There is only one place to write

There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets. . . when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.

Charles Bukowski

Is Your Novel Ready to Publish? 12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career

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

If you’ve used the pandemic lockdown as a time to write that novel you always knew you had in you, congratulations! You’ve taken the depressing, horrific lemon that was 2020 and turned it into literary lemonade.

You deserve a great big “Congrats!” and several pats on the back. You are awesome.

But if you’re thinking of publishing that novel now that you’ve finished it, you might want to hold off for a bit. Especially if you’re hoping to make some money from it.

Even though you’ve typed that satisfying “the end” on that book, chances are good that it’s not ready to publish. Or even to go to an editor. 

Self-publishing has freed up a lot of writers and allowed them to express themselves without the restraints of corporate publishing. But just because you CAN publish that magnum opus with a minimum of fuss doesn’t mean you should—yet.

The truth is it takes a long time to learn to write well. Even if you were an English major. If you’ve only written one novel or memoir, you’re still in the learning phase. Keep writing and start something new. Write some short pieces and start sending them out to journals and contests. Work on your next book. Start a blog and learn to write for an online audience.

And read, read, read. Read books on craft and marketing as well as novels in your genre.

. . . .

Signs You Aren’t Ready to Publish

Here are some tell-tale signs that writers are still in the learning phase of their careers.

1) Wordiness

There’s a reason why agents are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs, or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll scare off readers as well.

2) Writerly Prose

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It turns out those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your English teacher and your college boyfriend can actually be a huge turn-off for the paying customer who’s searching for some kind of story in there.

We need to learn to use description to help the reader get oriented in the scene, not to show off.

3) Episodic Storytelling

I admit my own guilt on this one too. I could never end my first novel, because it didn’t actually have a plot. It was a series of related episodes—like a TV series. I will always be grateful to the agent who read my whole manuscript and told me I’d written a fine sitcom, but a novel needs one big, over-arching plot.

Learning to plot and pace a novel is way harder than it seems. Seasoned novelists make it seem effortless. You’ll learn, too. It took me a longer time than most, but I got it eventually.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a dramatic arc of its own.

4) A Hackneyed Opener

Beware overdone opening scenes. The most clichéd opener is the “alarm clock” scene—the one where your protagonist wakes up and gets ready for his day. Film teachers say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Why? Because it’s an obvious place to start.

But obvious is not what we want. That’s what makes something into a cliché—a whole lot of people have used a phrase or situation before you. So if your opener is similar to one you’ve seen in a ton of movies, and read in lots of books, you’re probably going to want to change it. Try moving your story ahead a few scenes. Or behind. Do something new and different and creative.

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

Letter to the Editor: We Need to Define ‘Conservative Publishing’

From Publishers Weekly:

In response to your January 25 story “Houses Divided,” which asks, “In the wake of the events of January 6, will the Big Five think twice about publishing conservative authors?,” it’s important to clarify what publishers mean when they say conservative and why it is that your article and the phrase “conservative publishing” misrepresents exactly what critics take issue with. The fact is, while it may have taken Simon & Schuster a little over 24 hours to change course on its publication of Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book The Tyranny of Big Tech, it took exactly seven business days for Regnery Publishing, which coincidentally is distributed by Simon & Schuster, to acquire it.

Hawley’s response to his contract cancellation included an accusation of the violation of his First Amendment rights. This is a sentiment echoed by some in the industry, who view the responsibility to publish a wide range of viewpoints as a First Amendment issue. S&S is not the American government or a public institution and therefore does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment.

As cultural institutions, publishing houses certainly have a responsibility to document the many faces of society, including the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. However, the framing of these viewpoints is an even more daunting task. From an innocent pat on the former president’s head by a late-night television host to the publication of a noted transphobic professor, the output of cultural institutions has an impact on the collective consciousness of American society. When the messenger upholds the dehumanization of Black, Indigenous, racialized, LGBT+, and disability communities, their message can and has led to violence against these communities.

For many years, publishers have been quietly profiting off of this violence and vitriol, all the while systematically excluding those on the receiving end from the publishing world. And even in the last decade when strides have been made, largely led by a “new generation” of publishing professionals and smaller indie publishers, to be more inclusive of minority communities both in books and offices, these “controversial” authors have continued to be published under the cloak of “conservative” presses.

The demise of “conservative” publishing is being framed as an issue of liberalism v. conservatism or left v. right. This is not only wrong but dangerous rhetoric. Younger industry members are not calling for the halt to reprints of Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman or the muzzling of Grover Norquist, for a more contemporary example. Conservative houses and imprints like Regnery are responsible for publishing and giving a platform to a particular brand of conservative: far right and inflammatory.

Grouping the Norquists of conservatism with Josh Hawley, Jordan Peterson, and former president Trump and his administration normalizes the spread of misinformation and harmful stereotypes. It continues to frame the discontent of the critics of these titles as “silencing opinions” rather than forcing publishers to contend with the actual harm that is done when they give a platform to these writers. Finally, it also builds a readership that publishers are profiting from while turning a blind eye to the culture they have chosen to curate.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG hesitated before deciding to excerpt from the OP.

For those outside of the United States, in PG’s observation and experience, the nation is more riven now than at any time since those who objected to the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War and the accompanying drafting of young men who strongly opposed the war into the Army to go fight it were demonstrating and rioting in a variety of places across the country.

Many demonstrations were peaceful while others either transitioned from peaceful to violent or included a violent component in them from the start. The extent and vitriol of the protests caused one American president to decline to run for reelection due to the virulent hatred of him manifested by a large number of Americans, particularly those who were fighting in Vietnam or were concerned about being drafted into fighting that war.

Among PG’s age cohort during that time period, it seemed that almost everyone knew someone who had died in Vietnam. For PG, it was an acquaintance who was a hear behind him in high school, a pretty ordinary and low-key guy who started working on his father’s farm after graduation, then was drafted and went to Vietnam.

The army assigned him to carry a flame-thrower into combat. PG understands that it was a terrifying weapon for the enemy, throwing out tongues of flame a hundred feet or more long that incinerated almost anything they they touched.

Unfortunately for PG’s high school acquaintance, carrying a flame-thrower entailed strapping on a pair of tanks that contained highly-flammable gelled liquid that provided fuel for the flames. The word that came back from Vietnam was that PG’s acquaintance had probably died when a heavy bullet hit his tanks, causing a massive fireball than instantly incinerated him. The coffin sent back to his family was firmly sealed.

It took a long time for traditional publishers to begin publishing books by angry former soldiers about their experience in Vietnam in part because the political establishment in the United States had supported Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in their Vietnam policies. That establishment included traditional publishing and a lot of others in positions of cultural power in New York City, Washington DC, etc.

The control of traditional publishing in the United States is still held by the same class and type of people who have controlled it for a long time. As happens with many people who live within a limited geographical space, a relatively narrow sphere of acquaintance and experience, people who work in publishing seldom hang around with those whose political and/or cultural opinion differs from their own.

People who are like those who work in publishing and their social associates tend to publish books reflecting the values of that slice of the United States. These days, they may be willing to publish books by angry racial minorities who excoriate those who are perceived to be oppressing them directly, indirectly or by simply existing. These would be the right kind of radicals or protesters.

However, traditional publishing is highly intolerant of anyone like “the Norquists of conservatism with Josh Hawley, Jordan Peterson, and former president Trump and his administration” and believe that such persons should not be permitted to spread their ideas among those the publishers think of as the sort of people who will purchase the right kind of books and keep traditional publishers from sinking for a bit longer.

It’s a cultural decision, not a monetary one. After all, a significant number among the despicables have money and read and will buy books they think they will enjoy.

The Hack’s Guide to Rewarding Yourself

From Writer Unboxed:

It seems like only yesterday you woke up with an idea. That idea metastasized in your mind into something grander, something that screamed to be written down lest it sit and fester inside your brain a moment longer. Each day, your book ruled your life, either by cracking the whip as you sat at your writing desk, or haunting you like a phantom on the days you dared take time to relax. You skipped parties, blew off friends, and alienated your family in service to your craft until one day you finally finished the book. After all that work, you’ve earned a small slice of cake!

Obviously, the ultimate reward for any author is to have your book turned into a prestige TV series. When does that day come, though? Writing is, at its core, an exercise in delayed gratification, with wide variation in the length of that delay and the quality of that gratification. Even the fastest writer can spend months pouring their heart and soul into a book that can be consumed in a matter of hours—a ratio that is, at best, a meditation on the nature of art, and at worst, an outright scam. For many writers, “After my book is finished…” has the same energy as “When the pandemic is over…” and “When Daddy gets back from the store with cigarettes…” When writing success always seems just over the horizon in perpetuity, it’s up to you to reward yourself for finishing a draft, a chapter, a single page if that’s what you need to keep going.

To tide you over until you sign your big publishing deal, here are a few ways you can reward yourself for meeting your writing goals.

  • More writing time! It’s a pandemic, so that means no dining out, no drinks at your favorite bar, no parties with friends. May as well reward yourself by getting a head start on your next draft. What fun!
  • Ice cream. Calories don’t count if they’re consumed within twelve hours of finishing a short story, forty-eight for a book. They also don’t count if consumed immediately after getting dumped for neglecting your relationship while you writing.
  • Read a book. Pick up a paperback and fill yourself with rage that such a terrible book got published while you toil in obscurity. For a change of pace, read a masterpiece and fill yourself with despair over how much time you spent writing a book so inferior.
  • Takeout food. Take a break from cooking and have food delivered from your second-favorite restaurant (your fave having unfortunately shut down during the pandemic). When your food arrives, strike up a conversation with the delivery driver about how nice it is to talk to another human being. You may have to speak up as they slowly back away.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Most cynics

Most cynics are really crushed romantics: they’ve been hurt, they’re sensitive, and their cynicism is a shell that’s protecting this tiny, dear part in them that’s still alive.

Jeff Bridges

Light Blogging Today

PG needs a bit of a break from his usual daily activities and won’t be posting as much as usual today.

He expects the break will help him recharge his pandemically-drained batteries a bit and will return to blogging with somewhat enhanced zest and verve.

Although he doesn’t usually talk much about personal matters here, he will mention that he is scheduled for his second of two doses of anti-Covid vaccine this coming Friday and is very much looking forward to being released from house arrest a few days thereafter.

Although he has been cooped up with Mrs. PG, his favorite person in the world, PG is looking forward to re-engaging with the larger meat-space world on a more frequent basis. He probably knew this before, but he will appreciate his interactions with friends, neighbors and the local physical society to a greater extent than he has in the past as a result of his isolation from them for an extended period of time.

That said, he must also acknowledge that the technology-supported interactions with those who comment on TPV and occasionally interact with him via email have been and will continue to be appreciated to a greater extent than they were before this enforced isolation from the larger physical world.

Thanks to all those who contribute to the conversations here.

And it seems people should not build houses anymore

And it seems people should not build houses anymore; it seems people should stop working and sit in small rooms on second floors under electric lights without shades; it seems there is a lot to forget and a lot not to do and in drugstores, markets, bars, the people are tired, they do not want to move, and I stand there at night and look through this house and the house does not want to be built.

Charles Bukowski

PG hasn’t ever read a book by Charles Bukowski and doesn’t think he would necessarily enjoy the experience, but he does enjoy excerpts that include the unique voice of some of Bukowski’s characters and the gritty sense of down and out they convey.

Perhaps it’s time for PG to put up some more Raymond Chandler quotes. He doesn’t have quite the same voice Bukowski does, but they both understand life on mean streets.

11 Fictional Hotels for Your Fictional Vacation

From Electric Lit:

In the epic words of Phoebe Bridgers: “I want to live at the Holiday Inn, where somebody else makes the bed.” Don’t we all, Phoebe—especially after months of various travel restrictions and working from home on top of crumpled sheets that need to be washed. But if it’s looking tricky to stay in a real-life hotel anytime in your near future, there’s fortunately an overwhelming number of books suitable for your fictional getaway.

It’s not surprising that the hotel novel has become a literary genre in its own right—hotels have proven to be fascinating settings for fiction: a mixture of the intimately private and corporate conglomerate, the foreign and the mundane. Going beyond well-known classics like The Shining and Grand Hotel, here are 11 novels to immerse yourself in the world of hotels, hospitality work, and bed-making. And you won’t need to check out of these fictional hotels by 11 a.m.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

What does it cost to craft a pristine hotel experience at an “exotic” location? Here Comes the Sun takes place at a luxury resort in River Bank, a fictional Jamaican town. 30-year-old Margot is a worker there, trying her best to support and protect her artistic younger sister. Although she has sex with the wealthy white guests for extra income, Margot is forced to keep her love for Verdene, the village’s ostracized lesbian, undercover. However, Margot and her community must reckon with imminent destruction when developers plan to build another resort that will put many villagers out of work. Dennis-Benn’s unflinching yet compassionate debut is a searing look into the tourism industry and its effects on women’s communities. 

. . . .

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

The I Hotel (short for “International Hotel”), a Bay Area landmark in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is the centerpiece of Yamashita’s kaleidoscopic novel. Separated into ten novellas on different groups of Asian American activists from 1968 to 1977 (one novella for each year), I Hotel is an ambitious exploration of the Yellow Power Movement, when Asian Americans fought for representation and economic equality. Yamashita uses a diverse array of narrative and structural choices, including forms such as graphic art, stage dialogue, and philosophy; her cast of characters is as equally diverse, including a whole range of hyphenated Asian identities. (And for another book that connects hotels with historical Asian American events, check out Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which addresses Japanese internment camps during WWII.)

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious

From Daily Writing Tips:

Reader ApK has asked for a discussion of the words sarcastic, sardonic, and facetious
all examples of verbal irony.

verbal irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Sarcastic derives from the noun sarcasm.

sarcasm: a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.

Both the noun and the adjective derive from a Greek verb that had the meanings “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

Among the usual synonyms for sarcastic and sardonic are words that conjure up hurt and pain: caustic, scathing, trenchant, cutting, biting, sharp, acerbic.

caustic: burning, corrosive, destructive of organic tissue
scathing: from the verb “to scathe”: to injure, hurt, damage
trenchant: having a sharp edge, for cutting
acerbic: bitter, sharp, cutting

Sardonic does not have a corresponding noun in modern English, but it does derive from a Latin noun, sardonius, a poisonous plant that grew on the island of Sardinia. This plant was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

The Joy of Trollope

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Charing Cross looking down Whitehall, via Wikimedia Commons

From The Wall Street Journal:

Fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) can take comfort in his inexhaustibility. My case is probably typical. I began reading him in my 20s, some 40 years ago, and have turned to him regularly, if in spurts, ever since. In a recent tallying-up I discovered I’d read 18 of his novels, or roughly one every two years. But there are 47 novels in all, leaving me with nearly 30 to go—some 60 years of Trollope to unfold. I find the image heartening: myself as an advanced centenarian, still with a few unread novels before me.

