Let’s Rescue Book Lovers From This Online Hellscape

From The New York Times:

If you have not kept up with the latest scandal in the world of young adult publishing, it is a doozy. It involves a debut author with a lot of buzz, lies, clumsy alibis, “review bombing,” a long and sordid confession — and, of course, Goodreads. Because whenever there is a meltdown in publishing, Goodreads, the Amazon-owned site that bills itself as “the largest site for readers and book recommendations,” is reliably at the center of it.

You might wonder if Goodreads isn’t just an enabler of scandal but the problem itself.

But first, the scandal: Internet sleuths figured out that an author named Cait Corrain, whose debut novel was scheduled for 2024, had created fake accounts on Goodreads in order to review-bomb other books — overwhelming them with negative one-star reviews. When confronted online, she concocted a fake online chat to divert blame to a nonexistent friend; when that hoax was uncovered, she confessed, citing a “complete psychological breakdown.” Her publisher and her agent dropped her; the planned publication of her novel was canceled. As often happens in these scandals, the use and abuse of Goodreads — a site whose cheery name masks a recent history of abhorrent user behavior — has left many people hurt and at least one person’s career in ruins.

Goodreads is broken. What began in 2007 as a promising tool for readers, authors, booksellers and publishers has become an unreliable, unmanageable, nearly unnavigable morass of unreliable data and unfettered ill will. Of course, the internet offers no shortage of bad data and ill will, but at its inception Goodreads promised something different: a gathering space where ardent readers could connect with writers and with one another, swapping impressions and sharing recommendations. It’s an idea that’s both obvious (the internet is great at helping like-minded people assemble) and essential (reading is a solitary activity, but there is great joy in talking through a book afterward). In fact, Goodreads is still an essential idea — so much so that it’s worth fighting to fix it.

When I joined the site in 2007, I felt I had finally found my place online. At the time, I was still using a physical notebook to keep a list of the books I’d read or wanted to read, so discovering a place to track, rate and review books felt entirely, if you’ll pardon the word, novel. After Amazon’s acquisition of it in 2013, Goodreads seemed primed to either sink or soar. While Amazon had won few fans in the book community, thanks to its predatory business practices, it is also the foremost online marketplace for books, and so a companion site dedicated to discussing books seemed an obvious and potentially beneficial complement.

. . . .

But Goodreads quickly began to languish in an awkward limbo — neither a retailer nor an inviting online salon. Still, it’s become the most popular book discussion site, by far, with a reported 125 million members as of late 2022. As book coverage and criticism have been slashed in other areas of popular media, Goodreads, by default, has taken on an outsize role in the book world’s imagination. But it’s also devolved into a place where users’ worst instincts are indulged or even encouraged.

Whether it’s the rampant practice of review-bombing books that are listed online long before publication (often targeting young adult novels that have acquired a whiff of offensiveness, some of which are ultimately pulled from publication) or the internet hecklers hounding beleaguered authors or those beleaguered authors tracking down their Goodreads hecklers and publicly shaming them, the combative culture of Goodreads is antithetical to the spirit in which it was started. My as-yet-unpublished memoir in essays already has two ratings on Goodreads, but it won’t even go out to early readers until next year. It’s become routine for publishers to warn authors that Goodreads is a site meant for readers, not for writers — which is to say, what was intended to be a forum for engagement is now a place authors enter at their peril.

In an ideal world — one in which it wasn’t owned by Amazon — Goodreads would have the functionality of a site like Letterboxd, a social network for movie fans. Letterboxd has called itself “Goodreads for movies,” but it has far surpassed that initial tag line, having figured out how to create a smooth and intuitive user experience, provide a pleasant and inviting community and earn revenue from both optional paid memberships and advertisers, including studios that produce the films being discussed. Meanwhile, publishers still rely on Goodreads to find potential readers, but targeted advertising has grown both less affordable and less effective.

So how to fix it? It starts with people: Goodreads desperately needs more human moderation to monitor the goings-on. Obviously, part of any healthy discussion is the ability to express displeasure — those one-star reviews, ideally accompanied by well-argued rationales, are sacrosanct — but Goodreads has enabled the weaponization of displeasure.

It’s not just fledgling authors being pummeled. This year, Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” decided to withdraw a forthcoming novel, “The Snow Forest,” after Goodreads users bombarded its page with one-star reviews objecting primarily to the fact that the novel (which no one had yet read) was set in Russia and would be published at a time when Russia and Ukraine were at war. There is most likely no way to eliminate personal attacks entirely from the site — or from the internet, for that matter — but having more human beings on hand to mitigate the damage would certainly improve the experience.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Perhaps it’s cluelessness on PG’s part, but he hasn’t been to Goodreads for centuries. He remembers going to Goodreads long ago on a handful of occasions, but has only the vaguest memories of the site. Whatever he found during those early visits didn’t motivate him to return until he read the OP. He went to check out Goodreads and discovered the same general look as it had the last time he visited when Amazon acquired it.

Goodreads was founded by a rich kid named Otis Chandler and his wife.

Goodreads Otis was the son of another Otis Chandler, the very wealthy publisher of The Los Angeles Times, the largest circulation newspaper in the state. Dad inherited the paper from an earlier Otis, AKA California royalty. Goodreads Otis got richer when he sold the site to Amazon.

Back to PG’s impressions of Goodreads – his disinterest is clearly a minority response. Goodreads has over 140 million members, maybe more, in its multitudinous forums.

If the OP is accurate (and PG has no reason to doubt its accuracy), Goodreads represeents an extraordinarily self-defeating community management failure on the part of Amazon.

Online internet forums go back to the mid-90’s and their predecessors, bulletin board systems (BBS’s) go back to the dial-up modem days of the late 1970’s.

Shortly after the first BBS’s went up, internet trolls appeared.

Operators of internet gathering places in the 80’s developed effective troll controll techniques – don’t feed the troll – not long after trolls became a thing. Failure to do so meant a bad-drives-out-the-good behavior that springs up whenever you get a large enough community of homo sapiens together and the community collapses.

The ‘Zon has enough bright people and big computers to put together a system that will boot trolls out of the community and then boot them out again when they open a new account. Ditto for an organized review-bombing campaigns.

One Puzzling Afternoon

From Fictionophile:

Memories can sustain us, or alternately they can injure our psyche to such an extent that we can bury them deep. Such was the case with Edie Green. At the tender age of sixteen Edie’s friend goes missing. Edie knows what happened, yet she cannot divulge the circumstances. She MUST keep Lucy’s secret.

Now, Edie is eighty-two and suffering from the early stages of dementia. She is frustrated daily by the loss of her memories and laments her loss of independence. A former English teacher, Edie now forgets how to spell certain words – even forgets the words for everyday objects. Her son, daughter-in-law, and beloved granddaughter want her to move with them to Devon where she will live in a ‘granny annex’. Edie doesn’t want to leave the town where she grew up and the house where she has spent her entire married life. Now widowed and alone, Edie’s grasp on everyday routines is slipping. One day she ‘sees’ her friend Lucy in town. Lucy has not aged at all… Edie’s mind is playing tricks. It is this sighting that spurs Edie to try to discover what happened to Lucy all those years ago. Does she know? Has her mind hidden the truth from her all this time?

Written in dual timelines, this novel was poignant and I felt for Edie’s plight. Her tenuous grasp on her memories, and her confusion about how her life is playing out, seemed very real. Let’s face it, we all know of someone who is suffering from this terrible disease and it is an eye-opener to experience it from the perspective of one who is coping with it from the ‘inside’ as it were.

It was interesting to note just what can spur memories to return. A certain smell? A word? A taste?

In the 1950s timeline, we come to realize that Edie’s early life was traumatic. She lost her beloved father in a drowning accident right after the war. Her mother was eccentric, had a history of mental illness, and had aspirations of a higher social class. Meanwhile she held seances as a way of earning some much needed income. Then, Edie’s mother remarried. Reg, Edie’s new step-father, was an odious man.

Link to the rest at Fictionophile

Painting is terribly difficult

From The London Review of Books:

Early in​ 1971, Robert Hughes, recently appointed as Time magazine’s chief art critic, was ripping out his loft apartment at 143 Prince Street when he received an unexpected visitor. This was Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum. Hughes, probably the most macho and combative critic in his profession, was, by his own account, sweaty, foul-tempered, sore-footed and ‘grey with ingrained dirt’. Geldzahler, a ‘happily smiling little roly-poly fonctionnaire … [was] immaculately jaunty in a pale blue suit’. He wanted to see the loft. Hughes told him there was nothing to see; Geldzahler insisted. They took the elevator to the fifth floor, where there was only dust and filth and dangling cables. The following exchange then took place:

‘Well, come on,’ he said, ‘I want to see it.’

‘This is it, Henry.’

‘No, no. Where do you keep it?’

‘Where do I keep what?’

‘Your collection. I want to have a peek. Is it in storage somewhere?’

‘There is no collection, Henry. I’m not a collector. I’m sorry, I don’t have a goddamn collection.’

Geldzahler peered at me incredulously.

‘Well,’ he exhaled at last. ‘Someone in here is going to die poor, isn’t he?’

This exchange is recorded in Hughes’s trenchant essay about the New York art scene, ‘Graft – Things You Didn’t Know’. He describes a place where money, or potential money, was sloshing around, and where ‘the whole domain of relations between artists and critics, critics and curators – indeed, of everything that bears upon the art market and its insiders – was then and largely remains today an ethical slide area.’ The high-priest critic Clement Greenberg ‘didn’t believe in buying art, but he liked receiving it,’ from artists and art dealers whom his words had assisted or would assist. But ‘by far the most corrupt art-world figure I knew in New York … was Henry Geldzahler.’ When the director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, wanted to put on an Andrew Wyeth show, Geldzahler was against it – Wyeth’s figurative paintings were the very opposite of the art he believed in and succoured. But when it became clear the show would go ahead, Geldzahler ‘wrote privately to Wyeth himself, offering to curate the show in return for a nice Wyeth watercolour that Henry would personally select. Much to the flinty Wyeth’s credit, this overture was rebuffed.’

Nearer home, there was the case of David Sylvester, perhaps the leading British art critic of the second half of the 20th century. Hughes valued him as a friend and a fine analyst; he was also the best exhibition installer of his time. But he was a very slow writer with ‘an indurated laziness’. And he liked fine things, so privately dealt in antiquities, rugs and modernist drawings, as ‘a purveyor of semi-masterpieces to the rich and fastidious’. As Hughes put it: ‘He would demand gifts from an artist whose work he was about to honour with a review – according to Lucian Freud, who knew Sylvester for decades, the expected rate was usually two pieces, which could be small as long as they were choice, for one article.’

