Looking for Trouble

From The Paris Review:

In March 1937, eight months into the Spanish Civil War, Virginia Cowles, a twenty-seven-year-old freelance journalist from Vermont who specialized in society gossip, put a bold proposal to her editor at Hearst newspapers: she wanted to go to Spain to report on both sides of the hostilities. Despite the fact that Cowles’s only qualification for combat reporting was her self-confessed “curiosity,” rather astonishingly, her editor agreed. “I knew no one in Spain and hadn’t the least idea how one went about such an assignment,” she explains innocently in the opening pages of Looking for Trouble, the bestselling memoir she published in 1941. She set off for Europe regardless.

In the four years between arriving in Spain and the publication of Looking for Trouble, Cowles travelled the length and breadth of Europe. She was something of an Anglophile, having been captivated as a child by the stories of King Arthur and his Knights, and thus happily relocated to London, stoically braving its inconveniences—the “lack of central heating, the fogs, the left-hand traffic”—in order to benefit from the front-row seat it offered her to the “sound and fury across the Channel.” In her words, living in the English capital in the late 1930s was “like sitting too near an orchestra and being deafened by the rising crescendo of the brass instruments.”

In 1937, Cowles arrived in Madrid, wearing high heels and a fur coat—the first of quite a few sartorial descriptions in the volume, usually given because the inexperienced Cowles finds herself inadvertently under or overdressed!—but was soon gamely venturing out to the frontlines, ducking to avoid the bullets that whined “like angry wasps” overhead. When not in the midst of the action, she was holed up in the now famous Hotel Florida, alongside Ernest Hemingway—“a massive, ruddy-cheeked man who went round Madrid in a pair of filthy brown trousers and a torn blue shirt”— and other war reporters. Among them, too, was fellow female journalist Martha Gellhorn, with whom Cowles would forge a close friendship; the two later co-wrote a play loosely based on their experiences, ‘Love Goes to Press’ (1946).

This was the beginning of Cowles’s relatively brief but impressively prolific career in war reporting. She was in Prague during the Munich crisis, and Berlin on the day Germany invaded Poland. In early 1939 she escaped “the gloom of London” by means of a six-week trip to Soviet Russia, hoping for what might be “almost a holiday.” She soon stood corrected, determining Moscow to be “the dreariest city on earth,” the depression of which “penetrated [her] bones like a damp fog.” She’d probably have felt less grim if she wasn’t so cold, but yet again, she’d arrived inadequately attired: this time without any woollen stockings, naively assuming she’d be able to buy what she needed when she got there. “Good heavens! Do you really think you can buy woollen stockings here?” a shocked French journalist asked when she tried to enlist his help in tracking some down. A year later, she was in Finland—this time clad in a thick suit, fur-lined boots and a sheepskin coat—travelling north towards the Arctic Circle to report on the Winter War, the bloody battle being waged by the Finns against the invading Russians. In June 1940, as everyone else fled the city, she flew into Paris to cover its fall to the Germans. Three months later, she was in London on the first day of the Blitz

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Art and Commerce Need Not Be at Odds

From Jane Friedman:

The apparent conflict between art and commerce is probably as old as commerce itself. Many writers tense up, glaze over, or even freak out when they think about “the business of writing.” Creative writing is, after all, creative. But here we are in a capitalist soup, love it or hate it, and you have to find your place herein. I choose to be an empowered creative, envisioning innovative ways to work within and transform the system.

So what does creativity have to do with business? A lot, it turns out. It’s just a different kind of creativity than you engage with when you write. Imagining dynamic characters, creating distant or exotic landscapes, and devising whimsical or harrowing scenarios uses another part of the brain than conjuring up a business idea or planning for your new product or service. But you are still imagining, still wondering, still dreaming.

I’ve had to remind myself of this as someone who started out as a poet. Poetry is the writing form probably most seen as antithetical to business. But as I’ve gotten older, the distinctions between creativity and business have started to soften and melt away. I am not only a poet but also, as a person who runs a private online writing school, very much a business person engaging in commerce.

. . . .

Thinking about audience gets me thinking about purpose. I ask myself, “Why am I writing this, really?” Connecting to your purpose as a writer offers another bridge between creativity and commerce. I want my writing to have impact—preferably to inspire. I want to stimulate my readers to think differently about themselves and the world. I want my words to remind them of their inherent creative genius, their innate imaginative power to manifest real change. Why are you writing? To inform, instruct, engage, encourage, motivate? Whatever your intention, if you can touch repeatedly into the heart of your desire around writing and hunker down in that love of process (yes, even when it sucks) I think you’ve struck gold, and audience blooms forth as a natural extension.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG asks, “Do you want people other than your parents to read what you write?”

If the answer is yes and you think there’s something unseemly about commerce, post your writing online all over the place, announcing that it’s in the public domain and you claim no rights to it and people will read it.

If that’s not what you had in mind and you want to see your writing in your cozy little local bookstore, then you’re interested to a greater or lesser extent in commerce. PG will assure you that every single author of the books you see in your cozy little bookstore is interested in commerce.

Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were each interested in commerce. Are you a better writer than each of them?

Shakespeare was very interested in commerce and this interest rewarded him richly. One of his principal reasons for writing writing plays was to get paying customers to show up at the Globe theater. Shakespeare was part-owner of the Globe.

The Globe was a large commercial enterprise. Attendees paid one penny for standing room, two pennies for entry into a part of the theater where they could sit down on a hard bench and three pennies for a balcony with cushions to sit on and a decent view of the stage.

Additionally, The Globe had a separate entrance for the more refined members of the audience who sat in yet another balcony. Entry to this part of the Globe cost one shilling – twelve pence.

If a new play was premiering, the standard prices were doubled. Additional money was earned by the sale of food and drink by vendors walking through the crowd.

It’s estimated that Shakespeare earned 40 pounds per year from his ownership interest in the Globe. This was enough to support a gentleman’s lifestyle in London.

In addition to money he received from the Globe’s entrance fees, Shakespeare earned a fee as the author of his plays, likely 8 to 10 pounds per play.

In one more addition, Shakespeare and other authors received all of the Globe’s receipts from the second night of a new or rewritten play. Records show that the second night of Othello earned 9 pounds and sixteen shillings. A printed collection of all of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in 1623 and sold for a pound.

Shakespeare was also a professional actor and was paid additional money for his performances at the Globe, whether in his own plays or plays written by others.

In addition to performances at the Globe, Shakespeare’s plays were also performed at the royal court for a fee. Queen Elizabeth typically paid ten pounds for each performance.

Putting all of this together, Shakespeare’s annual income is estimated to to have totaled about 100 pounds per year. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of money earned by an internationally best-selling popular author in the world today. As you’ll see below, 100 pounds would buy you a very large house.

In 1597, Shakespeare repurchased his original family home in Stratford-upon-Avon (which his father had lost due to poor investments), known as New Place, for about £120 in 1597.

New Place was the largest house in the borough, and the only one with a courtyard – a significant purchase for the 33-year-old Shakespeare in 1597. There were ten hearths, which means it had between 20 and 30 rooms, plenty of space for the whole of Shakespeare’s family. Towards the back of the courtyard stood a large, late-medieval Hall, the main gathering point of the Shakespeare’s’ family life.

See much more about how Shakespeare earned his money here.

See more about Shakespeare’s house here.

Here’s a drawing of New Place:

Image from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which appears to include active commercial enterprises of its own.

The Supply Chain Grinch

From Writers Digest:

I started drafting my YA rom-com I’m Dreaming of A Wyatt Christmas the day my world stopped. It was March 2020 and my three children were home on their first day of spring break. At the time, we didn’t know that they wouldn’t be back in the classroom until September 2021.

Wyatt Christmas was written in the scraps of time I stitched together between figuring out if I needed to wipe down groceries and quarantine mail, where to buy toilet paper, and how to entertain and prevent a school-less preschooler from interrupting his brothers’ virtual classes. I wrote from 10 p.m. to midnight, from 3 a.m. until whenever my then three-year-old woke up and came looking for me.

In order to keep myself awake enough to write at 3 a.m., I had to really love this story—really love this world—and I do. I filled this book with all the warmth and Christmas feeling I could cram into the chapters. Working on it was an escape—one I hope translates to the readers. And like so many books written during the early pandemic months, my cozy Christmas book was about to make its way to bookstores.

At least I thought it was. Like so many in the publishing industry, I’ve gotten a crash course in supply chains these past few weeks. Wyatt Christmas was supposed to hit bookstore shelves October 5. It didn’t.

This is not my first pandemic release. I’m typically a book-a-year author, but I’m Dreaming of a Wyatt Christmas will be my third release in the past 18 months. The last two books in my Bookish Boyfriends series came out in May 2020 and January 2021. While launching without in-person events hasn’t been fun, I thought I knew how to make it work. I bought a ring light, signed up to embarrass myself on TikTok, and made a virtual escape room for school visits. But publishing has always been a roller coaster—you never know if the next drop is going to leave you elated or nauseated—and I was about to encounter one more loop on the track.

Who knew back when we all giggled about the boat stuck in the Suez Canal that it was just the beginning of what we’d be learning about shipping and supply chains? Not me! Dangit, karma!

A few weeks ago, my publisher emailed me with the news: Wyatt Christmas wasn’t going to arrive in time for its original release date, and they gave me a new one: October 26. I took a deep breath and made some corrections to my planner. We all agreed that this was fine. This was good, even; my Christmas book would come out closer to Christmas.

I made graphics. I filmed Instagram stories. I decided to proceed with the virtual launch event I had scheduled on October 5 with author Jen Calonita at Doylestown Bookshop. It wouldn’t be a “launch” event for me, but Jen’s middle grade novel, Heroes, the final book in her Royal Academy Rebels series, was coming out that day, and I could use our talk to encourage preorders.

Ninety minutes before the event started, I got an email from the bookstore: their preorder link was down. While Doylestown Bookshop pivoted to accepting phone and email orders, and I sent frantic emails to my publicist, we realized it wasn’t just a one-store issue. The buy links didn’t work on any of the bookstores I checked. It didn’t work on IndieBound or Bookshop.org, or on Barnes & Noble’s website. The book was unbuyable, due to complications with the on-sale date change.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

Yet one other reason to stay away from traditional publishers.

That said, an innovative organization would have improvised a strategy to launch the book in a different way.

Book sales were way up during the Covid lockdown. These were, of course, virtually all online.

An innovative organization might have organized an online launch for the ebook and a POD hardcopy.

As it is, when the supply chain is worked through, there will be a zillion other book launches because traditional publishing can’t figure out how to launch a book without their highest-cost/lowest-profit sales outlet – the traditional bookstsore.

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Stepparent and Stepchild

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

Stepparent and Stepchild

Description:
Many factors play into the dynamics of the stepparent/stepchild relationship. The child’s age and receptiveness to the stepparent will have a lot of impact. Similarly, the stepparent’s willingness to fill a parental role, their experience with children, and their relationships with the child’s biological parents can all determine how things play out. This relationship is anything but simple, making it fertile ground for plot and character development.

Relationship Dynamics

Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

  • A stepparent and stepchild who deeply fulfill relationship needs for each another
  • A stepparent who pursues harmony with the stepchild’s biological parent for the benefit of the child
  • A stepchild who is treated the same as the stepparent’s biological child
  • A stepparent filling a void for a child who has no relationship with their biological parent
  • A stepparent who fully embraces their role, regardless of the child’s feelings toward them
  • A stepparent being introduced into the life of a young adult child—smoothly, without much upheaval
  • A stepparent who tries to be the stepchild’s friend more than their parent
  • A reluctant stepparent who is playing the role of father or mother out of obligation
  • A stepparent whose efforts are largely controlled and limited by their spouse or the child’s other biological parent
  • A child rejecting any notion of a relationship with the stepparent 
  • An apathetic stepparent who is more interested in gaining a spouse than being a mom or dad
  • One party struggling to accept or love the other
  • A stepchild actively seeking to sabotage their stepparent’s success or marriage
  • An estranged relationship between the two

Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo

  • The stepchild becoming injured or ill on the stepparent’s watch
  • The stepparent separating from or divorcing the child’s biological parent
  • A situation in which one of the two parties is lying, forcing the biological parent to choose who to believe
  • The stepparent and biological parent having a child of their own
  • The death of the stepchild’s biological parent
  • The stepparent needing to relocate for work, resulting in a major move for the child
  • The teenaged child rebelling against the stepparent and rejecting their authority
  • One of the child’s parents dealing with mental illness or addiction
  • The stepchild being treated differently than the stepparent’s biological children
  • The stepchild being diagnosed with a physical, learning, or mental health difficulty that the stepparent doesn’t understand or accept
  • One of the stepparent’s biological children bullying or abusing the stepchild
  • The stepchild discovering a harmful secret about their stepparent
  • The stepparent abusing the child’s biological parent
  • The stepparent taking a work-from-home job, resulting in them being around all the time
  • The stepchild preferring the stepparent over their biological parent

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

From Writer Unboxed:

Worldbuilding gets a bad rap sometimes. If you ask certain people, worldbuilding is either for nerds looking for almanacs, not fiction, or it’s a useless distinction that should be an intrinsic part of writing.

But there are plenty of writers who recognize the essential nature of worldbuilding separate from the act of storytelling—for science fiction and fantasy, sure, but also for all genres. And there are a ton of amazing, detailed guides to creating worlds. But years ago, when I was first looking to build out the world I had created for my first foray into fantasy writing, I looked up resources for worldbuilding and quickly got bogged down in the sheer number of details these guides wanted me to know.

These guides offer hundreds of questions about the world you’re creating, insinuating that answering each one will lead to developing a believable, original world. I found weeks-long online courses dedicated solely to building a world from scratch.

I like to call these types of resources sandboxes. They give you lots of blank space to play around. “Where are the mountain ranges in your world?” they ask. “What military tactics does each nation in your world use?”

These are good questions, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Sandboxes are fun places for free play and for letting the mind run wild.

But once I had determined the election procedures of a specific political party in my book, which was decidedly not about election procedures or political parties, I was left no closer to a better story. I wondered: “…Now what? What does this have to do with my story?”

This is how I came to begin thinking about story-first worldbuilding.

Story-first worldbuilding falls somewhere on the worldbuilding opinion spectrum between “almanac” and “intrinsic” by exploring the details of the world around the story you want to tell. You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

How to Build a World Around the Story You Want to Tell

To complete the following exercises, I will assume that you have at least a smidgen of a story idea in mind. It’s okay if it’s not a fully fleshed-out plot yet. I will also assume that, since you have a story idea, you also have a vague impression of the world in which it’s set. It’s okay if most of the world is a blurry mess at this point.

This section contains a couple of exercises to get your mind thinking about how your world interacts with your story. The exercises are intended to be done in order, but this isn’t school. Do what’s most helpful to you.

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna. Even if you list things that are contradictory or illogical, write them all down anyway. Give yourself permission to let your mind run free. Important: This is not the time to make up new things about your world. If new ideas come to mind as you’re writing, don’t stop to examine them—just write them down and keep going.

When your time is up, read back over what you wrote. What are the things that are intrinsic or critical to your story and/or characters?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Censorship Has Been Alive Forever. It’s at Fever Pitch Today.

From BookRiot:

There are a lot of bad takes this week on the whys and hows of the growing firestorm of book challenges. I’m not going to link to them, but the reality is this isn’t new, media that’s reporting on “firsts” for any area are behind the curve by months (thanks, death of local journalism), and no, it’s not school boards who are willy nilly banning books. These complaints are coming from grown adults who may or may not live in a community and more often than not, they’re aligned with right-wing groups funded by a lot of dark money. Moms of Liberty — currently putting a bounty on teachers who talk about systemic racism — is but one of many of such groups across the United States, typically spearheaded by a failed or hopeful politician. They share information across public and private social media tools (here’s a great example of an extremist group gearing up their followers to at protest one school board meeting this week). These groups put board members in a position of being on the defense, and in many cases board members need to be escorted to their vehicles after a meeting because their literal safety is at risk.

Are there folks on the inside starting these censorship calls? Sure. But the vast majority are not, and in a not-insignificant number of cases lately, the adults who are complaining aren’t parents of students in the district.

. . . .

Something else to be aware of: the same groups that are pushing anti-antiracism with their anti-“CRT” movement that conveniently includes anyone who isn’t straight, too, is going to start coming hard for mental health. They’re already protesting social emotional learning, and the next logical step is the books that talk about mental health. (This is, of course, the same groups that complain students are miserable and why won’t anyone help them. The fault lies, conveniently, in mask mandates or virtual learning or any other anti-science scapegoat).

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Per his usual practice, PG will remind one and all that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

With respect to the OP, PG is of the opinion that not every decision that school boards, private schools, teachers, etc., regarding books they select for students to read is automatically a correct decision because of the power or authority that such groups and individuals possess or the role they play in a school or community. PG speaks as the son of one public school teacher, the brother of another and the husband of a former college instructor.

While civilized societies can reasonably place limits on some decisions parents may make that affect their children, the history of harmful use of force, physical or otherwise, by state state actors regulating what may be said or read or what may not be said or read is not read is a dark one.

At least during the past few years in the United States, more than a few groups of people who disagree with others have adopted a pattern of personal attacks on those who don’t think as they think. This same pattern of behavior has included over-the-top characterizations of social or political opponents.

Historically, true Censorship was imposed by government agencies on a population or group. In our time, censorship has involved prohibitions that limited the ability for social dissidents to express opposition or disagreement with the powers that exercised control over them.

As such, PG suggests that groups of individuals who object to books they find harmful or offensive being used by a government-sponsored entity for the education of the children of the dissenters doesn’t qualify as censorship.

Instead, such objections are a protest against the imposition of ideas and values to which the protesters strongly object being imposed on their children by an organization and individuals who possess and exercise a great deal of power over the children of the protesters. If a state requires mandatory or quasi-mandatory attendance of children in specified types of educational institutions, that qualifies as state action.

For the record, PG thinks mandatory attendance of children at public schools is a generally good idea, assuming that parents who feel strongly enough about the topic to take on the responsibility of educating their children outside of the public school system.

While education outside of formal public or private schools can go badly wrong, so can education of at least some children in formal schools can also contribute to the same end for a child.

As only a slight diversion, PG is not aware of whether this is happening elsewhere or not, but over the past ten or fifteen years, homeschooling of children has been a growing phenomenon in the United States. A bit of quick online research indicates that an estimated 3-4% of school-age children were being homeschooled.

It interests PG that an outsized percentage of homeschooled contestant have advanced to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee over the past several years. The 2021 Spelling Bee winner was a 14-year-old homeschooled African-American girl from New Orleans.

How to Write the Sense of Smell

From Writers in the Storm:

Great writers make their stories authentic by allowing us to experience what their characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch—capturing the senses so we are fully involved. Adding sensory details about smell into your writing creates a stronger story bond for your reader.

Scent memory is potent.

Memories fade as time passes, but a faint whiff of a loved one’s perfume can send your mind’s eye smack into a scene from a forgotten past. Sense of smell is a person’s most robust sense. You can be in a familiar place with a blindfold on and your nose will let you know where you are.

  • The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense.
  • It brings emotions to mind. We are attracted to each other by smell.
  • It helps us survive. A foul smell warns us of danger, like when we smell food gone bad or smoke choking the air.

. . . .

Writers can use the sense of smell to show a character’s background or to move a plot forward.

Say your main protagonist is a child in an orphanage trying to come up with a way to run away from her situation. A fire breaks out somewhere in the building. She smells smoke, alerts whomever she can to the danger (she is a good-hearted character). Recognizing her chance to leave in the chaos, she grabs her belongings and runs, thereby moving the story forward.

Ways to develop a sense of smell in writing.

Smelling danger

Our brains are wired in a way that makes us hyper-alert to unfamiliar sensory information, including smells. If you want to unsettle you characters, add in rotting, chemically, goosebump raising smells into your story.

. . . .

Smelling recall of another time, person, or place

Smells can cause flashbacks to warm, wonderful times or a place of horror. The same smell can bring joy or pain dependent upon the individuals experience at the time they were exposed to that particular odor.

Some people love the smell of lilies. I cannot stand them. To me they reek of death. I don’t know why, and probably would need hypnosis therapy to figure it out.

. . . .

