for the better, and for reasons beyond the clanging sound of euphemism. In many ways it would be worse. The fundamental problem lies not with the words used to describe the character, but with the attributes ascribed to him. And if those attributes are demanded by the logic of the narrative, we are facing a challenge that can be unexpectedly subtle.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Orwell, Camus and truth

From The Critic:

A war still raged in Europe, but the enemy were firmly in retreat. The occupation of Paris had been broken, and France was free, and so were the cafés of the Boulevard St Germain. No longer did the waiters have to serve coffee to SS officers.

One afternoon in April 1945, a dishevelled Englishman walked into one such café. He was a war correspondent for the Observer — fond of shag-tobacco and Indian tea. His pen-name was George Orwell. 

Orwell was meeting Albert Camus – the distinguished writer and intellectual. But even so, I always imagine Orwell taking a seat indoors, among the pale, ornate woodwork, and feeling slightly out of place. Les Deux Magots, and the Café de Flore opposite, were frequented by a kind of intellectual of which Orwell often disapproved. That is, philosopher-types with communist sympathies: the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 

Orwell sat and waited, and waited, for Camus to arrive. He never turned up: he was laid up with an exacerbation of tuberculosis. They would never get the chance to meet again, and Orwell would die five years later, having lost his own battle with the same disease.

My admiration for both of these eminent writers developed in isolation of one another — but I have always unconsciously identified them as the same sort of writer, and indeed, the same sort of person. There are various superficial similarities: the TB diagnosis that prevented both of them from joining the armed forces, the foreign birth, the rampant womanising, the shared hatred of fascism and suspicion of communism. Much more importantly, they seemed to share the same outlook. Both of these writers took the view that truthfulness was more important than ideological allegiance and metaphysics, that the facts should be derived from the real world, rather than the world of ideas. They were similar stylistically too: both wrote candidly, clearly and prolifically. 

Camus seemed to have shared my view. He said as much in a letter to his mistress, Maria Casarès, on the day of Orwell’s death in 1950.

Some bad news: George Orwell is dead. You don’t know him. A very talented English writer, with exactly the same experience as me (although ten years older) and exactly the same ideas. He fought tuberculosis for years. He was one of the very few men with whom I shared something.

For Camus to say that another writer had “exactly the same ideas”, and was “one of the very few men with whom I shared something” was no small thing. 

No correspondence between the two authors seems to exist. In fact, when I searched for personal links between them there was little to go on. But although my hunt for biographical evidence of a relationship was fruitless, the time I have since spent reading and comparing their work yields some rather more intriguing connections. 

Orwell’s best-known novel is undoubtedly Nineteen Eighty-Four. What’s remarkable about this novel — above virtually all other novels in English — is the number of words and expressions it has bequeathed to the English-speaking world. Perhaps this was Orwell’s greatest gift to mankind: an entire language through which to talk about the coming age of state sponsored surveillance, fake news and post-truth politics in which we now live. When someone says a policy or a government’s behaviour is “Orwellian” people know precisely what is meant.

One phrase from Nineteen Eighty-Four should be familiar to us all, even to those who might not have actually read the novel: 

There comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.

Except of course, these words are not Orwell’s at all. This is a quote from Albert Camus’ novel La Peste, which was published two years before Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1947. Of course, the formulation of two and two making five has a history that predates both Orwell and Camus, but Orwell used a very similar version of it as far back as 1939, in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell in Adelphi:

It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two plus two will make five when the Leader says so

The similarity between these lines is patent. Is it possible that Camus got the idea from Orwell’s article? Yes, but such things are nearly impossible to prove. Still, it is not important whether Camus was taking influence from Orwell’s writing (although an interesting possibility). What’s important about this example is that it exposes common ground. These quotes embody a foundational principle that united their work: a shared anxiety over the fragility of truth.  

. . . .