This is all very shocking, the more so as it involves critics and curators at the top of their profession. These men weren’t struggling for the rent, occasionally stretching the rules to put food on the table; they were, or had become, institutionally – and constitutionally – corrupt. But is it surprising? The art market is international and barely regulated; its products are easily transportable, squirrelled away in freeports or swiftly turned into cash. Grifters, fakers and thieves naturally abound. There is often a cosy nexus between artists, dealers, gallerists and critics; value – or at least, price – is constantly moving, usually upwards; and there are an increasing number of very rich people for whom art is a status symbol. Authenticating a work is difficult, and a lot may depend on it. How might a grateful owner or potential purchaser reward such connoisseurship? The classic example is that of Bernard Berenson – in Hughes’s mocking words, ‘the disinterested, Goethean sage of I Tatti’ – who charged his employer 25 per cent on the sale of any work he had authenticated. Today there are art advisers at the shoulder of new money; the deference might be difficult, but parts of the job must be pretty easy. Warhol, tick; Koons, tick; Basquiat, tick; Picasso, tick; Freud, tick; Banksy and Bacon, tick tick; and so on.

When and where did it all start? Probably in Paris; more unexpectedly, when the Impressionists came along. For centuries, the Salon had ruled over taste, over what was and wasn’t art, and therefore over most artists’ incomes. There had been the famous Salon des Refusés in 1863, but that experiment in imperial permissiveness was not to be repeated. So the Impressionists, following Courbet’s example, put on their own exhibitions, the first in 1874. They made little money but received a good deal of publicity. Gradually, the stranglehold of the Salon was loosened: it had traditionally been such that some collectors, seeing a work in an artist’s studio, might offer to buy it as long as the Salon jury found it good enough (and uncontentious enough) to be hung on their walls. At the same time, a younger generation of more imaginative dealers came along, looking for new buyers not just on the home market but abroad, especially in London and New York. Then there was the press: both the critics themselves and the hacks who sought scandal and sensation. Critical mass had arrived: that nexus of artist, dealer, critic and curator, plus shock value and a rising market. Monet, as leader of the Impressionists and the group’s highest earner, was at the heart of this new world. At one point he had three or four different dealers, and delighted in playing them off one against the other. There is no direct evidence of graft in Jackie Wullschläger’s new book, but all the conditions for Hughes’s ‘ethical slide area’ were now in place.

It can seem as though Monet has always been around. In my teens I had a poster of one of his greyer Rouen Cathedral pictures on my bedroom wall; around the same time, I bought a classical LP with The Poppy Field as cover art. In my thirties, after Monet’s house was opened to the public, I came back with two ‘Japanese’ dinner plates from the gift shop (Limoges white, with a yellow rim – the yellow of his dining room – and a fine blue edging), which I still use today. He is one of those artists I have consistently admired while complacently assuming that I had mastered his extent; also, without being at all curious about his life. The first response is the mild (if lingering) sin of youth: the artists you first see and admire can sometimes get cocooned away without re-examination. The second blankness is perhaps more understandable: there was and is no personal myth of Monet. He didn’t die young, or cut off his ear, or even travel to exotic places: London (which he loved, but only in winter, when there was fog) and Venice (also pleasingly foggy) were about the furthest he took his brushes. He also painted at such a consistently high level that it comes as a relief when he produces as ferociously awful a picture as La Japonaise (1876). He knew and admitted that this was ‘a piece of junk’ and presumably saved it from destruction only because it was an image of his first wife, Camille.

In seventeen years it will be the 200th anniversary of Monet’s birth, yet he might still be the best way to introduce someone young to art – and not just modern art. This is partly because of what he didn’t paint. He didn’t do historical or religious subjects: no need to know what is happening at the Annunciation (let alone the Assumption of the Virgin) or what Oedipus said to the Sphinx or why so many naked women are attending the death of Sardanapalus. He never painted a literary scene for which you need to know the story. None of his paintings refers to an earlier painting. He was the first great artist since the Renaissance never to paint a nude. He painted portraits but it didn’t matter (except to him) whom they were of. You don’t need to know the history of art to appreciate a Monet picture because he wasn’t much interested in the history of art himself (though he revered Watteau and Delacroix and Velázquez). He had even less interest in the science of visual perception. His art was secular and apolitical.

In Britain, we like to believe that Turner was a precursor to the Impressionists; Monet always denied that influence. He started afresh, a new eye in a new head (but what an eye, and what a head!). Manet had spent six years in the studio of Thomas Couture; Monet dismissed him as not worth studying under. He never set up an easel in the Louvre to copy from the masters. He went briefly to the sort of art school where you paid a small fee to sit and draw from life models, with a weekly visit from an older artist who made comments. He painted what he saw around him, much of which (the river, the landscape, the sea, trees, gardens, snowscapes, a lunch table in the sunlight, figures walking through a field, haystacks) are still to be found – or at least, their equivalents can still be found; even the cities he portrayed, or the parts that he portrayed, are not much altered. So the way into Monet’s art is comparatively smooth.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Dancing with the Devil

From The Wall Street Journal:

How can we reconcile ourselves to the fact that bad feelings—feelings like anger, envy, contempt, spite and Schadenfreude—play such a prominent role in our mental lives? According to Krista Thomason, a philosophy professor at Swarthmore, we would do well to regard them as beneficial more than bad. Such feelings, she says, should be seen as worms in the garden of our mind. Sure, they are “weird and ugly.” But—like worms enriching soil—they are integral to our self-enrichment and self-care. Ms. Thomason believes that by focusing on the unattractive qualities of bad feelings, as we tend to do, we lose sight of their value, and she wants to correct the record.

In what sense do anger, envy, Schadenfreude, spite and contempt contribute to self-care? They all, Ms. Thomason says, help us pick ourselves up when we have suffered some kind of knock, deprivation or opprobrium. If we get angry when someone disses us, for example, our anger is a way of activating—and putting our indignant selves in touch with—our self-respect. When we feel Schadenfreude, Ms. Thomason notes, it is generally directed toward those who act as if they’re above us: If they take a tumble, we get a boost. “When the cupcakes baked from scratch by the self-righteous super mom go uneaten at the neighborhood block party,” Ms. Thomason observes, we “can’t help but smirk,” and our sense of personal value goes up a notch.

When it comes to envy, Ms. Thomason says, we feel it principally toward those who possess something we want but who deserve it less than we do. Our envy, then, is a way of asserting a claim—there’s a balance that needs to be righted. As for contempt, we feel it toward those whom we deem less competent than ourselves and so—in a world where we are always sustaining blows to our self-esteem—it’s a way of reaffirming our stature and restoring our confidence.

And then there’s spite. We exhibit it, Ms. Thomason says, when we feel we are being told what to do—say, our spouse is nagging us to control our sugar intake and so, to spite her, we eat four bowls of ice cream. The core motivation, in such a case, is to regain our autonomy. “Spite is a way of asserting that my life is mine to live,” Ms. Thomason says, “and that I’m the one who gets to decide who I am.”

Anger contributes to self-respect, contempt to self-esteem, spite to self-mastery, Schadenfreude to self-worth and envy to self-assertion: All are modes of self-care, which for Ms. Thomason is a form of resilience, not a shallow self-help means of “feeling good about yourself.” But for her argument to work, as she for the most part concedes, our feelings must at least be reasonably justified. Toward the person who cut us off in traffic anger might well be appropriate, but banging our car into his would not be. Spiting our spouse by eating an extra bowl of ice cream might well assert autonomy in a restorative way, but spiting her by putting ourselves into an insulin coma would not.

As she makes her claims, Ms. Thomason faults Christian and Buddhist saints for failing to recognize the psychological benefits that our bad feelings provide. Here, though, her argument becomes less persuasive. Such saints, by and large, were focused on something different from self-care: They worried about the moral costs that our bad feelings impose on others. Even when anger is justified, they felt, it closes our hearts and lessens our capacity for mutual understanding. Contempt causes us to despise other people and thereby retreat from our common humanity. Spite leads us to hurt them and Schadenfreude to exult in their misfortune.

But when it comes to the ills the bad feelings can inflict, Ms. Thomason pulls her punches. Anger, she suggests, is morally harmful—it hurts others—if it causes us to lash out but not if we simply “sit with it” until it goes away. Maybe, but how often does that happen? Contempt and Schadenfreude, she says, can actually bring us closer to our fellow human beings, assuming that we’re “laughing at others because we know we’re capable of the same blunders.” But is that how we truly experience those feelings? To claim that the psychological benefits of our bad feelings outweigh their moral harmfulness, it seems, Ms. Thomason has to gloss over how morally problematic they are.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Were PG a student at Swarthmore, he thinks he would avoid Professor Thomason’s classes.

Rivals

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1619, René Descartes resolved to transform the study of philosophy—a broad ambit that at the time embraced mathematics and the study of nature. He hoped to deduce all observable phenomena—the paths of planets, the beating of the heart—from a few foundational laws or principles. After years of effort, and despite triumphs such as the invention of analytic geometry, he conceded defeat. As he sought to explain events that were increasingly subtle (“plus particulières”), he realized that he needed more data and that experiments—many of them—would be required. But he had little interest in engaging with other researchers or relying on the assistance of volunteers (who would distract him with “useless conversation”). Descartes, explains the historian of science Lorraine Daston, “was probably the last major thinker to believe that science could be conducted in splendid solitude.”

A way had to be found for doing science—or, as it was termed, “natural philosophy”—in a collaborative form. How would it be possible to balance the benefit of working together with the challenge of tolerating competitors? In “Rivals,” a compact and elegant primer, Ms. Daston leads us through the evolution of scientific collaboration over the past 350 years.

Intellectual communities, she reminds us, existed even in ancient times, focusing on “the transmission of knowledge . . . deepened and broadened by centuries of commentary and criticism.” The observations within Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” and Ptolemy’s studies of astronomy, Ms. Daston explains, were diligently recycled through generations. What arose in the 17th century was something more expansive and original: an effort at coordinated empirical inquiry.

After several attempts at collective authorship failed miserably—a group of anatomists, for instance, descended to name-calling at their meetings—scholars tended to work on their own but correspond extensively. Even so, “animosity, not amiability” set the tone, Ms. Daston says, and savants readily savaged their rivals in public.

Some collaborations did at least get off the ground. One sought to measure the distance between the earth and sun by scrutinizing the so-called transit of Venus—the planet’s rarely seen movement across the disc of the sun, which occurred in 1761 and again 1769; another focused on discovering the common features of weather across the globe. While neither effort was all that productive—not least because of the difficulty in transporting fragile instruments and the variability in measurement technique—both stimulated the interest of a far-flung community of scholars.