The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Bruce Barcott, Weed the People


“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.” Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

“Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing — which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn’t actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can’t decide.” Jim Butcher, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

When Women Ruled the World

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1558, John Knox, the energetically tub-thumping Scottish reformer, railed against what would become even more true with the coronation of Elizabeth of England, the future Gloriana herself, a few months later: the unlikely and—to him—hideous rush of women into positions of supreme power in late 16th-century Europe. The cards of the game of birthright were serially falling in a female direction.

Knox’s ire was aimed at Marie de Guise, James V of Scotland’s French widow, who was serving as regent for her daughter Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. He also targeted Mary Tudor—Mary I—who was, for a fleeting but feverish five-year spell, England’s first queen in her own right, until Elizabeth I succeeded at her (natural) death. Knox’s notorious “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” contains his argument in a nutshell: “To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is: A. Repugnant to nature. B. Contumely to GOD. C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

Although Knox tried to apologize to Elizabeth for his trollish tract after she ascended the throne—it was only Catholic queens that troubled him, he explained—she never let him travel through her realm. He had to take to the perilous seas or stay put in Scotland. The following year his misery was complete: France’s King Henri II, died leaving his widow Catherine de’ Medici as La Reine Mère, effectively ruling France as the dominant mother of three French kings for the next few decades.

In 1565, Catherine encouraged or commanded her illustrious court poet, Pierre de Ronsard, to refute Knox’s diatribe in a book that celebrated female rule in elegant fashion. The whole is dedicated to Elizabeth, yet the central poem, the bergerie of “Elégies, mascarades et bergeries,” addresses Mary, Queen of Scots. Three decades later, Mary would be brutally and inefficiently beheaded for treason (the ax had to be swung three times), when she was discovered to have plotted against Elizabeth. But now Catherine saw no reason why a gift dedicated to both queens would trouble either: She “utterly discounted any personal jealousy,” according to Maureen Quilligan, and indeed religious difference, in favor of a we’re-all-queens-together spirit of cooperation. History proves that this was wishful thinking on Catherine’s part. Or does it?

This is the bold terrain of “When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe” by Ms. Quilligan, emerita professor of English at Duke University and author of books on medieval and Renaissance literature. She has come up with an intriguing, inter-disciplinarian, revisionist argument: that through such “inalienable” gifts as poems, books, jewels and tapestries—that is, the sort of dynasty-defining possessions that are passed through generations—we should reappraise relations between these 16th-century queens presumed to loathed and envied one another. We should pay attention to their collaborations in life rather than just their competition to the death. Elizabeth and Catherine de’ Medici, for example, negotiated the Treaty of Troyes, succeeding where Henry VIII and François I had failed and achieving a lasting peace between France and England, certainly for their lifetimes.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if, perchance it doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes.)

Hollywood Loves Books

From Marie Claire:

When author and illustrator Ariella Elovic drafted her book proposal for Cheeky: A Head-to-Toe Memoir, she never considered that the graphic memoir about body acceptance might one day become a television series. Growing up, her biggest insecurities were her visibly hairy arms, sideburns, unibrow, and upper lip hair; as a young adult, she created an illustrated alter-ego to help her process all of the ways her body was changing. When she signed with literary agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff of DeFiore and Company, the agent offhandedly noted that she could see the world of Cheeky expanding on a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu. After the book was finished, Simonoff’s coagent at United Talent Agency (UTA)—one of the four major Hollywood talent agencies—presented Cheeky at a general meeting where talent agents brainstorm creative partnerships between their clients. Throughout the summer of 2020, Elovic, 30, took the resulting one-on-one phone calls with actors, directors, and showrunners looking for a partner with whom she clicked creatively. She hit it off with an established comedian. “It basically felt like what we would create together would be a really strong combination of our two brains,” Elovic says. Though the partnership has yet to be announced, the pair are working with a production company on a “mini-pilot” to pitch to streaming services. A few weeks ago, the author quit her day job as a project manager at Paperless Post. It’s a big commitment, she says, but “I figured at some point, I [would] have to quit my job to help prep material. I’m going to want to give it my all.”

Cheeky was not a bestseller, celebrity book club pick, or runaway hit at launch. It received positive reviews and a decent amount of attention. Its Hollywood prospects are not noteworthy because of being extraordinary, but rather, increasingly ordinary. In 2020 alone, streamers produced 532 new television shows. Their appetite for content is fueling a golden age of adaptations, according to Michelle Weiner, head of the books department at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which includes the book-to-film department and the publishing group. “The volume of film and television being produced has increased dramatically,” she says. “A book is one of the greatest story bibles”—what TV producers use to track details about characters, plots, and more—“that a television show or a film can have. It has a fully-fleshed-out plot, highly sophisticated characters, and, often, a very inventive world.” As a result, there is more opportunity than ever for authors who wish to adapt their work for the big (or small, or even pocket-sized) screen.

Every year, the streaming industry becomes even hungrier for intellectual property to adapt. “What Hollywood needs is more and more content because of all the outlets,” says Knopf editor-at-large Peter Gethers, who previously ran Penguin Random House’s book-to-film department and now co-produces projects for Universal Studios, STUDIOCANAL, and Food Network. But in many cases, before studios buy the rights to a book, they “need some form of validation, so they know something is good.”

Of course, production companies, like readers, can make judgements via reviews and The New York Times bestseller list. But increasingly, producers look to celebrity book clubs to help figure out which titles could become blockbuster streaming hits. CAA—an agency that represents not only authors but also screenwriters, directors, and some of Hollywood’s top actors—has worked with clients such as Reese Witherspoon and Emma Roberts to create those book clubs. Weiner calls the platforms “a win for every aspect of our business,” because the featured authors increase their audience sizes, while their projects become attractive to film and television buyers who then feel like they’re investing in a project that has a larger, built-in viewership. (It sounds like a circular system because it is.)

Link to the rest at Marie Claire

How Collaborating With Artificial Intelligence Could Help Writers of the Future

From The Literary Hub:

Art has long been claimed as a final frontier for automation—a field seen as so ineluctably human that AI may never master it. But as robots paint self-portraits, machines overtake industries, and natural language processors write New York Times columns, this long-held belief could be on the way out.

Computational literature or electronic literature—that is, literature that makes integral use of or is generated by digital technology—is hardly new. Alison Knowles used the programming language FORTRAN to write poems in 1967 and a novel allegedly written by a computer was printed as early as 1983. Universities have had digital language arts departments since at least the 90s. One could even consider the mathematics-inflected experiments of Oulipo as a precursor to computational literature, and they’re experiments that computers have made more straightforward. Today, indie publishers offer remote residencies in automated writing and organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization and the Red de Literatura Electrónica Latinoamericana hold events across the world. NaNoGenMo—National Novel Generation Month—just concluded its sixth year this April.

As technology advances, headlines express wonder at books co-written by AI advancing in literary competitions and automated “mournful” poetry inspired by Romance novels—with such resonant lines as “okay, fine. yes, right here. no, not right now” and “i wanted to kill him. i started to cry.” We can read neo-Shakespeare (“And the sky is not bright to behold yet: / Thou hast not a thousand days to tell me thou art beautiful.”), and Elizabeth Bishop and Kafka revised by a machine. One can purchase sci-fi novels composed, designed, blurbed, and priced by AI. Google’s easy-to-use Verse by Verse promises users an “AI-powered muse that helps you compose poetry inspired by classic American poets.” If many of these examples feel gimmicky, it’s because they are. However, that doesn’t preclude AI literature that, in the words of poet, publisher, and MIT professor Nick Montfort, “challenges the way [one] reads[s] and offers new ways to think about language, literature, and computation.”

. . . .

Ross Goodwin’s 1 the Road (2018) is often described as one of the first novels written completely by AI. To read it like a standard novel wouldn’t get one far, though whether that says more about this text or the traditional novel could be debated. Much of the book comprises timestamps, location data, mentions of businesses and billboards and barns—all information collected from Four Square data, a camera, GPS, and other inputs. But the computer also generated characters: the painter, the children. There is dialogue; there are tears. There are some evocative, if confused, descriptions: “The sky is blue, the bathroom door and the beam of the car ride high up in the sun. Even the water shows the sun” or “A light on the road was the size of a door, and the wind was still so strong that the sun struck the bank. Trees in the background came from the streets, and the sound of the door was falling in the distance.” There is a non-sequitur reference to a Nazi and dark lines like “35.416002034 N, -77.999832991 W, at 164.85892916 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, in the distance, the prostitutes stand as an artist seen in the parking lot with its submissive characters and servants.”

K Allado-McDowell, who in their role with the Artist + Machine Intelligence program at Google supported 1 the Road, argued in their introduction to the text that 1 the Road represented a kind of late capitalist literary road trip, where instead of writing under the influence of amphetamines or LSD, the machine tripped on an “automated graphomania,” evincing what they more recently described to me as a “dark, normcore-cyberpunk experience.”

To say 1 the Road was entirely written by AI is a bit disingenuous. Not because it wasn’t machine-generated, but rather because Goodwin made curatorial choices throughout the project, including the corpus the system was fed (texts like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestHell’s Angels, and, of course, On the Road), the surveillance camera mounted on the Cadillac that fed the computer images, and the route taken. Goodwin, who is billed as the book’s “writer of writer,” leans into the questions of authorship that this process raised, asking: is the car the writer? The road? The AI? Himself? “That uncertainty [of the manuscript’s author] may speak more to the anthropocentric nature of our language than the question of authorship itself,” he writes.

AI reconfigures how we consider the role and responsibilities of the author or artist. Prominent researchers of AI and digital narrative identity D. Fox Harrell and Jichen Zhu wrote in 2012 that the discursive aspect of AI (such as applying intentionality through words like “knows,” “resists,” “frustration,” and “personality”) is an often neglected but equally pertinent aspect as the technical underpinnings. “As part of a feedback loop, users’ collective experiences with intentional systems will shape our society’s dominant view of intentionality and intelligence, which in turn may be incorporated by AI researchers into their evolving formal definition of the key intentional terms.”

That is, interactions with and discussions about machine intelligence shape our views of human thought and action and, circularly, humanity’s own changing ideologies around intelligence again shape AI; what it means to think and act is up for debate. More recently, Elvia Wilk, writing in The Atlantic on Allado-McDowell’s work, asks, “Why do we obsessively measure AI’s ability to write like a person? Might it be nonhuman and creative?” What, she wonders, could we learn about our own consciousness if we were to answer this second question with maybe, or even yes?

This past year, Allado-McDowell released Pharmako-AI (2020), billed as “the first book to be written with emergent AI.” Divided into 17 chapters on themes such as AI ethics, ayahuasca rituals, cyberpunk, and climate change, it is perhaps one of the most coherent literary prose experiments completed with machine learning, working with OpenAI’s large language model GPT-3. Though the human inputs and GPT-3 outputs are distinguished by typeface, the reading experience slips into a linguistic uncanny valley: the certainty GPT-3 writes with and the way its prose is at once convincingly “human” but yet just off unsettles assumptions around language, literature, and thought, an unsettling furthered by the continuity of the “I” between Allado-McDowell and GPT-3.

. . . .

But as AI “thinking” reflects new capacities for human potential, it also reflects humanity’s limits; after all, machine learning is defined by the sources that train it. When Allado-McDowell points out the dearth of women and non-binary people mentioned by both themselves and by GPT-3, the machine responds with a poem that primarily refers to its “grandfather.” Allado-McDowell intervenes: “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” “Why is it so hard to generate the names of women?” GPT asks, a few lines later.

Why indeed. Timnit Gebru, a prominent AI scientist and ethicist, was forced out of Google for a paper that criticized the company’s approach to AI large language models. She highlighted the ways these obscure systems could perpetuate racist and sexist biases, be environmentally harmful, and further homogenize language by privileging the text of those who already have the most power and access.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

One of the comments in the items PG looked at in connection with this post claimed that Pharmako-AI was not the first book written by GPT-3. The commenter claimed that GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire was the first GPT-3-authored book.

While looking for GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire on Amazon, PG found Sybil’s World: An AI Reimagines Herself and Her World Using GPT-3 and discovered that there was a sequel to GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoi called Sub/Urban Butoh Fu: A CYOA Chaos Magick Grimoire and Oracle (Butoh Technomancy Book 2)

Pandemic sparks union activity where it was rare: Bookstores

From The Associated Press:

Britta Larson, a shift leader at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, has been with the store for nearly 12 years but only recently thought about whether she wanted to join a union.

“With the pandemic going on, we all were just weary of the constant dismissals we got when we raised concerns about staffing and workload to upper management,” said Larson, noting that the staff had been reduced when the store shut down for a time and was “stretched extremely thin” once it opened again.

“Before the pandemic, I’d say we would have kind of just thought ‘Things aren’t great’ because it was all we had ever known. The pandemic forced us to do some things differently and we learned from that.”

Labor action has surged in many industries over the past two years, including in bookselling, a business where unions had been rare. Since 2020, employees have unionized or are attempting to do so everywhere from Printed Matter in New York City to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and Bookshop Santa Cruz in California. In Minnesota, workers at four Half Price Books stores have announced plans to affiliate with locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

“I think COVID-19 was a rude awakening for bookstore workers, and really anyone who works with the public,” says Owen Hill, a buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California, which unionized earlier this year. “We were given no say regarding safe working conditions, even though we were risking our health by showing up for work. We had to organize in order to be a part of the conversation around worker safety.”

The publishing world has not a magnet for those seeking to get rich. Bookselling, especially independent bookselling, has a long affinity with liberal politics and a long sense of mission that transcends the desire to make a profit. Larson told The Associated Press that she and fellow Half Price staffers would rather unionize than quit because of their “enjoyment of books and love of our jobs as booksellers.”

But when workers organize, even the most progressive-minded owners might object.

Moe’s Books was co-founded in 1959 by the cigar-smoking Moe Moskowitz, a longtime activist and agitator known in part for letting his store serve as a refuge for anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Moe’s is now run by his daughter, Doris Moskowitz, who has spoken of the store’s egalitarian atmosphere and tradition of valuing dissent and social consciousness.

But when the staff announced in March that it was affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, Moskowitz acknowledged mixed feelings, telling the digital news site Berkeleyside that the “decision to unionize, which I deeply respect from a political perspective, has left me very sad and confused.” In September, workers picketed the store and alleged unfair labor practices (denied by Moskowitz), though Hill says the situation has since improved.

“After lots of ups and downs, and major disagreements, the parties have come together,” Hill said. “We’re zeroing in on a contract, and both sides are negotiating in good faith. I expect that we will be voting on a new contract just after Thanksgiving (fingers crossed). I think management realized that both sides are committed to keeping the store open — we’re such an important part of the community.”

. . . .

Half Price Books also has its roots in the anti-establishment. It was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre, a former executive at the Zale Corporation who in middle age wanted to make a living more in line with his ideals as a pacifist, environmentalist and civil libertarian. A 2003 article in PR Week, published a year after Gjemre’s death, described Half Price as “forgiving and generous to its unconventional workforce, which is peppered with aging hippies and liberal-arts majors.”

Half Price has grown from a former laundromat in Dallas to more than 100 locations around the country. In response to a request for comment on the current labor action in Minnesota, Half Price Books executive vice president and chief strategy officer Kathy Doyle Thomas said in a statement: “Half Price Books strives to provide competitive benefits and good working conditions for all 1,900 employees across the country. We understand there is a movement to organize workers, and we respect the right of employees to vote. We are committed to following all procedures required by law.”

The company sent a different message to employees. In a statement posted for a time in some of the Minnesota stores, workers were told that Half Price would oppose unionization “with every legal means available to us.” Forming a union, the company added, was “a very serious decision, one that could affect your working future, and the future of those that depend on you. We believe that, once you get all the facts about the union, you will decide that our future will be better without a union.”

Link to the rest at Associated Press

The If-Only Lawsuit

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

The United States Justice Department is suing to stop the big merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. That I can write about without a lot of research, because I’ve been following this merger for a long time.

. . . .

However, this suit is worth mentioning…

Because it’s fifteen to twenty years too late. The Authors Guild noted that in their response to the news of the DOJ suit:

Today’s decision by the DOJ was unexpected given that so many other major mergers and acquisitions in the publishing industry have gone through recently and over the last few decades with nary a raised eyebrow, leaving us with only a handful of companies dominating the industry.

Yeah. Exactly. Those of us who suffered through the previous mergers know what bullshit the PRH and S&S are feeding the press. No effect on competition? In the 1990s, my books routinely went to auction, and we always got a higher price for the books than the initial offer.

By the end of the decade and into the early part of this century, there was no one to have an auction with. The book had to be a potential (and obvious) blockbuster. One of my editors backed out of a possible deal when she heard that another editor at a different imprint in the same gigantic merged company wanted the book.

Oh, my editor said to me, she can pay you more, and their imprint will probably take over mine in a year or so.

Guess what? My editor was right. Eighteen months after the merger, the “overlapping” departments and imprints were cut as a cost-saving measure, putting my former editor out of a job, along with everyone else on her team. The cuts and trimming, for the sake of the stockholders, mostly hit the most experienced people in the purchased company (not the one that did the buying) because experienced folk are paid more.

. . . .

All the promises in the world mean nothing when large companies merge.

I read the complaint for the suit the day the suit was announced. The complaint is worth reading because, if nothing else, it’s a what-if. What if the DOJ had been on this as the mergers started twenty years ago? What would the traditional publishing landscape look like now?

I can tell you: It would look completely different. Instead of the traditional part of the industry being dominated by five large conglomerates, the traditional part of the industry would look the same or better than it did in the early 1990s. There would be a lot of publishing houses, a lot of working editors, a lot of imprints, and a lot of competition.

Indie wouldn’t be as attractive for many big name writers because those writers would still be working. Just this morning, I discovered that a writer whose work I loved decades ago has gone indie. Why? Because he hasn’t been able to get anyone to buy his books for…you guessed it…twenty years.

This happened to a worldwide bestseller who hit the top of the major lists for decades and whose work was made into three feature films. He couldn’t sell another book because his genre was “passé.” His genre? Horror. No one at the big houses would touch horror twenty years ago, and even the smaller ones looked askance at it.

If anyone had any brains, they would have seen that the genre would become as big as it is now. Right now, the people greenlighting movies and TV shows and buying books are the generation who grew up reading R.L. Stine. Of course, they want more horror. It was on the horizon.

The multitudinous publishing houses of the 1980s and 1990s could have afforded to play the waiting game—at least one or two of them, or maybe even three of them. Even better, the editors there who would have had long careers would have seen the writing on the wall and pushed out reissues of this writer’s books as the horror boom started.

The five large companies that exist now have no idea what they have in inventory. They have no institutional memory because they’re really not an institution. They’re parts, slammed together to make a great stock portfolio, so that they can be traded and bring in profits for the stockholders. Forget the books, forget the product, forget the employees, forget the readers. The books literally are widgets that are, in the minds of the people running the company, interchangeable.

If this weren’t true, then Simon & Schuster would not be up for sale. ViacomCBS would keep it and mine the inventory for projects for various TV, streaming, and movie projects, not to mention gaming rights and other things. A book publisher owned by a media company? Sounds like a surefire way to make even more money, right?

Nope.

There’s no vision here.

And the suit by DOJ is as stuck in the past as that little dream of mine was. Yes, this merger by PRH and S&S is truly anti-competitive, just like all the other mergers were.  And the impact, should the merger go through, on the traditional publishing industry will be profound…although not as profound as all of the mergers that preceded it.

What has changed is the rise of indie publishing. Writers do have somewhere else to go. They can publish their own works. They can reach the same readers that these large companies can, because these companies are no longer interested in publishing books. They’re just manufacturing widgets.

One very ironic thing that has emerged during the entire discussion of the merger is this: For about a decade now, companies like PRH and S&S denied that indie writers in any way contributed to the publishing industry. “Flotsam and jetsam” were some of the words floated around about indie publishing; “garbage” was another.

Now, though? Now that they need us? We’re part of their defense.

Oh, no, the attorneys for PRH and S&S have been saying all year, we’re not in control of the market. See this large thriving market over here? Those indie writers? They’re part of the industry too.

. . . .

The traditional publishing industry, as I have written many, many, many times, is broken. New writers can no longer anticipate having a career in the traditional publishing industry, let alone making a living at writing. And even a lot of the big guns are watching their income fade because of the policies and behaviors of these megacorporations.