Trollope occupies a peculiar—a distorted—place in the American imagination. Fate has conspired, with the able assistance of the BBC, to portray him as a creator of landscapes so English that, under his spell, the rest of the planet falls under a distant haze. Trollope once remarked, “Visitors to England who have not sojourned at a country-house, whether it be the squire’s, parson’s, or farmer’s, have not seen the most English phase of the country.” Those country houses loom large in the BBC’s fetching Trollope adaptations, emerging in the 1970s with the vast 26-episode “The Pallisers,” continuing in the ’80s with the seven-episode “Barchester Chronicles” and extending into our century with “He Knew He Was Right” and “The Way We Live Now.”

Readers who first meet Trollope via television may be surprised to discover that in his time he was a footloose cosmopolite. Most of his early wanderings were business travel. Trollope worked for 33 years as a civil servant in the British post-office system, 20 of these years in Ireland, where the ghost of his disastrous childhood (“I was ill-dressed and dirty” and “despised by all my companions”) was successfully laid to rest. (“But from the day on which I set my foot in Ireland all these evils went away from me.”) He was later dispatched on post-office business to Egypt and Malta and Cuba. Still later, as a full-time author, he kept journeying abroad and wound up claiming five different continents as backdrops for his books: Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It would be hard to name another 19th-century European novelist whose work was so far-flung.

Trollope’s six Palliser novels are often regarded as the crowning summit of his ranging, mountainous output. They make up a loosely bound set. Conceived singly rather than collectively, they were published over 16 years, in the midst of other projects. What chiefly unifies them are their overlapping characters and their ongoing, clamorous obsession with parliamentary politics, especially the seesawing battle between Conservatives and Trollope’s own beloved Liberals. Pursuing a lifelong dream (“to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman”), Trollope once stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons, and the Palliser sextet might be viewed as a benevolent revenge upon an unobliging electorate.

The final—and to my eyes the finest—volume in the series, The Duke’s Children,” has a curious publication history. In 1878, when he submitted the novel, Trollope was in a slough, commercially and critically, and his publisher convinced him to excise 65,000 words from the outsized manuscript. For more than a century, this was the “Duke’s Children” known to the world. But in 2015, on the occasion of Trollope’s bicentennial, the Folio Society published a deluxe limited edition of the restored text in England, and Everyman offered a hardcover in the States. The book, edited by the American scholar Steven Amarnick, now appears in paperback, as an Oxford World’s Classic (678 pages, $16.95). At long last, all the children of “The Duke’s Children” are fully born.

The duke of the title is Plantagenet Palliser, probably the most memorable and certainly the noblest of Trollope’s creations. When we meet Plantagenet, in “Can You Forgive Her?,” he’s a commoner, but life has soaring grandeurs in store for him. With the death of a titled uncle, Plantagenet becomes the Duke of Omnium. And as a shyly reluctant but ever-dutiful politician, his rise is meteoric: initially, Chancellor of the Exchequer; eventually, Prime Minister.

In addition to unrivaled power (“the leading man in the greatest kingdom in the world”), Plantagenet represents something else no less notable: the near-mystical blending of traits that constitute the ideal “English gentleman.” For Trollope, as for his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins, the concept subsumed the personal within the national. As Hopkins put it: “If the English race had done nothing else, yet if they left the world the notion of a gentleman, they would have done a great service to mankind.” Trollope in his posthumous autobiography observed, “I think that Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, is a perfect gentleman.” He added, acknowledging the daunting ambition of his task, “If he be not, then I am unable to describe a gentleman.”

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

Entry to the Strand from Charing Cross, 1841

I don’t like the clean-shaven boy

I don’t like the clean-shaven boy with the necktie and the good job. I like desperate men, men with broken teeth and broken minds and broken ways. They interest me. They are full of surprises and explosions.

Charles Bukowski

Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson – 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her father was a lawyer and, later, a politician. Little is known about her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson.

Emily was the middle child between an older brother and a younger sister. She had a limited formal education, as was typical for girls and young women at that time. She attended a primary school in Amherst, then spent approximately seven years at Amherst Academy “for Young Ladies”, connected with Amherst College, and, beginning at age 15, one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (A seminary could be a preparatory school or offer a college education or graduate and professional training.)

Mt. Holyoke had a strong emphasis on Christian education. The young women were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily placed herself in the latter category.

A variety of possible reasons are put forth for Emily’s early departure from seminary, including her “without hope” status, but none has been widely accepted by Dickinson scholars.

As an unmarried young woman, Emily returned to her family home after leaving Mount Holyoke where she (as were other similarly-situated young women) were expected to demonstrate their dutiful nature by setting aside their own interests in order to meet the needs of the home.

While daily rounds of receiving and paying visits were deemed essential to social standing of families of a certain stature in Amherst, Emily baked bread and tended the garden, but strongly resisted dusting or visiting.

In the 19th century the sister was expected to act as moral guide to her brother; Dickinson rose to that requirement—but on her own terms. Known at school as a “wit,” she put a sharp edge on her sweetest remarks. In her early letters to Austin, she represented the eldest child as the rising hope of the family. From Dickinson’s perspective, Austin’s safe passage to adulthood depended on two aspects of his character. With the first she was in firm agreement with the wisdom of the century: the young man should emerge from his education with a firm loyalty to home. The second was Dickinson’s own invention: Austin’s success depended on a ruthless intellectual honesty. If he borrowed his ideas, he failed her test of character. There were to be no pieties between them, and when she detected his own reliance on conventional wisdom, she used her language to challenge what he had left unquestioned.

In her letters to Austin in the early 1850s, while he was teaching and in the mid 1850s during his three years as a law student at Harvard, she presented herself as a keen critic, using extravagant praise to invite him to question the worth of his own perceptions. She positioned herself as a spur to his ambition, readily reminding him of her own work when she wondered about the extent of his. Dickinson’s 1850s letters to Austin are marked by an intensity that did not outlast the decade. As Austin faced his own future, most of his choices defined an increasing separation between his sister’s world and his. Initially lured by the prospect of going West, he decided to settle in Amherst, apparently at his father’s urging. Not only did he return to his hometown, but he also joined his father in his law practice. Austin Dickinson gradually took over his father’s role: He too became the citizen of Amherst, treasurer of the College, and chairman of the Cattle Show. In only one case, and an increasingly controversial one, Austin Dickinson’s decision offered Dickinson the intensity she desired. His marriage to Susan Gilbert brought a new “sister” into the family, one with whom Dickinson felt she had much in common. That Gilbert’s intensity was of a different order Dickinson would learn over time, but in the early 1850s, as her relationship with Austin was waning, her relationship with Gilbert was growing. Gilbert would figure powerfully in Dickinson’s life as a beloved comrade, critic, and alter ego.

Born just nine days after Dickinson, Susan Gilbert entered a profoundly different world from the one she would one day share with her sister-in-law. The daughter of a tavern keeper, Sue was born at the margins of Amherst society. Her father’s work defined her world as clearly as Edward Dickinson’s did that of his daughters. Had her father lived, Sue might never have moved from the world of the working class to the world of educated lawyers. Sue’s mother died in 1837; her father, in 1841. After her mother’s death, she and her sister Martha were sent to live with their aunt in Geneva, New York. They returned periodically to Amherst to visit their older married sister, Harriet Gilbert Cutler. Sue, however, returned to Amherst to live and attend school in 1847. Enrolled at Amherst Academy while Dickinson was at Mount Holyoke, Sue was gradually included in the Dickinson circle of friends by way of her sister Martha.

[Emily] defined what was incontrovertibly precious to her. Not religion, but poetry; not the vehicle reduced to its tenor, but the process of making metaphor and watching the meaning emerge. As early as 1850 her letters suggest that her mind was turning over the possibility of her own work. Extending the contrast between herself and her friends, she described but did not specify an “aim” to her life. She announced its novelty (“I have dared to do strange things—bold things”), asserted her independence (“and have asked no advice from any”), and couched it in the language of temptation (“I have heeded beautiful tempters”). She described the winter as one long dream from which she had not yet awakened. That winter began with the gift of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Poems for New Year’s.” Her letters of the period are frequent and long. Their heightened language provided working space for herself as writer. In these passionate letters to her female friends, she tried out different voices. At times she sounded like the female protagonist from a contemporary novel; at times, she was the narrator who chastises her characters for their failure to see beyond complicated circumstances. She played the wit and sounded the divine, exploring the possibility of the new converts’ religious faith only to come up short against its distinct unreality in her own experience. And finally, she confronted the difference imposed by that challenging change of state from daughter/sister to wife.

Lacking the letters written to Dickinson, readers cannot know whether the language of her friends matched her own, but the freedom with which Dickinson wrote to Humphrey and to Fowler suggests that their own responses encouraged hers. Perhaps this sense of encouragement was nowhere stronger than with Gilbert. Although little is known of their early relations, the letters written to Gilbert while she was teaching at Baltimore speak with a kind of hope for a shared perspective, if not a shared vocation. Recent critics have speculated that Gilbert, like Dickinson, thought of herself as a poet. Several of Dickinson’s letters stand behind this speculation, as does one of the few pieces of surviving correspondence with Gilbert from 1861—their discussion and disagreement over the second stanza of Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.” Writing to Gilbert in 1851, Dickinson imagined that their books would one day keep company with the poets. They will not be ignominiously jumbled together with grammars and dictionaries (the fate assigned to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s in the local stationer’s). Sue and Emily, she reports, are “the only poets.”

Whatever Gilbert’s poetic aspirations were, Dickinson clearly looked to Gilbert as one of her most important readers, if not the most important. She sent Gilbert more than 270 of her poems. Gilbert may well have read most of the poems that Dickinson wrote. In many cases the poems were written for her. They functioned as letters, with perhaps an additional line of greeting or closing. Gilbert’s involvement, however, did not satisfy Dickinson. In 1850-1851 there had been some minor argument, perhaps about religion. In the mid 1850s a more serious break occurred, one that was healed, yet one that marked a change in the nature of the relationship. In a letter dated to 1854 Dickinson begins bluntly, “Sue—you can go or stay—There is but one alternative—We differ often lately, and this must be the last.” The nature of the difference remains unknown.

Dickinson’s own ambivalence toward marriage—an ambivalence so common as to be ubiquitous in the journals of young women—was clearly grounded in her perception of what the role of “wife” required. From her own housework as dutiful daughter, she had seen how secondary her own work became. In her observation of married women, her mother not excluded, she saw the failing health, the unmet demands, the absenting of self that was part of the husband-wife relationship. The “wife” poems of the 1860s reflect this ambivalence. The gold wears away; “amplitude” and “awe” are absent for the woman who meets the requirements of wife. The loss remains unspoken, but, like the irritating grain in the oyster’s shell, it leaves behind ample evidence.

Dickinson read widely among the contemporary authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the British were the Romantic poets, the Brontë sisters, the Brownings, and George Eliot. On the American side was the unlikely company of Longfellow, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emerson. With a knowledge-bound sentence that suggested she knew more than she revealed, she claimed not to have read Whitman. She read Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, and Matthew Arnold. Her contemporaries gave Dickinson a kind of currency for her own writing, but commanding equal ground were the Bible and Shakespeare. While the authors were here defined by their inaccessibility, the allusions in Dickinson’s letters and poems suggest just how vividly she imagined her words in conversation with others.

The late 1850s marked the beginning of Dickinson’s greatest poetic period. By 1865 she had written nearly 1,100 poems. Bounded on one side by Austin and Susan Dickinson’s marriage and on the other by severe difficulty with her eyesight, the years between held an explosion of expression in both poems and letters. Her own stated ambitions are cryptic and contradictory. Later critics have read the epistolary comments about her own “wickedness” as a tacit acknowledgment of her poetic ambition. In contrast to joining the church, she joined the ranks of the writers, a potentially suspect group. Distrust, however, extended only to certain types. If Dickinson associated herself with the Wattses and the Cowpers, she occupied respected literary ground; if she aspired toward Pope or Shakespeare, she crossed into the ranks of the “libertine.” Dickinson’s poems themselves suggest she made no such distinctions—she blended the form of Watts with the content of Shakespeare. She described personae of her poems as disobedient children and youthful “debauchees.”

Her April 1862 letter to the well-known literary figure Thomas Wentworth Higginson certainly suggests a particular answer. Written as a response to his Atlantic Monthly article “Letter to a Young Contributor” –the lead article in the April issue—her intention seems unmistakable. She sent him four poems, one of which she had worked over several times. With this gesture she placed herself in the ranks of “young contributor,” offering him a sample of her work, hoping for its acceptance. Her accompanying letter, however, does not speak the language of publication. It decidedly asks for his estimate; yet, at the same time it couches the request in terms far different from the vocabulary of the literary marketplace:

Higginson himself was intrigued but not impressed. His first recorded comments about Dickinson’s poetry are dismissive. In a letter to Atlantic Monthly editor James T. Fields, Higginson complained about the response to his article: “I foresee that ‘Young Contributors’ will send me worse things than ever now. Two such specimens of verse as came yesterday & day before—fortunately not to be forwarded for publication!” He had received Dickinson’s poems the day before he wrote this letter. While Dickinson’s letters clearly piqued his curiosity, he did not readily envision a published poet emerging from this poetry, which he found poorly structured. As is made clear by one of Dickinson’s responses, he counseled her to work longer and harder on her poetry before she attempted its publication. Her reply, in turn, piques the later reader’s curiosity. She wrote, “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” What lay behind this comment? The brave cover of profound disappointment? The accurate rendering of her own ambition? Sometime in 1863 she wrote her often-quoted poem about publication with its disparaging remarks about reducing expression to a market value. At a time when slave auctions were palpably rendered for a Northern audience, she offered another example of the corrupting force of the merchant’s world. The poem begins, “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” and ends by returning its reader to the image of the opening: “But reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price -.”