Both Camus and Orwell are rightly credited with being “antitotalitarian” writers. And yet their reasons for being so are not wholly political. They were antitotalitarian not just because they opposed totalitarian regimes, but because they both understood that the totalitarian mindset requires you accept that truth comes from ideology. If the ideas say something is true, it becomes true, and is true. For Fascists and Communists, ideology is not merely a set of values or beliefs, but a cohesive explanation of the past, present and future of mankind. This is what Camus referred to in The Rebel as the desire “to make the earth a kingdom where man is God”. Orwell and Camus both understood the dangers of such thinking, and sought to repudiate it in their work.

Link to the rest at The Critic

BBC crisis escalates as players and stars rally behind soccer host Gary Lineker

From National Public Radio:

The BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming as the network scrambled to stem an escalating crisis over its suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker for comments criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.

As a growing number of English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker’s support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain’s national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.

The broadcaster said it would air only “limited sport programming” this weekend after hosts of many of its popular sports shows declined to appear, in solidarity with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from “Match of the Day,” a popular soccer highlights show, over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers’ language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first comments on the storm, saying: “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government.”

Instead of blanket coverage on Saturday of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summary of the final scores of Premier League games. Lunchtime TV program “Football Focus” was replaced with a rerun episode of antiques show “Bargain Hunt,” while early evening “Final Score” was swapped for “The Repair Shop.”

Soccer fans tuning in for “Match of the Day” — the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years — will be getting a 20-minute show instead of one typically lasting around an hour and a half. There will be no commentary on the matches and no studio punditry from some of the most high-profile stars in the British game who have chosen to support Lineker and not work.

There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to participate in interviews with ‘Match of The Day.'”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

Americans may play on soccer teams in the US and elsewhere, but a great many of us don’t really understand the intense popularity of The Beautiful Game elsewhere.

That said, PG has always viewed the powers that be that control the BBC to be more than a little poncey from time to time. Perhaps it’s because BBC programs in the US run primarily on educational channels, usually non-profits, and more often than not associated with a local college or university.

Plus, there’s no US analog to the British television license fee that Brits must pay to watch or record television on any channel. This means that the stations that carry BBC programs in the US tend to interrupt them with breaks to ask for money “to support good programming such as the show you’ve just been watching for ten minutes since our last pledge break,” sounding more than a little like poncey beggers as well.

Of course, in more than a few US universities, the annual salaries paid to the football coach and the basketball coach would fund the university’s public television activities for several years.

Birnam Wood

From The Economist:

The Luminaries”, the novel that made Eleanor Catton, at 28, the youngest-ever winner of the Booker prize, is set in a frontier town in New Zealand. Published in 2013, it opens in the smoking room of a hotel where an assortment of strangers are dressed in “frock-coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric and twill”. In Ms Catton’s new novel, “Birnam Wood”, the characters wear dark gloves, balaclavas and jackets zipped to the throat, listening out for a “shout of warning, or a gunshot, or the now unmistakable sound of a drone”. The setting is still New Zealand, but instead of 1866 the date is 2017.

Birnam Wood is the name of a witchy guerrilla gardening group run by a charismatic ideologue called Mira Bunting, a horticulturalist by training, and her seemingly quiet and devoted sidekick, Shelley Noakes. For years the group has cultivated small plots of urban land around care homes, nursery schools and the car parks of dental surgeries. Their equipment is mostly salvaged and they barter what they grow; none of them is paid and everything they own is commonly held. Seeds are one of the only things they spend money on. Mira works full-time for the collective. Her ambition is for it to make “radical, widespread and lasting social change”.

. . . .

When an area of rich arable land in New Zealand is suddenly abandoned after a late-summer landslide closes the nearest pass for several months, Mira senses that Birnam Wood may have found its playground. But someone else is interested in the place: an American tycoon with a calculating mind and a preternaturally calm exterior. His name is Robert Lemoine (his surname is French for “monk”), and he is an aspiring “doomsteader”, someone who sets up home in preparation for civilisation’s collapse. At least, that is what Lemoine claims to be. He offers Birnam Wood a deal—and seed funding to massively expand its cultivation.