Sure, there are always a handful of books that make millions. But once upon a time (twenty-five years ago), there were hundreds of books that made their authors millions. Enough books that Publisher’s Weekly devoted an entire month of issues every spring to cover the sales figures, never going below 250,000 for hardcovers and 500,000 for mass market paperbacks.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Winning Attention with That Book Proposal

From Publishers Weekly:

As a former acquisitions editor at a publishing company, I well remember the ritual wherein executives gathered in a conference room armed with their tabbed notebooks. Once a month, department leaders—including those in editorial, marketing, and sales—and key sales representatives arrived for the pub board meeting. As a new editor, I had my spot on the schedule to present several books from my authors. Authors, retailers, librarians, and others in the publishing business never see or attend these sessions. I could feel the tension and intensity in the room. Each person knew the high stakes built into these meetings. Every book involves cost and risk to the publisher, and the pub board is where individuals are held accountable for their choices.

To get on the pub board agenda, a book passes through a number of checkpoints. An agent or the author pitched the book to the editor (me), and if I believed the proposal had merit for our house, I presented the book to our editorial team. They had to agree with my assessment before it was added to the agenda. Finally, editors prepared specific P&L documents for the pub board, to highlight our reasons for the book to be acquired before we made our in-person presentation to the department heads.

For decades, before attending pub board, I had been writing books for various traditional publishers. Until I joined a publishing house, I had never witnessed how they made the acquisition decisions. My experience was eye-opening and at times brutal. Occasionally, when I began to present a book and author, the COO would pipe up: “Terry, we could sell two of these books. One to me and one to someone else.” His statement was a deal killer for that book. We were looking for bestsellers. My presentation for that book was finished.

As I presented books at pub board meetings, there were many instances when writers missed an opportunity to get the attention of the board because of poorly written book proposals. While there isn’t an industry standard proposal, each should include an overview, author background, potential buyers, author marketing plans, competing books, and possible endorsers. Some agents have proposal templates for authors to submit and refine before going to publishers.

Often author pitches I saw were missing key elements in the competition section or were filled with untrue statements like, “My book is unique and has no competition.” With thousands of new books entering the market every day, the competition within publishing is fierce. There are no unique books—every book competes. Writers need to complete this section and detail their competitive titles. Imagine their books in bookstores. Which titles are beside them? These competitive titles need to be included.

Every author should treat a proposal as the book’s business plan. Authors should take their time in developing a proposal to ensure they make all of the points they want to make. A solid proposal typically runs 30–50 pages and can be the difference between getting a contract or losing a deal.

In 2004, I was a frustrated editor who wanted to get better submissions from authors. After reading many submissions, I wrote Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success, and my book has since helped countless writers find a literary agent and a book deal. The publishing world has changed a great deal over the past 17 years. For example, one of my “secrets” was to always include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). At that time, publishers received and processed piles of paper submissions. If the author didn’t include the return postage, they did not get their submissions returned.

Today, submissions are received electronically, but even these require care to avoid sending viruses and malware. In my attempt to get rid of typographical errors in submissions, another secret was never to trust a spellchecker. Instead, one should read one’s work aloud before submitting, since the ear is less forgiving than the eye.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG looked for the book pitched in the OP, Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success, on Amazon to see how it has done during its first six weeks of sales.

He couldn’t find any Amazon listing for the book on Amazon.

PG then searched Amazon for the publisher of the book, Morgan James Publishing and still couldn’t find any Amazon listing for the book.

That lead to PG discovering that Morgan James had only 8 books listed on Amazon that showed a publication date in 2021.

The 2021 Morgan James book with the most Amazon ratings was Your Pocket Therapist: Quick Hacks for Dealing with Toxic People While Empowering Yourself, published in January, 2021, with 105 ratings and a five-star average. The book ranked 85,923 in Kindle Store and 169 in Dysfunctional Families (Books).

Digging a little deeper into the ratings, PG discovered that the Pocket Therapist book had:

  • 96 global five-star ratings
  • 3 four-star ratings
  • 4 three-star ratings
  • 1 two-star ratings
  • 1 one-star rating

These ratings averaged 4.8, which PG thought was a little high for a non-fiction book that had not sold very well. The only critical review asked, “Why is the print so small?”

PG checked the latest Amazon Charts data for the Top 20 Most Read and Most Sold Nonfiction Books for the week of November 14. He discovered that 11 of the top 20 had average star ratings below 4.8. Only Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land, had an average star rating above 4.8.

The Book of Mother

From Vogue:

Violaine Huisman’s debut novel, The Book of Mother, tells the story of a 20th- and 21st-century Parisian woman’s life and legacy. Part One is told from the perspective of Violaine, the younger of her two daughters, who is ten when Maman—her beautiful, charismatic, and wildly excessive mother—suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized. Part Two traces the arc of Maman’s, aka Catherine’s, life—from the emotional penury of her hardscrabble, working-class childhood; through her early success (earned through the harshest discipline) as a dancer; to a second marriage that finds her navigating a high-wire act between her life as a woman and the demands of motherhood, while feeling entirely out-of-place amidst the gauche caviar of upper-class Parisian intellectuals; to the betrayals of her third husband, which lead to her undoing. In Part Three, her daughters, now grown women, deal with Maman’s complex legacy.

I lived with the novel’s larger-than-life characters for months while translating Huisman’s winding, revved-up (and at times, improbably comic) Proustian sentences. I heard their voices and felt the shadow of history and the Shoah hanging over them as they breathed the heady air of Paris in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with its boutiques, salons, and swinging night clubs. More recently, I sat down with Violaine, who had returned briefly to New York—her home for the past 20-years—in the midst of an extended sojourn in France, to talk about The Book of Mother. The conversation that follows, over lunch at Café Sabarsky, has been edited and condensed.

In all our discussions about the book while I was translating it, I never asked you, how did you come to write The Book of Mother?

There were two moments of genesis. Ten years before the book’s publication in France [in 2018], I wrote my mother’s life story, but as a monologue, using only her voice. It was similar to the voice that I use in the novel for her tirades and harangues—that long, digressive, angry, wild tone.

I showed that manuscript to a publisher who admired it and gave me some suggestions, but I couldn’t find a way to revise it. Then, one year later, my mother died, and it became impossible to revise it. And then, two years after my mother died, I had my first child, and two years later, the second one.

So there was all this time of, literally, gestation. I realized that becoming a mother gave me a completely different perspective on who my mother was. I started understanding the conflict that she had faced, between her womanhood and her motherhood. So that was a huge turning point for me.

And then, days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth to my younger child, with the baby on my lap, I read 10:04, Ben Lerner’s second novel, and I had this epiphany, which was that in fiction—whether you are writing about your own stories or those of others—facts don’t matter. Facts are only relevant when it comes to history. I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother’s story, to create a coherent narrative. That’s something that Ben Lerner writes and talks about very beautifully, that fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living.

Because life makes no sense.

Life makes no sense. And the truth is, my mother didn’t know, my father didn’t know, why things happened that way. But fiction has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal.

And then, when the structure of the novel came to me—its organization in three parts—I knew even before I started writing exactly how it would be laid out. And that’s how I was able to write it.

Link to the rest at Vogue

Mapping Utopia in the Dark

From Public Books:

Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies is an exploration of what author Matt Tierney calls the “emancipatory critique[s] of technology” from Long Seventies authors like Audre Lorde, Paul Metcalf, Toni Morrison, Huey P. Newton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Alice Mary Hilton. The Long Seventies is a historical period familiar to scholars of labor studies that begins with the radical political changes brought about by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and stretches until the early 1980s. During this period, Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and men were able to participate in union organization in unprecedented numbers. Matt uses this moment of increased labor activism and organization as the backdrop to investigate poetic, literary, and philosophical critiques of technology and capitalism. In Dismantlings, he looks to a broad range of literary and political writings to find a counterlexicon that shows how Long Seventies writers opposed the idealism embedded in the language of technocapitalism.

The title of Dismantlings is a direct reference to Audre Lorde, and each chapter considers one of this term’s seven forms of appearance: Luddism, the smashing or gradual relinquishing of the worst machines; communion, a planetary togetherness irreducible to networks of telecommunication; cyberculture, a word that, in its coinage, named the historical and material foundation that automation shares with racist and militarist machines; distortion, a way to read and write against the present; revolutionary suicide, a deliberate submission to the dangers of political engagement; liberation technology, a point of contact between appropriate technology and liberation theology; and thanatopography, a mapping of planetary technological ethics in terms of technologically enabled mass confinement and death. All of these ideas, some that have been obscured over time and others that only seem familiar, lay bare to the reader a genealogy of current fears and concerns with the hegemonic role the discourse of technological innovations plays in the organization of social and political life.

It was particularly timely to talk to Matt about Dismantlings in the wake of last summer’s racial justice uprisings in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Across the United States this year, there was a rapid adoption of progressive, activist language by university administrators. Embedded within this language of “antiracism” were the buzzwords of the STEM-ification of social change and political analysis that has come to dominate US universities since the mid-2000s. The issues of anti-Blackness, gender-based violence, underemployment, authoritarianism, and our climate catastrophe are framed within the discourse of STEM fields and require the intervention of “moonshots,” “grand challenges,” and “toolkits.” In Dismantlings, Matt reminds us that it is important to use other words to name political possibility, and that the Long Seventies was a moment, like our own, when writers and activists were concerned with a similar technocratic idealism.

. . . .

RP: The book is an archive of Long Seventies literary works from Lorde to Le Guin and Morrison to Samuel Delany. Together, these works show us how to dismantle as well as how to reassemble a version of life that can confront and overcome the logics of technocapitalism; how to refuse the pseudoconcretization of human life and the ideologies that come with it; and, perhaps cautiously, how to imagine an alternative version of our world.

MT: To me this boils down to a critical form of utopianism. This is a strange thing to say as a person who has written one book on the void and another book on dismantling. But pessimism is kind of a problem in left scholarship.

This is not to say that I’m not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger, which of course I am, and of course we all are. We live in a pandemic, an ecological crisis, a housing crisis, an incarceration and policing crisis, an employment crisis, and a crisis of economy in which many people are not permitted to live at all.

Now I think a lot of people are returning to utopian thought through long-established paths. But there’s another tradition of utopian thinking that would look toward, not another world than this one, but instead this world lived otherwise. Avery Gordon, for example, sees the utopian as “a way of conceiving and living in the here and now” where “revolutionary time doesn’t stop the world, but is rather a daily part of it.”

Gordon’s “here and now” echoes for me with a talk that Toni Morrison gave in 2000 called “How Can Values Be Taught in the University?” Morrison there asks listeners to separate themselves from worn-out ideals of freedom and civic responsibility, whose defense has produced so much pain and death. She wants them instead to “speculate,” which after all just means to look, at getting to “a future where the poor are not yet, not quite, all dead; where the under-represented minorities are not quite all imprisoned.”

This might seem like a pessimistic response, but again I don’t think it is. I think rather that she’s observing historical tendencies that led up to the start of this century and still aren’t alleviated. Twenty years on, we can now add that these tendencies not only have been exacerbated by despotic bad actors and by ecological and health disasters but also extend clearly through the duration of living memory. Morrison wants us, then, to imagine a life where survival and freedom, if that word is to have any meaning at all, do not require wealth. Wealth, moreover, wouldn’t be granted, as now, primarily to those who own and program the computational tools of our supposed freedom.

This is a version of openness to change in the here and now, in the daily revolutionary time of the world. To think in terms of technology, it might imagine a way that the device in everybody’s pocket isn’t manufactured by the hands of dispossessed workers, nor relies on a battery whose operational mineral has maimed and killed scores of workers, including children. Morrison’s deeply utopian vision, which should affect our cultures of technological use, is to imagine which ways of living otherwise are required to get to where the poor are not all dead.

This is not lowered expectations. It’s a wish for a mass normalization of resistance to deadly ways of looking at the world. Some language for this normalized resistance is what I’m trying to recover with Dismantlings.

Link to the rest at Public Books

For the record, PG is not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger and doesn’t envy those who are.

Ten trends to watch in the coming year

From The Economist:

If 2021 was the year the world turned the tide against the pandemic, 2022 will be dominated by the need to adjust to new realities, both in areas reshaped by the crisis (the new world of work, the future of travel) and as deeper trends reassert themselves (the rise of China, accelerating climate change). Here are ten themes and trends to watch in the year ahead.

1 Democracy v autocracy. America’s mid-term elections and China’s Communist Party congress will vividly contrast their rival political systems. Which is better at delivering stability, growth and innovation? This rivalry will play out in everything from trade to tech regulation, vaccinations to space stations. As President Joe Biden tries to rally the free world under the flag of democracy, his dysfunctional, divided country is a poor advertisement for its merits.

2 Pandemic to endemic. New antiviral pills, improved antibody treatments and more vaccines are coming. For vaccinated folks in the developed world, the virus will no longer be life-threatening. But it will still pose a deadly danger in the developing world. Unless vaccinations can be stepped up, covid-19 will have become just another of the many endemic diseases that afflict the poor but not the rich.

3 Inflation worries. Supply-chain disruptions and a spike in energy demand have pushed up prices. Central bankers say it’s temporary, but not everyone believes them. Britain is at particular risk of stagflation, due to post-Brexit labour shortages and its dependence on expensive natural gas.

4 The future of work. There is a broad consensus that the future is “hybrid”, and that more people will spend more days working from home. But there is much scope for disagreement on the details. How many days, and which ones? And will it be fair? Surveys show that women are less keen to return to the office, so they may risk being passed over for promotions. Debates also loom over tax rules and monitoring of remote workers.

5 The new techlash. Regulators in America and Europe have been trying to rein in the tech giants for years, but have yet to make a dent in their growth or profits. Now China has taken the lead, lashing its tech firms in a brutal crackdown. President Xi Jinping wants them to focus on “deep tech” that provides geostrategic advantage, not frivolities like games and shopping. But will this boost Chinese innovation, or stifle the industry’s dynamism?

Link to the rest at The Economist

A Love Letter to Tackiness and Bad Taste

From Electric Lit:

I met Rax King outside of a bar on the first truly cold autumn night of the year, for which we both underdressed. We were wearing identical faux-fur lined denim jackets—albeit in different colors—and, weirder still, had both accidentally inflicted minor-but-nagging injuries to the thumbs on our left hands. From there we wound up on the topic of interior decor and affirmed that, although we do both have animal print duvets, they are at least different animal prints.

From there we landed on a new decision/dictum/lifestyle change that Rax recently committed to. 

“I’m only going to wear outfits where at least one thing is an animal print, and preferably more than one, and preferably two different animal prints from different animals.”

She continued, “And the night that I made that decision, I spent $200 on used animal print clothing on eBay. And then the next day, I woke up just like, ‘What did I do?’ And then I had like 10 emails, congratulations on your animal print purchase. And then I was kind of regretting it and then everything arrived and I was like, ‘No, this was right. This feels right.’”

To say Rax demonstrates commitment to the bit here would be to imply that anything Rax does is ever less than completely sincere. As we discuss in our interview below, and as Rax lays out in her remarkable debut essay collection Tacky, the bedrock of tackiness is utter un-selfconscious sincerity. That sincerity might garner ridicule—including, obviously, being labeled “tacky”—but it also leads to a sense of, this feels right. And, sometimes, it also leads to a cool leopard print bedspread.

. . . .

Calvin Kasulke: So the subhead of your book is “Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer.” But a lot of the culture you discuss is from your adolescence and coming of age. Why that section of culture?

Rax King: Primarily because it’s personally important to me. I grew up with Creed, I grew up shoplifting from Bath & Body Works, these were formative experiences for me.

As I got a little older, it became obvious that these things I liked so much were not cool at all. Other people, who seemed smarter and more worldly than me, who I really wanted to impress, they did not like any of the same stuff as me. And it was a moment of forced reeducation, like I needed to get on board if I wanted to make friends with the cool smart people—which I did, because I was 16 and shallow.

And after long enough time passed and I was no longer in high school, I felt comfortable revisiting all this stuff I used to like, and it turns out all of it is still awesome. So I was right, everyone else was wrong. You can quote me on that.

CK: What were your shoplifting techniques?

RK: I wasn’t super brave with it most of the time, like—nothing with a security tag. I liked anything I could slip into my purse. I really liked the sample makeups from Sephora and whatnot because it was not only easy to steal them but I also felt pretty virtuous about it, like “This is something nobody else is going to want. It’s got 500 people’s other mouths all over it already, I might as well.”

. . . .

CK: Your essay about a date you had at the Cheesecake Factory achieves something that’s similarly difficult to convey, because you’re telling a story about an event that was ultimately disappointing and kind of boring. Which, by the way, what is your go-to order at the Cheesecake Factory?

RK: All right, settle in. Gotta get the avocado spring rolls to start—and a mojito, because not everybody has them and the ones at the Cheesecake Factory are huge.

Avocado spring rolls as the starter, the Louisiana chicken pasta as the main, and then at that point, you’re going to want to tap out early and get a box for leftovers. They give you two chicken breast patties and you want to save one, plus a bunch of pasta, because you don’t want to fuck up dessert. Then for dessert, peanut butter fudge ripple cheesecake, usually to go, and then I eat dinner all over again when I get home.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes that more than a few of the subjects of his posts are not about ideas or people he thinks are cool, smart, etc., etc.

Sometimes he posts items that strike him as signs of the times.

That said, PG did a bunch of dumb things himself when he was much younger than he is now.

Death of an Earl

As some regular visitors know, PG enjoys reading history, 20th Century by and large, but other centuries are also of interest to him as well.

As an expert historian, PG can assure to one and all that every single Earl is going to die at some time or another. No 14th century Earl has ever been located except in a creepy crypt somewhere.

PG thinks the Queen can make new Earls, but his preferred way to become an Earl would be to inherit the title and receive a bunch of valuable Earlish things in the process. That way, he’d have the crumbling mansion, suits of armor, colorful local staff, a fortune, etc., to complement his Earliness so nobody could say he just made up the Earl story.

The catch to this path to prominence is that you need to have an ancestor who was an Earl somewhere.

PG hasn’t found any Earls among all the peasants in his family tree.

Many years ago, PG was poking around among his forebearers and found one who was a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, which, according to the microfilm of an old, old piece of paper, would have made PG an hereditary Count. He got excited because everybody would have to call him Count PG.

However, about 15 minutes later, he discovered that he wasn’t descended from the old Count after all, and as of today, he’s still officially disCounted.

“Why,” one might ask, “absent the possibility of receiving vast treasures and great public distinction, are we concerned by the death of an earl?”

That’s a good question in 21st Century life for 99.999% of the world’s population.

However, if the earl is closely related to you, your view might change.

Today, Mrs. PG released her latest murder mystery, titled Death of an Earl.

1930’s Oxford types, Catherine Tregowyn and Harry Bascombe are tootling along, teaching students and minding their own business when one of Harry’s relatives (who is an Earl) turns out to be dead. Harry’s Earl hasn’t always been dead, it’s a recently-acquired trait.

So, like all good Oxonians, Catherine and Harry want to see that justice is done and start an investigation.

Italians and fishermen are involved.

Today is the release day for Death of an Earl on Amazon and the PG’s would be happy if a lot of people purchased copies of her book.

Britain used to treat her dead soldiers with disdain. One man changed that.

From The Economist:

What mattered was the shadow of the sun on the stone. The letters on the gravestones of the Great War should be deep enough and the angle of their engraving sharp enough, the commission on war graves decided, that someone—a mother say, or a father—walking between the rows could read the name of their son at a distance of six feet. Stonemasons struggle to achieve this: a chisel likes its own lean and to go steeper is to struggle against stone. But the commission was adamant. The letters were to be in an identical font, cut at an angle of 60 degrees and to a depth of three-sixteenths of an inch.

The precision is that of a factory: this is mourning, mass-produced. It needed to be, because when the commission was formalised in 1917,there were so many graves. On the first day of the Somme 19,240 British soldiers died; by the war’s end the total was 900,000. More wars added more bodies. Today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (cwgc), as it is now known, has 1,154,324 graves, from Arras (2,678 in just one cemetery) to Zanzibar (24) and even Timbuktu (two). It has graves in over 150 countries and every continent except Antarctica, corners of foreign fields that are legally forever England, since the cwgc has agreements giving it rights to its cemeteries “in perpetuity”.