Her poems circulated widely among her friends, and this audience was part and parcel of women’s literary culture in the 19th century. She sent poems to nearly all her correspondents; they in turn may well have read those poems with their friends. Dickinson’s poems were rarely restricted to her eyes alone. She continued to collect her poems into distinct packets. The practice has been seen as her own trope on domestic work: she sewed the pages together. Poetry was by no means foreign to women’s daily tasks—mending, sewing, stitching together the material to clothe the person. Unremarked, however, is its other kinship. Her work was also the minister’s. Preachers stitched together the pages of their sermons, a task they apparently undertook themselves.

Emily Dickinson died in Amherst in 1886. After her death her family members found her hand-sewn books, or “fascicles.” These fascicles contained nearly 1,800 poems. Though Mabel Loomis Todd and Higginson published the first selection of her poems in 1890, a complete volume did not appear until 1955. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, the poems still bore the editorial hand of Todd and Higginson. It was not until R.W. Franklin’s version of Dickinson’s poems appeared in 1998 that her order, unusual punctuation and spelling choices were completely restored.

When the first volume of Emily’s poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death, it met with stunning success. Going through 11 editions in less than two years

PG obtained this information and the quoted portions of history and commentary from The Poetry Foundation where one and all can learn much more about this extraordinary woman and also make a donation to support the Foundation’s work.

I taste a liquor never brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

Emily Dickinson, manuscript version, first published 1890

There Is No Frigate

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.

Emily Dickinson, 1886

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

From The Wall Street Journal:

This past year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.”

Like many people, I’ve needed the therapeutic effects of reading more than ever this year. As neuroscientists and psychologists (and your high school English teacher) will tell you: Books are good for the brain. And their benefits are particularly vital now. Books expand our world, providing an escape and offering novelty, surprise and excitement, which boost dopamine. They broaden our perspective and help us empathize with others. And they can improve our social life, giving us something to connect over.

Books can also distract us and help reduce our mental chatter. When we hit that glorious “flow state” of reading where we’re fully immersed in a book, our brain’s default mode network likely calms down, says Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist who directs research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. That’s a network of brain regions that is active when we are not doing anything else and that can get absorbed in worrying and rumination.

“There’s so much noise in the world right now and the very act of reading is a kind of meditation,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the Miami-based independent bookstores Books & Books and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “You disconnect from the chaos around you. You reconnect with yourself when you are reading. And there’s no more noise.”

. . . .

Yet even as people are buying more books, many are reporting they’re having a harder time getting through them. A study of British reading habits during the pandemic conducted this summer by researchers at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., found that while people were reading more—citing more time to read, a desire to distract themselves, and more time spent reading with children—they were reading more slowly. Many of the survey’s 860 participants said they were distracted, and that this lack of concentration was making it harder to progress, according to Abigail Boucher, a researcher on the study and a lecturer in English Literature at the university.

Of course, it’s difficult for your brain to focus on a book when it’s constantly scanning for threats so it can keep you alive. That’s exactly what’s been happening to most of us since March—our fight-or-flight response has been consistently activated. (Sometimes I picture my brain as a cartoon brain with little arms and legs, swatting away a book I am holding and screaming: “Can’t you see I’m busy!”) Anxiety also causes our brain to release a flood of stress hormones, which zap our energy and make it harder to concentrate.

What can you do when this happens to you? Be more mindful of your reading habits. Here’s how.

Meditate. Clear your mind before you start reading. Sit quietly for five minutes and let your mind quiet down. Or listen to a short guided meditation.

Start short! Our brains are wired to love a reward, says Brown’s Dr. Brewer, author of the forthcoming book, “Unwinding Anxiety.” And finishing something you’re reading is rewarding. “It feels good, so your brain will want to do it again,” he says. He recommends choosing an engaging short story, maybe by a favorite author, and allowing yourself to get immersed. Then reflect on how you felt when you were reading.

Read something relevant. “If you are feeling in a state of flux, you can read in order to understand what is going on around you,” says Mr. Kaplan of Books & Books. If the topic is relevant to your life or current events, it’s also more likely to hold your attention. And research by professor emeritus Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto shows that the more narratives you read—fiction, biography, memoir, history—the more empathic you become. “Someone has worked very hard to take you inside the mind of another person,” he says.

Return to something familiar. When times are uncertain and scary, something familiar can be a source of solace. The survey of pandemic reading habits conducted by the researchers at Aston University found two types of readers: Those who focused on reading something new to them, to expand their knowledge, and those who re-read familiar books for the sense of comfort and stability and the lack of surprises.

. . . .

Go inward. Readers turned to many “quieter,” more introspective books this year, such as memoirs, books on mindfulness, and poetry, says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “The language of poetry often provokes a kind of catharsis when someone is feeling conflict,” he says.

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

PG and Mrs. PG each read in bed almost every night. Typically, PG reads until he begins to get sleepy (or Mrs. PG tells him it’s time to stop reading.)

PG’s reading tool of choice is a Kindle Fire he purchased in 2014 and shows no sign of running out of its love of life.

He likes his Fire because its screen is lit from the sides, rather than from the back through the screen. He thinks this is easier on his eyes than his iPad. He also recalls reading somewhere that this sort of light has less tendency to interfere with falling asleep than direct light coming through the screen.

PG has also turned the light intensity down to a level that is not very bright on the theory (unproven to his knowledge) that dimmer light is less likely to disrupt sleep patterns. Low light allows PG to read with all the room lights off after Mrs. PG falls asleep without disturbing her.

PG’s reading-in-bed position is extremely comfortable because he lies completely flat on his back with no propping up of his head with a pillow, etc.

He can see the book while flat on his back with the assistance of a cheap device he purchased on Amazon that looks like this:

Since PG has worn corrective lenses (including a period of time when he wore contact lenses before returning to glasses exclusively) approximately forever, he finds it more comfortable to read through the weird prism glasses with an inexpensive (thanks Zenni!) pair of single-vision regular glasses for which his ophthalmologist provided a “computer glasses” prescription. (YMMV)

With a single-vision “in-between distance” prescription, the angle of PG’s head remains constant as he reads, as opposed to looking higher or lower through regular glasses to view items at various distances through his normal progressive lenses.

Flat on his back, PG can read for hours on end in perfect physical comfort.

However, PG’s preferred and extremely-most-comfortable prism-glasses reading position for long-form works doesn’t work with printed books (he’s tried).

Firstly, he would have to leave some room lights on, so Mrs. PG’s rest might be disturbed.

Secondly, while the Fire shows a single page at a time, a printed book requires PG to turn his head back and forth to read each page when the printed book is open, which is awkward and means that the distance between his eyes, passing through glasses and prisms, and the entire two-page reading area is not.

Thirdly, turning the pages in a printed book while lying flat on one’s back requires more movement and messing about than tapping a screen with one’s thumb. Plus there’s the 90-degree disjunction between what PG is seeing and what his hands have to do with a printed book.

Fourthly, if PG drops a printed book while turning the page or for any other reason, he has to find his place again, which is a much easier job if he takes off his reading contraption. If he drops his Kindle Fire, it just lies there, showing the same page until he picks it up again.

Fifthly, when he turns on his Fire, it’s on exactly the same page where he stopped, so no bookmarks, bending down the corner of the page (like his school librarian said he should never, ever do), etc., are needed.

Sixthly, the Fire runs forever on a single charge and, if PG forgets to plug it in, he can read it while it’s recharging.

Seventhly, when PG travels, the Kindle weighs nothing (11.04 oz, to be exact), fits anywhere and PG doesn’t need to locate a bookstore to obtain a new book if he finishes reading the one he has been reading and has forgotten to load a spare.

One thingly that just occurred to PG is that, since he flies much, much less than he did in former days, he doesn’t know if he can purchase and load a new ebook on his Fire during a flight or not.

One of these days, when his current Fire dies or behaves erratically, PG will instantly order another. They’re dirt-cheap. If PG were replacing his today, he would likely purchase the smallest one because it’s small (screen about the size of a trade paperback) and highly-portable.

Today’s Fires do lots of other things beside show ebooks, but PG suspects his iPad may be better at doing at least some of those other things. However, for reading ebooks, the Kindle Fire is King!

Since he has been so enthusiastically effusive in his praise, PG will disclose that he’s an Amazon affiliate and receives a small commission if you click on any of the links that appear on TPV that end up on Amazon. You don’t pay anything more if you arrive at Amazon by clicking on one of PG’s links than if you went there directly.

That said, because the Kindle Fire is so inexpensive, PG’s affiliate commission will be lower if you click on one of the other links and buy what you then see on Amazon than it will be if you click on this link and buy what appears. (Don’t feel obligated. PG will still be your friend if you don’t buy.)

Losing

Losing feels worse than winning feels good.

Vin Scully

How Real Do You Want Your World to Be?

From Dave Farland:

When I approach creating a world for a story, I ask myself, “How real do I want this world to be?”

This might sound like a trite question, but it’s not. More than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare was born into a world where playwriting had become rigid and stagnant in its traditions. In his day, it was believed that a play should be set in the town where people lived. For example, if you lived in London, your plays should be set in London. Why? Because the local bumpkins wouldn’t be able to imagine anywhere else. And of course a story also needed to be set in the current day. Why? Because the hicks couldn’t imagine a story set ten years ago, or ten years in the future.

Shakespeare was a fantasist, of course, and a great one.

Of course Shakespeare couldn’t limit his stories that way.  He was all over the map, moving from Denmark to Italy to Rome on his locations, and even into fairytale settings.  And he set stories thousands of years in the past, hopping from one millennium to another. He couldn’t confine his work to the realistic tropes of his day.  He often wondered in print if he suffered from some sort of madness that forced him to write about such things, yet he also recognized that one man’s madness is another’s genius.

In the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare explored the role of fantasy in a story versus realism.  The play really has two storylines—one fantastical (about a man who is turned into an ass), and one that becomes hyper-realistic (about some gentlemen who hopes to win some money for writing a play).

What is interesting about the two plot lines is that the fantastic line ultimately fascinates the audience, but doesn’t really provide much in the way of emotional payoff.  It doesn’t jerk any tears.  Meanwhile, the realistic storyline actually becomes quite boring—but it does manage to evince powerful emotions. I believe that this is important.  The world that you create will function in much the same way.  The more fantastical it is, the more likely it will be to hold a reader’s interest. 

But for us to become emotionally invested in your world, you need to “bring it to life,” portray the world in a manner that convinces us that it is real.

In short, when you look at a world like Middle-earth, or the world of Avatar, our interest in the world is first piqued by its curious nature.  But our emotional investment in that place doesn’t occur until after the author brings it to life. The great world creators aren’t people who imagine strange places, they’re people who bring places to life by creating an illusion so substantial that the reader becomes engrossed.

I like to imagine that as I’m writing, there are little switches that I flip with each sentence.  The switches are like those old electrical switches that turn a charge on or off.  Your switch can move to on or off mode quickly.  The on mode might be considered “fantastical.”  The off mode might be called “realistic.”

As you’re writing, you might create the illusion of realism by embellishing fairly common details about your world. 

For example, you might have Frodo and his hobbits traveling through a marsh.  Anyone who has ever been stuck in a bog can relate to the problems the character will face—midges, mosquitoes, quick-mud, slogging through water up to your knees, feet sinking in the mire, the sweat on your face, leeches biting into your ankles, and so on.  Those are all realistic details.  We can relate as an audience.

But suddenly Tolkien would pull us out of the real world and tell us about ghostly faces peering up from the water, trying to suck Frodo down, down, and drown him.  That’s riveting stuff!  Right?  Tolkien flipped the switch from realism to fantasy, and grabbed our attention.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Fact or Fiction: “Flow” Improves the Writing Life

From Writers in the Storm:

1. Writer’s Block doesn’t really exist.  It’s only in your mind.

FACT

The parts of the brain that use to function daily can trip up our flow in many ways.  Research shows that we override our self-consciousness, worry and anxiety, and social expectations, we are more likely to experience Flow than when we sit at our desks with those thoughts competing for our mental bandwidth

2. Writers are creatures of habit and need a perfect writing space for optimal flow.

FICTION

According to the studies on Flow, it turns out that having the perfect setup isn’t as important as we may think. The way to get into Flow is to understand what makes your mind relax, focus, and find a balance between the task at hand and the skills you apply to it.

Some authors are very successful at catching a creative wave spontaneously and can tease out the words on the spot. But when a creative burst doesn’t drop out of the sky into our literary laps, we can and should intervene to create those circumstances. 

We all relate to when the words are just not flowing.  Consider this mini-checklist of common factors writers can use to optimize their chances of Getting into the Flow:

____ Healthy Snacks on hand

____ Warm or cold beverages near by

____ Slight caffeine boost

____ Ambient music or white noise

____ Sound cancelling headphones (a new favorite of mine)

____ A ‘do not disturb’ sign on the literal and digital door

3. When writers stick to one genre or type of writing, they experience more flow.

FACTION Yes, both. Let me explain! This can depend on a few factors.

FACT

There is a reason genre fiction writers seem more prolific than their literary counterparts.  Writing within the constraints, tropes, and requirements for the genre can free the writer’s mind of some of the heavy decision making.  The framework has been largely created for them and they are carefully constructing new stories from those rules.

Literary novelists, who by contrast may take years to produce works have more pieces of the creative puzzle to solve in order to create something new and palatable to readers.

In an article on Creative Blockages, assistant professor of Psychology, Baptiste Bardot, describes well-known authors and how prolific they are.  For example, horror writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice have limited choices as to themes, setting, and plot.  Their literary counterparts have fewer formatting constraints leading to more solutions to resolve in their novels.

FICTION

Creativity by definition is not just creating new ideas, but the novel creation of ideas that make sense. Creativity requires lateral thinking and when writers tackle new types of writing they approach the new rules and constructs in ways that expand their thinking.

This study by Arne Dietrich, dives into the types of thinking writers use.  They may be deliberate and follow prescribed steps or follow decisions made in a more spontaneous way. This may sound more familiar to those who consider themselves Plotters of Pantsers, since those preferences demonstrate a writer’s favored type of thinking.

The key to using flow to be more creative is to understand that writing lots of words does not equate creative output.  There are several computerized idea generators available to writers, but these apps cannot craft best sellers without the gifter authors who knit plots and characters into meaningful works of art.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Reading My Way Through a Pandemic with Post-Apocalyptic Literature

From The Literary Hub:

I have long loved post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s a fascination that goes back to my teen years. One of my earliest end-of-civilization reads was Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which a comet is hurtling toward Earth, poised to destroy civilization but not all humans, at least not the ingenious ones. One of my favorite scenes in that book involves a scientist double-bagging books and sinking them in a septic tank. And not just any books: books that will help rebuild civilization, like manuals on the internal combustion engine. It is an enticingly clever plan I’ve been meaning to replicate ever since.