The 19th century brought dramatic improvements in transport and communication, allowing distant scientists to connect and collaborate. One surprising source of inspiration: the Universal Postal Union, which harmonized international mail delivery. Established in Bern in 1874, it was, Ms. Daston writes, “the paragon of successful international governance, and the one utopian scheme that really worked.” It was organized by postal leaders (not government) and was composed of specialists who were immersed in quotidian challenges and had a stake in the outcome.

Several international efforts soon adopted a similar model. The Carte du Ciel aimed to map the stars, while the International Cloud Atlas aimed to catalog cloud patterns in order to improve weather forecasting. The success of both projects, Ms. Daston says, reflects the importance of a charismatic organizer, who functions as a “scientific diplomat.” She draws a portrait of Swedish meteorologist Hugo Hildebrandsson, who spoke three languages and traveled tirelessly championing the ICA, hearing out colleagues and smoothing ruffled feathers. She also highlights the sense of rapport among the expert participants—often developed over extended meals with flowing drinks. One enthusiastic ICA participant, Britain’s Robert Scott, recalled its bonhomie and “good fellowship,” suggesting, Ms. Daston writes, that it was “in the fostering of this feeling, much more than in the discussion of abstruse scientific questions, that the real value of these international gatherings is to be found.”

One of the enduring achievements of 19th-century internationalism was the standardizing of weights, measures and nomenclature, arrived at mostly in meetings of disciplinary specialists. Disciplines, Ms. Daston explains, had emerged as the foundational unit of scientific training and practice as universities, starting in Germany, shifted their focus from transmitting knowledge to acquiring it. Scholars strove to publish in specialized journals that “forged disciplinary reputations, standards of evidence and rigor, and accepted doctrine, often in the crucible of fiery debate.”

Over the past 75 years, we’ve witnessed an “explosive growth of science along all dimensions,” Ms. Daston reports. Alongside this expansion has arisen a concern about oversight. Since the 1970s, the peer-review process has been formalized, and a broader range of experts now evaluate manuscripts and funding applications. Keeping up with the volume of submissions has become an abiding challenge.

The sheer size of the science has resulted in a reliance on quantitative metrics, which, Ms. Daston says, “replace expert judgement with benchmarks.” The Hirsch Index, for example, seeks to distill a researcher’s productivity and impact into a single number. There is always the danger of gaming the system—e.g., reviewers insisting on the inclusion of their own publications in the work they are being asked to scrutinize.

While the scientific community “was never exactly a peaceable kingdom,” Ms. Daston writes, “it was held together by a hunger for recognition that only other experts could confer” and by “face-to-face relationships among its members.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Fourth Wing

From Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:

f you are even remotely on bookish social media, then you are aware of Fourth Wing. It’s been much-hyped and sold out and everywhere I look online there are rave reviews for this YA-fantasy-romance.

I am not here to yuck anyone’s yum. If you read Fourth Wing and you loved it, I am totally happy for you. I want people to love what they read.

This was not a book that worked for me, though, and I suspect I’m probably not the only one who didn’t love it. I made it about 45% of the way though before I finally decided this was just going to be a slog for me and I gave up.

There were two main reasons I could not get interested in this book 

  1. The fantasy archetypes and tropes at work in the plot, and  
  2. The pacing

Fourth Wing is set in a fantasy world where the country of Navarre protects its borders with an elite army of dragon riders. When they are approximately of real-world college age, the young people of Navarre enter one of four quadrants in order to serve their country. Violet Sorrengail is small and accident prone, and by all accounts should enter the Scribe Quadrant. Instead, Violet’s mother, a general, sends her to the Rider’s Quadrant where she’ll probably be killed before graduation (side note: Violet’s mom is not great).

If Violet survives her time at the War College she will hopefully be selected by a dragon to be its bonded rider. 

I don’t fully understand why the War College is so invested in killing off its cadets (or having them kill each other). Fratricide is openly welcomed in order to weed out the “weak” recruits. At the same time we’re reminded frequently that there are fewer riders and fewer dragons every year, and I believe this is definitely a case of causation, not correlation. Also don’t they need people for other jobs? Who makes lunch? 

Violet shouldn’t be in the Rider Quadrant. She’s very academic and would have excelled as a scribe, like her father. It would appear that everyone in the Rider Quadrant knows this, and multiple people offer to help her find a way to get out and get over to the Scribe’s where, frankly, things sound a lot better. Violet refuses on the grounds that her mom would find a way to send her back (why?) and because she stubbornly wants to prove She Can Do It (why?).

. . . .

Sometimes, in the real world, you cannot do the thing even though you really believe in yourself. I have a friend who convinced herself she could accomplish a Tough Mudder through the power of belief and positive thinking, and then she broke some ribs. 

Cadet training involves something like the balance beam from hell as well as a Ninja Warrior course, all while the other cadets are trying to murder you. Somehow Violet makes it through, mostly because she’s clearly The Chosen One.

The Chosen One is a trope seen often in YA fantasy and it doesn’t really work for me. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just not a trope I particularly enjoy and this book relies heavily on it. For me The Chosen One trope allows the reader to accept that the heroine is somehow more special than her peers without actually doing much to prove it. In Violet’s case she’s clever and brave (if foolishly so IMO) but so are a lot of the other cadets. Violet even has the special hair (the ends are always silver regardless of how short she cuts it) that indicates a The Chosen One heroine. She won’t give up, she has fun hair, and two hot guys like her so she must be our heroine, I guess. 

The first half of the book is a boarding school book meets Hunger Games where alliances are formed, Violet injures herself a lot, and well meaning people worry after her, but she is determined to prove her mother wrong even though she hates it and will probably die anyway. It really crawled for me, probably because the stakes seemed so ridiculous that I didn’t care that much anyway. I mean, her first day of school is walking the balance beam of death while the guy behind her tries to stab her, and that’s a level of intensity I’m just not here for. 

Link to the rest at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

PG notes that an author can’t satisfy everyone. The author of Fourth Wing, Rebecca Yarrows, is a multi-NYT bestseller. When PG posted this, the book had an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon with almost 100,000 ratings and 4.7 stars on Goodreads with well over a half-million ratings.

Sublime Neutrality

From Public Books:

I read somewhere that good literature is indifferent to evil. It might have been that good writers are indifferent to evil. I retained none of the context, only the pull quote, and why wouldn’t I? What a seductive proposition—giving readers permission to banish the author, or at least the specter of their moral character; giving writers permission to write without thinking, first, always, what does this say about me?

Literary evil is thin on the ground these days; all those charming pedophiles, sadists, murderers, crowded out by neurotics, malingerers, failed imposters. Look at Dennis Cooper: even snuff is “tender.” You have to meet your reader in the middle. Too much specificity and you alienate your audience, who go from book to book looking for themselves. A popular template from the middlebrow almanac: name a place, throw in trees, quality of light, some vague cultural analysis, no real particulars. In the first person, the speaker invites you to where they are, which is very generous of them. They let you in, and there’s plenty of room in their blousy descriptions for you to bring yourself and everything you already knew. Particularity can be dangerous, even violent, so writers learn to be careful what they ask their readers to relate to. But if the writer knows what they’re doing, relatability doesn’t come into it. The reader has forgotten they exist as a being apart.

Before the publication of his first collection of short fiction, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa enjoyed a remarkably slick career for a local short story writer. Who is his agent??? I would seethe, watching his bylines appear in GrantaThe Paris Review, and, most recently, Forever, a magazine so cool I paid $100AUD for it to get lost in the mail. I was surprised he even had an AustLit entry, despite failing to appear in the bloated back-catalogues of print periodicals or obscurely-monied short story competitions, not one weird poem on a glorified blog run by regional cat people. Dalla Rosa has been careful not to embarrass himself.

The stories in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are set in millennial Carver-country, an abstract zone of aestheticized precarity and terminally online mass culture, where there is no space but private space and hell is ourselves. Reviews of the collection have described its “poise,” “precision” and “elegance.” The stories are written with a calculated reserve, a wry and reflexive humor; they are contemporary without unduly dating themselves, breaking no sweat under anxiety of influence, neither unfashionably literary nor fashionably unliterary, with the author citing Ottessa Moshfegh, Amie Barrodale, Gary Indiana, Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, Dean Kissick, Jordan Castro, Honor Levy, Megan Boyle, Chelsea Hodson, and Tao Lin as influences, a North American canon of cool edge. Any dorky, undergraduate-writing-class interest in “place” has been excised. Settings are always threatening to turn into somewhere else (the Gold Coast “felt kind of like California, with theme parks, palm trees and water, but it wasn’t California”). Smartphones blink. People regard each other in terse, empty moments. Technology represents alienation. Sex also represents alienation. Mutual regard is held with roaches, emotionally dysfunctional pets, and Mary Gaitskill, but never other people. The dust jacket claims the book is “tender and unsparing,” and the word tender comes up in more reviews than I bothered to count. In profiles, interviews, and rarefied circles of snobs, the collection’s “deft execution,” “taut” prose, “forensic” detail have been praised. The general view holds Dalla Rosa as that rare and highly-prized thing: a craftsman.

Why is craft such cause for comment? If craft is so remarkable, this must mean that writing badly is not a barrier to publication in Australia, and while nobody wants a reputation for cruelty, failing to say this produces its own contradiction: if “craft” (labor) does not produce “craft” (quality), then the latter is either innate or some transcendental haze that comes over the writer like a spell, possibly after receiving an Australia Council grant. Or, and this is my suspicion, praise of “craft” is primarily bestowed on writers who tend toward a spare, ironic, placeless style; the skill here concerned is the disciplined study of fashionable Americans, who sometimes sound “American” but mostly sound, to their own ears and everybody else’s, neutral.

Americans are freaks, but they represent the imperial centre of Western cultural production and it’s natural to be curious what they get up to. If Dalla Rosa’s reception has a touch of “local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner”—when he gets called the “real deal” and it bears the same inflection as world class—that is hardly his fault. And Dalla Rosa is writing in a tradition of, for want of a better word, nasty stories, brutal tales told with jaunty elegance, which we perhaps do not associate with the ruddy and simpering national character. Nobody has ever praised the dark glamor of the Wheeler Centre; there is something staid, dismayingly crude, about a literature that counts Murnane among its sexiest cult figures, making some dissociation from the local an understandable position for aspiring stylists. Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gaitskill, thinks writer-character Paul as he turns to sex work in “An MFA Story,” and Bad Behavior certainly looms, ur-text to a strain of fiction that, in its anti-sentimental approach, its “transgressive” subject matter, may court accusations of bad taste but never a failure of self-knowledge. What was transgressive in 1988 is a little pat now; this kind of franchizable cynicism has become familiar, which is not to say, in Dalla Rosa’s case, that it’s poorly done; and, in fact, its very iterability is the binding principle of the collection.