When world leaders lay wreaths and stand for two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday, therefore, they stand in places so orderly and so familiar that they feel less invented than inevitable. They were nothing of the kind. Before the first world war, Britain’s treatment of her dead was characterised by contempt. After Waterloo, Wellington’s men—“the scum of the earth” as he called them—were tipped back into the earth to rot. When tourists travelled to the scene, triumph turned to revulsion at the piles of bodies. At the start of the first world war Britain had no system for recording her dead—nor any plan to create one. General Haig called efforts to identify the dead “purely sentimental”.

Mass literacy and mass communication changed all that. News reports had started to chip away at official indifference: it was harder for generals to send brigades charging into the valley of death when war reporters sent back dispatches on the volley of cannon that met them, and the folly of the generals who sent them. It was easier to convince the British public that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” without letters from the front giving the details of deaths that were neither dulce nor decorous, and that ended with, in the words of Roland Leighton, “a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull” and “hideous putrescence”. (The fiancé of Vera Brittain, an early feminist who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Leighton died soon after, aged 20, shot through the stomach on a moonlit night.)

But the efforts of one man were crucial. Fabian Ware, a former journalist, was too old to fight, and went to the front as commander of a Red Cross mobile ambulance unit instead. He quickly realised that there was no system for recording the slaughter. Soldiers had been trying, with pencils and wooden crosses, but official indifference defeated them. Ware set to work.

Walk through a war cemetery on Remembrance Sunday, and Ware’s legacy is around you. By May 1915 his unit had registered 4,300 graves and the commission had gained some official recognition. By 1916 he had sketched a design for the now-iconic double dog-tag: one for the body, one “for the purpose of evidence of death”. By 1917 the empire’s artists were involved. Rudyard Kipling oversaw the wording on the graves. MacDonald Gill produced the font and Edwin Lutyens the design. All should be the same shape—and they should not be crosses, for among the dead were “Jews, Mussulmens, Hindus and men of other creeds” who deserved “equality of honour”. (Religious symbols could be individually engraved afterwards).

. . . .

In India, in the rainy season grass is mown twice a week to maintain a military cut. Many of the graves are in Britain, as those who died of their wounds after the war still received a war burial. Walk through London’s Victorian cemeteries and you will spot them, amid the ivy and angels and decay, by the grass of a shorter cut and stones of a brighter white.

The cwgc aims for perpetuity. But time fights back. Moss grows, ivy creeps, rain erodes. The headstones were intended to be eternal: instead, Ozymandias-like, their soft Portland stone turned out to be an object lesson in obsolescence. By the second world war it was already eroding, says Caroline Walker, great-niece and biographer of MacDonald Gill. The cwgc does its best. Enzymes are now deployed to clean moss without eroding the stone further.

Link to the rest at The Economist

There are also those who inadvertently grant power

There are also those who inadvertently grant power to another man’s words by continuously trying to spite him. If a man gets to the point where he can simply say, ‘The sky is blue,’ and people indignantly rush up trying to refute him saying, ‘No, the sky is light blue,’ then, whether they realize it or not, he has become an authority figure even to such adversaries.

Criss Jami

Adversaries in Fiction: Who Is Standing in Your Character’s Way?

From Jane Friedman:

Is there anything better than well-written conflict? The vengeful enemy, sharks circling the sinking boat, a carefully guarded secret getting out in the open.

Readers, fearful for the characters they love, grip the book tighter when conflict is close.

What will happen? Will everything be okay?

The more dire the threat, the more uncertain they feel.

Conflict holds power in storytelling because it touches everything: pacing, plot, stakes, characterization, character arc, emotion, you name it. Internal or external, subtle or obvious, readers invested in the book will find themselves in a near-constant state of tension as they worry about the character’s ability to dodge story knives.

One of the biggest sources of conflict comes in the form of an adversary—someone (or something) that has goals, needs, desire, or a purpose that clashes with the protagonist’s own. Once their paths cross, BOOM. Friction, tension, conflict! A battle of wills, might, and minds ensues until one is victorious.

Adversaries generate a lot of conflict, meaning it’s important to know their motivations and intentions. If they have a big role, we should brainstorm them just as we would the protagonist . . . to understand what’s driving them. But are all adversaries the same? Not at all. Depending on what you need, you have a variety of adversarial players to choose from. Here are some considerations for each.

Competitor: This foe is someone who has the same goal as the protagonist and will compete for it. Whether your character is up against a peer for a scholarship, a job, an award, or something else, make sure their competitor has abilities, skills, resources, or other assets that will make the outcome uncertain.

Rival: Like a competitor, this opponent wants the same thing as your protagonist. What’s different though is that the rival is also invested in defeating the protagonist. The victory is personal because there’s some sort of history between the two.

Consider the ongoing friction between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (and, later, their competing dojos) in the TV series, Cobra Kai. Johnny and Daniel took very different paths since their initial battle in The Karate Kid. Daniel became a wealthy and successful businessman while Johnny worked handyman jobs and flirted with alcoholism as an escape from his personal failings, losses, and abuse trauma. Old wounds are reopened when Johnny reopens Cobra Kai to empower youths, and Johnny’s son trains with Daniel to get back at his dad. Further complications abound as their teenage kids start dating and Johnny fights to become someone better while Daniel holds firm to old biases. The result of all this friction? A boatload of rivalry-fueled conflict.

Antagonist: This is often a catchall term for the main adversary. If the antagonist is a person, they will have a mission or agenda that counters the protagonist’s and most likely are prominent enough to have a character arc of their own.

Antagonist Force: The foe standing between your character and their goal doesn’t need to be a person. Depending on the story, the antagonistic force could be an element of nature (the brutal polar vortex in The Day after Tomorrow), an animal (the wolf pack hunting plane crash survivors in The Grey), or even a type of technology (The Terminator).

Villain: A villain is different than an antagonist in the sense that there is an element of evil or a specific intent to hurt others. Something has skewed their worldview and made them into who they are—a person whose moral code runs on a completely different track. Villains have no qualms about mowing down anyone who gets in the way of their goal.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Need Conflict? Just Let Your Characters Talk

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Story conflict has many purposes. It provides opportunities for failure and growth, elevates what’s at stake, and escalates emotion for the character and readers. We also know that our stories will need many instances of conflict, both at the story (macro) and scene (micro) level. But how do we know what kinds to add to the mix?

First and foremost, conflict must further the story. There are lots of interesting and compelling scenarios that we authors might like to pursue. But, as with every aspect of storytelling, we must separate ourselves from the process to make sure we’re not projecting ourselves — our interests and desires — onto the character and the story.

Sure, we might want to write a drunken brawl scene, but would that scenario be likely for our protagonist? Will it reveal something about the character, like a weakness or need, or is it just there to “spice up” a boring scene?

The best way to incorporate convincing conflict scenarios into a story is to pull them organically from the elements that are already there. Conflict is lurking all around your characters and the story world, so grab a stick and start poking to see what shakes loose.

START WITH THE STORY’S CAST

Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—each one can cause us grief on a number of levels. The same is true for our characters. Anyone interacting with them is a potential source for trouble.

This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial. Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point, will rub him the wrong way, or have goals that are in opposition to his own. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept?

Then — you guessed it — build characters with those traits, habits, histories, and goals into the story. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise.

Not a planner? Not a problem. When you need a reasonable conflict scenario that will provide a certain outcome, consider who in the character’s life you could use to make that happen.

. . . .

LET YOUR CHARACTERS TALK

Once you’ve assembled your cast, just let them talk, and conflict is sure to follow. Dialogue is a great troublemaker because it can cause minor, surface-level tension or set the ball rolling for something huge, like the end of a relationship or a global clash. You’re already including it in your story, so make it do double duty and use it to initiate problems for your character.

Here are just a few conversational techniques you can use to generate conflict in a scene.

Unintentional Clashes

So much of conflict is unintentional — meaning, the person causing the problem isn’t trying to ruffle feathers. Often, it comes down to basic personality quirks, such as someone who is always interrupting, a tactless party who unknowingly causes offense, or a chronic multitasker who doesn’t listen carefully and makes your character feel undervalued. Of course, any of these irritations can be applied to the protagonist instead of the other party, and you get the same result.

Enough of these slight aggravations can add up throughout one conversation (or over the course of many) and lead to explosions.

When a character loses control of their emotions, they are much more apt to speak their mind, cut the other person down, or reveal information they meant to hold back. And what do all of these responses lead to? More conflict.

Confrontational Communicators

Purposeful conflict in dialogue can be subtle or overt, depending on the situation and the goal. The character may be looking to manipulate an exchange to achieve a specific outcome, inflame emotions, damage a reputation, or completely eviscerate an enemy with words.

Characters who are purposely looking to cause trouble in a conversation might…

  • Make a threat or say something to intimidate
  • Deploy insults, sarcasm, and belittlement
  • Manipulate the conversation toward a topic or away from one
  • Shift the focus to someone else to put them in the hot seat
  • Purposely ask about something that will make the other person uncomfortable
  • Deceive the other party through lies, omissions, and exaggerations
  • Bring up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional reaction
  • Reveal a secret, stance, or mistake to damage a rival’s standing in the group
  • Ask questions the character knows the other person can’t answer, making them look bad
  • Call the protagonist out (for a mistake, something they said or did, etc.) to steal their self- esteem
  • Deliberately provoke an argument
  • Make insinuations (about someone’s loyalty, capabilities, etc.) to sow doubt
  • Make a derogatory statement and pass it off as a joke
  • Suggest disloyalty if the other party doesn’t agree, which forces them to do just that

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

We Compared ‘Taylor’s Version’ Songs With the Original Taylor Swift Albums

From The Wall Street Journal:

Recording nearly identical covers of her first six albums is the latest step in Ms. Swift’s legal tussle to control her back catalog. In addition to the “Wildest Dreams” rerecording, she has released “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” and “Red (Taylor’s Version)” was released on Nov. 12.

Ms. Swift was unable to buy the master recordings of her first studio albums from her original label, Big Machine Records. Ownership of the recordings have changed hands twice against Ms. Swift’s wishes. The first time, when they were sold in 2019, she described it as her worst-case scenario. The second time, the rights were sold to investment firm Shamrock Capital Advisors LLC in the fall of 2020. Both times, Ms. Swift said, the deals happened without her knowledge.

“Everyone’s talking about Taylor Swift getting her masters back, but there’s nothing for her to get back because she never owned them in the first place,” said Tonya Butler, a professor and chair of the Music Business/Management Department at Berklee College of Music.

Yet Ms. Swift does exert some ownership over her music. How? It boils down to music copyright and longstanding deal-making in the industry:

  1. Any music recording you listen to comes with two distinct types of ownership, according to U.S. copyright law: one that covers the specific sound recording (also referred to as owning the master), and the other which covers the musical work (sometimes described as owning the composition or publishing).
  2. Owning the musical work covers the publishing side: the words, melody and underlying composition. Songwriters or publishers usually own this type of music copyright
  3. Owning the sound recording means owning the master recording. Owning the masters allows you to control, for example, how a master is duplicated and distributed across digital and physical formats.

Ms. Swift has tried to, but doesn’t, own the masters of her first six albums. Shamrock Capital does.

Her solution: Make a new recording that sounds almost exactly like the first one.

When Ms. Swift signed a new recording contract with Universal’s Republic Records in 2018, part of the deal was that she would own 100% of any recordings she makes during the length of their contract.

By rerecording—technically she is covering her own song—she is creating a new sound recording copyright that she fully owns.

The same idea applies to any other artist who records “Wildest Dreams.”

For instance, singer-songwriter Ryan Adams released a “1989” cover album in 2015. His own label, Pax Americana Recording, controls the recording’s copyright. But Ms. Swift and the other owners of the publishing side receive royalties through various revenue streams, including when a digital or physical copy of his recording is reproduced such as on vinyl or Spotify. The owners on the publishing side would also get paid if Mr. Adams played their song in concert.

In November 2020, her rerecording restriction, a key term in Ms. Swift’s original contract, expired and opened up the opportunity to return to the studio. Rerecording restrictions—agreements between an artist and label that stipulate the artist can’t rerecord a song for a certain period—are standard.

“Regardless of the reasons why she’s rerecording, whether it’s spite or good business, the fact she is bringing to attention the rerecording restriction agreement alone makes the whole controversy valuable,” Prof. Butler, who previously worked as an entertainment attorney and record company executive, said.

In April, Ms. Swift released “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” an album containing 25 tracks, 19 of which are rerecordings from the 2009 platinum edition of “Fearless.” Around the time of the release, Ms. Swift said she intended for the recorded lyrics, melody and instrumental arrangements to have little difference.

The business rationale for why she is rerecording identical sounding versions is clear. If someone wants to use her song in their TV show, movie, game or commercial, they would need the approval of both the person who owns the recording and the owner of the publishing. They would also need to pay a fee to obtain a license.

If someone requested to use the original “Love Story” in a movie trailer, having Shamrock Capital’s approval alone wouldn’t be enough since Ms. Swift owns the publishing side. She could deny the request unless they used her rerecorded version, which Shamrock Capital doesn’t own.

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

PG notes that the original WSJ article is heavily formatted in a manner that may make understanding the OP easier. There are also segments of both the original and the newly-released recordings of Ms. Swift performing her songs embedded in the WSJ article.

Having spent a long time looking at various types of contracts, PG suspects the language separating ownership of the master recording from the musical work was devised by an attorney for a recording company some time ago and the talent agent representing the singer/songwriter didn’t read or didn’t understand the language.

Back in the day when vinyl audio records (78, 45 and 33⅓ rpm – you’ll understand this if you’re over a certain age) were the only way to duplicate and distribute musical recordings to listeners, whoever owned the physical master controlled who could manufacture (“press”) the records by limiting who had a chance to use the master.

Over time, this type of provision became “standard” in the music business and agents didn’t try to get it changed or inform their clients about its implications.

The technology change that took place and has established today’s recording status quo is that exact copies of musical performances recorded digitally can be easily created and distributed electronically. Ms. Swift doesn’t need any music publisher or record duplication factories or warehouses or physical retail stores any more. She can work through various digital streaming services (or even afford to create one herself) and earn a great deal more money than she was receiving from her former music publisher.

Alert readers will note similarities in the digital disruption of the music recording business and the book business.

Authors who have dealt with traditional publishers will find book equivalents to the language Ms. Swift managed to circumvent in their publishing agreements.

Without disclosing any details, PG has helped more than one author who signed a publishing agreement years ago to regain some rights to self-publish their own books. He has sometimes been surprised at how seldom some publishers review the provisions of their own publishing agreements.

Three Mistakes In Tone

From Dave Farland:

One of the most common problems I see with new writers is a “mistake in tone.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever played in a band. A new kid comes in, you’re trying to play a song, and he blats out a sour note on a trumpet. The same thing happens in writing.

It usually happens because the writer wants so badly to impress the reader that he tries too hard, thus calling attention to himself and sounding a sour note.

Over-exaggeration

For example, the writer might want to put a character in gripping danger, so he might say, “The crocodile opened a mouth as wide as the Nile.”

Well, that’s exaggeration.

Usually the writer will continue exaggerating, telling us that the crocodile is a “perfect predator,” “honed by a three hundred million years of evolution,” “with bullet-proof armor” and so on. But really it’s just an oversized lizard.

The writer doesn’t understand that truth can be terrifying in fiction. If you give us the right details of sight, sound, smell and texture, creating the perfect descriptions, you can bring the crocodile to life and you don’t have to exaggerate. They’re scary enough.

 In fact, by over-exaggerating a description, the reader is silently thinking, “Yeah, right.” And because they know that you’re stretching the truth, instead of creating greater danger, you may be undercutting your work, actually reducing the sense of fear that you’re trying to engender.

Maudlin Prose

You can also ruin your tone when you’re trying to arouse strong sympathy for a character. Perhaps your heroine Penelope starts out in a story doing just fine, and then her boyfriend dumps her, her kitten dies, her evil stepmother tries to sell her as a whore, and she discovers that the pimple on her face is filled with flesh-eating bacteria.

Somehow it seems that when an author tries to overemphasize a character’s problems, they just start piling them up until they sound absurd.

Now, in real life, a person can indeed have problems stack up until they are overwhelming. I was just reading about albinos in Tanzania who are hunted and killed because the locals believe that they’re reincarnated ghosts. A young albino girl with skin cancer was attacked by her father and a bunch of machete-wielding men. It turns out that witchdoctors like to make potions out of the albinos’ body parts, which can sell for up to $75,000 on the black market. I can imagine that if I tried to write a story about that 14-year-old girl, it might sound maudlin even if I didn’t exaggerate her problems at all.

But that’s the point: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. A true story written as fiction can feel contrived. Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t mean that it should happen in fiction.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Older Women Writing / Writing Older Women

From Writer Unboxed:

This post is about two things: growing old and storytelling. At seventy-three I’m definitely an older woman writer, and that increasingly concerns me. Can I tackle another trilogy, or will I be too old to maintain the pace and quality by the time I get to Book 3? How do I balance that with the expectations of readers who want a book a year, delivered promptly? Is it time to put myself out to pasture? And by doing that, would I be erasing myself because of age, making my story just another in which the female protagonist must be below a certain age to be considered interesting? There is a lack of older women characters in fiction, especially in my genre of fantasy. I’ve been guilty of this myself as a writer. Many of my novels have young central characters. It’s not because I ever thought older protagonists were boring or wouldn’t sell. In the historical periods of these novels, lives were generally much shorter than they are now. Folk died in childbirth, in nasty farm or workshop accidents, in battles, or from diseases for which there were no known remedies. They were living adult lives by their early teens, and were lucky if they made it to the grand old age of fifty. It’s realistic for my active central characters to be in the age range of sixteen to thirtyish, with a sprinking of (mostly) wise elders.

I stepped out of that pattern to write the Blackthorn & Grim series, in which the two central characters are older (though still youngish by contemporary measures) and severely damaged by trauma. I loved writing that series – it was so rewarding to live the journey with Blackthorn and Grim as they worked their way out from the shadows of PTSD. Those two felt the most real of any characters I had created. But for the following project my agent steered me toward a style of story that was faster paced and featured a younger central cast. At the time I was not happy, feeling my artistic judgement and skills as a writer had been devalued. But he knows the business and his advice made good sense. We reached a compromise that satisfied both parties. The Warrior Bards series has both young protagonists and significant supporting characters who are much older, plus cameo roles for my favourite duo from the previous series.

Then came the pandemic, along with political instability in many parts of the world and the escalating climate emergency. I was not the only writer who found it difficult to be creative in a time of such uncertainty. Many of us struggled, not only to find motivation, but to deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. A year went by, and I had not only failed to write a new book, but could not even complete a book proposal to my own satisfaction. I wrote many words but they all went in the bin. And I grew a year older. I started to see people of my own age group move to retirement villages or become so frail they could no longer function without help. And I found that people who did not know me sometimes treated me as less than capable, speaking down to me as if I were infantile, or offering help that was not required (for instance, when I was in the supermarket staring at the broccoli while my mind was on medieval battle strategies.) My white hair and very short stature didn’t help in such situations. I started to doubt myself. Every time I couldn’t put a name to a face, every time I mislaid my phone or keys, I wondered if I was developing dementia. That’s despite knowing the women in my family retain clarity of mind to a very advanced age.

During this time of self-doubt, I continued to participate in online events with other authors and to present live talks and workshops on various writing-related topics quite capably. I was physically active and socially engaged, at least by introvert standards. I should have known that losing my keys did not necessarily equate to losing my marbles. More likely those vague moments could be put down to stress and anxiety. But I didn’t listen to my own common sense. I should have reminded myself of some remarkable writers in the same general age group, such as celebrated fantasy author Jane Yolen, who after a long and illustrious career is still busy each day writing poetry and children’s books, sending in submissions, and recording her activities on social media. I should have thought of the very popular Australian author Liz Byrski, who specialises in novels about highly individual older women who lead full lives. But I didn’t. I’d lost my faith in myself as a writer and as a human. So, did this story eventually get back on track?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Moral Suasion

From The Paris Review:

I am not sure I will ever agree with the viability of the political trajectory traced in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future; I don’t think we are going to survive by successfully convincing an administrative class—through science or terror or moral suasion—to administer the world better until climate collapse is averted. But so what? You don’t read books because they say what you already believe. You read books because they take the problem seriously, take the world seriously, don’t counterfeit the dimensions of the predicament. Or, those are at least some reasons to read books, and The Ministry for the Future is one of very few that satisfy those imperatives for me. Interestingly, his books, including this one, are often classified as “Hard SF,” meaning they are based in careful and arguably wonky extensions of hard science. Yes and no. Certainly they take science very seriously, and Robinson is wildly erudite and engaged in such matters. But Robinson’s books have over the last decade increasingly understood that the underlying problem is not science, and therefore has no scientific solution; it lies in political economy, and a sustained change that might preserve the possibility of human flourishing has to happen there. I think that should complicate the categories a little. In any regard, the book is real thinking and real invention, operating at the scale of the whole, which is really the place to be these days.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG notes that, over the span of history, it has always been a bad idea to give control over a large group of people to a small privileged class.