Instead, I’ve settled for keeping a massive supply of water in my basement. I am both intrigued by the idea of being that prepared but conscious of not slipping into obsession, so I have several lifetimes’ supply of bandages (including some that claim to staunch battle wound bleeding) but no food rations. Because that would be a step too far.

My fascination is such that my best friend is my best friend due to it. When my first book came out, I was at a book festival, manning a table lonelier than the sole survivor of a nuclear attack, when I turned around to survey my neighbors. At the table behind me, a pleasant, sweet-faced soccer-mom type displayed an array of meticulously arranged books with a delightful light blue cover adorned with a smattering of birds. I squinted and made out the title: Pandemic. The birds represented the vector for the disease that strikes in her book. I loved her immediately.

This past spring, I was scared, but all we had to do was get through a couple of weeks of “flattening the curve,” I told myself. I bought too much frozen food and prepared to ride it out, like the heroine in one of my post-apocalyptic novels.

. . . .

As two weeks became a month, which bled into a stunted summer, I turned my attention to what has gotten me through so many of the difficult times of my life: books. At first, I couldn’t focus, so I took a familiar route: read something so compulsively page-turning that I couldn’t help but be led along. I turned to my brother, also a writer, for a recommendation.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Salem’s Lot by Stephen King,” he said. “It’s about vampires, not disease, but it reminds me of the pandemic. Like how everyone’s in denial and thinking nothing bad could ever happen there, but by the time anyone catches on to what’s going on, the town is overrun.”

It did the trick, showing me something about my world while carrying me away from it. After that, I revisited some old favorites: Earth AbidesAlasBabylon; World War Z. Each story destroyed the fragile fabric of modern life in its own way, but all presented me with the question that makes post-apocalyptic fiction so alluring: if the niceties and nuances, the comforts and conventions of modern living were suddenly stripped away, who would we be, really?

No book made me wonder this more than The Postman (a fantastic book not to be judged by the unfortunate movie adaptation starring that wrecker of post-apocalyptic books, Kevin Costner). In it, a humble civil servant finds meaning post-end-of-civilization through carrying out the seemingly simple task of delivering the mail. There is an evil warlord, and somewhere along the way we find out what the warlord used to be in the before times. Our times. He was an insurance salesman. I imagined a warlord somewhere in me too, beneath the couch potato with a penchant for avoiding the planks and 15-minute high-intensity interval training video I keep promising myself I’ll do.

But the pandemic taught me that civilization-wide upheaval is often not as splashy as it is in books. Instead of warlords, it’s harried moms at Target that’ll get you, snatching the last of the frozen mozzarella sticks with a look equal parts ruthlessness and apology in their worried eyes.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

A PG was reading the OP, a phrase arose from the grimy depths of the dank sub-basement of his mind, “The word is not the thing.”

PG recalled the phrase being tossed about during his college years, shortly before the Russian Revolution. It was from a semantics class and simply meant that when you talk or write about a loaf of bread, such talk or writing is something quite different from an actual loaf of bread.

Moving up a notch, the term, “Russian Revolution”, is something quite different than what happened in Russia between 1917 and 1923. For one thing, “Russian Revolution” didn’t kill anyone while the actual Russian Revolution resulted in the deaths of a whole bunch of people.

PG did a little research and discovered the following, more lengthy quote:

The words are maps, and the map is not the territory. The map is static; the territory constantly flows. Words are always about the past or the unborn future, never about the living present. The present is ever to quick for them; by the time words are out, it is gone.

The author of the quote was a Polish scholar named Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (no, PG has no idea how it is pronounced) who is often credited with developing a field of academic inquiry called general semantics. (Korzybski viewed General Semantics as something different than Semantics, but, again, PG can’t help you there.)

Korzybski was born to a wealthy aristocratic family in Warsaw, served in the Russian Army during World War I until he was wounded and, somehow, made his way to the United States during the latter part of the war and started writing books and giving lectures.

Evidently, Korzybski was a fun teacher, as illustrated by the following anecdote.

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”

The author, William Burroughs, attended one of Korzybski’s workshops and Robert A. Heinlein named a character after him in his 1940 short story “Blowups Happen”

Back to the OP, of course a book about a pandemic and an actual pandemic are two entirely different things and experiencing one is unlike experiencing the other no matter how real the book seems.

Finally, a short video of Korzybski himself, explaining a bit about General Semantics.

A tie

If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.

George Brett

Our battered suitcases

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.

Jack Kerouac

Every saint

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

Oscar Wilde

A Year for the (Record) Books in Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

Combined print book and e-book sales hit 942 million units in 2020 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, a 9% increase over 2019 and the most unit sales recorded in a single year by BookScan since the service was created in 2004. In a webinar held last week, Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD Books, said the gain was due to a combination of strong sales of both print and digital books.

Print sales rose 8.2% over 2019, the largest annual increase since 2005, and the print total of 751 million units sold was the highest since 2009, the year before e-books started to become a meaningful part of the book business. E-book unit sales, as measured by NPD’s PubTrack Digital service, rose 12.6% over 2019 and were at their highest level since 2015, when 208 million units were sold (e-book sales figures for November and December are projections).

McLean attributed the improvement in e-book sales to several factors, including their immediate availability when stores were locked down and people were doing lots of shopping online. Adult fiction had the largest sales increase among e-book categories, followed by adult nonfiction, and McLean said she expects digital sales to continue to do well in 2021.

An important driver of print book sales last year was the continuing increase in backlist sales, McLean said. Backlist titles accounted for 67% of all print units purchased in 2020, up from 63% the year before. In 2010, backlist accounted for only 54% of all unit sales. McLean noted that the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.

. . . .

According to NPD’s Checkout service (which measures receipts across a wide range of retailers), online sales rose 43% in 2020. McLean believes a large portion of consumers who shopped online for the first time in 2020 will continue to shop online this year, because of its convenience and the fact that physical retailers are unlikely to fully reopen until the summer and fall. The slow vaccination rollout is also likely to cause more “upheaval” in the physical retail market, as stores that hung on through the holidays may find it difficult to bounce back. McLean sees mass market retailers, who did well with books last year, continuing to champion books—especially children’s titles.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Stand-Alone

From Publishers Weekly:

I never set out to be a series author. My very first thriller, The Perfect Husband, was inspired by infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. To catch my escaped killer/vengeful husband, I created an FBI profiler, Pierce Quincy, who became so popular with readers I ended up writing an entire FBI Profilers series. It was a pattern I then repeated with Boston detective D.D. Warren, victim-turned-vigilante Flora Dane, and, somewhere in between, private investigator Tessa Leoni. Pretty soon, it seemed there wasn’t any crime my fictional stable couldn’t handle. My writer’s attention would be grabbed by some stranger-than-fiction real-world wrongdoing, and the next book staffed itself.

Then one day I read an article on Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, an ordinary woman dedicated to doing the extraordinary: finding missing people the rest of the world has forgotten. And just like that, I knew the story I had to write: one that by definition couldn’t involve any of my previous series characters; one involving a very real, very everyday human, who wants to do the right thing.

I know life isn’t fair—that for every blue-eyed blonde whose disappearance grabs national headlines, there are thousands of other missing persons we never hear about. But I hadn’t understood the magnitude of the disparity: how children of color are much more likely to be classified as runaways, even when they’ve fallen victim to human traffickers, or how a kid can vanish from an economically disadvantaged neighborhood with no Amber Alert or media coverage.

For previous novels, I used federal resources such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for research. Now, I learned about the Black and Missing Foundation, whose database of cold cases makes for heartbreaking reading. These are the cases that fall through the cracks. These are the cases that, more and more, are being picked up by private crusaders eager to get the job done.

This initial background helped me create amateur sleuth Frankie Elkin, a recovering alcoholic whose life is short on belongings and long on regret. Stable job? White picket fence? Long-term relationships? She tried and failed. Now she leads a sort of “anti-life,” roaming from town to town in order to solve cold missing persons cases.

. . . .

So what do the Lissa Yellowbird-Chases bring to the fiction table? They bring good listening skills; real-world social engineering; and a willingness to make the effort to go out into the community and meet with family, friends, and neighbors and, person-by-person, learn about the victim. Most official investigative efforts start with general probabilities about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Amateur efforts, by definition, focus on individuality—this one person, this lone event, this singular disappearance. It’s an intriguing, and often impactful, difference.

Having said that, I quickly realized I couldn’t write an amateur-sleuth novel without conducting my traditional police interviews. This time, however, proper police procedure didn’t serve as plot points to drive my book forward but instead became the basis of my initial puzzle. For example, how does the average 15-year-old girl, armed with a cellphone and social media addiction, go missing from a dense urban environment filled with potential witnesses and constantly recording surveillance cameras? Then there’s license-plate-reading technology, which can be used to identify all vehicles in the area at the time of disappearance. Snapchat, “finstagram” accounts, and all the various other teen-centric communication methods used for secrecy—all can be recovered given enough time and effort. Meaning the more I spoke with experts, the deeper I disappeared down the rabbit hole. Forget how my amateur sleuth Frankie Elkin would find missing 15-year-old Angelique Badeau—how the hell had the girl disappeared in the first place?

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Where Have All the Bowlers Gone?

From The Wall Street Journal:

In one of many audacious assertions in a book that tells the story of Britain from 1952 to the present day, Andrew Marr writes that if Shakespeare was “the hot-glowing cultural figure of the first Elizabethan age, then the Beatles—John, Paul, George and Ringo—performed a parallel role in the second.” The second age is, of course, that of Elizabeth II, whose 69-year reign is the longest of any British monarch, exceeding by more than two decades (and counting) her Tudor namesake’s time on the throne.

Mr. Marr, a journalist of stature in Britain—where he is a TV and radio host on the BBC and a former editor of the Independent—calls his book “Elizabethans.” He spurns the definite article in his title, perhaps to make it more easily distinguished from “The Elizabethans” (2011), by A.N. Wilson, with its focus on the late 16th century. And yet, as you read Mr. Marr’s rich and ebullient account of “how modern Britain was forged,” you learn that it makes no sense, in our own time, to speak of an Elizabethan type or national character in the way we do (however superficially) of “the Victorians.” The Britons of today are notably—and sometimes jarringly—different from those of 1952, when a callow Elizabeth II, then 25, acceded to the throne upon the death of her father.

The packaging of Britain’s story into a “reign’s length” is attractive nonetheless, because it acknowledges that Queen Elizabeth has been the one truly constant factor in a nation that has been an outlier among major Western powers: Britain has attached and detached itself to and from Europe as it has pleased—while enjoying more enduring links on the wider map than even the United States. Contemporary Britain, writes Mr. Marr, is also “unusual in European terms in its porousness to migration from non-European parts of the world.” All of which make it an attractive national laboratory in which to measure social-political change over generations.

Mr. Marr has written an ambitious book in which he accords more attention to subtle social shifts than he does to “the big, visible changes”—things such as the disappearance of bowler hats, the emptying of churches and the springing up of mosques, of which we know already. What fewer of us know, by contrast, are the nuances and shades of change. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, notes Mr. Marr, “the British seem to become cheekier, even rebellious,” and “an insolent contempt for established authority begins to creep in.” The Beatles—whose language, he concedes, was more “banal” than the Bard’s—were part of that rebellion.

. . . .

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, notes Mr. Marr, “the British seem to become cheekier, even rebellious,” and “an insolent contempt for established authority begins to creep in.” The Beatles—whose language, he concedes, was more “banal” than the Bard’s—were part of that rebellion.

This shift in mood, though seemingly a spasm of youthful high spirits, would prove to be a herald of broader changes. The 1960s, Mr. Marr tells us, were a period of “generational conflict.” But for most working-class Britons, they were also “a period of greater material wealth.” The Britain of the previous decade, he reminds us, was “a quietly religious, homogeneous, stratified, socially conservative, proud and comparatively closed-off country.” The insular working classes, as he puts it, “had never been to Spain.” Over time, the country acquired the means to travel and eat better food.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne, Mr. Marr writes, Britons were “a salivating people.” As late as 1960, only a fifth of households had refrigerators. But as the stringency of the postwar years gave way to a wider prosperity, the British palate—and with it the broader culture—became more demanding. The weekend curry became a blue-collar pastime. The middle classes went Mediterranean. “Cultural Europeanism” took root.

Two great projects dominated early Elizabethan Britain—the establishment of a welfare state (of which the National Health Service was a cherished pillar) and the search for ways to hang on to great-power status in a postcolonial age. As Mr. Marr shows, Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973 and its 2016 vote to leave the European Union (as it became) were both manifestations of this tussle for a global identity that matched Britons’ sense of their worth.

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

Email Use Worldwide

Source: Statista

To save visitors to TPV any mental over-exertion, it would appear that, on a world-wide bases, individuals send and receive an average of 76 emails per day.

Makes PG seem like less of an outlier than he thought he was. Who says people don’t read any more?

Publishing Has A New York Problem

From SFWA:

Like so many others connected to this [small-yet-all-consuming] publishing industry, books were my first love. Legend has it that a tiny version of me set eyes on my first library and yelped “oh, Mommy, all these books are for me?!”, convinced that somehow the universe had conspired to erect a house of stories on my behalf. Over time, my relationship with books went from assuming they were all made for me, to hoping I could play a role in making them all. But lovely as books are, the publishing machine is flawed, as all things are (as this op-ed likely is). Evidence of this creeps up in the corners of the internet from sources brave enough to give voice to their frustrations, in the private DMs and group chats where authors, publishing professionals, and readers alike sound off to avoid the disaster of blasting their grievances on front street. Not that feeling any of this is a betrayal. It’s entirely possible to love a thing and still criticize it. And as writers of speculative fiction, it sometimes falls to us to imagine better futures before people with the tools can make them realities.

Publishing has received a rather steady stream of criticism regarding its exclusivity. While my experience has been filtered through the lens of race, I’m not simply referring to what seems like gatekeeping for racial or ethnic diversity. This exclusivity extends to anyone that doesn’t fit into the box labelled “I-can-miraculously-afford-living-in-this-wallet-draining-city,” lumping everyone else into an unruly rejection pile. The centralization of publishing in one of the most expensive cities in the world shuts out anyone not privileged enough to be able to live here comfortably, despite their relevant experience or talent. The effect is that potentially great candidates are either never considered for inclusion or end up leaving the industry and its paltry entry-level paychecks altogether. Here’s the one-two punch that keeps so many of the voices we need on the fringes, screaming from the shores while the lucky ones sail off into the fortunate sunset. And while publishing might not be ready to admit it (or who knows, perhaps internally it has), this act of leaving behind certain voices does everyone a massive disservice. Recently, that’s never been more clear.