. . . .

Where a novel is an argument, a short story is an axiom. It’s the minor form for a reason. A novelist may have to publish three or four times before revealing that, like the proverbial flat character, they’re essentially possessed by one idea. A short story writer is less lucky; a story lasts just long enough for some central fixation or moral ideology to crystallize before it collapses under the imperative of economythen the gesture must be repeated. This is why short stories can be uniquely frustrating to read and to write; it’s also why they work so well when the prevailing mode is nastiness, bad people doing cruel and stupid things. The fetish figure of a typical short story collection might be the revenant, the same preoccupations returning again and again to be killed off in entertaining ways. Rather than the revenant, we might say, the fetish of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is the Sim.

This motif of the digital puppet pursues the characters across the collection. “The stars indicated I was under the influence of an inverted Mars,” says the narrator of “The Hard Thing,” “which meant I could act like a body possessed.” In “Charlie”:

Emma had begun to see herself as a model in one of her renders, or more so as an Emma avatar in the game The Sims or a Sims Brooklyn expansion pack. Emma’s avatar was a Sim that was playing The Sims to earn money, but that money was only ever enough to keep playing, and, at certain times, upgrade homewares.

At one point, Emma’s brain feels like an overworked MacBook; when she’s angry, her MacBook overheats. Experience in “COMME” is “like a certain kind of YouTube video,” or, for the movie star in “In Bright Light,” like “watching a 2D movie that was now 3D.” In “Contact,” in which a call center worker is automated out of her job, the character views her hallway as “a low-rendered loading screen she must navigate as her apartment buffers.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

There are clues in the excerpts, but PG confirms that the author of the OP is Australian. The OP first appeared in the Sydney Review of Books.

BookLife Reviews – Reach the Right Readers

From Booklife from Publishers Weekly:

A Guaranteed Review by a Publishers Weekly Reviewer Designed to Help You Market Your Book

A BookLife Review is a respectful, knowledgeable 300-word review that includes information designed to help in the marketing of your book, all crafted by a professional Publishers Weekly reviewer who’s an expert in your genre or field.

A GUARANTEED REVIEW WITH A QUICK TURNAROUND

Because a BookLife Review is a paid review ($399; $499 for books over 100,000 words), you are guaranteed to receive a review of your book (as long as you can provide a digital version of your book). BookLife Reviews are delivered in six weeks–four weeks if you purchase expedited service ($150). And with your approval, your review will run in the BookLife section of Publishers Weekly magazine at no extra charge. 

. . . .

HOW TO GET YOUR BOOK REVIEWED

It’s easy to get a BookLife Review! If you’re a BookLife member, just log in and go to the project page for the book you’d like reviewed.

Link to the rest at Booklife from Publishers Weekly

PG recalls not long ago that paid-for book reviews were among the worst violations of the Iron Code of traditional publishing.

In an earlier post today, we read how Amazon tracked down shady Chinese sellers of paid-for/fake reviews and helped send them to prison.

PG would love to see comments regarding the Publishers’ Weekly “Guaranteed Reviews” program and whether it materially differs from Chinese selling fake reviews.

For those not familiar with the publication, Publishers’ Weekly, which first appeared in 1872, is among the bluest of blue-blood publications covering traditional publishing. Being mentioned in or reviewed on Publishers’ Weekly was formerly a recognition that established an author as a rising star.

Additionally, if anyone is familiar with any reaction Amazon has had to the PW program, PG would love to hear about it, either in the comments or via the Contact PG link at the top of the La Blogge.

Amazon’s Latest Actions Against Fake Review Brokers: 2 Fraudsters Found Guilty Of Facilitating Fake Reviews In Amazon’s Store

From Public.:

Two individual fake review brokers were found guilty of illegal business operations intended to deceive Amazon customers and harm Amazon selling partners through the facilitation of fake reviews. These verdicts are the result of local law enforcement’s investigation and a criminal referral supported by Amazon.

From March 2021 to March 2022, the China-based defendants used third-party messaging applications to advertise and sell fake reviews to bad actors operating Amazon selling accounts. In exchange for a fee, the defendants left fake positive reviews to boost a bad actor’s product ranking, or fake negative reviews to lower the ranking of a competitor’s product.

Following the criminal referral, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and confirmed the review brokers’ illicit activities in Amazon’s U.S. store. The defendants were officially sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation in China, marking Amazon’s second criminal judgement of this kind.

The Counterfeit Crimes Unit is a global team dedicated to partnering with law enforcement, brands, and other stakeholders to disrupt counterfeiters and their networks.

“Amazon is pleased to see that these fraudsters are being held accountable for their actions,” said David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Risk. “The verdicts are a testament to the partnership of local officials in bringing down those who attempt to deceive our customers and harm our selling partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with law enforcement toward the mutual goal of bringing fake review brokers to justice.

“Amazon pioneered online customer reviews 25 years ago, and we are committed to ensuring that our reviews remain a trustworthy, insightful resource for customers. Amazon will continue to protect customers, our selling partners, and our stores from fake reviews by investing in proactive tools to detect and stop fake reviews from appearing in our stores. As a result of continued investments, Amazon proactively blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews from our stores in 2022, and as of the end of August, we have taken legal action against 147 fraudsters across China, Europe, and the U.S.”

Link to the rest at Public.

Peterson paperback sparks debate on misuse of critics’ quotes

From The Bookseller:

A blurb for Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (Allen Lane) has drawn criticism for splicing negative quotes from reviewers to suggest positive endorsements for the book. 

Several journalists from major newspapers, including James Marriott, columnist at the Times, and Johanna Thomas-Corr, literary editor of the Sunday Times, have spoken out about the situation while other commentators believe the wider industry practice needs to be reviewed.

The debate began when Marriott shared the jacket of the controversial Canadian psychologist-turned-influencer’s latest paperback. In a Tweet he has since deleted, Marriott wrote: “Incredible work from Jordan Peterson’s publisher… My review of this mad book [Beyond Order] was probably the most negative thing I have ever written.”  

The cover quote from Marriott reads: “A philosophy of the meaning of life . . . the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has ever written.” Marriott’s original review for the Times in 2021 said “his [Peterson’s] philosophy, which is bonkers” and only described one chapter about interior design as containing “one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written”.

The Times’ literary editor Robbie Millen wrote of the incident: “Publishers are like medieval alchemists. They can take the base metal of a stinking book review and turn it into the gold of praise. But this week [Marriott] came across his stern words transmuted by the magicians at Penguin into praise on the paperback version. From his radioactive review glowed words of approbation.”

Millen added: “Be suspicious of the quotes on the back of paperbacks. Know that the clever people in publishing have used all their skills to take someone’s words and bend them into new, more pleasing shapes.”

. . . .

Thomas-Corr described shock at finding out how her review, for the New Statesman where she had been a contributor, has been used on the book’s cover. She wrote in the Sunday Times: “You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learnt via social media of a controversy regarding the paperback edition of Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, whereby damning reviews had somehow become lavish praise. 

“Naturally, I went back to my review just to make sure I hadn’t written it under the influence of strong drugs, and, sure enough, I was pretty damning,” she wrote.

Like other journalists writing on the subject, she believes it could lead to a wider discussion around jacket blurbs: “Of course, most people in publishing are aware of the industry’s log-rolling practices, but many feel a line has been irreversibly crossed…I suspect the industry will have to review its practices.

“One award-winning writer I was speaking to last week, whose own book cover is covered with superlatives from fellow authors and reviewers, believes the Peterson case could end what they described as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in publishing, that is, taking a reviewer’s words to endorse their books in return for having our verdict accurately represented.” 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Any reviewer

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

Kurt Vonnegut

Paperback or hardcover? Used or new? Let’s talk about our book habits.

From The Washington Post:

Over time, all readers acquire an array of personal, often bizarrely eccentric rules and routines that govern — or warp — how they interact with the printed word. For example, some people will buy only crisp, new trade paperbacks and wouldn’t touch a used book on a bet. Fear of cooties, perhaps. Do you remove the dust jacket when you sit down with a novel? I always do. Can you read (or write) while listening to music? I find this impossible, which is why you’ll never see me working at a coffee shop. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of some of my other reading habits and “crotchets,” to use an old-fashioned term. Perhaps you will recognize a few of your own.

Hard- vs. softcover

I almost always prefer a hardcover to a paperback and a first edition to a later printing — except in the case of scholarly works, when I want the latest revised or updated version of the text.

Typeface troubles

My heart sinks when I see a desirable book printed in eye-strainingly small type. Publishers must imagine that only eagles will read it.

Books as gifts

I will spend any amount on gift books for my three grandchildren, now ages 8, 6 and 4. Those same grandchildren exploit me mercilessly when we visit Powell’s Books in their hometown, Portland, Ore.

….

Deciding what to read

These days, I expend preposterous amounts of time dillydallying over what to read next. Like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Dubois, I want magic. It might be found in the enchantments of a novel’s style, the elegance of a scholar’s mind or simply the excitement of learning something new. So I try a few pages of this book and that, restlessly hoping to start one that finally keeps me spellbound.

What I look for in used book shops

In secondhand bookshops, I always look for sharp copies of 1940s and ’50s paperback mysteries, especially Gold Medal titles featuring sexy women on the cover — the best illustrations are by Robert McGinness — or Dell “mapbacks,” which show the scene of the crime on the back.

….

Books aren’t commodities

I despise — viscerally, perhaps irrationally — the people one sometimes sees at used book stores scanning every title with a handheld device to check its online price. They regard books strictly as products and usually don’t know anything about them, only caring about what they can buy low and sell high on Amazon or eBay.

….

Kondo-ing books

One of my favorite daydreams — I know how pathetic this sounds — is imagining a month in which I do nothing but cull my books, then properly arrange or even catalogue those that remain.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG’S impression of the author is: dilettante, poseur, and too precious for words. But PG could be wrong.

The Wrath of Goodreads

From The Atlantic:

When Megan Nolan published her first novel, fellow authors warned her in “ominous tones” about the website Goodreads. The young Irish writer looked at the book’s listing there in the winter of 2020, the day the first proof copy arrived at her house. “Nobody but me and the publisher had seen it,” she wrote recently. “Despite this, it had received one review already: two stars, left by someone I had inconsequential personal discord with. It was completely impossible for him to have read the book.”