Moral suasion works only on those who invariably honor the morals being used to persuade under all circumstances.

Human nature tends to lead to individuals in the privileged class finding ways to garner more and more power for themselves.

The first dictator may begin as an effective and highly-admirable individual, perhaps even for the rest of her/his life. But the first dictator may also change once he/she’s in power and is surrounded by some conscientious helpers and, invariably, some sycophants. Like bears to honey, sycophants are attracted to power.

Even if the dictator starts out by winning a democratically-run election, you see the one election, one leader, one time unless there are substantial legal, social and cultural restraints on that leader’s power and time in office.

Even if the first dictator runs the country very nicely, there is always going to be a second dictator who will be unlike the first in some ways.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2021)

From The Verge:

It’s been nearly three years since Amazon has updated its best (and bestselling) Kindle: the midtier Kindle Paperwhite, which is getting its biggest upgrade ever. On paper, at least, Amazon has finally built the ultimate Kindle.

The last Paperwhite update was a relatively minor one, with just a light design tweak and waterproofing serving as the main addition. The new Kindle Paperwhite refresh, on the other hand, adds nearly every update you could imagine for a hardware refresh: a bigger screen, wireless charging, USB-C, adjustable color temperature, and additional LEDs for more consistent backlighting.

. . . .

There are actually two different versions of the new Paperwhite this time: the standard model and the “Signature Edition,” which adds wireless charging, a sensor to automatically adjust the backlight, and four times the storage (32GB, compared to 8GB on the regular model).

The regular Paperwhite costs $139.99, or $159.99 without lock screen ads, while the Signature Edition costs $189.99 (without ads, there’s no option to get a discount for viewing ads on the fancier model).

I’ve been testing the Signature Edition for the last week; whether it justifies the extra cost will depend on how important those differences are to you. The additional storage and the automatically adjustable backlight are excellent additions; Qi charging is a little less useful, given that the new Paperwhite needs charging so rarely and charges much faster over USB-C than it does over wireless charging. Plus, you’ll need a pad that actually fits the Paperwhite, which can be difficult if you prefer phone-sized chargers (especially vertically oriented standing ones.) I suspect most people will be fine with the standard models, but if you store a lot of books (and especially audiobooks), really prefer the automatic backlight, or are already shelling out to remove Amazon’s onerous ads, it might be worth the extra money.

The broad design is largely the same as the old Paperwhite: a flush-mounted touchscreen, a grippy rubberized back, a gray “Kindle” logo on the bottom bezel, and the excellent IPX8 waterproofing that was the standout feature of the last generation. They’re easy to tell apart, though, thanks to the larger screen of the 2021 model.

As is traditional for a Paperwhite update, many of the biggest features here come straight from the high-end Kindle Oasis, with the Paperwhite getting the larger display and color temperature settings that Amazon already offers on its priciest Kindle. The main differences left are the Oasis’ unique form factor (which includes physical page turn buttons), an incrementally larger display (seven-inch on the Oasis vs. 6.8-inch on the Paperwhite), and slightly more LEDs for lighting up the screen (17 LEDs on the Paperwhite to the Oasis’ 25).

The additions here mean that the differences between the $249.99 Oasis and the $139.99 Paperwhite are slimmer than ever. Of those, the most notable is the LED count — the extra LEDs let the Oasis light up even brighter, but it’s not a difference worth paying nearly twice as much for on its own. The 2021 Paperwhite gets plenty bright, and I only even noticed the difference by comparing them head to head in a dim room.

. . . .

The 2021 Paperwhite is also finally Amazon’s first Kindle to come with USB-C charging, which allows for fast-charging the device and — more importantly — actually being able to use the same cables as most other modern devices. The lengthy battery life means that you still won’t be charging it that often, but it’s another big step for many (myself included) to finally be able to excise Micro USB cables from my life.

The new Paperwhite features one of the most notable design changes for the e-reader model in its nearly decade-long history. For the first time for the Paperwhite, Amazon has increased the display from a six-inch panel to a 6.8-inch display by slightly increasing the Paperwhite’s physical size and slimming down the bezels around the screen a fraction.

The display still has the crisp 300ppi resolution that the old model had, despite the larger size. The new design with its reduced bezels (particularly on the top of the display) looks better than ever, and the added screen space for reading is a welcome addition, as are the color temperature options for better emulating the color of actual paper. As was the case with the Oasis’ implementation of the feature, there’s still no option to have the Kindle automatically adjust temperature in response to ambient lighting, which is disappointing to see (especially since it can automatically adjust brightness).

But by increasing the display size, Amazon might have made the Paperwhite too big. The new model is about a third of an inch taller and wider than the old model and about 26g (almost an ounce) heavier than the 2018 model. And while that may not sound like much, it’s just enough for it to be awkward to hold up with one hand, even for someone like me with relatively large mitts. I often have to brace the new Paperwhite with a second hand to comfortably read it, something I didn’t have to do with the old model.

It’s not a total dealbreaker, but the increased size and weight had me worried a lot more that the Paperwhite was going to tumble out of my hand when I was holding it. (It’s a problem unique to the bigger Paperwhite’s otherwise unchanged design. The Oasis, after all, has an even bigger display but avoids the issue by offering an asymmetrical design aimed toward one-handed use.) It still barely fits in the back pocket of a pair of jeans, but only just.

Ultimately, given the choice, I’d rather Amazon had gone with the more streamlined design in a way that kept the physical dimensions the same (or even smaller) rather than trying to fit in an ever bigger screen. It’s a personal preference, though, and I suspect that many Kindle readers who just want more screen real estate may not be bothered by the added bulk.

. . . .

Amazon says that it’s boosted the battery life on the new Paperwhite, from the previous six weeks up to 10 weeks on a single charge (which requires using the device’s “Power Saver” mode that trades longer battery life for longer waking up from sleep). I’ve only had the Paperwhite for about a week, so there’s no earthly way for me to verify that claim, but I haven’t had any issues with battery life yet — in the six or seven hours I spent reading, I only saw the battery drop a percent or two, even in “standard” battery mode (although battery life will depend on how much you read, how many times you turn the page, and other factors like screen brightness).

The company also says that it’s put a new and more powerful processor on the 2021 model, which helps to speed up virtually everything. Books open faster, pages turn faster, and scrolling through one’s library is no longer the interminably laggy experience it once was on the older model.

. . . .

The 2021 Paperwhite also ships with Amazon’s new Kindle software, which it debuted earlier in the fall. There are a lot of useful new additions here, including a new home layout that puts recently read books front and center, along with better integration for (Amazon-owned) Goodreads reading lists. The new software also makes it easier to jump back into whatever book you’re currently in the middle of from anywhere using the toolbar on the bottom of the screen. Additionally, there’s a new setup mode that allows you to share login information over Bluetooth from the Kindle app on your smartphone, instead of fighting against the E Ink display to type in your Amazon credentials and Wi-Fi password.

More importantly, though, the new software makes it much easier to access the swipe-down menu. Amazon has taken a cue from literally every smartphone from the last half-decade and added a swipe-down menu accessible from anywhere on the Kindle’s OS that offers toggles for things like airplane mode, Bluetooth, dark mode, and sync settings, as well as sliders to adjust brightness and color temperature.

Link to the rest at The Verge and link to the new Paperwhite

PG has been a giant fan of his Paperwhite ever since he bought it over six years ago. He’s lost track of how many books he’s read with it.

PG owns an iPad and is a big fan of that device. However, for e-book reading, it’s all his Paperwhite. Much lighter, better overall reading experience for more than a few minutes than the iPad. Plus, there is never anything that tempts PG to click a link and meander around the web on the Paperwhite.

The Will to See

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Will to See” is a pugnacious little book—part reportage, part autobiographical manifesto—written by a man whose conscience is frozen in time. That judgment isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s a way of saying that the moral compass of its author, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, appears not to have been reset since he graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1971. Now 73, he was then an idealistic (even quixotic) 22-year-old with a degree in philosophy, “a young graduate with heart.” Living life as a cloistered intellectual seemed to him like “poison,” as did the prospect of working as a “servile technician” in the service of the academic establishment or the French state.

So he turned his back on the paths, cozy and conventional, that lay before him. He wasn’t alone in his rejection of life’s bourgeois roadmaps. Some of his classmates went to work in factories. Others slipped away “to stir up revolution” outside France. The political project that Mr. Lévy “chose”—his verb—was Bangladesh, where for several months he “endeavored to support the birth of a nation” that was fighting to secede from Pakistan in a harrowing civil war. He stayed on after the country won its independence. Working as an adviser, he counseled the fledgling government to treat as birangona—heroines—the 400,000 Bengali women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers.

Mr. Lévy’s account of his intellectual formation is littered with the names of French philosophers, poets, historians and economists, many of whom will be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Alongside this flurry of intellectual exotica, readers must grapple with such assertions as: “to those who would ask what an inner voice might mean, I recommend reading Kant”; or “the only worthwhile philosophy is one that places ethics over ontology.”

Mr. Lévy was persuaded to hurl himself into the Bangladesh maelstrom by two works that resonated with his youthful romanticism: Franz Fanon’s “scathing, seething, incendiary” book “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961)—a call for the violent overthrow of the world’s colonial order—and “Portrait of the Adventurer” (1950), by Roger Stéphane, a minor thinker who enjoyed some cachet after World War II, including the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre. Stéphane urged the educated young of France to be men of action, and Mr. Lévy writes that his book “was in my pocket like a viaticum at the time of my departure for Bangladesh.”

Although Mr. Lévy is a prolific writer for Paris Match—which he describes as “the consummate mass-circulation, mass-retail magazine of sensational human-interest stories”—and an occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal, he insists that he is not a journalist. His slant, he writes, “is the inverse of the journalist’s: I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.”

. . . .

His dispatch from Bangladesh, which he revisited in March 2020, is a powerful essay that wastes no time on sterile objectivity. He describes the country, for which he professes enduring love, as the “front line of the planetary war against radical Islam, poverty, migratory chaos, and ecological cataclysm.”

. . . .

Mr. Lévy declares himself to be an “internationalist,” and this calling leads him “time and again to leave my family and embrace the cause of a people not my own.” Justice, he says, is “no different on one side of a border than on the other.” The title of one of his chapters is “Man Is Not a Local Adventure,” which is his way, one senses, of taking a kick at Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French politician of the nativist right who has said: “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, my cousin to my neighbor, my neighbor to my countrymen, and my countrymen to Europeans.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link that gets you to the article, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out another way around it.)

The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History

From The New York Times:

On Jan. 28, 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine since 2015, came to one of our weekly ideas meetings with a very big idea. My notes from the meeting simply say, “NIKOLE: special issue on the 400th anniversary of African slaves coming to U.S.,” a milestone that was approaching that August. This wasn’t the first time Nikole had brought up 1619. As an investigative journalist who often focuses on racial inequalities in education, Nikole has frequently turned to history to explain the present. Sometimes, reading a draft of one of her articles, I’d ask if she might include even more history, to which she would remark that if I gave her more space, she would be happy to take it all the way back to 1619. This was a running joke, but it was also a reflection of how Nikole had been cultivating the idea for what became the 1619 Project for many years. Following that January meeting, she led an editorial process that over the next six months developed the idea into a special issue of the magazine, a special section of the newspaper and a multiepisode podcast series. Next week we are publishing a book that expands on the magazine issue and represents the fullest expression of her idea to date.

This book, which is called “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” arrives amid a prolonged debate over the version of the project we published two years ago. That project made a bold claim, which remains the central idea of the book: that the moment in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies that would become the United States could, in a sense, be considered the country’s origin.

The reasoning behind this is simple: Enslavement is not marginal to the history of the United States; it is inextricable. So many of our traditions and institutions were shaped by slavery, and so many of our persistent racial inequalities stem from its enduring legacy. Identifying the start of such a vast and complex system is a somewhat symbolic act. It was not until the late 1600s that slavery became codified with new laws in various colonies that firmly established the institution’s racial basis and dehumanizing structure. But 1619 marks the earliest beginnings of what would become this system. (It also could be said to mark the earliest beginnings of what would become American democracy: In July of that year, just weeks before the White Lion arrived in Point Comfort with its human cargo, the Virginia General Assembly was called to order, the first elected legislative body in English America.)

But the argument for 1619 as our origin point goes beyond the centrality of slavery; 1619 was also the year that a heroic and generative process commenced, one by which enslaved Africans and their free descendants would profoundly alter the direction and character of the country, having an impact on everything from politics to popular culture. “Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, and it is difficult to argue against extending his point through the century to follow, one that featured a Black civil rights struggle that transformed American democracy and the birth of numerous Black art forms that have profoundly influenced global culture. The 1619 Project made the provocative case that the start of the African presence in the English North American colonies could be considered the moment of inception of the United States of America.

. . . .

Initially, the magazine issue was greeted with an enthusiastic response unlike any we had seen before. The weekend it was available in print, Aug. 18 and 19, readers all over the country complained of having to visit multiple newsstands before they could find a copy. A week later, when The Times made tens of thousands of copies available for sale online, they sold out in hours. Copies of the issue began to appear on eBay at ridiculous markups. Portions of Nikole’s opening essay from the project, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, were cited in the halls of Congress; candidates in what was then a large field of potential Democratic nominees for president referred to it on the stump and the debate stage; 1619 Project book clubs seemed to materialize overnight. All of this happened in the first month.

Substantive criticisms of the project began a few months later. Five historians, led by the Princeton scholar Sean Wilentz, sent a letter that asked The Times to issue “prominent corrections” for what they claimed were the project’s “errors and distortions.” We took this letter very seriously. The criticism focused mostly on Nikole’s introductory essay and within that essay zeroed in on her argument about the role of slavery in the American Revolution: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology,” Nikole wrote, “is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

. . . .

Though we recognized that the role of slavery is a matter of ongoing debate among historians of the revolution, we did not agree that this line or the other passages in question required “prominent corrections,” as I explained in a letter of response. Ultimately, however, we issued a clarification, accompanied by a lengthy editors’ note: By saying that protecting slavery was “one of the primary reasons,” Nikole did not mean to imply that it was a primary reason for every one of the colonists, who were, after all, a geographically and culturally diverse lot with varying interests; rather, she meant that one of the primary reasons driving some of them, particularly those from the Southern colonies, was the protection of slavery from British meddling. We clarified this by adding “some of” to Nikole’s original sentence so that it read: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

We published the letter from the five historians, along with my response, a few days before Christmas. Dozens of media outlets covered the exchange, and the coverage set certain corners of social media ablaze — which fueled more stories, which led others to weigh in. The editor of The American Historical Review, the journal of the American Historical Association, the nation’s oldest professional association of historians, noted in an editor’s letter that the controversy was “all anyone asked me about at the A.H.A.’s annual meeting during the first week of January.” The debate was still raging two months later, when everyone’s world changed abruptly.

. . . .

Almost immediately, present and past converged: 2020 seemed to be offering a demonstration of the 1619 Project’s themes. The racial disparities in Covid infections and deaths made painfully apparent the ongoing inequalities that the project had highlighted. Then, in May, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, and decades of pent-up frustration erupted in what is believed to be the largest protest movement in American history. In demonstrations around the country, we saw the language and ideas of the 1619 Project on cardboard signs amid huge crowds of mostly peaceful protesters gathering in cities and small towns.

It was around this time that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill called the Saving American History Act, which would “prohibit federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools, and for other purposes.” Cotton, who just weeks earlier published a column in The New York Times’s Opinion section calling for federal troops to subdue demonstrations, stated that the project “threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” (The “curriculum” Cotton’s legislation referred to was a set of educational materials put together not by The Times but by the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit organization that supports global journalism and, in certain instances, helps teachers bring that work into classrooms. Since 2007, the Pulitzer Center, which has no relationship to the Pulitzer Prizes, has created lesson plans around dozens of works of journalism, including three different projects from The Times Magazine. To date, thousands of educators in all 50 states have made use of the Pulitzer Center’s educational materials based on the 1619 Project to supplement — not replace — their standard social studies and history curriculums.)

. . . .

This barely mattered. In the United States, the real decisions over education are left to local governments and state legislatures, and the Republican Party has been steadily gaining control of legislatures in the last decade. Today the party holds full power in 30 state houses, and as the 2021 sessions got underway, Republican lawmakers from South Carolina to Idaho proposed laws echoing the language and intent of Cotton’s bill and Trump’s commission. By the end of the summer, 27 states had introduced strikingly similar versions of a “divisive concepts” bill, which swirled together misrepresentations of critical race theory and the 1619 Project with extreme examples of the diversity training that had proliferated since the previous summer. The list of these divisive concepts, which the laws would prohibit from being discussed in classrooms, included such ideas as “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or sex” and “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex,” as Arizona House Bill 2898 put it. To be clear, these notions aren’t found in the 1619 Project or in any but the most fringe writings by adherents of critical race theory, but the legislation aimed at something broader. “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,” the A.H.A. and three other associations declared in a statement in June. “But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.” Eventually, more than 150 professional organizations would sign this letter, including the Society of Civil War Historians, the National Education Association, the Midwestern History Association and the Organization of American Historians.

. . . .

A curious feature of this argument on behalf of the historical record is how ahistorical it is. In privileging “actual fact” over “narrative,” the governor, and many others, seem to proceed from the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them. This conception denies history its own history — the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed. The study of this is known as historiography, and a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.

The earliest attempts to record the nation’s history took the form of accounts of military campaigns, summaries of state and federal legislative activity, dispatches from the frontier and other narrowly focused reports. In the 19th century, these were replaced by a master narrative of the colonial and founding era, best exemplified by “the father of American history,” George Bancroft, in his “History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent.” Published in 10 volumes from the 1830s through the 1870s, Bancroft’s opus is generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country, and its influence was incalculable. Bancroft’s ambition was to synthesize American history into a grand and glorious epic. He viewed the European colonists who settled the continent as acting out a divine plan and the revolution as an almost purely philosophical act, undertaken to model self-government for all the world.

. . . .

As the Cold War dawned, it became clear that this school could not provide the necessary inspiration for an America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy. The Beardian approach was beaten back by the counter-Progressive or “Consensus” school, which emphasized the founders’ shared values and played down class conflict. Among Consensus historians, a keen sense of national purpose was evident, as well as an eagerness to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative and re-establish the founders’ idealism. In 1950, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison lamented that the Progressives were “robbing the people of their heroes” and “insulting their folk-memory of the great figures whom they admired.” Seven years later, one of his former students, Edmund S. Morgan, published “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789,” a key text of this era (described by one reviewer at the time as having the “brilliant hue of the era of Eisenhower prosperity”). Morgan stressed the revolution as a “search for principles” that led to a nation committed to liberty and equality.

. . .

By the 1960s, the pendulum was ready to swing the other way. A group of scholars identified variously as Neo-Progressive historians, New Left historians or social historians challenged the old paradigm, turning their focus to the lives of common people in colonial society and U.S. history more broadly. Earlier generations primarily studied elites, who left a copious archive of written material. Because the subjects of the new history — laborers, seamen, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people — produced relatively little writing of their own, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets like tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of what were sometimes called the “inarticulate masses.” This novel approach set aside “the central assumption of traditional history, what might be called the doctrine of implicit importance,” wrote the historian Jack P. Greene in a 1975 article in The Times. “From the perspective supplied by the new history, it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”

An explosion of new research resulted, transforming the field of American history. One of the most significant developments was an increased attention to Black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a profession dominated by white men had mostly consigned these subjects to the sidelines. Bancroft had seen slavery as problematic — “an anomaly in a democratic country” — but mostly because it empowered a Southern planter elite he considered corrupt, lazy and aristocratic. Beard and the other Progressives hadn’t focused much on slavery, either. Until the 1950s, the institution was treated in canonical works of American history as an aberration best addressed minimally if at all. When it was taken up for close study, as in Ulrich B. Phillips’s 1918 book, “American Negro Slavery,” it was seen as an inefficient enterprise sustained by benevolent masters to whom enslaved people felt mostly gratitude. That began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, as works by Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, Philip S. Foner, John Hope Franklin, Eugene D. Genovese, Benjamin Quarles, Kenneth M. Stampp, C. Vann Woodward and many others transformed the mainstream view of slavery.