. . . .

[T]here is a path forward for an inclusive publishing industry. One that values and retains voices, and one that, despite my unshakeable love for the city, doesn’t have to be centered in New York.

. . . .

The industry has already made significant changes to its operation in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus. Beginning with the shifting of publication dates at the start of the crisis, professionals attested to adjustments made in collaboration with multiple departments, the author, and the author’s agent. Instead of hanging their hats on delayed release schedules, many publishing houses changed tack. They introduced virtual methods to get the job done as employees transitioned to working from home for their safety. The same way we can read a book from the comfort of our own home, we can (mostly) publish one from there, too. And the adjusted operations to manage the effects of the coronavirus provide the framework. 

Firstly, several departments can operate remotely rather easily. It’s been widely accepted that agents don’t have to operate from New York to sign and sell stellar books. Several agents work remotely, and some agencies are established in other cities around the country, such as Los Angeles Denver, and Washington D.C. The same logic applies to several other publishing departments, such as editorial, scouting, contracts, and subsidiary rights. The introduction of meetings applications like Zoom and Google Meet into our everyday lives puts virtual meetings and maintaining connections at the tips of our fingers.

. . . .

Virtual connectivity aside, those who work from their home in these departments can do their jobs effectively. Editors and scouts are often inundated by reading, which can be done everywhere.

. . . .

And when it comes down to it, contracts and subsidiary rights are words on a page no matter where they are interpreted and are honestly best consumed with sides of solitude and silence in which the legalese can wash over and drown you. 

Secondly, while marketing, publicity, and sales are not as simple, there have been great examples of COVID-related functions already that can easily transition over to post-COVID times. In combination with the usual virtual practices of curating social media platforms, hosting online giveaways, and distributing both mailed and digital advance copies to readers and reviewers, publishing houses are finding ways to generate content that promotes books in socially-distanced ways.

. . . .

In a recent article in Forbes, Brett Cohen, President and Publisher of Quirk Books, outlined what his team is doing to counteract the change in promotion. Among other things, Cohen discussed how Quirk Books, which publishes unconventional books out of Philadelphia, instituted a weekly theme where authors discuss their books and offered resources to entice purchases, including reading guides and downloadable kits. The publisher released the greatly anticipated The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix at the height of the virus in April. Due to these promotional efforts, and likely the author’s platform, the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and sold television rights to Amazon. Cohen stated in Forbes that he hopes short-term changes can transition into long-term ones.

“Whether it’s a shift in what content people want or how we promote books in this new environment or where people shop for books or how we engage with readers, retailers and partners, we are doing valuable and creative work now to meet consumers where they are and it’s laying the groundwork for what future consumer engagement might look like.”

Link to the rest at SFWA

PG wonders what all these remote publisher people do, exactly, to justify their taking the large majority of the revenue earned by the book the author created?

They get you into physical bookstores?

Oh.

Physical bookstores.

How’s that working out these days?

James Daunt, the hoped-for savior of Barnes & Noble is reported to have been closing Waterstones retail locations in Britain over the last several weeks and complaining about British taxes on retailers.

PG did find a relatively recent Daunt quote, however:

Mr. Daunt is working to improve Barnes & Noble’s online store, but his main focus is on physical stores. “It’s in stores that you retain your customers,” he says. “If you get your stores right, your online sales will follow. If your stores are crap, so will your online.

PG doesn’t recall any successful online merchant who sells anything mentioning that getting a physical retail site operating properly provided any meaningful benefit to a related online store.

Especially if the online store was trying to compete with Amazon.

PG just checked Barnes & Noble’s online store and found a prominent display of six “Now Trending” books.

Only one title out of the six had any reviews. For that single book (publication date: 05/11/2021) there were two reviews. One of the reviews just said, “BUY IT NOW!” and the second review began, “i still have yet to read it but from the previews” – both were five-star reviews. (PG didn’t notice if either review ended with, “Love, Your Mom”)

Speaking of the physical side of Barnes & Noble, while searching to see if there were any signs of intelligent life at Barnes & Noble HQ (he couldn’t find any), PG found the following account from Fargo, North Dakota:

“I was at Barnes and Noble today and noticed a man staying near my girls and I. We went and had a treat at their cafe and he continued to stick close by. On our way to the check out, I noticed two other men with their phones out, occasionally looking at me. All of them were wandering the store and seemed to not be looking at any specific books, etc… two of them left the store. One was standing by the door and the other by some vehicles. The third guy was still wandering the store and saw me at the check out. I informed management and had someone walk me to my vehicle. The two gentlemen who were outside saw that I had someone with me. They met up outside the store and went back in. I followed up with management afterwards and she said she confronted them and asked them to leave. 5 gentlemen and a women left together and all got in to one van. I may have been paranoid but I’d rather be safe than sorry… Please pay attention to your surroundings. This has put me into a bit of a tizzy today. Pay attention when you are out and about.”

A Reminder: Chairman Daunt says, “If you get your stores right, your online sales will follow.”

All the Things I Don’t Know

From Writer Unboxed:

As I was brainstorming ideas for today’s post, I thought about lessons I’ve learned, wisdom I might share. After all, my fourth novel was recently published, and I’ve got another three under contract. By most measures, I’m doing all right at this writing and publishing thing.

At the same time, I thought, how much can what I’ve learned really help writers who are not quite as far along in their careers? After all, one of the things I’ve learned is that everyone’s process is different. Knowing how I got where I am is no recipe for you getting where you want to be.

So today, instead of telling you what I know, I thought I’d delve into a much bigger, broader topic: what I don’t know.

. . . .

I don’t know if social media sells books. Sure, I can tell you that I’ve built a following on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. I can tell you that people comment with “This sounds great!” and “I can’t wait for this book to come out” and “AMAZING!” Do they actually buy the book? Some of them, probably. But do I comment on other people’s posts with “This sounds great” and never get around to buying the book myself? Absolutely.

Yes, I have a general feeling that I’m selling more books than I otherwise would because I engage on social media with readers, other writers, and the book community — but there are no hard numbers to back this up. I cannot at all quantify what 15 minutes on Instagram adds up to, sales-wise. I can only say that’s 15 minutes I can’t spend on something else. So I engage on social media because I like it and because it’s fun. Because I can’t prove it does a lick of good otherwise.

I don’t know how to tell if my writing’s any good while I’m writing it. My most recent book was without question the hardest one to write, squeaking out just barely in time for its deadline, a flat-out mess of a process during which I was still researching while writing (the worst) and staying up after midnight every night for months to push, push, push forward. When I finished I was relieved. What I wasn’t: sure that the result I’d been pushing for was any good at all. This story has a happy ending — my editor read it and immediately said it was my best work yet, and readers seem to agree — but I can’t forget that feeling of looking at the completed draft and just having no idea whatsoever if it was my best work or my worst. Thank goodness I have a team of people I trust, but hoo boy. Should it feel this uncertain four books in? I don’t know. Does it? Oh yes.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Certainty

Certainty is based on flimsier evidence than most of us realize.

Ellen J. Langer

10 Spy Novels With Women Protagonists

From Electric Lit:

For the first time in the agency’s 74-year history, women dominate the upper ranks of the CIA. Since 2018, Gina Haspel has been the Director of Central Intelligence, and three of her top five directorates (support, analysis, and science & technology) are also headed by women.  

Women played key roles in espionage operations during World War II, but peace and the Cold War relegated women to largely secretarial or administrative jobs. Cold War fiction tended to mirror the gender roles that were available to women in the real business of spies—books were filled with dedicated secretaries and pretty girls with whom flirty romances might yield intelligence.  

Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, and the first woman to hold that position (from 1992-1996), reflected on the role of women in spy fiction in her introduction to the reissue of Graham and Hugh Greene’s collection of spy fiction, The Spy’s Bedside Book“The true spy story resembles real life as we all actually know it,” she wrote about the stories in the book, all of which were written before 1957. Her only complaint about the old stories in the book is that, except for a nod to Mata Hari, women are of little consequence. 

Fiction’s espionage genre has long been a boy’s club. Wikipedia’s list of top living spy authors still only contains two women among the seventy names: Stella Rimington and Gayle Lynds. But as women rise in the rank of the CIA, spy fiction too is changing. The realistic spy novel has always tried to hold up a dark mirror to the wider world, so it is only fitting that as the world changes, that mirror reflects more women as central characters in spy novels.  

Gayle Lynds’s Masquerade, published in 1996, became the first spy novel written by a woman to become a bestseller, and it helped open the genre for other women. Kate Atkinson, a literary author, entered the spy genre with Transcription, and recently a new group of talented young writers, including Lauren Wilkinson (American Spy) and Rosalie Knecht (Who is Vera Kelly?), have written well-received works.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Amazon Faces Alabama Union Election

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. for years has successfully fended off attempts by its U.S. employees to unionize. Now the tech company is preparing for a labor battle unlike anything in its history.

In the next two months, thousands of Amazon employees at an Alabama warehouse are set to cast mail-in ballots over whether to organize into a union, a vote that could reshape the relationship between workers and the nation’s second-largest employer.

The commerce giant faces a familiar opponent: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, which along with local organizers is helping to lead the pro-union campaign. The union has helped organize thousands of poultry workers in Alabama, a right-to-work state, and has become a frequent Amazon antagonist in recent years. The RWDSU fought the company’s plans for a second headquarters in New York in late 2018 and supported worker protests at some warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the current effort has had more success than other attempts to organize Amazon workers, according to labor experts. They note that a successful union push at the warehouse could spur similar actions at Amazon’s more than 800 facilities in the U.S.

“Amazon has seen their demand skyrocket” during the pandemic, said Arthur Wheaton, director of Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University. The company’s continued growth will bring increasing scrutiny over how it pays and treats its employees, he said.

The effort still faces formidable obstacles. Amazon has sought to postpone the election’s scheduled Feb. 8 start and appealed the National Labor Relations Board decision to allow a mail-in vote. While the vote is likely to proceed as scheduled, a decision to unionize could lead to years of bargaining over the first contract, labor experts say.

The company is holding frequent meetings at the 855,000-square-foot facility about 15 miles southwest of Birmingham to counter the union’s effort, employees say. It also hired a law firm that specializes in countering organizing efforts and set up a website asserting that employees already receive the benefits and pay for which a union would bargain and should vote no to avoid the cost of dues.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t “believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

If workers vote in favor of the union, Alabama’s “right to work” rules mean employees aren’t automatically part of the union. Workers wouldn’t be required to join the union or pay dues, potentially making it harder to expand membership. Some workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they weren’t supportive because they didn’t believe union representation would substantially improve their conditions.

. . . .

Organizers collected thousands of signatures from employees showing support for an election. In December, the labor board decided to allow the election to move forward and later set the February-to-March voting period.

The RWDSU has had success in Southern states, particularly within the poultry industry. The union said it represents roughly 15,000 poultry workers across the South, including Alabama. Early in the pandemic, it reported on deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in poultry facilities while urging employers to improve working conditions. Major poultry companies have implemented temperature checks, increased cleaning and issued protective equipment, among other measures.

Chartered in the late 1930s, the RWDSU now represents thousands of employees from retail chains that include Macy’s Inc. and Bloomingdale’s, as well as workers in warehousing and the service industry.

. . . .

The union was among a group of critics at the heart of a fierce backlash when Amazon announced plans to locate a part of a second headquarters in New York City in late 2018.

Amazon had selected the city as part of its so-called “HQ2” development around the same time the RWDSU had been rallying support for workers to unionize at a facility in Staten Island, an effort that ultimately fizzled. The union opposed the nearly $3 billion in government incentives Amazon would have received for creating 25,000 jobs in the city.

The union was involved in a last-ditch meeting with company executives organized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to salvage the planned expansion. In the meeting, executives and labor leaders tentatively agreed to continue discussions related to the unionization effort, according to people familiar with the talks.

Amazon ultimately scuttled its plans for the New York expansion, but the company has recently announced plans to hire thousands of new employees in various major U.S. cities, including New York.

“We saw that they were large and big and powerful, but they were also arrogant,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in an interview. “‘You can take on Amazon’ was an important lesson from HQ2.”

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

PG tends to be reflexively anti-union because of repeated corruption and criminal charges brought against union leaders.

He certainly believes there was a time when unions were an important force for improving the lives of blue-collar Americans, but, fortunately or unfortunately, that time has passed.

He also suspects that Amazon can afford to shut down the Alabama warehouse in question without seriously harming the company’s operations. At PG’s last check, Amazon had well over 200 general-purpose warehouses (including two others in Alabama plus 25+ warehouses in adjoining states) plus a bunch of additional specialty warehouses in the United States.

PG is not an expert on labor law, but he suspects that, if the employees in the warehouse described in the OP voted to unionize, Amazon might shut down the warehouse permanently or for a long period of time, ship all the computers and equipment to one or more new US warehouses under construction and either try to sell the building or leave it vacant for awhile. Amazon starts its warehouse employees at $15.00 per hour. The minimum wage in the United States and Alabama is $7.25 per hour.

(In the U.S., states can set higher minimum wages. After a quick check, it appears that California’s minimum wage is the highest state minimum wage – $14.00 in 2021 for employers with more than 26 employees.)

Technology and Politics Are Inseparable: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

CORY DOCTOROW’S NEW NOVEL, Attack Surface, is inseparable from the zeitgeist — both are riven by insurrection, corruption, misinformation, and inequality — and the near-future it portrays illustrates how technology and politics are inseparable. The story follows a self-taught hacker from San Francisco who helps build the American digital surveillance apparatus out of a genuine sense of patriotism, only to discover that she’s propping up exactly the kind of unjust, predatory system she’d set out to defeat. Computers play a role as important as any other member of the diverse cast, and computing is treated with a rare technical rigor that reveals the extent to which our tools shape our lives and world.

Having established that dystopia is a state of mind and how to fix the internet, Doctorow uses Attack Surface to explore what it means to build a better future. This is a novel about reinventing democracy and imagining new institutions for the internet age. You will cringe. You will grit your teeth. You will keep turning pages late into the night because this is the kind of fiction that creates space for truth to reveal itself.

. . . .