The terrible power of Goodreads is an open secret in the publishing industry. The review site, which Amazon bought in 2013, can shape the conversation around a book or an author, both positively and negatively. Today’s ostensible word-of-mouth hits are more usually created online, either via Goodreads or social networks such as Instagram and TikTok.

Publishers know how important these dynamics are, and so they send out advance reading copies, or ARCs, not just to independent booksellers who might stock a title, but also to influencers who might make content about it. “There’s an assumption that if you receive an ARC that you will post about it,” Traci Thomas, host of the literary podcast The Stacks, told me—“whether that’s on your Goodreads, on your Instagram, on your TikTok, tell other people in your bookstore, or whatever. And so that’s how it ends up that there’s so many reviews of a book that’s not out yet.”

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

As long-time visitors to TPV already know, PG thinks Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads many years ago was money unwisely spent. Online review sites are a dime a dozen plus the top reviews that show up on Amazon are much more important because they’re appearing at the point of sale.

There are also a zillion other places to find intelligent reviews online. Genre readers can easily locate review sites focused on romance, sci-fi, etc.

How to Quick Pitch Your Book in a DoorDash World

Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

The Tyranny Of The Time Stamp.

We all live under the lash of the digital clock and the tyranny of the time stamp. It’s not just us, it’s everyone everywhere —

Fast food and even faster fashion.

Pro chess players have 2 minutes to make their moves. On each move 12 seconds is added to the time they have remaining on the clock.

A pro tennis player has 25 seconds to serve.

Major league pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base.

Hitters need to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds on the pitch clock.

And you?

Your Uber And Your Oven Timer

It will take you 5 minutes to read this article about Taylor Swift and 6 minutes to read that article about Ron DeSantis. (How do I know? The NYT now includes an estimated reading time with every article.)

But it doesn’t stop there.

Your oven timer tells you your roast chicken will be done in 8 minutes.

Laundry? Your laundry will be finished in 10 minutes.

And what about your Uber? You don’t have to guess. Your Uber will arrive in 17 minutes.

I don’t know how long it will take you to read this post cuz Anne and I actually love our readers.

Still, you have access to this otherwise vast helpful — but also annoying —trove of info because of the ubiquity of the digital timer.

When Your Elevator Pitch is Too Long

Time counts — yours and theirs — and especially right now.

There are moments — at a hectic, noisy party, running into a former colleague at a football game, at a busy class reunion — when even the elevator pitch is too long.

Still, you’re excited about your book and want to spread the word.

Here is where the Quick Pitch comes to the rescue.

It’s like the Elevator Pitch only shorter. Much shorter.

The Do’s and Don’ts of the Quick Pitch

Sometimes the headline of your blurb (the one you worked so hard on, right?) will be perfect.

If not, you will have to create the ever-handy, indispensable Quick Pitch.

Here’s how —

DO go for the hook and explain the basic concept first, because, according to molecular biologist John Medina of the University of Washington School of Medicine, the human brain requires meaning before details.

When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Snakes on a plane is a great example.

Here are a few more —

  • Nurse Ratchett meets Rosemary’s Baby.
  • Hannibal Lecter at Beverly Hills High.
  • Legally Blonde as told by John Grisham.
  • Gone With The Wind as written by Mickey Spillane.

DON’T be afraid to be outrageous.

  • An obnoxious TV chef hides from a serial killer at a snooty cotillion for high society debutantes.
  • How about an opposites-attract romance between a plumber and a poet with a stopped-up sink?
  • Or a crass, loud-mouthed politician gets rip roaring drunk and comes to in a Buddhist monastery dedicated to silence, serenity and meditation?

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

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

Taming the Haters: How to Handle Malicious Online Comments About Your Work

From Writer Unboxed:

The day I signed the publishing contract for my second novel, I wrote a post about it on LinkedIn. I tagged the book’s soon-to-be publisher in the text, and included an image of their logo. The small press publishes just ten books a year. The fact that my book would be one of them was tremendously validating. I was delighted to share my good news.

Within minutes of the post going live I received a comment from a writer I was connected with on the platform but didn’t know very well. “That’s a vanity press!” he wrote. “Don’t publish your book with them. You’ll ruin your credibility. Everything you’ve worked for will go down the drain!”

Thinking this person was simply misinformed, I replied. “You must be confusing them with another publisher,” I wrote. “These guys are the real deal.” As proof, I added the link to my new publisher’s website. Believing I had settled the matter, I logged off.

When I looked at the post again later, I was horrified to discover that the same person had gone on an all-out digital tirade, posting multiple comments about how the publisher I had signed with wasn’t legitimate, and that as an author, neither was I. I realized then that, for some reason I still don’t understand, this complete stranger was trying to publicly discredit me and my work. I reported his comments to the site’s admin, removed him from my connections, and deleted the post.

The feeling of accomplishment I’d had that morning evaporated. I was sad and confused. I’d worked on that book for years. Why would a person who knew nothing about me or my work put so much effort into casting doubt on my achievement? Why would anyone be so mean to someone they don’t even know?

Some people get their sustenance from tearing apart others’ creative work. Over time, I’ve learned not to let these jerks get to me. I ignore their comments, or delete them in cases where they may be spreading falsehoods. Like most bullies, they lose interest pretty quickly if I refuse to acknowledge their cause.

. . . .

Liz Michalski, whose second novel, Darling Girl, was published last May, has had multiple adverse, unhelpful comments posted about the book—a dark retelling of Peter Pan—on a variety of platforms.

“My book is out there in the world, and everybody gets to have an opinion on it,” Michalski says. “Their opinion is none of my business, so I never respond to negative comments or reviews. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up reading reviews unless a friend sends me a particularly good or funny one.

“I’m also more careful which social media pools I swim in. I’ve had some really lovely fans on TikTok, but that’s also where the really meanspirited comments have been, so I tend to just not hang out there.”

Author Tara Lynn Masih’s book, My Real Name is Hanna, is a young adult historical novel about a Jewish teenager in Lithuania set during the Holocaust. Although the book has enjoyed critical praise, or perhaps because of it, the novel was singled out by a group of Holocaust deniers online seeking to discredit it.

“My recent Holocaust novel became the target of an organized two-star [rating] campaign,” Masih says. “Very inappropriate reviews that excoriated me personally were left on one site, which refused to take them down, even though some other sites would have. I even got worried for my safety when some angry emails started coming in, and someone attempted to get my cell phone number. For a few months, it affected me mentally and physically, and I did consider giving up writing. Is it really worth it, you have to ask yourself, when you are the subject of this kind of hate campaign?”

But eventually, Masih says, the trolls moved on to some other writer.

“The dirty dust settles, and you have hopefully reinforced your passion for creating stories, understanding that your writing has power and no one should ever be allowed to silence your voice.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Half-Madness of Prince Harry

From The Wall Street Journal:

Prince Harry’s book is odd. There’s even something half-mad about it.

He opens with a dramatic meeting at Frogmore, his former mansion on the grounds of Windsor. It is just after the death of Prince Philip, Harry’s paternal grandfather. For months Harry has been estranged from his father, Charles, and his brother, William—a “full-scale public rupture.” Harry has flown in from America and requested a meeting. The day is overcast, chilly. Charles and William arrive late looking “grim, almost menacing,” and “tightly aligned.” “They’d come ready for a fight.” Harry is tongue-tied, vulnerable, leaves heartbroken. “I wanted peace. I wanted it more than anything.”

You feel such sympathy. What could have driven them so far apart? Why are Charles and William so cold? Then you realize, wait—Philip died just a month after the Oprah interview in which Harry rather coolly portrayed his family as remote and hapless puppets and implied they were racist.

Harry forgets, in the opening, to tell us that part. But you can see how it might have left Charles and William a little indignant.

This is the book’s great flaw, that Harry doesn’t always play it straight, that he thinks “my truth” is as good as the truth. There are other flaws, and they grate. There’s a heightened-ness to his language—he never leaves a place; he flees it “in fear for our sanity and physical safety.” He often finds his wife “sobbing uncontrollably” on the floor and the stairs, mostly over what he fails to realize are trivial things. He is grandiose: “My mother was a princess, named after a goddess.” “How would I be remembered by history? For the headlines? Or for who I actually was?” Lord, he was an attractive man fifth in line for a largely ceremonial European throne; it would hardly remember him at all. (Unless he wrote a scalding book and destabilized the monarchy!) He repeatedly points out that he’s a Windsor and of royal blood. His title means a lot to him. He is exhibitionistic: “My penis was oscillating between extremely sensitive and borderline traumatized.” (Frostbite.)

There are gaps in his knowledge-base that wouldn’t be irritating if he weren’t intent on establishing that he’s giving you the high-class rarefied inside dope. “Never complain, never explain” has been an expression of the old American upper class since forever, and I’m sure the British one too. It isn’t special to the Windsors. “An heir and a spare” is old Fleet Street tabloidese. It doesn’t mean, as he suggested on book tour, he was bred for body parts.

Famous families often have internal communication problems. The children of those families learn much of what they know from the many books written about the clan. They internalize and repeat observations and stories that aren’t quite right but are now given their insider imprimatur.

Harry’s anecdotes tend to undermine the institution of the monarchy. When he was a teenager Britain’s biggest tabloid told the palace it had evidence he was doing drugs. In fact, as Harry tells us candidly, he did do drugs when he was young. The palace, no doubt knowing this, opted to “play ball” with the newspaper and not deny all aspects of the story. This made Harry feel thrown under the bus.

His father, he believes, used him as a “sacrifice,” to appease a powerful editor and bolster his own sagging reputation. “No more the unfaithful husband, Pa would now be presented to the world as the harried single dad coping with a drug-addled child.” He reports Charles and his wife, Camilla, were jealous of William and Kate’s “drawing attention away from them.” His stories of jealousy sound like projection. But they also make the book feel less like “Clown Turns on Circus” than something more deadly, especially just before Charles’s coronation this May.

Harry accuses the tabloids of violating his privacy, and no doubt they often did. What is almost unbelievable is that he is so unmoored and destabilized by this inevitable aspect of fame, especially royal fame. He implies he left Britain primarily because of the newspapers and their criticism of his wife.

But the odd, half-mad thing about this book is that in it he violates his own privacy, and that of others, more than Fleet Street ever could.

He is careful throughout to say he is telling his story in order to help others, those who’ve struggled with mental illness or been traumatized by war. It is hard to know another person’s motives; it can be hard to know your own. But I don’t think this book is about others. I think it’s about his own very human desire for revenge, to hurt those who’ve hurt him. And to become secure in a certain amount of wealth. And to show his family and Fleet Street that their favorite ginger-haired flake could make his own way, set up his own palace, break free, fly his own standard, become the duke of Netflix. This book is classic Fredo: “I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb, I’m smart and I want respect!”