“Birnam Wood” is a taut novel about what it means to sup with the devil, distinguished by its character studies and the author’s sharp pen. She skewers anti-capitalist activists with the same relish she exhibits in chewing up the billionaire class. Lemoine turns out to be surprisingly attentive in bed, but he is also amoral and blind to his failings. Ms Catton is acute about the chippiness of even the most successful New Zealand men (marooned as they are at the edge of the world), the self-mythologising of middle-class do-gooders and the frictions that bind female friendships, while undermining them at the same time.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Ukraine’s Vivat Publishing: ‘An Ambitious Plan for 2023’

From Publishing Perspectives:

One year and one week after Vladimir Putin opened his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Julia Orlova, Vivat Publishing‘s CEO, echoes the steely resolve of her fellow citizens during the anniversary of the Russian invasion, saying, “We’re proud that despite all the challenges and circumstances, in 2022 we published 350 titles, which is only 12.5-percent less than in the previous year

“And for 2023, we have ambitious plans to surpass the pre-war figures.”

Ukrainian publishers and booksellers still are forced to take extraordinary means to serve local readers, of course. Vivat’s proximity in Kharkiv to military operations forced the company’s team to evacuate shortly after the war began. But the autumn advance made by Ukraine’s military allowed Vivat to reopen its headquarters. Even so, Orlova says, as much as 80 percent of Vivat’s staff still is working from home.

Orlova tells Publishing Perspectives the war’s outbreak triggered an overhaul of the company’s publishing and distribution processes, as well as a switch to remote work to ensure workforce safety.

“With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine,” she says, “our team evacuated from Kharkiv almost entirely.

“We managed to get 20 truckloads of books out from under the shelling. To keep them safe, we had to open a warehouse in Rivne” in western Ukraine.

“Since the end of May, we’ve almost completely restored our disrupted business processes. And in early June, we published new books.”

Nevertheless, she says, the workplace challenge is a stubborn one. “It’s difficult to keep more than 100 people together in a business process,” Orlova says, “when you haven’t seen each other for almost a year.

“Some employees quit because they moved abroad. Some of those won’t return to Ukraine. And this is the second biggest problem, not only for Vivat, but also for the Ukrainian book publishing business in general: a temporary shortage of qualified personnel.”

That said, Orlova says Ukrainian readers are demonstrating a strong interest in books, as indicated by the popularity of the new bookstores the publisher opened in Kyiv last year.

“In October, despite the war, we opened a new bookstore in Kyiv. About 1,200 people visited the bookstore on the opening day, which we consider an incredible success and evidence that Ukrainians miss live communication and want to join cultural events, even in the face of danger. We’re planning to open another bookstore in western Ukraine and reopen one more in Kharkiv.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Children’s Rights Roundup: ‘Buy Ukrainian Book Rights’

From Publishing Perspectives:

As Publishing Perspectives readers following our Rights Roundups know, the Federation of European Publishers in Brussels today (February 24) is marking the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and savage invasion of Ukraine with a statement of support for the Voices of Children Foundation, which has published a book, War Through the Voices of Children. Proceeds of all sales go to special programs in psychological and emotional support for kids . . .

. . . .

As festive as the moment normally might be on the approach to Elena Pasoli’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair in its 60th edition, our world industry can do no less than to observe the fact that one year later, the greatest land war in Europe since World War II is going into advanced stages of combat severity and unthinkable casualties; now officially classified crimes against humanity; deepening military complexity and obligations; and—thankfully—intensifying international resolve against Putin and the Russian nation’s unspeakable aggression against the democratic sovereign state of Ukraine.

It’s meaningful to us today that the first of four calls to action described just below is Buy rights to Ukrainian books. We’re particularly mindful of this because in all the many book deals submitted to us for today’s Rights Roundup, not one title was a book originally written in Ukrainian or by a Ukrainian author.

The International Publishers Association (IPA) in Geneva is making a joint statement today with the federation, laying out the two organizations’ concerns about the damage to book publishing and education for Ukrainians under Putin’s violence, which opened on February 24, 2022.