ELIOT PEPER: What’s the origin story behind Attack Surface? How did it go from a nascent idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

CORY DOCTOROW: Neither of the Little Brother sequels were planned. I wrote Homeland five years after Little Brother, propelled in part by the same factors that fueled Little Brother — increasing dismay at the way that the liberatory power of technology was disappearing into the two-headed maws of surveillance-happy states and greedy, indifferent tech monopolies.

Attack Surface arose from similar circumstances. But Homeland and Little Brother addressed themselves to computer users, people who might not understand what was being taken from them and what was theirs to seize. These novels worked — many technologists, cyberlawyers, activists, and others have approached me to say that reading Little Brother and Homeland set them on their way.

Attack Surface, by contrast, dramatizes and enacts the contradiction of the technologists involved in that confiscation of our digital freedoms. The typical journey of a technologist is to start out besotted with technology, transported by the way that a computer can deliver incredible self-determination. If you can express yourself with sufficient precision, a computer will do your bidding perfectly, infinitely. Add a network and you can project your will around the world, delivering that expression to others in the form of computer code, which will run perfectly and infinitely on their computers. Use that network to find your people and you can join a community where others know the words for the nameless things you’ve always felt — you can find the people to collaborate with you on making big, ambitious things happen.

And yet, the end-point of that journey is to devote your life and your skill and every waking hour to writing code that strips them of the same opportunity, that turns the computer that unshackled your mind into a prison for others.

So Attack Surface probes the sore that the friction of this contradiction engenders. I was going to hacker cons, meeting these lovely people who cared about the same issues I do, but who would hand me business cards from companies that were making things worse and worse — and worse and worse.

That’s where the book came from. It had lots of iterations: titles (“Big Sister,” “Crypto Wars”), extra characters (the book lost a boyfriend and 40,000 words), and so on, but that was always the impulse.

Why do you write technothrillers? What role do they play in our culture?

I mostly hate technothrillers. They’re stories that turn on the intricacies of computer technology but are completely indifferent to those technical realities — crypto that can be broken through brute force, idiotic MacGuffins about networks that are totally unrelated to how networks work, and so on.

I wrote Little Brother to prove that technothrillers didn’t have to abandon rigor in order to be exciting.

Computer science, computer engineering, and security research are, in fact, incredibly interesting. Moreover, they’re salient: the more you know about them, the better you understand everything about our contemporary world.

If you want to know how white nationalists planned a failed insurrection in the capitol, or whether police could have known it was coming, or what needs to be done in the aftermath to re-secure the computers in the capitol, you need to know these things.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Vanity Press Storm Warning: Waldorf Publishing

From Writer Beware:

A couple of years ago I featured Waldorf Publishing in a post about a manuscript contest it was running, which was replete with red flags–not least of which is that Waldorf is a vanity publisher. At the time, it was charging a menu of fees, from which authors could pick and choose:

In 2019, Waldorf switched to a book purchase requirement: authors were required to buy 50 or 100 books, “to ensure us that Authors are participating in marketing and actively promoting their book”. Possibly it won’t surprise you to learn that there is nothing on Waldorf’s website or in its publicity materials to suggest that fees are involved.

. . . .

Recently the company has re-branded as Waldorf Publishing, Marketing and Public Relations–the marketing and PR being provided by Barbara Terry Public Relations Group, which promises MAXIMUM IMPACT without providing any examples to illustrate the claim (and no indication as to whether these new services entail extra cost for Waldorf authors). Ms. Terry has also started several spinoff businesses: Waldorf Bookstands LLC, which “provides books on spinner display stands to businesses all around the United States” and has no web presence other than a single mention on an investment website; Shaggy Pup, a distribution company focusing on “libraries and school curriculum” that also seems to be on pause (its Facebook page hasn’t been updated since January 2020, and clicking on its webpage URL produces a 403 Forbidden notice); and Waldorf Book Fairs, whose website is currently blank.

Other business ventures undertaken by Ms. Terry include Dream Coast Films, a production company she established in 2013 that doesn’t appear to have ever gotten off the ground, and Master Media Class, a short-lived media training course she co-founded in 2020 with two Waldorf authors.

Over the past couple of years, complaints trickling in from Waldorf authors and contractors suggest a company under stress: unfulfilled marketing promises (such as paying for Kirkus Indie reviews that were never delivered), books paid for and not received, under-reported sales, and unpaid royalties. You can see additional complaints in the comments thread on my original Waldorf post (Ms. Terry threatened at least two of the complainants with legal action) and in other places online.

. . . .

As for the services writers are being asked to buy, they are at best dubious, and at worst undeliverable. The shoddy quality of much of Waldorf’s design and formatting work is not a huge recommendation for the reformatting offer–plus, there’s no guarantee it would result in a file that was usable by another publisher or publishing platform, all of which have their own requirements and protocols. 

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

PG expects that the regular visitors to TPV are knowledgeable and intelligent enough to avoid vanity publishers, but visitors may know people who aren’t as knowledgeable.

Setting aside the question of whether self-publishing on Amazon or elsewhere is a better idea for many authors, a real publisher won’t ask an author to pay for anything, including buying X number of books.

A real publisher pays the author, not the other way around. A real literary agent receives a percentage of the money a publisher pays an author and promptly forwards the rest to the author (if the author has failed to obtain a publishing contract including a “split checks” provision in the publishing contract, whereby the publisher pays the author 85% of the royalties owed and the publisher pays the agent 15% of the royalties owed as the agent’s commission. In PG’s undivided opinion, split checks is always the better way to go.).

Vanity publishers are always and everywhere a bad path for any author to take. If anyone who is not extremely wealthy has had a different outcome from a vanity publisher, PG is happy to hear about it via the Contact PG button at the top of TPV. (Since digital buttons don’t gather dust, one has no idea how often they’re used. However, PG can attest that no one has ever told him via any form of communication that they had a good experience with a vanity press. Since people who use vanity presses don’t tend to read any contract the press may provide them, there is generally nothing PG can threaten to help them get their money, or any significant portion of their money, back.

Since vanity publishers never identify themselves as such, one way to check an unknown publisher is to search for the publisher’s name on Amazon’s books section. If you find any books listed, check on the sales rank of those books. It will be a very, very large number, reflecting sales to the author’s mother.

If physical bookstores ever reopen, you can ask the manager whether he/she has ever purchased any books from the vanity press. If the manager says something like, “Who?” you’ll also have valuable information.

For years, the Pacific had been trying to get basic assistance in the synthetics field

For years, the Pacific had been trying to get basic assistance in the synthetics field from the Reich. However, the big German chemical cartels, I. G. Farben in particular, had harbored their patents; had, in fact, created a world monopoly in plastics, especially in the developments of the polyesters. By this means, Reich trade had kept an edge over Pacific trade, and in technology the Reich was at least ten years ahead. The interplanetary rockets leaving Festung Europa consisted mainly of heat-resistant plastics, very light in weight, so hard they survived even major meteor impact. The Pacific had nothing of this sort; natural fibers such as wood were still used, and of course the ubiquitous pot metals.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Meet YInMn, the First New Blue Pigment in Two Centuries

From Hyperallergic:

Cerulean, azure, navy, royal … Much has been written about the color blue, the first human-made pigment. “Because blue contracts, retreats, it is the color of transcendence, leading us away in pursuit of the infinite,” wrote William Gass in his book On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. Wassily Kandinsky once mused: “The power of profound meaning is found in blue, and first in its physical movements of retreat from the spectator, of turning in upon its own center […] Blue is the typical heavenly color.”

And now, for the first time in two centuries, a new chemically-made pigment of the celebrated color is available for artists — YInMn Blue. It’s named after its components — Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — and its luminous, vivid pigment never fades, even if mixed with oil and water.

Like all good discoveries, the new inorganic pigment was identified by coincidence. A team of chemists at Oregon State University (OSU), led by Mas Subramanian, was experimenting with rare earth elements while developing materials for use in electronics in 2009 when the pigment was accidentally created.

Andrew Smith, a graduate student at the time, mixed Yttrium, Indium, Manganese, and Oxygen at about 2000 °F. What emerged from the furnace was a never-before-seen brilliant blue compound. Subramanian understood immediately that his team stumbled on a major discovery.

“People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries,” the researcher told NPR in 2016.

. . . .

OSU patented the color in 2012, but it took five more years until the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved YInMn, at first only for use in industrial coatings and plastics. Last May, the government agency officially approved the new pigment for commercial use, making it available to all.

The vibrant pigment caught attention long before the EPA’s official approval last year. In 2016, Shepherd Color Company acquired the license to sell the pigment commercially for exterior applications. A year later, YInMn Blue inspired a new shade of Crayola crayon called Bluetiful. The pigment has also been popular on Etsy, although the quality and authenticity of these offerings are not guaranteed.

Link to the rest at Hyperallergic

A couple of clarifications concerning the OP:

  1. As a general proposition, you can’t “patent” a color.
  2. The YInMn Blue patent as described in the OP is what is generically called a “Chemical Patent.”
  3. A Chemical Patent protects the use of specific chemicals, molecules, compounds, etc., in experimentation and product development.
  4. The YInMn Blue patent, as issued, protects a complex chemical formula, with variations.
  5. The patent also protects any paint, ink, glass, plastic, or decorative cosmetic preparation composed with the a material created with that chemical formula.

PG will happily accept clarifications by visitors more knowledgeable than he concerning patent law, chemistry or a great many other topics (a low hurdle), but it seems to him that, when it comes to protecting a color during a digital age, chemistry may not provide a comprehensive solution.

What humans perceive as color in the physical world is light that is reflected off of a colored object. One can affect the color perceived by humans by changing the color temperature of the light being directed to the object.

Sunlight has a different color temperature than moon light which has a different color temperature than fluorescent light, for example. While the human brain can make adjustments to modify perceptions to make them seem different than the eye can see, an object will be a measurably different color when observed under direct sunlight at noon than it will under the light of a full moon at midnight. Similarly an object will reflect a different color when observed under sunlight near sunset than under sunlight at noon.

Since we look at screens quite a lot these days, a computer screen is capable of producing the appearance of YInMn Blue without the use of the chemical formula which is protected by the OSU patent.

In fact, the following image of YInMn Blue was presented to PG’s eyes on his computer screen via the OP and is delivered to those who see this post without PG (or PG’s computer) using the protected chemical formula.

{In case you were wondering, Mrs. PG has observed manifestations of OCD (which PG attributes to a lengthy Covid lockdown) in recent weeks. Perhaps visitors to TPV have just observed a similar manifestation themselves.}

YInMn Blue

And here’s Bluetiful!, a new YInMn-ish Crayola color. Although you might not have thought so, colors can have genders. Bluetiful! is female. She is interested in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) education.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

From The Wall Street Journal:

The biggest cheerleaders for the Enlightenment in our era—Steven Pinker, for example—often imagine it as having occurred in a religious vacuum. They forget, or appear to forget, that Isaac Newton was animated by his Christian belief that God had created an intelligible universe; and they sidestep the Christian foundations of political rights and other key Enlightenment principles.

The story of modern economics, told from this perspective, would point out that Adam Smith, whose treatise “The Wealth of Nations” was acclaimed from almost the moment it appeared in 1776, had little interest in religion and that his mentor and friend David Hume was a fierce skeptic. Smith, resisting the tides of his time, showed that specialization of labor and voluntary exchange are the keys to prosperity, providing benefits for all even if workers, employers and other market participants are motivated mainly by self-interest.

Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman tells a very different story in “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.” In the decades before Smith’s masterwork, several French theologian-philosophers known as Jansenists (Catholics heavily influenced by St. Augustine) mused about the difficulty of distinguishing self-interested actions from genuine charity. Bernard Mandeville’s satire “The Fable of the Bees” showed vile behavior producing socially beneficial consequences. These ideas were in the “cultural soil,” Mr. Friedman argues. He even suggests that Smith’s benign view of human nature may have been influenced by meals he shared with enlightened clerics in his dining club, the Select Society.

The book’s title is misleading—Mr. Friedman’s narrative is about the evolution of economic thought, not capitalism. He alternates between theological debates and developments in economic thought. On economics he is compelling, on theology disappointingly tendentious. Mr. Friedman unselfconsciously presents as fact a host of skeptical—and highly debatable—claims about Christianity and biblical texts. More important, he relies on a caricatured version of Calvinism, especially the New Testament-based doctrine that God predestines some to be saved, to set up his central claim: The weakening of traditional Calvinism, he contends, spurred a more optimistic conception of human potential, which helped to inspire key innovations in economic thought. 

After Adam Smith, Mr. Friedman shifts his attention to America, where the links between theology and economic thought are more direct. Several of the best-selling treatises in the early 19th century were written by minister-scholars. Rev. John McVickar, professor of moral philosophy at Columbia, and Rev. Francis Wayland, president of Brown, both saw the magic of market pricing as a recipe for prosperity. Mr. Friedman attributes the optimism in American economic thought in this era—which stood in contrast to Thomas Robert Malthus’s gloomy predictions that population growth would cause terrible suffering—to the abundance of land and opportunity, and to the rejection of Calvinism. 

. . . .

As industrialization and urbanization increased, theologians wrestled with the issues of income inequality. Mr. Friedman characterizes one response as a Gospel of Wealth—exemplified by the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher and by Andrew Carnegie, who defended the accumulation of wealth on religious grounds. He juxtaposes this with the Social Gospel movement that emerged late in the century. Social Gospelers like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch called for public ownership of utilities and emphasized social rather than individual sin. Although the Social Gospelers sought social reform, they were optimistic about the nation’s future. Their optimism reflected a theological perspective called postmillennialism. Whereas premillennialists believe Jesus will return before the start of a thousand-year period described in the Book of Revelation and therefore tend to doubt we can cure society’s ills, postmillennials interpret the same book as predicting a thousand-year golden era prior to Jesus’ return and look forward to a new era of equity and security. 

. . . .

By the early 20th century, the story peters out. Economics “has become ever more mature as a discipline,” Mr. Friedman reflects, “and therefore progressively more insulated at the basic conceptual level from influences originating outside the field.” This is a very convenient end date for Mr. Friedman’s thesis, because theology took a much darker turn after the horrors of World War I. The leading theologian of the mid-20th century was Reinhold Niebuhr—unmentioned in this book—who dismissed the Social Gospel movement as an exercise in naiveté. Because sin is pervasive, Niebuhr argued, justice “is a balance of competing wills and interests, and must therefore worst anyone who does not participate in the balance.” Mr. Friedman succinctly and accurately describes the Keynesian revolution during the Depression—John Maynard Keynes’s contention that markets will not adjust effectively if there is inadequate demand for goods and services. “Introducing the concept of aggregate demand,” Mr. Friedman writes, “opened the way for an entirely new dimension of economics: macroeconomics, meaning analysis of the behavior of entire economies.” But religion plays no part, because economics is, in his word, mature.