It is all so contradictory. He says he wants reconciliation but writes things that alienate, he says he reveres the monarchy and isn’t trying to bring it down but he has gone beyond removing bricks from the facade and seems to be going at the bearing walls.

I close with a thought on privacy. Prince Harry violates his own. He tells us too much about himself and others.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

For visitors from overseas, The Wall Street Journal is by far the largest-circulation newspaper in the United States. In daily print circulation WSJ is about twice as large as that of the New York Times. USA today has a larger print circulation than the Times does.

If you combine print products, digital subscriptions and other papers that include their branded content, USA Today is in first place, WSJ is in second place and NYT is third. USA Today’s circulation numbers includes a large percentage of readers/viewers who read the paper at no charge.

The author of the OP is Peggy Noonan, long-time WSJ columnist, Pulitzer prize winner, author of nine books on American politics, history and culture. Noonan was a special assistant and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She has also been a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and has taught in the history department at Yale University. Prior to entering the Reagan White House, Noonan was a producer and writer at CBS News in New York and an adjunct of Journalism at New York University.

PG has enjoyed Ms. Noonan’s commentary for a long time.

Inside the Underground Market for Fake Amazon Reviews

From Wired:

RAJVARDHAN OAK STUMBLED upon an underground market for fake Amazon reviews by accident while scrolling through Facebook. 

“I saw this ad that said I could get a robot vacuum cleaner for free in return for a five-star review,” says Oak, a PhD student at UC Davis. He figured it was a scam, but he clicked on the ad. Over the following days, he saw a flood of similar Facebook ads, all with the same proposition: Buy a product, write a positive review, get a full refund, and the product is yours to keep. So he tried it.

Oak wasn’t willing to drop $300 on a robot vacuum, so he waited for something cheaper, which turned out to be a $20 neck pillow. With Amazon Prime’s 30-day return guarantee, he wouldn’t be out the money if things didn’t work out. He bought it, wrote a five-star review on Amazon, and received a refund. A decent neck pillow for almost nothing.

Pay to Play

After that first review, the ads kept coming. The scale of the operation piqued his interest, so Oak set up a few sock puppet Facebook accounts and began joining groups offering free Amazon products for review. Some of these groups had thousands of members with agents from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India working for sellers in China to secure reviews on Amazon in the US and Europe.

Reviews are important. Sales data is hard to come by, but higher ratings generally lead to higher sales, according to research from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which covered the 70 highest-selling categories and hundreds of thousands of individual products over a two-year time span. It’s not only about high ratings but also about visibility. Most folks won’t go beyond a page or two of search results, so if your product isn’t in there, you can forget about making a sale.

“A quick search today on any big search engine or many social media sites shows how easy it is to buy reviews and how much more platforms could do to protect consumers and honest businesses from this deceptive practice,” wrote Samuel Levine, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a recent blog post.

The Facebook groups Oak discovered were marketplaces where reviews and ratings were bought and sold. Agents shared lists of products available for reviewers—one of the spreadsheets Oak saw had more than 10,000 products on it—and while most options are relatively cheap, there are pricier ticket items like robot vacuums and even a $500 treadmill. 

Oak’s PhD research focuses on cybersecurity, reputation manipulation, trust, and safety. He also works as an applied scientist in the Network Protection and Fraud Prevention team for Microsoft Ads. He resolved to dig deeper. He devised a survey and convinced 38 agents and 36 reviewers to fill it out. The data revealed that people were writing an average of 10 reviews per month for products with a total value between $120 and $2,400. Agents earned $4 or $5 for each review they secured, with average monthly earnings of $150. (The top earner’s best month netted them $1,200.) For many agents, this was their primary job.

. . . .

Agents are trained on how to recruit reviewers (referred to as “Jennies” by the agents). Tips for recruiting folks on Instagram, for example, suggest following hashtags like #Amazonreviews, as well as experimenting to find the best time to post about products. Agents are shown an example of an attractive prospect or “Virgin Jenny,” an existing reviewer profile with a single review on it. 

These agents never give out direct links to Amazon, because the retailer can track where customers land. Instead, Jennies are told to search for the product and browse organically—click on related products, mark other reviews as helpful, and post queries in the “Customer Questions” section to build a believable pattern of behavior. Jennies are also instructed to mix up the sellers they buy from, wait a few days after receiving the product to write the review, add photos and video to reviews, and write reviews of 300 words or more.

Link to the rest at Wired

I’ve Heard Such Mixed Things

From Writer Unboxed:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, a reader in possession of a platform must be in want of an opinion.

As news desks covering books have disappeared, book bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktokers have proliferated. As such, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to see some really mean comments about your book.

But chin up, because the reality is? There have always been people who hated your book. In a different generation, they just wouldn’t have had an easy way to let you know they hated it. And while that might not seem like much of a silver lining, then let this be: there are also people who love it and will talk about it so much you’ll wonder who, exactly, is paying them.

So, this is the way of things now, for better or worse. But whether the social media reviews are good or bad, it’s the volume of them that can feel particularly relentless. Your publisher wants them to be relentless. Relentless is a good thing in this ecosystem of content attention. Yet for all the good it may ultimately do, we should at least acknowledge that it’s different. That authors today are dealing with something authors yesterday did not: the presumption of access. And its corollary: the feeling that your reader is now looking over your shoulder.

So here are some things that help me navigate all that (when I remember to take my own advice):

No book is universally beloved so stop trying to write one that is. Because of my day job, I get tagged in reviews of other writer’s audiobooks. Sometimes I’m tagged even when the author isn’t, because while the reviewer liked my performance, it’s a bad review of the book (and the good reviewers have learned not to tag the author in negative reviews – seriously, what HEROES). So let me tell you: books you may think are universally beloved? Aren’t. There is some corner of social media that hates them. One of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, The Big Sick, has Ray Romano’s character utterly baffled by internet opinions: “This is why I don’t want to go online, ‘cause it’s never good. You go online, they hated Forrest Gump. Frickin best movie ever.” Even if you, in your social media bubble, have seen only positive posts about these books, trust me, if you scroll through the comments, you will inevitably see that someone has written: “oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I’ve heard such mixed things.” Whaaaat? you will think. Where? The internet. That’s where. Universally beloved books don’t exist. No one has ever written one. You will never write one. So you don’t have to try to!

Your opinion is just as valid as theirs. Roland Barthes argued that once a text is out in the world, the author, for all intents and purposes, is dead. That their opinion of the work they’ve created is no longer more valid than that of any reader. That’s a tough pill to swallow. After all, we are the final arbiters of right or wrong interpretations of our work. If a reader fundamentally misunderstands something about, say, our plot, then they are, objectively, wrong. But that doesn’t mean their opinion of the work is wrong. And in turn, that certainly doesn’t mean that our opinion of our work is wrong. In fact, I would argue – and I did – it’s the only thing that matters (see my previous post about only competing with yourself).

Some people are just miserable. In my experience, most reviewers understand how to say something that reflects their personal, subjective experience. “This book wasn’t the right fit for me.” “I just didn’t connect with it”. The ones who are vitriolic and have zero self-awareness (“this book is trash!!” “worst book ever written!!!”) are not to be taken seriously, the same way we don’t take seriously those same people in the real world. They are misanthropic and tedious on Instagram, just as they are in life. Would you let this kind of person offer their unsolicited opinion about your wife, your kid, your job? Realize this is a them problem, not a you problem. Have boundaries around whose words you take to heart.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Smart Brevity

From The Wall Street Journal:

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” The remark, attributed by the authors of “Smart Brevity” to Mark Twain, nicely sums up the book’s theme: It’s hard, time-consuming work to say a thing briefly, but the work pays off. In fact, Twain wrote no such thing—the remark, in a slightly different form, belongs to Blaise Pascal. But the point is still valid.

The authors of “Smart Brevity” are Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, co-founders of the aggressively to-the-point news website Axios. Messrs. Allen and VandeHei left Time magazine and the Washington Post, respectively, for Politico, which Mr. VandeHei co-founded, in 2007. Before Axios, which began in 2016, Mr. Schwartz worked for Politico and Gallup.

The book is written in the style of an Axios news article: A one- or two-sentence lede, a terse paragraph labeled WHY IT MATTERS or THE BIG PICTURE, followed by a few short bullet-pointed paragraphs. The authors developed this style, which they call Smart Brevity, when they realized that consumers of news in the 21st century, overwhelmed by words issuing from every direction, generally don’t read news articles; they skim them, or glance at the headline and the first sentence or two. Their solution: If you want to influence people through the medium of words, use fewer of them. “Strong words, shorter sentences, arresting teases, simple visuals and smartly organized ideas,” they write, “transform writing from unnoticed to vital—and remembered.”

“The Elements of Style” and many other guidebooks enjoin writers to omit needless phrases, delete unnecessary modifiers, use active verbs, and so on. You get all that here, but Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz write for the online era of short attention spans and verbal incontinence.

They have a point. Most books and essays published these days are too long: gummed up with adjectives and pointless asides, laden with prolix displays of expertise. Many news articles, too, are repetitive, full of vague insinuation, and include figures and quotations whose import is not apparent. Then there are the ordinary modes of written communication. You have not experienced periphrastic confusion until you have tried to read emails from your child’s public school about matters that ought to be simple but, for reasons that perplex the greatest minds, are not—picture days, pick-up times, grade reports.

“Something went haywire in our evolutionary journey that turned us into long-winded blowhards armed with a few fancy words in reserve,” the authors write.

That “something” was, of course, the internet. Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz don’t discuss the difference between print reading and screen reading, but it’s worth some reflection. An email or a web article can hold an infinite number of words. The temptation to keep issuing verbiage is too great, the discipline of economy too taxing, for most writers to bear. The printed page, by contrast, although it doesn’t guarantee good writing, does impose limits. If you are reading these words in print, you will note that the review comes to an end near the bottom of the page, where the dead-tree real estate reaches its end.

. . . .

Maybe the Axios style is the future of written communication. If so, please kill me.

I don’t get the bullet points, for one thing. The book’s short chapters are written in paragraphs, as all writing in English is, but about two thirds of these paragraphs have little dots to the left. “The bullet point is a wonderful way to isolate important facts or ideas,” the authors write. Maybe so, but the excessive use of bullets leads you to wonder why some bulleted paragraphs have no important facts or ideas, and some nonbulleted ones do. And anyway why am I thinking more about these little dots than about the subject matter? It’s a fine way to read if you want to go insane.

. . . .