. Among the converts was Edmund Morgan himself, who noted in a 1972 address that “American historians interested in tracing the rise of liberty, democracy and the common man have been challenged in the past two decades by other historians, interested in tracing the history of oppression, exploitation and racism. The challenge has been salutary, because it has made us examine more directly than historians have hitherto been willing to do the role of slavery in our early history. Colonial historians, in particular, when writing about the origin and development of American institutions, have found it possible until recently to deal with slavery as an exception to everything they had to say. I am speaking about myself but also about most of my generation.”

To be more precise, Morgan might have said that white historians had “found it possible” to hold slavery and the creation of American democracy entirely apart. Black historians, working outside the mainstream for a hundred years, tended to see the matter more clearly. For during this whole evolution in American history, from Bancroft through the 1960s, there was another scholarly tradition unfolding, one that only rarely gained entry into white-dominated academic spaces.

The antebellum historians William C. Nell and William Wells Brown wrote scholarly accounts of Black participation in the American Revolution. But the first work by a Black author generally considered part of what was then the emerging field of professional history was George Washington Williams’s “History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers and as Citizens,” published in 1882.

Williams was an innovator. He had to be. In writing his landmark book, he pioneered several research methodologies that would later re-emerge among the social historians — the use of oral history, the aggregation of statistical data, even the use of newspapers as primary sources. His view of the centrality of slavery was also far ahead of its time:

No event in the history of North America has carried with it to its last analysis such terrible forces. It touched the brightest features of social life, and they faded under the contact of its poisonous breath. It affected legislation, local and national; it made and destroyed statesmen; it prostrated and bullied honest public sentiment; it strangled the voice of the press, and awed the pulpit into silent acquiescence; it organized the judiciary of States, and wrote decisions for judges; it gave States their political being, and afterwards dragged them by the fore-hair through the stormy sea of civil war; laid the parricidal fingers of Treason against the fair throat of Liberty, — and through all time to come no event will be more sincerely deplored than the introduction of slavery into the colony of Virginia during the last days of the month of August in the year 1619!

Like so many Black historians, Williams was writing against the grain, not only in his insistence on the influence of slavery in shaping American institutions but in something even more basic: his assumption of Black humanity. This challenge he faced is made clear from the first chapter of Volume I: “It is proposed, in the first place, to call the attention to the absurd charge that the Negro does not belong to the human family.” In a nation backtracking on the promise of Reconstruction, this was an inherently political statement. Just one year after “History of the Negro Race” was published, the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate as unconstitutional the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations and transportation. A country that denied Black people the rights of citizens could not also see them as significant historical actors.

“History is a science, a social science, but it’s also politics,” the historian Martha S. Jones, who contributed a chapter in the new 1619 book, told me. “And Black historians have always known that. They always know the stakes. In a world that would brand Africans as people without a history, Williams understood the political consequence of the assertion that Black people have history and might even be driving it.”

We can see evidence of this in the decades of Jim Crow that followed Reconstruction, when Black people were not only prevented from voting and denied access to a wide array of public accommodations but also, for the most part, kept out of the mainstream history profession. Nevertheless, a rich Black scholarly tradition continued to unfold in publications like The Journal of Negro History, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1916, and in the work of scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen G. Edmonds, Lorenzo Greene, Luther P. Jackson, Rayford Logan, Benjamin Quarles and Charles H. Wesley. Quarles’s book “The Negro in the American Revolution,” published in 1961, was an important part of that decade’s historiographical reassessments. It was the first to thoroughly explore an often-overlooked feature of that war: that substantially more Black people were drawn to the British side than the Patriot cause, believing this the better path to freedom. Quarles’s work posed profound questions about the traditional narrative of the founding era. While acknowledging that for some white people the ideals of the Revolution had “exposed the inconsistencies” of chattel slavery in a nation founded on equality, he also observed a deeply uncomfortable fact: “They were far outnumbered by those who detected no ideological inconsistency. These white Americans, not considering themselves counterrevolutionary, would never have dreamed of repudiating the theory of natural rights. Instead they skirted the dilemma by maintaining that blacks were an outgroup rather than members of the body politic.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

From Wikipedia:

A straw man (sometimes written as strawman) is a form of argument and an informal fallacy of having the impression of refuting an argument, whereas the real subject of the argument was not addressed or refuted, but instead replaced with a false one. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be “attacking a straw man”.

The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and the subsequent refutation of that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the opponent’s proposition. Straw man arguments have been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly regarding highly charged emotional subjects.

. . . .

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

  • Person 1 asserts proposition X.
  • Person 2 argues against a superficially similar proposition Y, falsely, as if an argument against Y were an argument against X.

This reasoning is a fallacy of relevance: it fails to address the proposition in question by misrepresenting the opposing position.

For example:

  • Quoting an opponent’s words out of context—i.e., choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context).
  • Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then denying that person’s arguments—thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.
  • Oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
    Exaggerating (sometimes grossly exaggerating) an opponent’s argument, then attacking this exaggerated version.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

The straw men in the NYT Magazine article come thick and fast. Here’s just one example:

In privileging “actual fact” over “narrative,” the governor, and many others, seem to proceed from the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them.

PG has no problem understanding what an “actual fact” is, but “narrative” is the ultimate squishy concept.

If Jane’s narrative is different than Susan’s narrative, what exactly does that show?

It might mean that one of them is operating from a false premise.

If Jane contends that the sun circles around the earth, Jane has a problem with fact regardless of how many narratives she spins about why this is the truth: because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it’s clear that the sun has a relatively circular orbit around the earth. And the sun manifests the same behavior every single day. It’s path is there for everyone to see.

Jane says, “That’s my narrative. Don’t go privileging your “actual fact” about the sun over my narrative about the sun.

The fact is that, at the time of the Constitutional Congress, representatives from some states were adamantly opposed to slavery and had passed state legislation outlawing the practice and other states were adamantly in favor of slavery. Some states had never had slavery while the institution had been established early (see 1619).

The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower never had slaves. In 1780, when the Massachusetts Constitution went into effect, slavery was legal in the Commonwealth. However, during the years 1781 to 1783, in three related cases known today as “the Quock Walker case,” the Supreme Judicial Court applied the principle of judicial review to abolish slavery.

In 1780, while the Revolutionary War was still being fought, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. There were a number of slave owners in the state at the time. Part of this law focused on the emancipation of children born into slavery after a certain period of laboring for their masters. Females would obtain their freedom at 18 years of age. Males would be freed at the age of 21.

Those who were pro-slavery could point to a long line of historic examples of enslaved people as their narrative about why there was nothing wrong with slavery. Large numbers of Semitic slaves were held as slaves in Egypt for at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Yes, Moses led a lot of them out of slavery, but that required multiple miraculous interventions from God, not because Moses had a better narrative.

In 1780, PG suspects that the majority of the nations, tribes, etc., on the earth included some form of slavery. As PG pointed out earlier today, the British Empire had practiced slavery for quite a long time all around the world.

The Northern states were a minority in the world in abhorring slavery and believing that it should be illegal. That may be a narrative, but it’s also a historic fact.

For PG, the current use of the terms, “privilege” or “privileging” are the recognized way of avoiding facts.

“White privilege” is certainly a real advantage for some white people, but privileging African-Americans in hiring and college admission decisions is privileging them regardless of whether their ancestors were slaves or not. This privilege is extended to the sons or daughters African-American investment bankers or those who trace their ancestry to hereditary African kings and queens who themselves owned large numbers of slaves, in some cases, European slaves.

Nobody born and living in the United States today has owned slaves. No African-American born and living in the United States has ever been a slave.

PG cringes whenever he hears current discussion of privilege or various narratives. For him, it is ultimately just a method for persuading or controlling people by those to whom American society or parts of American society have granted some sort of manufactured moral power.

In the United States: ‘The 1619 Project’ Books Arrive Amid Heated Debate

From Publishing Perspectives:

Some members of Publishing Perspectives‘ international readership may not be familiar with The 1619 Project. It’s an example of long-form journalism that premiered in August 2019 in The New York Times Magazine and was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the American colony of Virginia.

Those slaves, reportedly more than 20, were sold to the Virginian English colonists. As The 1619 Project’s opening text puts it, “No aspect of the country that would be formed” as the United States “has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” And what follows is an evocation of American history that begins not in 1776 but in 1619 when that ship arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia.

“The goal of The 1619 Project according to its introductory text, “is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

And the forthcoming publication of an expanded edition of The 1619 Project as a book finds some in the United States publishing market newly evaluating the industry’s potential at a time fraught with political and social division.

In May 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary as the creator of The 1619 Project. The Pulitzer recognition specifically honored Hannah-Jones’ essay Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true. And the write-up on her work went on to call the project itself “a groundbreaking look at the impact of slavery 400 years after the first slaves arrived in what would become the United States.”

At the heart of the project’s assertion is the self-evident truth that even as Jefferson wrote in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” there clearly were people who were not considered in any way equal to others in the nascent republic. Myriad inequalities, both real and perceived, are actually integral to the American experiment.

On November 16, a week from today (November 9), Penguin Random House’s One World will release The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, the latter a middle-grade children’s book by Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, and illustrator Nikkolas Smith. Penguin Random House has created a site for the project and the release of these books with extensive listings of events planned around the release and a high-school teachers’ guide.

The upcoming publication of The New York Times Magazine’s work is quickly becoming a focus of social and political activity, particularly through programs developed to let consumers donate copies of the work for use in educational and other settings. This is a reflection of what Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Markus Dohle was talking about on October 20 when he gave an exclusive interview to Publishing Perspectives to inaugurate Frankfurter Buchmesse’s production facility, Frankfurt Studio.

“We know from psychology,” Dohle said, “that immersing yourself into complex stories—particularly into complex characters—helps you to put yourself into other people’s shoes. It helps you to actually see the world from other points of view, and we know it creates empathy and human values, especially in young people. That’s what the world needs right now if we want to help defend our democracy, based on human values.

“Let’s get all kids reading in long-form, and I think we can make a good contribution to help our democracy, as we’ve enjoyed it for the last 75 years after World War II, to survive. I truly believe in the value of publishing but also in our responsibility to help our society, to come together and to heal from what has become a really, really polarized world.”

During the pre-order period, The 1619 Project at Amazon.com swiftly has become the No. 1 bestseller in African American Demographic Studies and in Black and African American History and Born on the Water has become the No. 2 bestseller in Children’s American Revolution History and No. 3 in Children’s Multicultural Biographies.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

While PG has friends who think The 1619 Project is an excellent idea, he believes the original 1619 Project book does not present an accurate view of the influences on the founding of the United States and its core governing document, The United States Constitution. One of the most important predecessors and influence on The Constitution was the Declaration of Independence.

If one is looking for an early influence on the future development of the nation, the Mayflower Compact, written and signed in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts provides a significant intellectual and values-based foundation for the Constitution.

The Pilgrims in Plymouth found themself in an unusual situation. They were originally British, but had been driven by religious persecution to Holland. The ship included both Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims.

Their original destination – the Northern Part of the British Virginia Colony – was a large, unexplored and amorphous area that included present-day Virginia, but also extended up into today’s State of New York. Their specific original destination is believed to be the mouth of the Hudson River. They were definitely not heading to the existing colony in Jamestown, Virginia.

Suffice to say, their ship, The Mayflower, was blown or mis-navigated off-course and they landed on Cape Code in present-day Massachusetts on November 21, 1620. Before they debarked from the ship, they drafted The Mayflower Contract, a document that would govern the new colony.

The Compact was a short document that provided:

It was a short document which established that set forth the following:

  • the colonists would remain loyal subjects to King James, despite their need for self-governance
  • the colonists would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices…” for the good of the colony, and abide by those laws
  • the colonists would create one society and work together to further it
  • the colonists would live in accordance with the Christian faith

The Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish principles of self-governance in the New World. It was an early and successful attempt at democracy, something different than the British had at the time. Some historians trace the American Revolution and its rebellion against British rule 150 years later to the habits and principles of self-government that began in Plymouth and spread through the remainder of the colonies thereafter.

Since 1215, the Magna Carta had established the rule of law, but the law was the King’s law. Under the Mayflower Compact, the colonists pledged to recognize and obey laws they made for themselves.

Both Pilgrims and everyone else on the ship spent the winter on Cape Cod. It was bitterly cold with strong winds off the Atlantic and ample snow. When the ship returned to England the next spring, a few of the crew stayed in Plymouth. The ship also included some indentured servants – twenty – out of a total of 104 passengers.

A British indentured servant at this time agreed to provide 4-7 years of labor in exchange for passage to a colony, food, lodging and what were called “freedom dues” – payment at the end of indenture intended to give the unpaid servant some sort of start in life thereafter.

The first winter was very difficult due to severe weather – a climate much different than anyone on the ship was accustomed to – poor food, very crude quickly-built housing and the lack of proper clothing. About half of the Mayflower’s passengers and 14 of the indentured servants died.

In 1621, the colonists recruited additional indentured servants from England, Scotland and Ireland. Some of the earliest laws of the Plymouth Colony related to the proper treatment of indentured servants both during and after their period of indenture was complete.

The indentured servants became a adjunct to the family they were required to serve. The master was legally obligated to care for the servant until the end of the indenture, even if the servant became sick, disabled or otherwise unable to work. After the indenture was complete, these men and women became fully-participating citizens of the colony and used their freedom dues to start their new lives.

Indenture was not identical to slavery in that the indentured servant entered into the indenture agreement of their own free will, albeit often under severe financial circumstances. Slavery of any sort, including the enslavement of African men and women in the Southern Colonies, later states, was abhorrent to those many other Northern colonies that patterned their constitutions and laws on principles similar to those contained in the Mayflower Compact and the later laws that sprang from it.

To be sure, Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, was a slaveholder throughout his life and had a long-term African slave, Sally Hemmings, as his mistress.

That said, Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment and was well-versed in the writings of the British writer, John Locke. In Locke’s book, Two Treaties of Government, published in 1690, the year after the Glorious Revolution, he championed the idea of Natural Law, extending the work begun by Plato and Aristotle and continued through Thomas Aquinas and his discussions of Natural Law, the first precept of which was, “good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided.”

Jefferson’s passages in the Declaration of Independence contending that “all men are created equal,” and all men thus possess “inalienable rights,” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are directly connected to Locke and similar Enlightenment authors back to Aquinas and ultimately to Plato and Aristotle.

In his first draft of The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included a passionate assault on slavery and the slave trade.

Per Wikipedia, Britain had a long history in the slave trade. Admiral Sir John Hawkins is widely acknowledged to be “the Pioneer of the English Slave Trade”. In 1554–1555, Hawkins formed a slave trading syndicate of wealthy merchants. He sailed with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and sold the 300 slaves from it in Santo Domingo. During a second voyage in 1564, his crew captured 400 Africans and sold them at Rio de la Hacha in present-day Colombia, making a 60% profit for his financiers. A third voyage involved both buying slaves directly in Africa and capturing a Portuguese ship with its cargo; upon reaching the Caribbean, Hawkins sold all the slaves.

On his return, he published a book entitled An Alliance to Raid for Slaves. It is estimated that Hawkins transported 1,500 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic during his four voyages of the 1560s. Some entrepreneurs brought slaves to Britain, where they were kept in bondage.

By the mid-18th century, London had the largest African population in Britain, made up of free and enslaved people, as well as many runaways. The total number may have been about 10,000. Owners of African slaves in England would advertise slave-sales and rewards for the recapture of runaways.

The slave trade became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, engaged in the so-called “Triangular trade”. The ships set out from Britain, loaded with trade goods which were exchanged on the West African shores for slaves captured by local rulers from deeper inland; the slaves were transported through the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic, and were sold at considerable profit for labour in plantations. The ships were loaded with export crops and commodities, the products of slave labour, such as cotton, sugar and rum, and returned to Britain to sell the items.

William Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade (but not ownership) in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished, but on a gradual basis.

The Church of England was involved in slavery. The Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned sugar plantations in the West Indies, including slaves who worked on those plantations during this period.

When slaves were emancipated by Act of the British Parliament in 1834 (58 years after Jefferson wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery), the British government paid compensation to slave owners. Among those they paid were the Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues, who received compensation for 665 slaves. The compensation of British slaveholders was almost £17 billion in current money.

None of this overly-long commentary is meant to excuse slavery in any form at any time.

However, the idea that slavery is or was a uniquely American institution is incorrect. Slavery was practiced, with few exceptions, all over the world and still exists in some nations.

Back to the 1619 Project.

In PG’s opinion, this is an effort to misrepresent the foundation of American society, including the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence and made the country’s legal foundational in the United States Constitution.

A great many other countries besides Britain and the United States have periods in their history where slavery of different types was practiced and treated as ordinary or ignored by the majority of its citizens.

PG suggests that the ideas of individual freedom manifested in the Mayflower Compact and many other foundational documents of the nation ultimately lead to the American Civil War, fought to preserve the United States and its ultimate ideals.

That war was fought primarily to abolish slavery and all of its attendant evils and threats to the nation’s fundamental character, welfare and future posed by the Southern States.

The Civil War resulted in the death of more Americans than any other American war and, indeed, the deaths of more American than in all the other American wars the nation ever fought from the War of Independence through the Korean War. That’s how important it was to abolish slavery in this country.

Debuting at the Age of 66

From Jane Friedman:

Anna Sewell sold her only novel, the classic Black Beauty, when she was 57 years old. She had worked on it for six years while confined to her bed due to ill-health. It wasn’t until after Laura Ingalls Wilder had celebrated her 65th birthday that the Little House series came to prominence. And teacher-turned-memoirist, Frank McCourt, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Angela’s Ashes, at the age of 66.

When my debut novel, Lies That Blind, came out on October 19, I was two weeks short of my 67th birthday. Becoming a novelist has nothing to do with your age. Nor should you think that having invested your talent so far in one literary arena—as I did with nonfiction—that it’s impossible to shift gears. I’m proof positive you can do both.

In 2018 I left the United States, intending to retire in Malaysia, after a long career as a freelance journalist and the author or co-author of more than twenty mainstream published nonfiction books. Sensing that I wanted a simpler, less financially stressful life, I sold my house, my car, and all but a few personal belongings, and arrived on the island of Penang without ever having stepped foot in Southeast Asia before. My life as a writer, I’d convinced myself, would now take a back seat to reading all those books I never seemed to have time to devour, to learn the Malay language, and sample the delights of Penang’s world-famous cuisine.

But, as the Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” Or, for the irreligious among you, perhaps I was just about to stumble my way through a series of fortuitous events.

Writers don’t know the word “retirement”

I’d already bought the domain name “My Year of Doing Sod All” (British vernacular for doing nothing), having suspected that it wouldn’t take long before I was desperate to get back to tapping on my keyboard. My intention had been to write a blog about the joys of loafing! But I never got round to making that site public; I soon realized that I’d never worked as a writer, I was a writer—all the way through to my marrow—and that writers never “retire.” Plus, I had long nurtured a writing dream that perhaps now I’d be able to fulfill.

As a lover of crime novels and thrillers, my first thought was to try my hand at plotting a Penang-based murder mystery. (Think: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint, but featuring the peculiarities of Penang, rather than Kuala Lumpur.) I tried to come up with a compelling idea, but nothing gelled. Then one day, over coffee with a fellow writer and publisher, I admitted that I’d always wanted to write a novel before I died but couldn’t come up with anything that excited me.

Keith began to tell me the story of how Penang came to be possessed in the late 18th century by an agent of the East India Company (EIC) named Captain Francis Light. I was familiar with the basics: Penang was, at that time, part of the kingdom of Queda whose sultan was keen for the EIC to protect him militarily against his many regional enemies. The carrot that the sultan dangled was to allow the EIC to establish a settlement on Penang; the “Honourable Company” had been looking for a port further east than Madras where they might repair their ships traveling between India and Macau.