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

PG doesn’t know of any regular commenters who may be tempted, but he’s not excited about receiving any ad hoc attacks on religion in general or particular religions in the comments. People have differing views on the subject.

One of PG’s longest and best discussions of religion in general was one he held some years ago with a fellow attorney and friend who was, and likely still is, an Orthodox Jew who was very serious about his beliefs and, in PG’s non-expert assessment, very knowledgeable about his religion.

PG had and has different religious views than his friend but found a great deal of personal benefit from hearing his friend talk about his religious beliefs and how he applied them in his daily life.

In PG’s observation, many who comment on the impact of religion on society in the United States tend to either overestimate or underestimate its impact.

Again, in his observation, lumping a variety of Christian religions together avoids addressing the difference between such religions and assumes some commonalty of influence between religious sects with differing beliefs.

Additionally, the impact of various religions on the daily behavior of their adherents also varies between Christian churches. Some churches teach doctrines that are easier or harder to follow. Members of some churches may view those co-religionists who do not adhere to major or minor church doctrines differently than members of other churches view adherence or non-adherence by individuals to doctrine.

In addition to lacking expertise on more than a few Christian religions, PG claims no expertise of any worth concerning non-Christian religions. PG also notes that, as a life-long American, he has only the sketchiest of knowledge of how religions, Christian or otherwise, are regarded by those living elsewhere.

PG will venture to opine that religions in their many and various forms have had and continue to have a significant collective impact on human thought and behavior throughout the world.

He also opines that strong systems of values and belief, whether they call themselves religions or not, can have and have had a significant impact on human thought and behavior in the past and present.

Mao, Lenin, Stalin were each crusaders for their own beliefs.

The 2020 email marketing benchmarks by industry

From MailerLite:

If you’re an Olympic runner, it’s great to beat your personal best time. But your own time means nothing unless you compare it with the other runners in the race.

In the same way, you need to know the average performance metrics of similar companies to gauge the success of your email strategy.

Every week you open your dashboard with anticipation to see if your email campaign is performing well. Among the most important metrics that you look at first are your open, bounce, click and unsubscribe rates. These email marketing statistics help you determine if your newsletters are breaking through and resonating with your subscribers.

. . . .

2020 benchmarks across all industries

Average open rate: 25.35%

Average click rate: 3.82%

Average unsubscribe rate: 0.39%

Average bounce rate: 0.83%

. . . .

The campaign metrics of MailerLite customers by industry

. . . .

Here’s a little terminology MailerLite provides that may be helpful

Open rates

The open rate shows the percentage of the total subscribers that opened the email campaign.

Click rates

The email click rate shows you the percentage of people who clicked on a link somewhere in your email. These clicks show how relevant your content is.

Unsubscribes

The unsubscribe rate is the percentage of people who click the unsubscribe link in your email. Though it means fewer recipients, you can make the best of it using unsubscribe surveys to improve your email content.

Bounce rates

Bounced emails are addresses that could not be delivered successfully to recipients of email marketing campaigns. For various reasons, the recipient’s server will return the newsletter to the sender, hence the term “bounce“, and it can negatively impact email deliverability.

Your guide to understanding soft and hard email bounces

A bounced email is an email that couldn’t be delivered to the recipient.

A soft bounce is a temporary issue, where the email reaches the recipient’s email server but bounces back undelivered. Soft bounces could be caused by several reasons, such as a full mailbox, an offline email server, or a message file that’s too large.

A hard bounce is an email that couldn’t be delivered for permanent reasons, such as the address doesn’t exist or the server has blocked you. The email is returned to the sender and is completely undeliverable. When this occurs, your email marketing tool will no longer send emails to those email addresses. A high volume of hard bounces is problematic for email deliverability.

There is a great deal of additional information at MailerLite and thanks to Harald for the tip.

PG notes that email is an important marketing tool for a great many indie authors.

If anyone can provide links to other email marketing resources that may be helpful for indies, feel free to include information and/or links in the comments.

A note that if you include a large number of links in a single comment, your comment may be held for review or otherwise intercepted because lots of links in a comment is one of the trademarks of comment spammers.

If you have concerns about a comment with links being blocked, you can email PG directly via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog.

The Most Appalling, Appealing Psychopaths

From The Paris Review:

Here’s a question: Can you name the debut novel, originally published in Britain in September 1965, that became a more or less immediate best seller, and the fans of which included Noël Coward, Daphne du Maurier, John Gielgud, Fay Weldon, David Storey, Margaret Drabble, and Doris Lessing? “A rare pleasure!” said Lessing. “I can’t remember another novel like it, it is so good and so original.” Coward, meanwhile, described it as “fascinating and remarkable,” admiring the author’s “strongly developed streak of genius.” Du Maurier—a writer whose own work is famously mesmerizing—declared it “compulsive reading … Endearing, exasperating, wildly funny, touching and superbly amoral.” Gielgud thought it “full of fascinating characterisation and atmosphere.” Never not in tune with the times, Weldon deemed it “a magical mystery tour of the mind,” Storey “a superb piece of confectionery,” while Drabble described it as “strange and unforgettable … Highly original and oddly haunting.”

Yet despite such heaped adulation, I’m willing to bet that hardly anyone reading this will have heard of the novel in question, though some might be familiar with its author. It’s called The Sioux, and was the work of sixty-six-year-old Irene Handl, a famous British actress beloved for her roles on both stage and screen, rock ’n’ roll superfan (and member of the Elvis Presley fan club), fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, not to mention a devoted Chihuahua owner and for many years president of the British Chihuahua Club.

The blurb on the British first edition describes the book as “a sustained tour-de-force, one of the most unusual and remarkable novels of recent years.” Unusual and remarkable is spot-on. “The Sioux” is the nickname the Benoir family call themselves, on account of their fierce tribalism. They’re French—their ancestors escaped Paris during the Revolution, fleeing first to Martinique then, during a slave insurrection, from there to Louisiana—feudal, and astronomically rich. Both The Sioux, and its sequel, The Gold Tip Pfitzer (1973)—which is dedicated to Noël Coward—are two of the maddest novels I’ve ever encountered. The Benoirs themselves are among the most appalling and repugnant, monstrously overprivileged, egomaniacal psychopaths ever created.  To be absolutely honest, I’m not sure these books should actually be republished—the misplaced cultural appropriation of their chosen soubriquet is, if you can believe it, one of the Benoir family’s least egregious crimes—but, just like Drabble before me, now that I’ve read them, I simply haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.

Even the very existence of these novels is something to be marveled at. Handl apparently first put pen to paper when she was nineteen, while in Paris in the twenties, but abandoned the project after only writing a few pages. It wasn’t until the early sixties, while taking a much-needed break from her stage career due to exhaustion, that she found the time to return to her notebooks and finish working on the story she’d begun all those years earlier. (It was another enforced rest that then afforded her the opportunity to write The Gold Tip Pfitzer.) And what she wrote also defied expectation. Who would have thought that a middle-aged British actress famous for playing working-class stereotypes, from meddling landladies to browbeaten wives, would write a sui generis chef-d’oeuvre of high-camp Southern Gothic? Readers today will recognize an ambiance akin to that found in Patrick deWitt’s “tragedy of manners,” French Exit (2018), or the idiosyncratic style of Wes Anderson’s feature films, though compared to the vicious maneuvering of the Benoirs, the dysfunctional Tenenbaums look as picture-perfect as the Waltons.

These novels aren’t just the feat of an impressive imagination. Handl proves herself an original and flamboyant stylist, oscillating between vaudevillian slapstick, demented dark horror, and passages of sheer—if extravagantly baroque—poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an actor who excelled at character parts, The Sioux is driven by dialogue. And what dialogue it is! A Franglais like no other, sprinkled with private endearments and bon mots, the meaning of which are usually known only to the family, with a dash of “Ol’ Kintuck,” “Creole,” and “Miss’ippa” thrown in for good measure. This is more a novel in speech than anything else, not least because if you strip away all the melodrama and the gaudiness, plot is actually pretty thin on the ground. It takes a while for this lack of story to sink in for a reader though, as the showy voluptuousness of the prose enfolds one in a cloying, claustrophobic embrace. Handl writes in the present tense, sharply shifting back and forth between the interior monologues of her various characters, adding to the muggy intensity of the reading experience.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG was about to make a comment on the French, but then remembered some of the wonderful and kind French people he has met during his travels.

He was also reminded about some of the disgusting and depraved Americans he has met during one of his prior lives representing the occasional hillbilly.

So each nation has some of both.

(Except maybe Canada. PG has never met a disgusting Canadian, but he expects they must exist. Perhaps they all remain north of the border. That could be a result of the apparently always-diligent Mounties who are concerned about weird Americans becoming even weirder.)

A Role for Publishing in the Healing of our Nation

From Publishing Perspectives:

The Association of American Publishers has announced this afternoon (January 27) that its directors have reelected Wiley president and CEO Brian Napack as AAP’s chair, with Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch chosen as vice-chair.

The board’s actions coincide, of course, with a sea-change in Washington, where the AAP is seated. With the American publishing industry for the most part having weathered the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic better than some thought it might, the coming months of political and public health challenges include uncertainty at many levels.

. . . .

“A vibrant, independent publishing industry plays an essential role in our democracy,” Napack says, “and this year, more than most, it will play critical role in the healing of our nation.

“It’s a privilege to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with AAP and its member companies to pursue our critical mission, one that enables discovery, learning, creative expression and, overall, the advancement of society worldwide.”

. . . .

“We look forward to collaborating closely with the administration in the years ahead as we work to ensure that the publishing industry continues to make major contributions to our culture and economy, and that our members can fulfill their missions, promoting literature and poetry as engines of enlightened understanding, supporting education as a proven road to prosperity, and advancing scholarship and science as means of expanding our understanding of the world around us, and effectively addressing issues ranging from the current pandemic to climate change, in the process uniting our country.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that Wiley is largely a scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly journals publisher, a member of a group that, per several of PG’s prior posts, is well-known for charging very high prices for journal access to the colleges/universities that comprise a significant portion of its market. Such publishers typically don’t pay anything most of the authors who write the books/articles/etc. because those authors are often working in a publish or perish environment where the publication of their works in scholarly journals is vital to their continued employment.

PG suggests there’s not much that sounds independent to him about Wiley and its counterparts. They’re part of the establishment and, arguably, part of the problem.

The new vice-chair is, of course, the head of a subsidiary of a large French holding company, headquartered in Paris, which means the US subsidiary is anything but independent.

As far as healing the nation goes, PG would not advise counting on these two for much. They’re mostly into PR speak.

PG is, of course, hiding out from Covid and hoping he doesn’t need any healing from anything in the foreseeable future.

New Treatment for Writers’ Block

From Dave Farland:

A few months ago, my son Forrest came to me to talk about a new treatment for writers’ block. As you may know, Forrest has been studying neuro-linguistic programming for several years and has been using it and other techniques to help writers overcome writers’ block and increase productivity.

He explained a therapy called TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) that has been developed for people who suffer from depression and anxiety, a treatment that doesn’t require medication but instead stimulates the brain using magnetic waves.

The therapy is effective in about 70% of patients and is covered by insurance—so long as the patient has tried medications first. It’s even approved for people on Medicare. 

What intrigued me about TMS is that it was also being used elsewhere. Interestingly, the treatment has proven helpful for writers who suffer from classic “writers’ block.”

It’s also use by the military. They found that by stimulating the prefrontal lobes of soldiers, they could make them more aware of their surroundings and of possible ways to handle battlefield situations.

A couple of days after I first spoke with Forrest, an award-winning author who spoke to our Apex group mentioned that he had received TMS treatments to help with writers’ block. He said, “After getting the treatment, I wrote three books in the next six months. That’s never happened to me before. I just don’t write that fast.”

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

I’m learning to cope

I’m learning to cope and not deny my own success, but I still think it’s not happening a lot. I get nervous, and I am capable of doing something to blow it on purpose. A lot of actors have that problem.

John Belushi

Does Your Cover Work In Book Thumbnail Size?

From Just Publishing Advice:

How well does your book thumbnail cover work? You might think that your cover image is fantastic. In a full-size view, it may well be.

But when it comes to book covers, the truism that people need to see something seven or eight times before they react is probably correct.

Readers looking for a new book to buy first have to notice, and then click, your thumbnail size cover to get to your buy page.

How does your tiny book cover image stack up for attracting attention-grabbing?

. . . .

Book thumbnail images are used on every book-related site you possibly think of, even on social media.

So it is vital that you consider your small image book cover size when you are making decisions about a new book cover. You need to pay attention to how your fonts and color choices look.

. . . .

Even the featured image of your book cover on your sales pages of Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers are reduced to default thumbnails.

On Amazon, your book cover is reduced to approximately 500 x 333 pixels in the top left of your book sales page. To put this in perspective, an extremely low-resolution ebook cover is around 1280 x 720 pixels.

The best way to start analyzing how well your book cover works is to open your cover file in an image editor. Then reduce the size to create a thumbnail.

Thumbnails can be very small. Start with setting your dimensions to 90 pixels wide x 144 pixels tall.

Then view the actual size. You will see your cover in an approximation of an online thumbnail. You can experiment with additional image sizes.

. . . .

It is also important to remember that on top of reducing the dimensions, all sites reduce the image quality or resolution.

It is usually, at most, 72 dpi to make sure the file size is as small as possible.

If you can also change the resolution in your image editor, it will give you a better estimation of how good, or not, it will look online.

. . . .

Quoting Amazon’s recommendations regarding Kindle book cover size, the ideal size of ebook cover art is a height/width ratio of 1.6:1.

This means that for every 1,000 pixels in width, the image should be 1,600 pixels in height.

A cover 1280 pixels wide is generally the minimum size you should use. You can use jpg, gif, bmp, or png file types.

However, the full size of your custom image upload will never be seen online.

Your original uploaded image file will be reduced to a range of additional custom thumbnail image sizes.

Each one to suit different reading devices, on-screen applications, search engines, and different website use.

Amazon automatically generates a lot of different custom thumbnail sizes on its site.

. . . .