The worst thing about “Smart Brevity,” though, is the way the Axios style does the work of interpretation for the reader. News journalism at its best presents you with an array of observable circumstances and no definite conclusion. The arrangement of those circumstances is itself an act of interpretation, to be sure, but in the end the journalist leaves it to readers to decide what it all means. 

Not in the world of Smart Brevity™. There you’re simply told WHY IT MATTERS and THE BOTTOM LINE and, in its online manifestation, if you doubt the reporter’s construal you’re invited to click the words GO DEEPER and read some other article. “Don’t make your readers pick what’s important!” the authors exclaim to reporters. “You’ve mastered your content, honed your idea and know what matters.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

If you’ve never seen Axios, here’s a link.

The Words “I Wanted” Do Not Belong in Book Reviews

From Book Riot:

My professional life has swung more and more to writing about books over the last few years. This means that in addition to writing a lot more reviews than I used to, I read a lot more reviews than I used to. It also means that I’ve developed some opinions about how to write useful, thoughtful reviews, and here’s the one I truly wish everyone would start paying attention to: the words “I wanted” don’t belong in book reviews.

I’m not arguing against critical reviews. I’m all for critical reviews, both the ones that point out misogyny or racism or homophobia in books, and the ones that simply express an opinion about something that didn’t work — plot, character, prose, etc. Reviews are subjective. If someone doesn’t like a book, and they can explain why without using the words “I wanted,” that information can help other readers decide whether or not they want to read it. But if that review is just sentence after sentence trolling the book because it wasn’t the book that reviewer wanted to read — that’s not helpful, and it’s not even a real critical review.

Let me let you in on a little secret. If your book review is peppered with the words “I wanted,” it probably means that you should have DNFed that book. It almost certainly doesn’t mean the book you read was bad. It almost certainly does mean that you’ve written a bad review — not a critical review, a bad one.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

‘Straits’ Review: Magellan Maligned

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you ask most people to name the first person to circumnavigate the globe, they will likely answer Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese mariner who sailed on behalf of Spain in 1519. But Magellan never even attempted the feat, and he didn’t live to see it accomplished by members of his crew. As we approach the 500th anniversary of their achievement next month, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of contrarian works such as “1492,” “Amerigo” and “The Spanish Armada,” takes exception to the “tradition of hero worship” that persists around Magellan. In “Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan,” he launches his broadside.

Magellan was born to an aristocratic family around 1480 on Portugal’s rocky coast. As a boy, he served as a page in the court of Manuel I in Lisbon, where he absorbed the chivalric ethos of the times and prepared for a military career. Starting in 1505, he joined campaigns to India and Africa, as Portugal claimed a share of the fantastically lucrative spice trade.

After falling out with King Manuel, Magellan defected to Portugal’s archrival, Spain, and in 1519 launched his celebrated voyage, destined for the fabled Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia. Because the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the world into two zones of influence, with Portugal claiming everything east of a line drawn in the Atlantic Ocean and Spain everything to the west, Magellan would approach Asia via the Americas.

On Sept. 20, 1519, the fleet left Spain with five ships, some 240 men and boys, provisions for two years and a stock of trade goods. From the start, as Mr. Fernández-Armesto relates, the company was rent by tension between its Spanish and Portuguese members, and a power struggle between their captain and his second in command, the Spaniard Juan de Cartagena. After a stormy two-month crossing, the flotilla sighted Brazil and veered southward, probing for a rumored strait through the continent.

In April 1520, Magellan ordered winter quarters in the harbor of San Julián, in eastern Patagonia. Faced with months of freezing weather and dwindling rations, a faction of Spanish officers mutinied, demanding to return home. Magellan quashed the uprising with characteristic decisiveness and brutality, killing a pair of the offenders, torturing others and marooning two, including Cartagena, on a deserted island. Also that dismal winter, one ship, the Santiago, was lost when it ran aground in a storm.

In August, with the approach of spring, the expedition continued to reconnoiter the forbidding coast. Nearing the tip of the continent, they finally discovered the channel that today bears Magellan’s name. But to negotiate its 350 miles of treacherous shoals and devilish currents required more than a month, not to mention fortitude, superb seamanship and outright luck. For commercial utility it would never rival the routes already established by the Portuguese.

While still in the strait, another band of mutineers seized the armada’s largest ship, the San Antonio, and bolted for Spain, carrying essential provisions as well as reports of their captain’s cruelty and recklessness. The three remaining vessels entered the Pacific, which Magellan named for its initially gentle seas, then caught the trade winds and rocketed westward. “But,” Mr. Fernández-Armesto writes, “the benignity of the weather was like a villain’s smile,” luring the fleet into an ocean immense beyond their comprehension. Over nearly four months, as their numbers declined from starvation and scurvy, the men sailed for more than 7,000 excruciating miles without landfall until, on March 6, 1521, they spied the islands of Rota and Guam, in the Marianas. When some islanders made off with a skiff and other goods, Magellan retaliated mercilessly, killing several villagers and burning scores of houses and boats.

Later that month, the fleet reached the Philippines, which Mr. Fernández-Armesto, in one of the many contrarian arguments he makes throughout the book, suggests was Magellan’s secret destination all along. The strangers were well received on the island of Cebu, but imposing himself in a conflict between rival chiefs, Magellan made an ill-advised attack on neighboring Mactan, where he and several of his men were slain in battle on April 27, 1521.

Although it seems to run counter to the fierce determination that Magellan had shown throughout the expedition, Mr. Fernández-Armesto believes that the captain, preferring to die a hero rather than return a failure, “crafted his death to suit a narrative he composed in his own mind before the event, imagining a knightly consummation in a battle sanctified by crusading ideals.”

Taking stock of their situation, the survivors scuttled the Concepción for lack of crew and, under the command of the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano, steered their remaining two vessels to the Moluccas, where they loaded the hulls with precious spices. The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese, whose zone of influence the expedition had violated, but the battered Victoria navigated the treacherous waters around the tip of Africa and arrived in Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, with 18 of the 240 souls who had sailed three years before.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

You don’t want to dwell on your enemies

You don’t want to dwell on your enemies, you know. I basically feel so superior to my critics for the simple reason that they haven’t done what I do. Most book reviewers haven’t written 11 novels. Many of them haven’t written one.

John Irving

Amazon moves to block website it says sells fake 5-star feedback

From The Seattle Times:

In another effort to crack down on fake reviews for products on its digital store, Amazon has sued a Massachusetts company that it says sells fake 5-star “verified feedback” and creates accounts for sellers who have been suspended.

The lawsuit comes weeks after Amazon sued the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups for allegedly coordinating fake product reviews in exchange for money or free products. Amazon is ramping up ongoing legal activity against fake review brokers, the company said. The most recent lawsuit is the first aimed at stopping fraudsters who are posting fake seller feedback, which is separate from product reviews.

“Every day, millions of consumers who shop in Amazon’s stores use customer product reviews or seller feedback to assist with purchasing decisions,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court and first reported by Axios. “The bad actors who pay for product reviews and seller feedback erode that customer trust, compete unfairly with the millions of honest entrepreneurs who sell in Amazon’s stores and tarnish Amazon’s brand.”

In this case, Amazon sued Trey King, a Rhode Island resident, and his company, Auction Sentinel, as well as Sentinel Solutions, a corporation organized in Massachusetts.

Auction Sentinel bills itself as the “#1 marketplace for third party sellers” and offers services for people selling their goods on Amazon, eBay, Etsy and Walmart. “If you want to sell and profit in E-com [e-commerce], you need a coach who has been in the game for a while and not just a glorified Instagram or YouTube personality who flashes luxury cars,” King wrote in a pitch for Auction Sentinel’s services on its website.

Amazon claims Auction Sentinel creates fake 5-star “verified feedback” for sellers on its platform in order to “artificially inflate” a seller’s ratings. One package offers 10 feedbacks for $200 and another promotes up to 100 for $700.

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

PG to Amazon: Keep up the good work! Your lawyers already have copies of their pleadings ready to add other phony review sites with a simple cut and paste.

Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jake Kasdan’s 2019 movie “Jumanji: The Next Level” opens with returning hero Spencer already at low ebb—he’s lonely at college, browbeaten at work and sharing his bedroom with Grandpa Eddie. But the thing that pushes him over the edge, driving him back into the dangerous alternate reality of the movie’s title, is the idea that life’s inevitable decline has already begun.

“Getting old sucks,” Eddie says, as he fiddles with the portable oxygen machine on his bedside table. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Social psychologist Becca Levy spends much of “Breaking the Age Code” doing exactly that, weaving together case studies and her own research to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to suck at all. The expectation that aging means decay, Ms. Levy shows, is actually a major reason it so often does—our negative view of aging is literally killing us. Chipping away at this widespread and deeply ingrained conviction has a measurable effect on health after just 10 minutes.

The first part of the book is so full of flabbergasting results that they become almost monotonous. In 2002 Ms. Levy combined results from the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement with data from the National Death Index to reveal that, on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years—an extraordinary 10% of current life expectancy in the United States. In 2012 memory tests showed that positive age beliefs allowed people to outperform their peers with negative beliefs by 30%. The stereotype of failing memory is so strong in the West that occasional lapses are called “senior moments.” But in China, where attitudes to the elderly are much more positive than in the U.S., Ms. Levy says older people “can expect [their] memory to work basically as well as [their] grandchildren’s.” Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing and physical function.

Ms. Levy leavens this research summary with portraits of inspiring elders, from the actor who started memorizing the whole of “Paradise Lost” when he was 60, to the 91-year-old nun who runs triathlons. She also shows the scientific method at work, as when she describes how statistical analysis helped her establish that positive age beliefs bring better health—instead of the other way around—and how lab results demonstrated that those who were exposed to positive age beliefs walked faster and with better balance.

A combination of factors makes us “particularly susceptible . . . to negative age beliefs,” Ms. Levy argues, citing the World Health Organization bulletin that declared ageism “the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice today.” We first encounter ageism when we are least likely to resist it, decades before it might apply to us and our peers. Older people are often segregated in Western society for living, working and socializing, leading younger people to conclude these divisions are “caused by meaningful, inherent differences between age groups.” And these stereotypes are then reinforced over the course of our lives, as we are “bombarded by messages in advertisements and media about older people.”