From the IPA, we have these figures:

  • The number of publishers operating in Ukraine has dropped from 1,053 in 2021 to 563 in 2022
  • Educational publishers have been unable to print textbooks for pupils
  • UNICEF reports that more than 2,600 schools have been damaged, affecting 5.3 million children
  • UNESCO has verified damage to 241 cultural sites including museums and libraries

The United States’ secretary of state, Antony Blinken, this morning (February 24) has told the United Nations’ Security Council that in the last year, among Russians’ atrocities have been bombings of more than 2,600 schools and abductions by Russians of at least 6,000 Ukrainian children for relocation to Russia—”some as young as four months old.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Reaction Economy

From The London Review of Books:

When I​ deleted my Twitter account in September last year, provoked not by Elon Musk’s imminent takeover but by the suffocating quantity of royal coverage gushing from every media source, I was left feeling bereft, as any addict is when their drug is taken away. How was I supposed to react to the news now? And if I had no way of reacting to the news, what did I want from the news? Am I even interested in the news, if I have no opportunity to react to it? Being in the digital public sphere without any means to react is a bit like being trapped in a shopping mall without any money.

The timing was especially awkward since, a fortnight later, a news event came along that cried out for a reaction: Kwasi Kwarteng’s infamous ‘mini-budget’, which threw 45 years of economic orthodoxy overboard, provoked a stand-off between the government and the Bank of England, and very nearly triggered a financial crisis. Twitter gives users thirty days to change their minds after deleting their accounts, to prevent impulsive exits (i.e. to re-ensnare recovering addicts). I was still inside my thirty days. Stopping myself rejoining in order to react to this exceptional political event took considerable self-restraint. The moment I came closest to cracking wasn’t in response to the events themselves, though, but when I was tasked with managing my university department’s social media profile and came across this tweet by a prominent conservative commentator:

The louder the squealing from the left, the more certain @KwasiKwarteng and @trussliz will be that they have got this right.

This is the sort of culture war logic that has become known, courtesy of the American right, as ‘owning the libs’, the primary objective of which is to enrage (‘trigger’) the opposition by fair means or foul. In other online settings, it is known simply as ‘trolling’. The tweeter appeared to see the unhappy reactions of the left as the litmus test of good economic policy: Kwarteng was a good chancellor because he was a successful troll. ‘What an absurd way to judge policy!’ I wanted to respond. ‘This is idiotic!’ Yet, of course, in feeling that impulse, I was the one being drawn back into the economy of reaction. Who’s the idiot now?

Our public sphere is frequently dominated by events you could call ‘reaction chains’, whereby reactions provoke reactions, which provoke further reactions, and so on. Last year’s Oscars ceremony is remembered for just such a reaction chain. When the host, the comedian Chris Rock, made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, her husband, Will Smith, strode up on stage and slapped Rock in the face on live television. For several days afterwards, countless commentators, celebrities and social media users sought to distinguish themselves by their reaction to ‘the slap’. Inevitably, those reactions provoked further reactions, as debate turned to the merits of the positions taken, and suspicion descended on those who hadn’t yet reacted at all. Everyone waited impatiently for the Academy’s official reaction: would Smith be banned, and for how long? The amount of global attention ‘slapgate’ sucked up in the weeks after the ceremony was considerable.

One particular detail added a layer of intrigue. As a result of the blanket television surveillance of the celebrities in the auditorium, there was footage of Will Smith’s immediate reaction to Rock’s joke, which had been laughter. This impulsive response appeared entirely at odds with the anger he displayed on stage just a few seconds later. Was he acting? Was ‘the slap’ real? Or had his wife, perhaps, demanded that he step up? Every frame of the video sequence was pored over, as if it were the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination.