But the plan had gone horribly wrong. Yes, Francis Light had taken possession of Penang (rather cheekily christening it Prince of Wales Island in honour of King George III’s son, within days of setting foot there), and the island had become a thriving trading settlement not least because it imposed none of the tolls and taxes common to Queda’s ports. But by April 1791, frustrated that his demands for military protection had gone unheeded, the Malay sultan had amassed an armada of mercenaries and regional pirates to attack the tiny British stronghold, and take his island back. And by “tiny” I mean a garrison of 400 sepoys and EIC officers against an invasion force reputed to number over 20,000 men.

Even though I had made a career for myself as a nonfiction author, I knew enough about storytelling generally to recognize that here were the makings of an intriguing tale. I was reminded of Hilary Mantel’s quote in this Guardian article: “I began writing fiction when I discovered I wanted to be a historian.” I’d never adhered to the adage that you should write about what you know; as a nonfiction author and journalist I had always written about what I’d wanted to discover.

I believe that you will never compel a reader to turn the pages of your book—nonfiction or novel—unless you, as the author, love the process of writing more than almost anything else. Given a new lease of life, as far away from “retiring” as you can imagine, I spent the next two years doing as much research as I could about Francis Light, the early days of Penang, and what life was like in Malaya at that time.

But then my passion for this endeavour hit a wall. I’d tried to write a few early chapters making Light my protagonist, but nothing seemed to work. I guess I just didn’t like him all that much or couldn’t get into his head. I was starting to get dispirited, thinking I’d wasted my time, when I chanced upon an essay written by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1758, “Of the Duty of a Journalist.” Having just read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, I came up with the idea that my hero would be a similarly naïve, idealistic young man—a fledgling journalist—named Jim Lord, who maneuvers his way to becoming Francis Light’s assistant and chronicler. The further away I got from the themes of Lord Jim, as I played around with one draft after another, the more I felt inclined to change my protagonist’s name. He ends up in my novel as Jim Lloyd.

The value of lifelong learning

I’m tired of people perpetuating the myth that people over 50 are unwilling or unable to learn anything new. What rubbish! My early drafts were okay, but it soon became apparent that my thirty plus years’ experience as a nonfiction author had not prepared me adequately to write a novel. Already knowing that writing any book is like bringing up a child—it takes a village—I enrolled in online courses with titles ranging from Emotional Beats and Deep POV to Your First 15 Pages. I devoured Save the Cat; answered questions in What Would Your Character Do?; and listened to an audio seminar The Hero’s 2 Journeys, featuring those wonderful story consultants, Michael Hauge and Christopher VoglerI also engaged three successive writing consultants, one of whom—having seen the outline of my “final” draft, nudged me to tear the whole thing apart. Which I did. For me, writing is never about the destination but how much I can learn from, and enjoy, the journey. 

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

How Hollywood’s biggest stars lost their clout

From The Economist:

HOLLYWOOD LABOUR disputes have a certain theatrical flair. When Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in July, claiming she had been underpaid for her role in “Black Widow”, the studio launched an Oscar-worthy broadside against the actress’s “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the covid-19 pandemic”. In September film crews marched to demand better conditions, brandishing placards designed by America’s finest prop-makers. And when WarnerMedia decided to release “Dune” on its streaming service on the same day it hit cinemas on October 21st, the movie’s director, Denis Villeneuve, huffed magnificently that “to watch ‘Dune’ on a television… is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub.”

The streaming revolution has sent money gushing into Hollywood as studios vie to attract subscribers. Netflix boasts its content slate in the fourth quarter will be its strongest yet, with new titles such as “Don’t Look Up”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the final season of “Money Heist”, a Spanish bank-robbing saga. On November 12th Disney will announce its latest commissioning blitz, with new shows for Disney+ expected to include “Star Wars” and Marvel spin-offs. In total streaming firms’ content spending could reach $50bn this year, according to Bloomberg.

Yet despite the largesse it is a turbulent time in Tinseltown, as everyone from A-list stars to the crew who style their hair goes to war with the film studios. Some of the disputes have arisen from the pandemic, which has upended production and release schedules. But the tension has a deeper cause. As streaming disrupts the TV and movie business, the way that talent is compensated is changing. Most workers are better off, but megastars’ power is fading.

Start with the pandemic. As cinemas closed, studios scrambled to find screens for their movies. Some, like MGM’s latest James Bond flick, were delayed by more than a year. Others were sent to streaming platforms—sometimes without the agreement of actors or directors. Those whose pay was linked to box-office revenues were compensated, either behind the scenes (as WarnerMedia did in the case of “Dune”) or after very public spats (as with Disney and Ms Johansson).

Yet even before covid, streaming was changing the balance of power between studios and creatives. First, there is more cash around. “There’s an overwhelming demand and need for talent, driven by the streaming platforms and the amount of money that they’re spending,” says Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavour, whose WME talent agency counted Charlie Chaplin among its clients. Three years ago there were six main bidders for new movie projects, in the form of Netflix and the five major Hollywood studios. Now, with the arrival of Amazon, Apple and others, there are nearer a dozen. Streamers pay 10-50% more than the rest, estimates another agent.

Below-the-line workers, such as cameramen and sound engineers, are also busier. Competition among studios has created a “sellers’ market”, says Spencer MacDonald of Bectu, a union in Britain, where Netflix makes more shows than anywhere outside North America. In the United States the number of jobs in acting, filming and editing will grow by a third in the ten years to 2030, four times America’s total job-growth rate, estimates the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The streamers’ hunger for variety means their seasons have half as many episodes as broadcast shows, and are less frequently renewed. That means “people are having to hustle for work more often,” says one script supervisor. A fatal accident on the set of “Rust”, a movie starring Alec Baldwin, has stirred a debate about safety amid the frantic pace of production. But the streamers’ short, well-paid seasons allow more time for CV-burnishing side-projects, and the work is more creatively rewarding. “Netflix and Apple both nominate every role, in every category they can” for awards, reports one set-designer—who adds that the price of that can be 90-hour weeks. IATSE, a union which represents 60,000 below-the-line workers in America, has reached an agreement with studios for better pay and conditions; its members will begin voting on the deal on November 12th.

More controversial is the streamers’ payment model, which is creating new winners and losers. Creative stars used to get an upfront fee and a “back end” deal that promised a share of the project’s future earnings. For streamers, a show’s value is harder to calculate, lying in its ability to recruit and retain subscribers rather than draw punters to the box office. Studios also want the freedom to send their content straight to streaming without wrangling with a star like Ms Johansson whose pay is linked to box-office takings. The upshot is that studios are following Netflix’s lead in “buying out” talent with big upfront fees, followed by minimal if any bonuses if a project does well.

That suits most creatives just fine. “Buy-outs have been very good for talent,” says Mr Whitesell. “You’re negotiating what success would be… for that piece of content, and then you’re getting it guaranteed to you.” Plus, instead of waiting up to ten years for your money, “you’re getting it the day the show drops”. America’s 50,000 actors made an average of just $22 per hour last year, when they weren’t parking cars and pumping gas, so most are happy to take the money up front and let the studio bear the risk. Another agent confides that some famous clients prefer the streamers’ secrecy around ratings to the public dissection of box-office flops.

For the top actors and writers, however, the new system is proving costly. “People are being underpaid for success and overpaid for failure,” says John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents A-listers. The old contracts were like a “lottery ticket”, he says. Create a hit show that ran for six or seven seasons and you might earn $100m on the back end; make a phenomenon like “Seinfeld” and you could clear $1bn.

A few star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes, a producer of repeat TV hits currently at Netflix, can still swing nine-figure deals. But creators of successful shows are more likely to end up with bonuses of a couple of million dollars a year. And though actors are receiving what sound like huge payments for streamers’ movies—Dwayne Johnson is reportedly getting $50m from Amazon for “Red One”, for example—in the past they could make double that from a back-end deal.

. . . .

But their unwillingness to venerate A-listers also has an economic rationale. The star system, in which actors like Archibald Leach were transformed into idols like Cary Grant, was created by studios to de-risk the financially perilous business of movie-making. A blockbuster, which today might cost $200m to shoot plus the same in marketing, has one fleeting chance to break even at the box office. The gamble is less risky if a star guarantees an audience.

Today, studios are de-risking their movies not with stars but with intellectual property. Disney, which dominates the box office, relies on franchises such as Marvel, whose success does not turn on which actors are squeezed into the spandex leotards. Amazon’s priciest project so far is a $465m “Lord of the Rings” spin-off with no megastar attached. Netflix’s biggest acquisition is the back-catalogue of Roald Dahl, a children’s author, which it bought in September for around $700m.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG suggests filing this item under “Disruptive Technology Innovation.”

From the viewers’ standpoint, in the old days, if you wanted to see a new movie, you had to make certain you made it to the theater during the film’s first run. If you missed that, you were relegated to watching it on a 27-inch television set with a speaker that cost the manufacturer $3.00.

Once in a blue moon, a giant hit would have a second run so those who missed the first release and those who hated how the videocassette version looked on the small screen could see it on a bit screen with great sound.

Appointments are no longer necessary to watch big-time movies on a big screen with great sound.

Large-screen LED, a soundbar with woofer (or surround sound if you’re really picky) and a reasonably fast internet connection and you can have a better experience than you can at a ten (maybe twenty) year-old theater. And you can have it exactly when you want to see it and watch it all over again with great image and sound quality whenever you want to.

For those who say, “PG, the screen in a theater is much larger than any megabuck LED TV,” PG says, “You’re absolutely right, but how far away is the theater screen from you compared to how far the LED TV is from you?”

Per PG’s quick and dirty online research, the average human has a field of vision of about 120 degrees. However, much of that span is peripheral vision, which is not how you want to watch a movie. Peripheral vision is mostly sensitive to movements and, to a lesser extent, color. You see something out of the corner of your eye, but you have to look at it directly to understand what it is.

If you want to read some text on your computer screen or in a book, you’ll realize that your visual span for reading is much less than 120 degrees.

PG is typing this on a 27-inch computer monitor. As he reads over the text, his eyes are going back and forth because he can’t perceive and process all the words in a single line of text on this monitor at the same time. Given the distance PG is sitting from his monitor, he has to move his eyes about 30 degrees back and forth to read and process the text.

Seeing and understanding an image requires less processing, so you have a larger field of vision, but, depending upon what the image is, you’ll still be moving your eyes around to fully understand the image.

Here’s a familiar image:

Depending on the size of your screen, you looked at the image in a different way. If you saw the image on a small screen (like a smart phone), you took in most of the image without moving your eyes a great deal. If you were looking at the image on a larger screen, you’ll likely notice that your eyes start by rapidly moving from place to face on the image in order to assess what it is.

For PG, his first perception was of the eyes, then the face, then down across the clothing and back and forth from the hands to the forearms.

After a second or two, if the image had disappeared and PG was asked to provide a detailed description of the background at various apparent distances behind the subject, PG could provide only a general sense of what was there.

As a matter of fact, while he was viewing the background, he discovered for the first time that there is a winding road at the left shoulder of the subject and a stone bridge spanning a river over the right shoulder.

Back to his original point – you can make the image or a streaming movie as perceptually large as you like by moving closer or farther aways from the from the screen.

For PG a maximum width of a screen that he could use for viewing a motion picture is about 60 degrees and he would definitely prefer a narrower angle if there was a lot of detailed visual information on the screen. If the information was moving and changing, a much narrower angle would be preferable.

He just checked with his home television and he sits where the screen occupies about 45 degrees of vision, pretty close to the degree of vision that his computer monitor when he is working.

Finding Dignity and Excellence in the Great Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1985, a few days before my 12th birthday, I left the Dominican Republic for New York City. The flight was only three and half hours, but the distance I traveled that day was in many ways incalculable. I didn’t speak English and had never even been close to an airplane. The city that greeted me and my older brother was the menacing New York of the 1980s, and like many other Dominican immigrants, we arrived poor, disoriented and with little notion of what would happen next.

I also traveled a great distance from learning English as a second language in the overcrowded classrooms of Intermediate School 61 in Corona, Queens, to enrolling as a freshman at Columbia University in 1991. Besides a fervent immersion in biblical exegesis, and what I had picked up as a child from my father’s self-education in Marxism, I was probably as ignorant of the world of letters as any student in Columbia’s nearly 250-year history.

What helped me make sense of the world and my place in it was the social and intellectual initiation provided by the university’s famed Core Curriculum. At the time, I couldn’t have suspected that I would go on to become a professor at Columbia and direct the Core from 2008 to 2018.

Sometimes described as a Great Books program, the Core Curriculum is a required set of courses in literary and philosophical classics—as well as art, music and science—in which all students study and discuss a prescribed list of works that begins in antiquity and moves chronologically to the present. Authors like Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and Woolf are semi-permanent fixtures. Legendary for its rigor, the Core is a kind of intellectual baptism that goes back more than a century, to a time when an introduction to the Western tradition of learning was recognized as a self-evident good.

Today, Columbia’s Core Curriculum stands as a kind of relic, with no other major university requiring a common course of study in what used to be called “the classics.” Liberal education has always been a hard sell, and with higher education increasingly seen in transactional terms—with students paying exorbitant amounts of money to gain a leg up in a fiercely competitive job environment—it is easy to see how liberal education might be regarded as a waste of time.

In particular, many people today, even academics, take the study of the classics to be elitist and exclusive. Of course, a curriculum weighted toward the past and therefore toward “dead white males” invites questions about diversity and inclusion. Such questions are integral to liberal education, not a distraction from it; they are, as computer programmers say, a feature, not a bug.

. . . .

The most important thing I tell students is that while a liberal arts education doesn’t have to center on Western civilization, Western texts and debates underpin today’s global culture. Contemporary notions like human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity, the free market, equality before the law, and many others cannot be adequately accounted for without studying the Western tradition. That tradition does not contain the only important contributions to these notions, but it does contain decisive ones.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link. If it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

BookTok has passion—and enormous marketing power

From The Economist:

A young woman holds up a book and smiles. “This is day one of me reading ‘The Song of Achilles’,” she says. The video jumps forward. “And this”, she moans, her face stained with tears, “is me finishing it.” Another clip, entitled “Books that will make you SOB”, offers written notes on how assorted stories got readers to cry, such as “I can’t think about it without bawling” and “ended up crying sm [so much] i had to change my shirt”. This is BookTok, as the literary wing of the app TikTok is known. Imagine the emotional pitch of a Victorian melodrama, add music, and you have the general idea.

BookTok is passionate. It is also profitable—at least for publishers. Bloomsbury, a publishing house based in Britain, recently reported record sales and a 220% rise in profits, which Nigel Newton, its boss, put down partly to the “absolute phenomenon” of BookTok. On Amazon, BookTok is so influential that it has leapt into the titles of books themselves. The novel “It Ends With Us”, for instance, is now listed as “It Ends With Us: TikTok made me buy it!” Evidently TikTok did a good job: the romance is riding high in the top 100 in both Britain and America.

The medium is not quite as gushy as it might seem. Much of the overdone emotion is ironic, and some of the videos are very funny—particularly those with the hashtag #writtenbymen, which poke fun at the male gaze. Nonetheless, many would make mainstream book reviewers tut. But why should the young women who are BookTok’s stars care what fogeyish literary types think of them? Until fairly recently, their perspective was marginalised in both fiction and criticism. White men dominated both—even though most novel-readers are female.

. . . .

BookTok has helped upend that hierarchy. Selene Velez (pictured), a 19-year-old American student, is behind @moongirlreads_ (an account with 185,000 followers). She focuses on authors who aren’t typically “taken as seriously” as others. “I’m a woman of colour,” she says. “I try to promote authors of colour.”

At the same time, BookTok pushes back against publishing amnesia. Books are imagined to confer immortality on authors—to be a “monument more lasting than bronze”, as the Roman poet Horace wrote—but the lifespan of most is startlingly short. Dig out a list of bestsellers from 20 years ago: not only are today’s readers unlikely to buy them, most won’t have heard of them. Many of the books will have joined the legions of what W.H. Auden called the “undeservedly forgotten”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG found a list of The New York Times Adult Fiction Bestsellers for November 11, 2001. Here it is:

1 THE KISS, by Danielle Steel.

2 ISLE OF DOGS, by Patricia Cornwell.

3 MIDNIGHT BAYOU, by Nora Roberts.

4 THE CORRECTIONS, by Jonathan Franzen.

5 BLOOD AND GOLD, by Anne Rice.

6 A BEND IN THE ROAD, by Nicholas Sparks.

7 BLACK HOUSE, by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

8 THE BEST-LOVED POEMS OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS, selected by
Caroline Kennedy.

9 THE MITFORD SNOWMEN, by Jan Karon.

10 JOURNEY THROUGH HEARTSONGS, written and illustrated by Mattie J.T.
Stepanek.

Rereading the Revolt

From Public Books:

“Away with the learning of the clerks,” shouted Margery Starre, “away with it.” In May 1381, Starre and rebels like her were burning university documents at Cambridge, then scattering the ashes to the wind. Across England, they were burning other documents, too: landholding records, tax receipts, judicial testimonies, and title deeds.

An English dress rehearsal for the French Revolution, the events of the tumultuous summer of 1381 began in Essex when a group of villagers refused to pay a widely hated poll tax. The movement spread through Kent and ultimately converged on London. There, the rebels burned down the Savoy Palace; beheaded the king’s treasurer and the archbishop of Canterbury; and presented King Richard II with a series of demands, including the abolition of serfdom, fixed rents, and the seizure of church goods. Richard acceded, but once the threat to London was under control, he had the rebel leaders executed and revoked his royal charters granting their requests.

The story of this failed rebellion was told, as histories usually are, by the winners, or rather, by men on their side. Two of the main sources for the Peasants’ Revolt are from the very clerks the rebels hated: these are chronicles written by Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St. Alban’s, and Henry Knighton, an Augustinian canon of the Abbey of Saint Mary de Pratis. The chroniclers were horrified by the violence of the revolt, but they were also outraged at what they perceived as an attack on learned, literate culture—that is, on intellectuals like them.

To the chroniclers, the rebels were ignorant and bestial. But with some important exceptions, this is not how the rebels behaved during the revolt. The group that torched the Savoy was careful not to steal anything from it, even killing one of their own after he tried to take a silver dish. In other attacks on powerful institutions and residences, the rebels acted in a way they felt was both strategic and just.

The vanquished rebels made history, but they did not get to write it. Still, an echo of their voices was preserved in the chronicles: six short letters in English. And it is these letters that are the subject of Steven Justice’s investigation in Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381.

I first read Justice’s Writing and Rebellion shortly after arriving at Yale to do a PhD in English literature. That was some 17 years ago. Back then, I found the book exhilarating: it gave a voice to people outside traditional bastions of power.

These days, I’m more conflicted. I have become like one of the “clerks” the rebels derided. I think more often about how much blood it takes to water a revolution. As frustrated as I am with universities on a regular basis, these institutions brought me in, taught me their languages, showed me how long it takes to build structures that can fall in a day. Maybe what I find so troubling about revisiting Writing and Rebellion is the recognition that the past is a place where academics like myself can effortlessly imagine ourselves speaking for the powerless, without worrying about what those we consider powerless might say back to us.

. . . .

Opening the copy of Writing and Rebellion now shelved in my office, I find personal reflections penciled in the margins among my other notes. As I worked through the book 17 years ago, I wrote down the lyrics of the songs playing in the coffee shop as I read. When Marvin Gaye sang, “Natural fact is / Oh honey that I can’t pay my taxes,” it must have resonated with the rebels’ refusal to continue to be subject to extortionate taxation, because I scribbled it in. The margin of page 56 is full of smudged cursive recording in detail not one, but two disappointments in love of which I had been reminded as I was hunting down the book’s references in Sterling Memorial Library. I wrote, too, how these two pale shadows of heartbreak opened the floodgates to another emotion, the sorrow over my parents’ divorce that I had not allowed myself to feel until that spring.

A two-time immigrant, I wasn’t the first person to feel out of place at a university with a fancy name, nor the last. Certainly, I’d had the advantage of Canada’s public school system and (I would say today) of being white and middle-class. But back then, the polished manners of my fellow graduate students often made me wonder whether I could add anything to the long, grammatically correct sentences winding around the seminar table, other than “Me like poetry, poetry pretty.”

Like the other students, my professors seemed to think naturally in abstract nouns. I, on the other hand, bubbled with unfocused enthusiasm for the literature that told me the story of my life. In one first-year seminar, I ran out of the room holding back tears: during a discussion of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, I recognized my parents’ ruptured marriage in the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, truth that came a little too close to the bone.