All is not lost, however, for despite the “pervasiveness and depth” of ageism in Western society, these beliefs are “in fact quite brittle: they can be chipped at, shifted and remade.” In one striking study from 1996, Ms. Levy primed some people with positive words such as “wise” or “alert,” and others with negative ones such as “senile” or “confused.” Ten minutes of priming saw participants in the positive stereotypes group improve in memory tests, while the negative stereotypes group declined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Kingdom of Characters

From The Wall Street Journal:

The proliferation of Mandarin immersion schools across the U.S. suggests that a growing number of American parents believe the Chinese language, including its writing system, will prepare their children for academic success. China’s primary- and secondary-school students regularly top global rankings in math and science, even as the study of Confucian classics enjoys a resurgence. Perhaps Chinese characters are the key to the country’s ability to churn out talented professionals?

If the central figures of Jing Tsu’s “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern” were alive to see this, they would marvel at how history has reversed itself. For more than a century, language reformers and innovators struggled with the challenge of meshing Chinese characters with the Western world.

Ms. Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Yale University, describes how intellectuals believed that the Chinese language was a major reason for the country’s backwardness. As China was being carved up into spheres of influence by colonial powers during the 19th century, the West’s dominance seemed to show that alphabet-based scripts were a better fit for the scientific and industrial revolutions then under way. Some influential figures, such as the left-wing writer Lu Xun, argued that Chinese characters should be scrapped to save the nation.

There are several reasons why China ultimately held on to its characters. Most important, the prevalence of homophones in the Chinese language means that a phonetic script would lead to endless misunderstandings. Ms. Tsu reprints a 92-character parable by the linguist Zhao Yuanren about a gentleman who tries to eat 10 stone lions. Every character is pronounced “shi,” making a phonetic rendering unintelligible. It’s an extreme case, but the point is certainly valid.

So how could China make its characters fit into a world dominated by alphabetic languages? The book opens with the story of Wang Zhao, a former Qing dynasty official who sneaked back into the country from exile to publish in 1903 the first homegrown phonetic script. Wang’s “Mandarin Combined Tone Alphabet,” a set of 62 symbols borrowed from Japanese and Manchu, was quickly superseded by another bespoke system. But Wang’s alphabet did play a transitional role in education reforms that promoted literacy. After the collapse of the Qing and the founding of a nationalist republic in 1912, Wang continued to champion the Beijing dialect used by imperial officials as the standard form of the language. That gave us today’s Mandarin, known in the People’s Republic as putonghua, or “common speech.”

. . . .

The most successful innovations were spearheaded by the Communists after their 1949 victory as Mao Zedong sought new means to indoctrinate the “poor and blank” peasantry. Mao appointed a committee of 12 language reformers that first simplified more than 2,200 commonly used Chinese characters. In more than 80% of cases, they adopted shorthands already in common use in handwriting and calligraphy. Once these shorthands were officially recognized as the official forms, learning to read and write became easier and printing clearer.

The committee then turned to a new system of romanization, known today as pinyin. It was based on Latin New Script, devised in Soviet Russia in 1929 to spread communist propaganda to illiterate Chinese. Pinyin also helped Chinese students learn to read and speak standard Mandarin. It had the additional benefit of helping foreigners understand the real sounds—hence “Peking” gave way to “Beijing.”

China may have been first to use movable-type printing 1,000 years ago, but its typesetters were left far behind by the invention of the linotype machine in the 1880s. By the mid-1970s, developed countries had moved on to photomechanical typesetting, while Chinese printers were still composing type using outdated methods. So the Communist Party launched a push to design a homegrown computer system for typesetting Chinese. Again the motivation was to deliver more propaganda faster. Smartphones now offer many ways to input and transmit the Chinese language, making the use of characters virtually as fast and easy as alphabetic languages.

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

Amazon Sues ‘Fake Review Brokers’ Who Attempt to Profit From Generating Misleading and Fraudulent Reviews

From Business Wire:

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has filed lawsuits against fake review brokers who orchestrate the posting of incentivized and misleading product reviews, in exchange for money or free products.

The lawsuits aim to shut down two major fake review brokers, AppSally and Rebatest, who helped mislead shoppers by having their members try to post fake reviews in stores such as Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Etsy. This legal action is one part of Amazon’s comprehensive and proactive efforts to ensure a safe and trustworthy shopping experience for its customers and extensive opportunities to create thriving businesses.

“Fake review brokers attempt to profit by deceiving unknowing consumers and creating an unfair competitive advantage that harms our selling partners,” said Dharmesh Mehta, VP of WW Customer Trust & Partner Support, Amazon. “We know how valuable trustworthy reviews are to our customers. That is why we are holding these review fraudsters accountable. While we prevent millions of suspicious reviews from ever appearing in our store, these lawsuits target the source.”

Amazon strictly prohibits incentivized or fake reviews and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to detect, prevent, and remove them. In 2020, Amazon stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were ever seen by a customer. A nefarious industry has emerged in recent years, in which fraudsters facilitate fake or inflated reviews in exchange for money or free products.

Amazon’s legal action comes after an in-depth investigation into these review brokers, which taken together claim to have more than 900,000 members willing to write fake reviews. Fake review brokers attempt to hide their activity and evade detection. For example, the fake review site AppSally sells fake reviews for as low as at $20 and instructs bad actors to ship empty boxes to people willing to write fake reviews, and to provide AppSally with photos to be uploaded alongside their reviews. The fraudulent scheme run by Rebatest will only pay people writing 5-star reviews after their fake reviews are approved by the bad actors attempting to sell those items.

Today’s legal action shows Amazon’s determination to shut down fake review brokers. Amazon has previously won dozens of injunctions against fake review brokers, compelling them to provide information about who is paying for these fraudulent services. Most recently in late 2021, two major fake review sites in Germany and the UK were closed down following successful legal action by Amazon in those countries.

Amazon has more than 10,000 employees around the world protecting its store from fraud and abuse, including fake reviews. Amazon receives more than 30 million reviews each week, and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to analyze each review before it is displayed.

Link to the rest at Business Wire

PG just checked and it appears that the sites offer their services to a wide range of online retailers other than Amazon.

This Review Should Not Exist

From Public Books:

This review should not exist. I should not write it.

Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).

The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.

“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.

Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.

. . . .

César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.

Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.

Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.

. . . .

Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.

Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.

Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.

Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.

At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).

In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.

If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is not an expert on the subject, but his observation (which may be unfair or incorrect in whole or in part) is that, according to the accounts PG has read in recent years, many second and third-world nations share some similar characteristics.

  1. They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.
  2. Often, outsiders (beneficiaries of colonial power or capitalists exploiting local individuals or resources) are blamed either explicitly or implicitly for some or all of the problems in their societies and governance.
  3. Living standards are lower than in first-world countries and writers portraying these countries either blame western/colonial history for current problems or otherwise show resentment toward individuals or groups that have had the benefits that accompany residence in first-world countries AKA “the rich” or “those who are richer than most in my country”.

PG understands that he has lived his life in what some regard as the most-heinous of Western Exploitational Nations, the United States.

However, to the best of PG’s knowledge, he has never personally benefitted from the exploitation that took place in any second or third-world nation. Neither he nor any member of his family of origin inherited any wealth or power. PG knows a lot about his ancestors and doesn’t think any of them had inherited wealth or oppressed the American Indians or others in this nation or in their nations of origin.

Prior to settling in the United States, none of PG’s ancestors were wealthy by the standards of their day and place. None were rulers of anything outside of their home and small land holdings. On one line, some male ancestors attended one of the colleges at Oxford, but it was for the purpose of becoming ministers which is what they did after they finished their studies. Then, as now, earning a living as a minister is not one of the better ways to become rich and pass riches down to your children.

Nobody killed any Native Americans. Some of PG’s ancestors were, however, killed by Native Americans.

Any money that existed in PG’s family of origin in the Twentieth Century was earned, not inherited and disappeared in the Great Depression. Nothing tangible was inherited by PG’s parents (who are both deceased after lives spent working hard to support their family, including PG).

From his family of origin, PG inherited a Protestant work ethic and, from his mother, a degree of intelligence.

Prior to college, PG attended either isolated country schools in the American West or typical midwestern small-town schools. Less than 10% of PG’s graduating class in high school finished college. Less than 20% tried to go to college.

With the help of large scholarships, student loans and working 15-40 hours per week while he was in college, PG graduated from what many would characterize as a good school. That helped him get a good job when he graduated and, eventually, to attend law school.

To the best of his knowledge, neither PG nor any member of PG’s family going back a long way has ever exploited anyone of a different race or ethnic origin for any purpose. Definitely nobody got rich doing so. Most definitely, PG has never inherited anything tangible from his ancestors. He did inherit a work ethic and a tradition of attending church, each of which he values.

Thus, PG has never felt any white guilt or guilt for being an American or sense that he owes a particular ethnic group any recompense or help other than general Christian charity towards those who have less than he has regardless of their race or ethnic origin.

Critical Attrition – What’s the matter with book reviews?

From N+1:

THE CONTEMPORARY READER IS UNHAPPY. What troubles him? It’s the critics: they are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world. “An exhilarating debut, poignant and thrilling” . . . “A much-anticipated return, necessary and trenchant” . . . “Dazzling sentences” . . . “An unforgettable voice” . . . “Words that will rend your garments and kiss you on the mouth, that’s how good they are!” The reader trusts the critics. He buys the book. But from page one it is trash: listless, forgettable, unnecessary. He is outraged! He thought false advertising was illegal.

He considers giving the book one star on Goodreads (would you give a lawn mower four stars for being “promising”?), but such overwhelming praise from bright literary lights makes him second-guess his judgment. He opens Twitter. “Is it just me,” he writes, “or does this book suck?”

“It sucks!” someone agrees. “Overhyped [garbage emoji],” says another. A lively exchange is underway when a partisan arrives, here to defend the dignity of the author. It’s only a first novel, he says. It’s chronologically disjointed on purpose. He paraphrases Henry James: We must grant the writer his idea, his subject, what the French call the donnée“Judge the book he wrote,” concludes the partisan’s thread, “not the book you wish he had written.”

But what about all those critics blowing smoke on the book jacket? our reader asks. Did they read the book?

“Those aren’t real reviews,” says the partisan. “Everybody knows you can’t take them seriously.

Everybody? thinks our reader. He is stung to learn that he is not “everybody,” which is to say, not anybody.

. . . .

UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE READER, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig.1 The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book — or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.

. . . .

The contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine.

Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG notes that one of benefits traditionally-published authors sometimes mention is that their publishers are able to get their books reviewed in various publications.

Book Wars

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”

Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.

Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)

For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.

In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.

Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)

In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.

. . . .

While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)

And thanks for the tip from G and several others.

PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.

However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.

No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.

Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.

There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.

Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.

All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.

Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.

Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.

So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.

Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.

BOOM!

Idiotic corporate publishing screwed everything up.

The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!

$28 for an ebook!

The publisher is Polity Publishing.

Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).

PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.

So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.

A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.

Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.