Thanks largely to the spread of smart scrollable devices in the last fifteen years, a certain concept of public participation – what is now known in the managerial vernacular as ‘engagement’ – is common to events of this sort, and to the way they are framed by the media. The individual is not conceived in the same way as in the liberal philosophical tradition – as an autonomous agent, possessed of reason and interests – or in the psychoanalytic tradition, as shaped perhaps unconsciously by past conflicts and injuries. Instead, each of us (celebrities included) becomes a junction box in a vast, complex network, receiving, processing and emitting information in a semi-automatic fashion, and in real time. Information and emotions bounce between these junctions, mutating as they travel, as instantiated in the memes and jokes that spread virally via social media platforms. In this model, each individual reaction is one more item of information thrown back into the network, in search of counter-reactions.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

China Bestsellers in January: A Three-Adaptation Problem

From Publishing Perspectives:

You’ll recall that in our November 2022 China bestsellers update, we looked at the arrival in China of a new animated adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem (Chongqing Publishing House).

As anticipated, the production has driven Liu’s trilogy to the top of Beijing OpenBook’s fiction list. And, furthermore, there’s now a doorstopper-sized boxed set appearing in the January charts, also from Chongqing Publishing House, punching its way onto the January bestseller list for the first time, and at No. 14.

And there’s now a three-adaptation problem going on, as well—a problem, at least for those trying to keep up with all this, if not for fans of Liu’s popular work or for the profoundly popular computer engineer Liu Cixin, now 59 and winner of the Chinese Nebula.

In lieu of Liu’s success, we’d be talking about Ma Boyong’s Lychee in Chang’an from Hunan Literature & Art Press, which made a remarkable jump in January from No. 23 to No. 5 on the fiction list. Instead, we need to take a pause for disambiguation for you and chart the three adaptations of The Three-Body Problem.

  • In November, we had seen the arrival of the animated Chinese piece. You’ll recall that there was some discussion at the time about whether that program’s start with the second book was the best choice, purists feeling a bit rooked.
  • We also were tracking a live-action English-language series adaptation now in post-production from Netflix and Bighead Littlehead for release later this year. That’s still underway, with Minkie Spiro and Derek Tsang directing and showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss in charge.
  • As it has happened, there’s yet a third adaptation, also live-action and made by China’s CCTV (distribution CCTV-8). This one began landing on Chinese small screens on January 15. And it’s being hailed for a telling more loyal to the books than the animated interpretation.

In terms of market impact for the books? That third adaptation, the Chinese live-action piece, “allowed audiences who have not read The Three-Body Problem [trilogy] to immerse themselves in the story [with] interpretive content, which lowered the obstacles for viewing and understanding.”

So say our associates on OpenBook’s research team, who also would like to call your attention to No. 19 on the list: a revised 2015 translation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which was initially read as a group of short stories and novellas starting in 1942 and released in its own trilogy format between 1951 and 1953.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal 

From The Guardian:

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that humankind was “a fantastic animal that has to fulfil one more condition of existence than any other animal”: we have to know why we exist. Justin Gregg, a researcher into animal behaviour and cognition, agrees, describing humankind as “the why specialists” of the natural world. Our need to know the reasons behind the things we see and feel distinguishes us from other animals, who make effective decisions without ever asking why the world is as it is.

Evidence of this unique aspect of our intelligence first appeared 44,000 years ago in cave paintings of half-human, half-animal figures, supernatural beings that suggest we were asking religious questions: “Why am I here? And why do I have to die?” Twenty-thousand years later, we began planting crops, revealing an awareness of cause and effect – an understanding of how seeds germinate and what to do to keep them alive. Ever since then, our constant questioning of natural phenomena has led to great discoveries, from astronomy to evolution.

But rather than being our crowning glory as a species, is it possible that human intelligence is in fact a liability, the source of our existential angst and increasingly apparent talent for self-destruction? This is the question Gregg sets out to answer in his entertaining and original book.

The delightfully absurd title stems from his claim that the 19th-century German philosopher, who had depression and eventually dementia, was “the quintessential example of how too much profundity can literally break your brain”. The “soul-tortured Nietzsche”, who sought meaning in suffering, is an example of how, as a species, we are simply too smart for our own good. By contrast, the narwhal (“one of my favourite marine animals”) demonstrates the fact that, from an evolutionary perspective, intelligence and complex thought are often a hindrance: “The absurdity of a narwhal experiencing an existential crisis is the key to understanding everything that is wrong about human thinking, and everything that is right about animal thinking.”