I didn’t have the scientific detachment of a good scholar. At first, this gave me a sense of freedom: given how evident it was that I would never land a job in academe, I could enjoy reading books on Yale’s dime. Studying literature was a luxury no one in my family had enjoyed. But as time wore on, the institution began to shape both me and my desires. Without consciously intending to become the kind of person who would fit into the academic world, I began learning the language that would help me to do so. That language was theory.

And so it was in a seminar called Medieval Texts and Modern Theory that I read Writing and Rebellion, which, looking back, was almost poetically fitting. Steven Justice’s 1994 monograph is about people outside of learned institutions, people whose way of expressing themselves is pointed and resonant, even if it does not use elite language.

Link to the rest at Public Books

How to research your characters

From Nathan Bransford:

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, somewhere in the middle of a chapter I ground to a complete halt. For weeks I’d been riding the high of pounding the keyboard in a glorious rush, but now I was out of material. I had no idea what happened next. 

I sulked. I screamed. I ate too much chocolate. I considered a new career opening a chocolate shop where I could sample the wares. I did everything except write, because whenever I tried all I got was more silence. 

The epiphany came days late. I was stuck because I didn’t know my characters well enough. And because I didn’t know my characters, I didn’t know what they would do next. 

By day, I make my living as a nonfiction writer. When I get stuck, the answer is easy: I don’t know enough about the subject. The answer is to do your research.

Even if you’re writing fiction and you’re literally making up your material, it turns out the answer is the same: do your research.

But how do you research imaginary people? Pretty much the same way you’d research real people and situations. 

Conduct interviews

My favorite way to conduct research is to interview people. You don’t have to find someone who is exactly the same as your character (and that may even be impossible). However, search for people in similar circumstances whether it’s emotional states, careers, life situations etc. or experts who may be able to provide insight into your character’s setting. And for more tips on how to conduct an interview, check out my previous post on how to interview.

Start with background information

I’m writing a book inspired loosely by my partner’s childhood in Zimbabwe. I had no idea how to plot it and what should happen. So, to start with, I spent hours asking him about his childhood. Then I talked to his family and his friends and their friends. 

I was upfront about what I was doing and I think this helped people open up because they didn’t worry that I was going to use their names. Once I’d conducted several hours of interviews, I took a step back, read through the interviews and was able to put together the loose outline of a plot.  

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Is Facebook Bad for You? It Is for About 360 Million Users, Company Surveys Suggest

From The Wall Street Journal:

Facebook researchers have found that 1 in 8 of its users report engaging in compulsive use of social media that impacts their sleep, work, parenting or relationships, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

These patterns of what the company calls problematic use mirror what is popularly known as internet addiction. They were perceived by users to be worse on Facebook than any other major social-media platform, which all seek to keep users coming back, the documents show.

A Facebook team focused on user well-being suggested a range of fixes, and the company implemented some, building in optional features to encourage breaks from social media and to dial back the notifications that can serve as a lure to bring people back to the platform.

Facebook shut down the team in late 2019.

A company spokeswoman said Facebook in recent months has begun formulating a new effort to address what it calls problematic use alongside other well-being concerns, such as body image and mental health.

The company has been public about its desire to address these problems, said Dani Lever, the spokeswoman, in a statement. Some people have struggles with other technologies, including television and smartphones, she said.

“We have a role to play, which is why we’ve built tools and controls to help people manage when and how they use our services,” she said in the statement. “Furthermore, we have a dedicated team working across our platforms to better understand these issues and ensure people are using our apps in ways that are meaningful to them.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series has documented how Facebook knows the products and systems central to its business success routinely fail and cause harm. For some people, such as teen girls or human-trafficking victims, the risks can be significant. These documents highlight the company’s research into possible negative impacts on a broader swath of users.

Facebook is owned by Meta Platforms Inc. A restructuring announced in late October highlights the company’s focus on the so-called metaverse—an online world featuring extensive use of virtual reality—that goes beyond traditional social media.

The research into social-media use that may negatively affect people’s day-to-day lives was launched several years ago with the goal of mitigating harmful behavior that the company was increasingly identifying on its platforms.

The researchers on the well-being team said some users lack control over the time they spend on Facebook and have problems in their lives as a result. They wrote that they don’t consider the behavior to be a clinical addiction because it doesn’t affect the brain in the same way as gambling or substance abuse. In one document, they noted that “activities like shopping, sex and Facebook use, when repetitive and excessive, may cause problems for some people.”

Those problems, according to the documents, include a loss of productivity when people stop completing tasks in their lives to check Facebook frequently, a loss of sleep when they stay up late scrolling through the app and the degradation of in-person relationships when people replace time together with time online. In some cases, “parents focused more on FB than caring for or bonding with their children,” the researchers wrote.

“I’m on Facebook every day, every moment. Literally, every moment; just not when I’m in the shower,” a 22-year-old woman told the researchers. “I lose the notion of time.”

In March 2020, several months after the well-being team was dissolved, researchers who had been on the team shared a slide deck internally with some of the findings and encouraged other teams to pick up the work.

The researchers estimated these issues affect about 12.5% of the flagship app’s more than 2.9 billion users, or more than 360 million people. About 10% of users in the U.S., one of Facebook’s most lucrative markets, exhibit this behavior. In the Philippines and in India, which is the company’s largest market, the employees put the figure higher, at around 25%.

. . . .

The researchers said in the documents that most of the people who use Facebook compulsively said they used multiple social-media apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, which are also owned by Meta, Facebook’s new corporate parent, along with Twitter and Snapchat. Some of the troublesome aspects for users on Facebook, such as feeling pressure to respond to messages and frequently checking for new content, are also widespread in smartphone use, the researchers noted.

“Why should we care?” the researchers wrote in the slide deck. “People perceive the impact. In a comparative study with competitors, people perceived lower well-being and higher problematic use on Facebook compared to any other service.” The other services in the comparison also included YouTube, Reddit and the videogame World of Warcraft.

Facebook’s findings are consistent with what many external researchers have observed for years, said Brian Primack, a professor of public health and medicine and dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. He said there isn’t a consensus on causality but that most of the evidence “should be concerning to people.” His research group followed about a thousand people over six months in a nationally representative survey and found that the amount of social media that a person used was the No. 1 predictor of the variables they measured for who became depressed.

“Everything is pointing in a certain direction,” he said. “There’s only going to be a certain amount of time Facebook can say there is nothing causal out there.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (It should be a free link, but if it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that one of the standard publicity practices recommended to its authors by traditional publishing is to be active on social media. Facebook is always mentioned.

To be fair, most articles about the importance of social media for indie author also feature Facebook on a regular basis.

This doesn’t say that going on Facebook to view the pages of a few of your favorite authors will lead to bad self esteem, but, as he has mentioned before, PG shut down his Facebook account and quit using the service because he didn’t like the sense of being manipulated while using it.

YMMV, however.

How Vincent van Gogh’s Favorite Works of French Literature Influenced His Art and Identity

From The Literary Hub:

Vincent van Gogh loved writers as much as he loved painters.

It was partly by immersing himself in literature that Van Gogh developed the singular, elegant voice that makes his letters such an important literary achievement. This immersion also helped give him an ability to describe so persuasively his appreciation for the work of other artists and his intentions for his own art, making it unusually possible—­perhaps uniquely so—­for us to see art through the eyes of an artist of his stature.

The trajectory for Van Gogh’s love of reading—­as for so much else in his life—­was set in earliest childhood. Every evening at his parents’ parsonage in the small village of Zundert, situated in the south of the Netherlands, ended the same way: with a book. Far from being a solitary, solipsistic exercise, reading aloud bound the family together and set them apart from the sea of rural illiteracy that surrounded them. His parents read to each other and to their children; the older children read to the younger; and, later in life, the children read to their parents. Reading aloud was used to console the sick and distract the worried, as well as to educate and entertain. Whether in the shade of the garden awning or by the light of an oil lamp, reading was (and would always remain) the comforting voice of family unity. Long after the children had dispersed, they continued to exchange books and book recommendations as if no book was truly read until all had read it.

While the Bible was always considered “the best book,” the parsonage bookcases bowed with edifying classics: German Romantics like Friedrich Schiller; Shakespeare (in Dutch translation); and even a few French works by authors like Molière and Alexandre Dumas. Excluded were books considered excessive or disturbing, like Goethe’s Faust, as well as more modern works, especially by such French writers as Honoré de Balzac and, later, Émile Zola, which Van Gogh’s mother, Anna, dismissed as “products of great minds but impure souls.”

Equally unacceptable in the household were the novels of Victor Hugo. Through the better part of a century of bourgeois consumerism and contentment, Hugo had kept the torch of idealism—­the flame of the Revolution—­alight and aloft. He had battled backsliding governments and resurgent religion, outraging everyone from Louis Napoleon to the Van Gogh family with his celebrations of godlessness and criminality. “Hugo is on the side of criminals,” Vincent’s mother once declared in horror. “What would become of the world if bad things were considered to be good? For the love of God, that can’t be right.”

Early on, Van Gogh’s taste for French literature, especially the most revolutionary novels, became a prime battleground in the intensifying conflict between father and son. When Vincent sent his parents a copy of Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man, it struck exactly the blow he must have intended. In an astounding about-­face clearly pitched to elicit maximum outrage, he eventually even repudiated the special authority of the Bible. “I too read the Bible occasionally,” he said, “just as I sometimes read Michelet or Balzac or Eliot.”

It was a battle that didn’t end with the death of Dorus van Gogh in 1885—­from a heart attack that Vincent’s sister Anna blamed on her difficult older brother. When his father died, Vincent decided to dedicate a painting to him, and to include in it a group of memento mori, or reminders of death. Looking around his studio he naturally selected, first, a huge Bible that had belonged to his father. Because the church kept the pulpit Bible and his widow kept the family Bible, this magnificent tome, with copper-­reinforced corners and double brass clasps, was the only Bible passed down when Dorus van Gogh died. Clearing an open place in the clutter of his studio, Vincent spread a cloth over a table, set the Bible on it, and unhooked the clasps. He pulled his easel up so close that the open book almost filled his perspective frame.

Still Life with Bible, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

The Authors Guild Files Amicus Brief in Starz v. MGM Before Ninth Circuit in Supporting the Right to Sue for Damages for Copyright Infringement Beyond Three Year

From The Authors Guild:

In keeping with its mission to advocate for the rights of professional writers to create without interference or threat and to receive fair compensation for that work, including supporting robust copyright laws that recognize and protect the rights of creators, the Authors Guild today filed an amicus brief before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of the plaintiff-appellee Starz in Starz Entertainment, LLC v. MGM Domestic Television Distribution, LLC, Ninth Circuit Case No. 21-55379.

Six other creator organizations joined the Authors Guild in the amicus brief: American Society of Media Photographers, Inc., The Dramatists Guild of America, the Graphic Artists Guild, the Romance Writers of America, the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc., and the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. 


The heart of the case relates to the ability of a copyright holder to collect damages for copyright infringement. While copyright holders can bring lawsuits within three years of the time they discovered the infringement – which can be years after the infringement took place – MGM is arguing that copyright holders should only be allowed to collect damages for the three-year period before the suit was brought. Such a rule would deprive copyright holders of any ability to collect damages from infringers when the rightsholder, through no fault of its own, did not become aware of the infringement for at least three years.  That rule is a radical departure from what the U.S. Copyright Act clearly states and would harm artists at a time when they are under increasing financial pressure and when infringement is already widespread and hard to police.

MGM licensed rights to certain films and television shows in its library to third parties even though Starz still held those rights based on an earlier licensing agreement with MGM. MGM claimed that, for some of those infringements, more than three years had elapsed between when the infringements occurred and when Starz discovered them, and therefore Starz was barred from collecting damages. A federal district court in California disagreed and denied MGM’s motion to dismiss, drawing on the “discovery rule,” which “operates as an exception to the general principle that damages are only recoverable for infringing acts within three years prior to filing suit.”  


Starz v. MGM may seem like a dispute between two large companies, but should the appeals court find for the defendant the ramifications would be very damaging for book authors and other individual copyright holders, especially given the huge rise in online piracy,” said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit advocacy organization for published writers with nearly 12,000 members.

“Few writers possess the resources or the ability to patrol the Internet and other spaces for infringement on an ongoing basis. They often aren’t aware that one or more piracy sites have been selling pirated copies of their books illegally for years until someone calls attention to it,” Rasenberger added.

“Imposing a strict three-year limit on damages, therefore, essentially shuts down the ability for many creators to file a lawsuit at all because few writers can afford the legal costs associated with such suits if they can’t seek restitution for book sales and royalty payments lost to piracy or other infringement. Already authors have experienced a 40 percent decline in book incomes in the past decade—categorically precluding blameless artists from collecting damages for infringements occurring more than three years ago only makes earning a living harder.”

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Justice Department Sues to Block Penguin Random House’s Acquisition of Simon & Schuster

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Tuesday that seeks to block Penguin Random House from acquiring rival Simon & Schuster for nearly $2.18 billion, the latest in a series of aggressive antitrust cases brought under the Biden administration.

The department’s complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., focused not on the prices consumers pay for books, but instead on the competition between publishers to secure rights from authors, especially bestselling ones. The industry paid authors over $1 billion in advances last year.

If the Simon & Schuster deal were permitted, Penguin Random House—already the world’s largest consumer-book publisher as measured by revenue—would hold unprecedented control and outsize influence over which books are published in the U.S. and how much authors are paid, the Justice Department alleged.

“By reducing author pay, this merger would make it harder for authors to earn a living by writing books, which would, in turn, lead to a reduction in the quantity and variety of books published,” the lawsuit alleged.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department’s suit aimed “to ensure fair competition in the U.S. publishing industry” and was part of a broader push to use antitrust enforcement to protect economic opportunity.

Bertelsmann SE, the parent of Penguin Random House, agreed to buy Simon & Schuster from ViacomCBS Inc. last November, a deal that sought to create a publishing behemoth in an industry that has been dominated by five major players, including Simon & Schuster.

The publishers vowed to fight the Justice Department in court and said their deal would improve their efficiency and make titles more widely available for consumers and retailers.

“The publishing industry is, and following this transaction will remain, a vibrant and highly competitive environment,” the publishers said in a joint statement. They said they compete “with many other publishers including large trade publishers, newer entrants like Amazon, and a range of midsize and smaller publishers all capable of competing for future titles from established and emerging authors.”

The deal has faced criticism from writers’ groups, and the lawsuit was quickly welcomed by some authors, including Stephen King, a longtime Simon & Schuster author, who said via email that he was “delighted” by the Justice Department’s merger challenge.

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

The Century-Old Russian Novel Said to Have Inspired ‘1984’

From The New York Times:

My book critic origin story is that I was nearly kicked out of A.P. English for not liking George Orwell’s “1984.” I found the prose stilted (I vaguely recall an invective I launched against his similes) and the overall project didactic. Of all things to be didactic about, I said — totalitarianism. How original — not liking totalitarianism; I mean it just sounds bad. My teacher was aghast (she loved his similes). I had to be transferred to another class.

Born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the translator Bela Shayevich outright refused to read “1984”: “I had no interest in a book routinely deployed as a vaccine against communism. I was born in the Soviet Union: I didn’t need to hear it from an Englishman.” It was for this reason that she had not read the Russian science-fiction novel that is said to have inspired “1984” — WE (Ecco, paper, $16.99), by Yevgeny Zamyatin — now out in her translation.

When asked to take on “We,” Shayevich — best known for translating “Secondhand Time,” by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich — was surprised to learn that Zamyatin, and Orwell for that matter, was a committed socialist and, most important, a wickedly fun writer. Shayevich describes his style as emblematic of a “jagged and ruthlessly fat-free early Soviet aesthetic.” Though there have been numerous excellent translations of “We,” Shayevich’s best preserves the experimental qualities of Zamyatin’s writing. She subtly conveys from the Russian the jumpy texture that the narrator’s voice takes on as he becomes a kind of jammed robot, ecstatically malfunctioning as he falls in love with a sleek femme fatale, a rogue individualist with a “name” to match: I-330.

Set 1,000 years in the future, “We” transports us to an authoritarian society called the One State that is governed by technological efficiency and an enforced suppression of individual identity. The novel is the diary of D-503 (citizens of the One State have numbers, not names), lead engineer of a spaceship called Integral set to travel into outer space to rescue “unfamiliar beings on alien planets who may yet live in savage states of freedom.” The residents of the One State don identical gray uniforms and listen to machine-generated music: “A musicometer,” D-503 tells us, “can produce three sonatas an hour.” Monogamy is a vestige of ancient times (a.k.a. our times), and sex is arranged through a bureaucratic system involving pink tickets. “He’s registered to me today,” interjects D-503’s girlfriend O-90 when she sees him chatting with another woman.

A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers — “Get √−1 out of me!” he shrieks — D-503 is the golden boy of the One State.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

How to Create a Book Cover on Kindle Direct Publishing

From Medium:

Below, I share how I created and formatted my book cover, with extra attention to detail on the nitty-gritty of formatting the book cover for a paperback versus an ebook.

1: Find an Artist

Why you should commission artwork for your book cover

Isn’t that expensive? Yes, it’s an investment: an investment to make sure your other investment — hours, months, and years spent brainstorming, researching, workshopping, editing, and writing your book — doesn’t go to waste.

One of the biggest drawbacks of traditional publishing is that you don’t have control over anything except what goes within the covers of the book (and sometimes barely that).

Naturally, then, one of the biggest advantages of self-publishing is complete control. Why not tailor a cover to your story?

Finding an artist

In my case, I scoured #PortfolioDay on Twitter, not just to scope out potential artists but, more importantly, to scope out different styles and get a sense of what I wanted. What would best convey the feel and theme of the book?

My story is a speculative Asian ghost story with culture and history at its core. I didn’t want straight-up anime but I knew I wanted an art style close to it. I saved images of wispy, hazy brushstrokes because I knew I wanted something ethereal to represent the magical elements of my story. I saved cartoon styles that were distinctly Korean — again, not quite anime, but close to it.

I then took screenshots of traditional Korean fan dance and drum dance, important elements of the story, to figure out how I wanted my main characters to be posing.

Towards the end of my research process, I cold-emailed two artists. One of them got back to me quicker.

Link to the rest at Medium

Unstuck: Writing the Beginning Over and Over

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

Every writer gets stuck at one time or another. Being stuck can trigger feelings of anxiety and self-doubt (to name just a few!) but it doesn’t have to spell the end of your project, or you as a writer. Ray Bradbury famously said: “Writer’s block is just a warning that you’re doing the wrong thing.”

In other words, we can think of being stuck as an alarm rather than a brick wall; something isn’t working but chances are you can fix it.

. . . .

Stuck Writing the Beginning Over and Over

Sometimes we must scrap everything and start over. But way more often we only want to scrap everything and start over. 

Maybe we’ve gotten feedback that makes us re-consider our original story idea. Maybe we have a different idea of a character’s motivation. All of these thoughts and concerns are good! Keep a notebook and write them down. 

But it’s also important to keep moving forward.

You could spend six weeks revising chapter one only to decide a month later that the story really begins at chapter three.

I’ve done that.

The Great is the Enemy of the Good (sometimes)

When I asked author and creative writing instructor Sarah Stone about this thorny issue, she reminded me that:

Early drafts are a place for play and discovery, so rather than going back to tidy it up when we get a new idea, it’s great to write a lumpy, mixed-up version that switches modes and voices and jumps from place to place, one that starts too early in the story or too late.

In other words, keep in mind that your beginning doesn’t have to be—and maybe shouldn’t be—perfect.

As writers, we’re learning useful things (details, character traits, overall themes) as we write our first chapters; for some of us, writing is the only way we can learn them. Others may have traits and themes, etc., plotted out beforehand, but the actual writing always brings some surprises. Characters come across differently on the page than they do in our heads.

So go ahead, be messy.

If you find yourself going back again and again to the beginning without moving on, take a moment to reflect on why you’re returning. It may be that the voice or the story direction isn’t quite right; that is, it isn’t helping you move the story forward. 

Sarah Stone advises us to pay attention to those warning signals: “If our internal mechanism absolutely requires of us that we get the voice right before we go on, then we should let ourselves follow our instincts and be kind to ourselves.”

But if you keep going back to the beginning because you are worried/scared/uncertain about what comes next, you may be returning for comfort or avoidance, not guidance. 

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