Here are a few examples to help you understand the necessity of covers that work in small dimensions.

On the Top Charts page, covers are quite small to give the chart number significance.

New releases are shown in the most common thumbnail medium view size, which is 107px x 160 px.

Recommendations are a little smaller at 90 px  x 135 px.

Series books are usually a maximum of 135 px high.

In the You Viewed pane at the bottom of each book page, books that were viewed by people are squeezed into a 50 px x 50 px box.

That is insanely small.

Link to the rest at Just Publishing Advice

2020 WordPress Threat Report

Since so many blogs, including many that regular visitors to TPV have, use WordPress, PG thought the following might be helpful.

From Wordfence:

90 Billion Malicious WordPress Login Attempts

Over the course of 2020, Wordfence blocked more than 90 billion malicious login attempts from over 57 million unique IP addresses, at a rate of 2,800 attacks per second targeting WordPress.

Malicious login attempts were by far the most common attack vector targeting WordPress sites. These attempts included credential stuffing attacks using lists of stolen credentials, dictionary attacks, and traditional brute-force attacks.

Key Takeaway: Use Multi-Factor Authentication to Protect WordPress

While the vast majority of malicious login attempts targeting WordPress are destined to be unsuccessful, it only takes a single successful login to compromise a WordPress site. The brute-force mitigation provided by Wordfence is very effective, and using multi-factor authentication adds another layer of protection to WordPress logins.

Multi-factor authentication can completely prevent attackers from gaining access to a site via automated login attempts. This holds true even in unfortunate cases where user accounts on a WordPress site are reusing credentials that have been exposed in a data breach and haven’t yet been updated.

. . . .

4.3 Billion Vulnerability Exploit Attempts Targeting WordPress

Wordfence blocked 4.3 billion attempts to exploit vulnerabilities from over 9.7 million unique IP addresses in 2020. Here were the five most common attacks over the course of the year:

  1. Directory Traversal attacks, including relative and absolute paths, made up 43% of all vulnerability exploit attempts, at 1.8 billion attacks. While the majority of these were attempts to gain access to sensitive data contained in site wp-config.php files, many were also attempts at local file inclusion (LFI).
  2. SQL Injection was the second most commonly attacked category of vulnerabilities at 21% of all attempts with 909.4 million attacks.
  3. Malicious file uploads intended to achieve Remote Code Execution(RCE) were the third most commonly attacked category of vulnerabilities at 11% of all attempts with 454.8 million attacks.
  4. Cross-Site Scripting(XSS) was the fourth most commonly attacked category of vulnerabilities at 8% of all attempts with 330 million attacks.
  5. Authentication Bypass vulnerabilities were the fifth most commonly attacked category of flaws at 3% of all attempts with 140.8 million attacks.

. . . .

Malware From Nulled Plugins and Themes Is the Most Widespread Threat to WordPress Security

The Wordfence scanner detected more than 70 million malicious files on 1.2 million WordPress sites in the past year. The vast majority of these sites were cleaned by the end of the year. Only 132,000 sites infected at the beginning of 2020 were still infected by the end of the year, many of them likely abandoned.

The WP-VCD malware was the single most common malware threat to WordPress, counting for 154,928 or 13% of all infected sites in 2020. Overall, the Wordfence scanner found malware originating from a nulled plugin or theme on 206,000 sites, accounting for over 17% of all infected sites. Other obfuscated PHP backdoors made up the remainder of the top 5 most widely detected threats.

Link to the rest at Wordfence

PG says that you’ll spend far more money (or time) either trying to get your site back online or hiring someone to do it for you than any money you pay for malware protection. Also, while your site is down, nobody is able to learn more about you and your books.

Whenever PG reads the standard warnings about removing unused themes and plugins, he always double-checks TPV for any of those. It takes about 15 seconds.

One additional suggestion he’ll make is to update your theme promptly if you see the creator of the theme has an upgrade available. Sometimes updates are released, at least in part, to toughen up the protection of the site or to remove a potential vulnerability in a theme or plugin.

PG has used Wordfence for several years and has had no problems with anybody getting through. Typically, TPV is hit hundreds of thousands of times per month with malware attacks and none has ever gotten through.

There are other very competent malware protection software/service add-ons. Here’s a link to one of many articles you can find online reviewing various security products.

If you don’t use WordPress, it’s easy to find malware protection for other blogging software/platforms.

Three Authors’ Associations Address Status of Audible.com Talks

From Publishing Perspectives:

As we reported in late November, Audible‘s initial response to what writers called #Audiblegate was soundly rejected as inadequate by authors’ organizations.

Originally, Audible had allowed a subscriber to return or exchange an audiobook within 365 days—and had deducted an author’s royalties from her or his account when that happened if the audiobook was distributed through ACX, the Amazon-owned Audiobook Creation Exchange. This and a lack of an accounting for authors as to unit purchases and returns, the author corps stressed, was unacceptable, with some writers saying they’d seen between 15 and 50 percent of their anticipated ACX revenue withdrawn this way.

What Audible came back with was a reduction from 365 days for returns to seven days, pledging, “Audible will pay royalties for any title returned more than seven days following purchase.”

The writers were less than fully impressed, and a strong coalition of international author advocacy organizations and programs has continued putting pressure on the audiobook giant.

. . . .

It was in early February last year that the Association of American Publishers led an effort by seven major publishing houses to stop the company’s deployment of “Audible Captions” without a publisher’s permission.

In the current question about returns and transparency at Audible, an update arrived on January 20. In that statement, Audible’s ACX unit wrote that starting in March, its producing authors will be able to see details on returns, “including returned units by title” on their sales dashboards and in monthly financial statements, beginning with that month.

. . . .

The three organizations write that “at the heart” of the authors’ coalition’s complaints has been “a lack of transparency—around the implications for authors of key contract terms and in opaque accounting practices which make it impossible for any author to get a true picture of how their income is being calculated.”

. . . .

The original ask, the coalition reiterates, was:

  • “Provide a full and complete accounting of returns made pursuant to this policy since it was first implemented
  • “Limit the time period of returns and exchanges that could be deducted from royalty counts from 365 days to a reasonable period, such as 48 hours, and allow only ‘true returns’ (e.g., where less than 25 percent of the book has been read) to be deducted from royalty accounts
  • “Show the total number of unit purchases and returns on the author dashboards, not just the “net sales” already adjusted for any returns; and
  • “Take action against abuse of the ‘return and exchange’ terms by listeners”

Conceding that Audible “has made progress on some of these demands and other subsequent ones,” the coalition says, “our reasonable demands for a full and complete accounting of returns made to date—to recompense authors and narrators for returns unfairly charged back to their accounts, and to stop charging back returns when more than 25 percent has been read—have not been met.”

. . . .

Ability to Terminate Audible Distribution

Quoting the coalition:

“Starting February 1, all ACX rights holders (including authors who self-publish audiobooks through ACX, as well as independent publishers that rely on ACX services to create audiobooks)—both exclusive and non-exclusive—may, with notice, terminate distribution of any title that has been in distribution for at least 90 days. To withdraw titles created using a royalty share option with the producer, however, the ACX rights holder will need to obtain consent from the producer.

“Titles for which distribution is terminated will be removed from all sales and distribution through ACX including Audible, Amazon, and Apple. Audible will share details about the process for termination in the January payments letter, including details about how termination requests will be processed.”

The State of Play: ‘An Important Step Toward Fairness’

The coalition of three leading authors’ advocacy organizations in its summation, is indicating to the groups’ respective memberships exactly what good diplomacy dictates—an outlook that there is more progress yet to be made but that cooperation to date is worthwhile and to be appreciated. There are politicians working in many countries at this moment who could learn something from this.

What’s encouraging here is the bargaining efficacy these long-running authors’ organizations are able to show as they work through this thicket of rights holders’ and content providers’ issues with Audible. Even the leading writers’ trade associations in the field have been too easily dismissed at one time or another by some players—by no means all—in the publishing industry.

. . . .

“With input from independent authors,” the coalition writes, “we raised other issues, including the one-year commitment to exclusivity and the mandatory seven-year license term in Audible contracts, and are pleased to see that progress was made on these demands.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG is always happy for anyone to lobby for authors and other creators to be treated better by publishers of all sorts.

PG thinks that it would be great for authors’ organization to approach traditional print publishers to negotiate “a one-year commitment to exclusivity and the mandatory seven-year license term” in order to give authors of printed and ebooks the ability to move away from publishers who aren’t treating them right.

PG suggests there’s nothing special about what’s fair in audiobooks that should not also be considered for all the different formats for books that authors create.

PG will look forward to soon reading reports that the Authors Guild, the Society of Authors and the Alliance of Independent Authors are pressuring traditional publishers, large and small, for freedom from the onerous terms of typical print and ebook terms, such as exclusive contracts that are binding for the life of the author plus 70 years, twice-yearly royalty reports and payments, opaque reserves for returns provisions and practices that give authors no real information or rights to understand how such reserves are calculated and how long they will be held by publishers, etc., the ability to book sellers to return unsold printed books for full credit weeks or months after ordering and receiving them from publishers, etc.

Traditional publishing would be far fairer and more invested in the financial well-being of authors if it changed its publishing agreements in the same way these large authors groups, dominated by traditionally-published authors, are insisting Audible, an Amazon subsidiary, change its contract terms.

Learning About Book Covers: A Touch of Grey

From long-time visitor to TPV, Harald, a GoodReads article of an aspect of cover design PG hasn’t seen discussed elsewhere.

From GoodReads:

The Grayscale Test

Some background first. Most humans see the world via three color channels or receptors in the eye’s retina. With the Additive Color System (the one used for projected light as with TVs or LCD/LED screens and monitors), the three primary colors are Red, Green, and Blue (or “RGB”). Colors printed on paper (like paperback books) use the Subtractive Color System, which is different, although the main points below still apply in the image-making process.

[Illustration omitted]

Note that I said “most humans.” Because some have different degrees of color blindness where they have either a red/green or a blue/yellow deficit. But all humans respond instantly to differences in “contrast.” Contrast is the difference or “separateness” between two related things. But that’s a general definition. In regard to book covers, we’re talking about the contrast between the three main cover elements: main title, author’s name, and background image. Yes, there can be other elements, too (subtitle, taglines, quotes, series number, etc.), but let’s ignore those for now. If you want to catch readers’ eyes—which is one of the main functions of a book cover—then you want to increase the contrast of the main elements. And the place to start is in the pairing of the cover’s background with the title and author-name texts.

You have several options in trying to increase contrast between the background and these main text elements. You can make the text REALLY BIG. You can change the text fonts (style, weight, etc.). You can add drop shadows, panels, or outer glows. And you can play with your color selections. The latter is the focus of this post.

. . . .

Every pixel in a digital color (RGB) image—what every online (color) book cover is—can be described by the LAB Color Space model shown above. It’s a bit abstract, but what it means is that every color has three attributes: Hue, Saturation, and Brightness (aka Luminance or Lightness). The Hue is the color (is it red, purple, yellow?), and the Saturation is how “full” the color is—the farther to the outside, the “purer” the color is, the closer into the center, the grayer or weaker it is. Those two attributes are represented in the diagram above with the two “a”/”b” arrows. Don’t worry about that right now because the next part—Brightness or Lightness—is the important thing.

How light and bright is the color? Or, putting it another way, what’s the intensity of the electrons hitting the RGB phosphors on the screen you’re viewing at each point (pixel)? If full strength, it’s white or “100”. If nothing (nothing hitting the screen), it’s black or “0”. That’s the brightness range: 0-100. Every pixel of every RGB image falls somewhere along that range which is represented in the diagram by the vertical pole. That’s the “L” in LAB. And that’s all you see in a monochrome image, and that’s the key to all this.

When you do the Grayscale Test I’m suggesting, you’re stripping away the color information (the a/b stuff) from each pixel or point on the image and are left only with what’s somewhere along the 0-100 L pole. That’s Grayscale.

ABOVE: full RGB color at left, grayscale on right

Why Do Grayscale Testing?

Because our eyes sometimes fool us. And color can actually confuse things. The key to having a book cover design grab someone’s attention is Brightness Contrast. And this Brightness Contrast is more easily seen when color images are turned into grayscale. To prove the point, let’s look at a one-word, large-size title in different colors. And let’s make them saturated “pure” colors. Like you see below with the same word in different standard colors on a realistic photo background.

Above left are the main RGB Primaries in their “pure” forms: Red, Green, Blue (RGB!) plus White and Black. At right are the main “Secondaries” or “Complements”: Yellow, Magenta, Cyan, plus I added an Orange and a Purple to round it out.

Squint your eyes or shrink your browser’s View size and study them. If you have normal color vision, you’ll probably notice that a few stand out (on THIS background image) with reasonably good contrast. For me, that includes the white, blue, black, and maybe the yellow. They have the most contrast with the background. But the others don’t stand out as much; they don’t have as much contrast. I’m looking at you, red, green, magenta, cyan, orange, and maybe purple. Something about those is not quite right. They kinda blend into the background. Sounds like it’s time for the Grayscale Test to see what’s really going on.

Let’s Grayscale It

Grayscale is an old designer’s trick. Like flipping a design horizontally to view it. Or squinting your eyes. But it’s probably one of the best tools for reviewing your covers as they evolve through the creative process, whether DIYing it or using a paid designer.

So this is the trick: To check your initial thoughts or feelings about your text color selections, convert the cover image to Grayscale and take another look. This is easy to do in image-editing programs like Photoshop and lots of others. Usually just a couple of clicks. I typically use the Image > Mode > Grayscale conversion in Photoshop. It does the same thing as creating an adjustment layer for Hue/Saturation and bringing the saturation down to “0.”

And here’s what you get below from the exact same images when converted to grayscale:

Aha! Looking above, isn’t it easier to see now which titles have good contrast with the background and which don’t? That is the beauty of the Grayscale Test. It confirms what you may be feeling already, even if you can’t quite pin the problem down. The Grayscale Test lays it out for you in black and white (pun intended! :).

What you’re seeing in the two cloud images above is very simple. The sky background here is a “midtone,” meaning it’s somewhere in the middle of the 0-100 L pole above. There are variations with the clouds, but the whole background is somewhere in the 40 range on average. So—and this is the imporant part—the title words that will contrast the most with this midtone background are the ones as far away from 40 on the pole, i.e. the very lightest and the very darkest ones. THOSE are your best options for THIS background if you’re looking for the most contrast using only color selection as your tool.

There’s lots more from Harald at GoodReads, including more cover examples.