In search of evidence to support this theory, Gregg explores the nature of intelligence. Although non-human animals may have simpler minds than us, they are no less successful in their own way than we are, and do far less harm to their fellow beings: “The Earth is bursting with animal species that have hit on solutions for how to live a good life in ways that put the human species to shame.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Our Share of Night

From The Wall Street Journal:

If it’s rare to come across a truly new idea in speculative fiction, that problem is nothing compared to the embarrassing rehash of characters, settings, plot points and monsters in the genre that you might call “supernatural horror with a dollop of sex.” It started well before “Twilight,” and it doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon. So it was with some trepidation I picked up “Our Share of Night” by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell. It’s a large book with an excellent cover and some of the more uninformative flap copy I have read in a while. It’s a good thing I ignored it.

The book’s premise is deceptively simple: a boy, Gaspar, inherits the great and terrible legacy his very gothic family has been working towards after his mother is killed in a car crash—an accident that probably wasn’t entirely by accident. His father, Juan, is a medium, a conduit between the magical force and world known as the Darkness and the members of the Order, an international, supernatural-worshipping cult more or less run by Gaspar’s grandparents. To control Juan they hide his dead wife’s soul somewhere he cannot reach.

And they need to control him, because Gaspar may also be manifesting the rare power of a medium. Juan will do anything to keep him from that fate, and tries to give him as normal a life as he can. Sounds vaguely done, yes? And yet.

The book takes place in Argentina not long after Perón seizes power: The river is filled with the bodies of those the army has disappeared, public gatherings are rare, and even the mildest music could be considered antigovernment. Race is an omnipresent, smoldering issue just below the surface; it’s not by accident that the Order chooses mostly indigenous Guaraní children to kidnap and torture, or that the blond descendants of European immigrants are treated very differently from their compatriots.

There are also South American beliefs, magic, and traditions which might be different from what a North American reader is used to. The translator and publisher do a wonderful job of rendering unfamiliar concepts like the “imbunche” as a normalized, integral part of the novel’s world. (Do not, however, search “subcutaneously inserted charms” without bracing yourself first.)

But the real beauty of “Our Share of Night” is in the mundane, unmagical things. A father and son’s complicated road trip to the heart of a family that elevated and may now destroy them both. A child’s afternoon of looking for a lost dog with friends, making posters and putting them up around town. Or the simple progression of a migraine, drawn out over a day—Juan can’t have caffeine or certain painkillers because of a very banal heart condition that is slowly killing him.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Storytel Touts Q4 Results in a ‘Truly Remarkable Year’

From Publishing Perspectives:

Even as the level of competition increases for the publicly traded Storytel in many markets, its year-ending 2022 report is resoundingly upbeat, the company’s CEO, Johannes Larcher, calling it “a truly remarkable year for Storytel.”

Nevertheless, as Katy Hershberger has pointed out at Publishers Lunch, the company has tempered shareholder enthusiasm, it seems, by suspending its usual pattern of offering guidance for future performance. When Larcher tells  investors, “We will not be guiding specifically for 2023,” it sounds to some investors like another shoe falling.

Among the fourth-quarter highlights Storytel offers in its report:

  • For the year, net sales rose 22 percent, to 3.2 billion Swedish kronor (US$303 million)
  • Quarter over quarter, streaming revenue was up 23 percent from Q4 2021, to 742 million Swedish kronor over 605 million kronor last year
  • This streaming percentage jump rises to 27 percent when the phase-out of Russian operations (begun in Q1) is excluded from the calculations
  • Group net sales increased by 17 percent from Q4 2021 to 867 million Swedish kronor over 2021’s 741 million kronor
  • A gross profit level of 322 million Swedish Kronor (over 282 million kronor), equaling a 37.2-percent margin as compared to 38.1 percent in 2021
  • EBITDA of 39 million Swedish kronor equaling a 4.4- percent margin
  • EBITDA excluding items affecting comparability of 53 million Swedish kronor equaling a 6.1-percent margin

It’s interesting that Larcher talks of the company being “increasingly focused on content as one of the core pillars of our strategy.” As Publishing Perspectives know, Storytel has been proactive for many years in generating new audiobook content in markets it opened with relatively thin audio catalogues. “With a dedicated global content team in charge,” Larcher writes quite early in his statement, “we aim to bring more and widely appealing content to our audiences, and we are expanding our activities in the areas of original and exclusive content.”

He goes on, “In 2022, Storytel Books and our leading world-class audiobook and ebook publisher StorySide released more than 10,000 titles, with more than 80 percent of these being StorySide releases including 150+ Storytel Original audiobooks. Crime, fiction, romance and thrillers remain the most coveted genres among our customers, with romance, thrillers and nonfiction showing the strongest growth.

“We were also happy to see the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Annie Ernaux, capture the hearts and minds of Storytel customers, delivering strong sales for our publishers in Sweden and Finland, where Storytel Books holds exclusive rights to her works.”

The “largest driver of our overall cost of doing business,” Larcher says, is “the overall cost of content.”

And while no one in publishing is going to faint at the news that romance leads the way, it’s gratifying to hear some references to content and categories in the context of this report. One of the more interesting high-level discussions about audiobooks in general and subscription services in particular is about generational forces. Young consumers may well be in many areas more readily wooed by subscription models and are, of course, frequently the leading core of buyers in these most populist genres.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Indie bookshops in good health as record number of first-timers vie for Nibbie

From The Bookseller:

Thirteen first-time Independent Bookshop of the Year nominees will contest the regional and country Nibbies this year, on the back of indie retail numbers hitting a 10-year high.

Five former overall winners and a record 13 first-time nominees have been named on the regional and country shortlists for the Independent Bookshop of the Year (IBOTY) Award at the British Book Awards 2023.

Fifty-nine shortlistees in total are in contention for the Nibbie, which is sponsored by Gardners and supported by the Booksellers Association (BA). The stores will now compete to grab their region and country top spots—to be announced on 16th March—with those winners vying for the UK and Ireland-wide prize, which will be revealed at the British Book Awards ceremony on 15th May.

The baker’s dozen of first-time nominees includes Queer Lit, the former online-only LGBTQ+ specialist which opened its bricks-and-mortar store in Manchester’s Northern Quarter in 2021; the Ross and Cromarty stalwart The Ullapool Bookshop, whose manager Katharine Douglas was named on The Bookseller’s Bookshop Heroes list in 2022; Malton’s Kemps General Store & Books, launched in 2017 by Liz Kemp and based on the shop her parents used to run; Swindon’s Bert’s Books, launched by long-time W H Smith marketer Alex Call in 2019; and David’s Bookshop, the 60-year-old Letchworth Garden City institution which in 2020 was bought by staff and put into an employee ownership trust.

The newcomers square off against some seasoned Nibbie regulars, including a quintet of past overall winners: Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, Linghams Booksellers in Hesswall, St Boswells’ The Mainstreet Trading Company, Five Leaves Books of Nottingham and Crickhowell shop Book-ish. Additionally, six of last year’s regional and country winners—Bookbugs & Dragon Tales, Burley Fisher Books, Wonderland Bookshop, Forum Books, The Edinburgh Bookshop and Book-ish—will attempt to reclaim their crowns.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

On TikTok, Even Canadians Don’t Want to Be Labeled Canadian

From The Wall Street Journal:

Canada is days away from passing a law to force digital platforms such as YouTube and TikTok to showcase more Canadian content.

While that might sound like good news for Canadian artists and content producers, many see it as about as welcome as a polar vortex.

“I prefer not to be certified as Canadian,” said Toronto TikToker Oorbee Roy, whose feed highlights the South Asian mother’s attempts to learn skateboarding, sometimes while wearing a sari. She worries that resulting algorithm changes by the platforms will reduce her global audience. “I don’t really think this is going to help me,” she said.

Professional content producers such as streaming services have different beefs. They don’t want quotas for Canadian content. And there is the confusing question: What makes content Canadian?

For more than 50 years, Canada has required domestically licensed television and radio stations to air a minimum amount of domestic programming known as Canadian content, or CanCon. Those rules arose from a government report calling for stronger cultural policies to unite a nation amid a “formidable” flood of American broadcasts, music and literature.

The new law will extend the concept to content served up to Canadian users by Google’s YouTube, ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, streamers such as Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+, and music service Spotify Technology SA.

The idea, said Peter Menzies, a former official at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is to promote Canadian artists, tell Canadian stories and “defend Canada from being completely swamped by American programming.”

In other words: more Canada. “I think we’re pretty good at what we do, so we should see a little bit more of us,” said Pablo Rodriguez, Canada’s heritage minister.

But Ms. Roy and other Canadian YouTube and TikTok creators are concerned that being labeled Canadian would be bad for business. The platforms have said the legislation will compel them to reconfigure their algorithms in Canada to ensure Canadian-made content gets preference over foreign stuff.

The Canadian artists contend this is the opposite of how algorithms are supposed to work: to match content with people’s interests.

“People will start to resent Canadian content that is being forced on them,” said Justin Tomchuk of Montreal, who makes short animated films he uploads to YouTube under the name Umami. “The algorithm will notice, ‘Oh, these Canadian users aren’t engaging with this video so much.’ And then, on a global scale, the algorithm could start deprioritizing my videos.”

. . . .

Defenders of the current system, which applies to traditional broadcasting, said Canadian-content rules created an ecosystem that yielded shows such as “Schitt’s Creek,” “The Kids in the Hall” and “Second City Television,” which became hits in the U.S. But Alan Cross, a Canadian radio personality and music historian, said that on the music side, in the 1970s and early 1980s, “a lot of substandard stuff made it to air only because of the quotas.”

Under the current rules, officials use a point system to judge whether a song, TV show or film is Canadian. Some rulings have been head-scratchers. A 1991 decision deemed an album by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, “Waking Up The Neighbours,” not Canadian enough. The regulator said that while Mr. Adams was Canadian, his songs didn’t qualify because they were co-written by a non-Canadian and recorded in London.

“Second City Television” created the beer-drinking, flannel-wearing characters Bob and Doug McKenzie because the public broadcaster, Canadian Broadcasting Corp., asked for two more minutes of Canada-centric content to meet quotas. Cast member Dave Thomas said in a 1996 CBC interview that he told network executives he could “put up a map of Canada, drink beer, fry back bacon, wear some parkas. Would that be Canadian enough for you?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

China’s Book Market in 2022: An 11.77-Percent Decline

From Publishing Perspectives:

As anticipated, of course, the mainland Chinese book market, tracked and researched by Beijing OpenBook, saw a substantial decline during a tough 2022. If anything, the pressure is on the new Year of the Rabbit, as Lunar New Year celebrants hope for better times.

Year over year, book sales in the overall market in China declined 11.77 percent—something brightly contrasted by short-video e-commerce (TikTok and other platforms) jumping a prodigious 42.86 percent in the same period. So while sales on the whole were suffering, a relatively new channel for digital book retail was ballooning.

Our readers need no reminder, of course, that by early October, as Xi Jinping secured his third term in office, tens of millions of people were reported confined in lockdowns in as many as 60 cities and towns.

BBC News reporting by Stephen McDonell in Beijing pointed to youth unemployment at 18.7 percent, down from something even higher, at near 20 percent. Public health analysis indicates that perhaps the single most crippling point was a weakness in China’s self-produced COVID-19 vaccines.

The dismantling of the “zero COVID” policy wouldn’t be fully apparent until early December, following strident protests in November. So it’s not surprising that in such a year of harsh lockdowns, public fury, and a sudden abandonment of policy, sales from physical bookstore channels decreased by 37.22 percent year-over-year. Economics were going the wrong way, even in online business. Platform e-commerce decreased by 16.06 percent over 2021 figures, and other e-commerce channels sank by 2.43 percent.

Some 40 percent of sales revenue was being generated on digital retail platforms, even amid the challenges, our OpenBook associates say, while those short-video e-commerce activities blew right past the staggered physical-store channels.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives