Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea

From The Wall Street Journal:

When the Argonauts—so the story goes—sailed toward the Black Sea, they had to deal with giants, harpies and murderous women. When, in April 2018, Jens Mühling, a German journalist and a writer, arrives on the Black Sea coast during the early stages of the journey he so vividly describes in “Troubled Water,” he ends up drinking—a river of alcohol flows through this book—with a Russian (Oleg, naturally) and a Crimean Tatar (Elvis, naturally) in the courtyard of a rundown fishing cooperative on the western tip of Russia’s Taman Peninsula. A mile away, a newly built bridge awaits its formal opening. It connects the peninsula with Russian-occupied Crimea: “We screwed up our eyes, shelled Black Sea shrimps, and observed the world’s largest country in the act of growing.”

That bridge or, more precisely, the circumstances that led to its construction, casts a shadow over Mr. Mühling’s narrative—a shadow longer even than he had intended. Informative and often entertainingly wry, “Troubled Water” was published in Germany in 2020. Today it is impossible to read Simon Pare’s English translation without thinking of the horror that has since enveloped much of the region to the Black Sea’s north and west.

In 2018, Mr. Mühling spots warships at anchor off the Russian city of Novorossiysk, “armour-clad giants, grey, hulking, and motionless, like crocodiles digesting the banquet they had devoured in Crimea,” a banquet now proven to have been no more than an hors d’oeuvre. Another passage unwittingly offers a small glimpse of what lay ahead for Russia itself: With economic sanctions in force after Crimea’s annexation, Western fast-food chains could no longer do business there. But a good number of their outlets were enjoying a rogue afterlife, operating more or less as before, but with local proprietors and, not infrequently, a name hinting at past glories. A Burger King had become a Big Burger, a Starbucks a Starducks, its logo replaced by a duck. Never mind that the actual Starbucks logo, as Mr. Mühling notes, depicts Mixoparthenos (half-maiden, half-snake), a creature out of ancient Black Sea myth.

In an epilogue, the author returns to the region eight months after his original journey to cross (rather than circle) the Black Sea, leaving on a freight ferry from Chornomorsk, a Ukrainian port south of Odessa, a city that has this year come under Russian missile attack. Worse probably is in store for Odessa, where Mr. Mühling admires the “splendid imperial facades” and finds the latest generation of a once large and famously vibrant Jewish community, drastically reduced by a World War II massacre (Odessa was occupied by Germany’s Romanian allies), Soviet-era assimilation, and emigration. Mr. Mühling discovers reopened synagogues, “a Jewish newspaper, a small museum, a few kosher restaurants—and Jews too, their number estimated at 10,000 by some, 30,000 by others. The community lived on.” That, a rabbi tells him, is “exactly what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to show that we cannot be destroyed. Hitler is gone, Stalin is gone, but we are still here.” So much for “Nazi” Ukraine.

Jason voyaged to the Black Sea to steal the Golden Fleece. Mr. Mühling sought the stories of the extraordinary mix of peoples who inhabit a littoral over 2,500 miles long. They are the descendants of settlers and conquerors, as well of those who were there long before—populations, or in some cases, the remnants of populations, scythed through, swamped and reshuffled by invaders, autocrats, ideologues and the repeated collision of cultures. Much of “Troubled Water” describes Mr. Mühling’s encounters with those he meets, using their lives and his own experiences to illuminate the here and now as well as the then.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

(A)I, RAPPER: WHO VOICES HIP-HOP’S FUTURE?

From Public Books:

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” raps Kanye West, in what sounds like an a capella cover of Freddie Mercury’s timeless opening lines. The performance is so convincing, you might be surprised to learn that it never really happened. Thanks to new AI, users can create vocal “deepfakes” of their favorite celebrities, the most popular example being a viral performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the disturbingly realistic “voice” of Kanye West.

It is incredibly easy to create a vocal performance using a famous rapper’s voice with the help of Uberduck, a popular AI-driven text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis engine. After logging in with a Gmail or Discord account, users can select from a drop-down menu of different categories (such as “rappers”) and then specify the individual voice within that category (such as the artist “Kanye West”). The user is then directed to either enter the text they wish to hear or select prewritten versions of sung and spoken snippets. After they instruct the system to “synthesize” all the information, the text is rendered audible, and the user has the chance to engage in further vocal processing, including changing the speed, pitch, and word length. Within minutes the performance is ready to be downloaded, overlaid on a TikTok video, and shared.

. . . .

In recent years, terms like “high-tech blackface” and “digital blackface” have become popularized, as scholars on race and media have begun to theorize how this dialectic shows up in unique ways in the technologies of the digital age, enabling non-Black people to adopt Black personhood through their avatars and across networked platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Much has been said by scholars, cultural critics, and everyday observers about the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the “blaccent” by non-Black people and companies seeking to harness the selling power of Black culture through tweets, memes, and other forms of quick content, with no investment in actual Black communities or people. Tools like Uberduck might therefore meaningfully be understood as extending these kinds of appropriative digital practices into the realm of sonic performance.

In many ways, my specific concerns about Uberduck are connected to broader developments that I have observed in regard to rap music, AI, and the veneer of techno-optimism that increasingly brings these worlds together. I am a Black feminist rapper with a PhD in science and technology studies (STS), a field that examines the social relations that coproduce scientific and technological knowledge and practices. As such, I have long been interested in exploring our dominant narratives about the technologies we make and use. So I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when a succession of stories at the intersection of rap performance and AI flitted across my radar last spring: first I was introduced to FN Meka, an “AI robot rapper” who, perhaps unsurprisingly, also sells NFTs. Around the same time, Google Arts & Culture announced the Hip Hop Poetry project, led by creative technologist Alex Fefegha, to answer the question of whether AI can rap. A few weeks later, I learned about the success of Uberduck imitating Kanye West. I listened only once before putting down my phone in discomfort.

I’ve since begun to think more deeply about the messaging around AI that emanates from stories like these—about whether, the creepiness and potential legal thorniness aside, we should uncritically accept the use of AI as a mode for crafting rap lyrics and performances. I worry that in our excitement to explore these new creative potentials we risk reproducing the same exploitative dynamics that currently separate Black and brown artists from the fruits of their labor, across music and countless other forms of entertainment.

Link to the rest at Public Books

From Uberduck.ai:

Case study: Yotta

Yotta contacted Uberduck in late 2021, wanting to create a memorable end-of-year wrap-up for Yotta’s users.

In two weeks, Uberduck helped Yotta create and ship 150,000 professionally produced rap songs with lyric videos, every one customized to each individual user. (Check out the video at the top of this page for an example.)

Yotta’s users loved their raps and shared them across social media, driving hundreds of new checking accounts.

“We aren’t your typical bank and wanted to stand out from the crowd with our year-end project. Yotta Rapped was just that – a fun and personal look at each user’s individual journey with Yotta over the past year. It wouldn’t have been possible without Uberduck.”

Adam Moelis – Co-Founder/CEO, Yotta

Link to the rest at Uberduck.ai

Uberduck includes an applet on its website that allows anyone to post a short bit of text, then synthesize it into an audio message after choosing a voice from what looks like a large number of users.

PG synthesized the following message using a voice titled “Casey Kasem” from a category called Radio Hosts.

Here’s the text, pulled from the Uberduck website:

Yotta contacted Uberduck in late 2021, wanting to create a memorable end-of-year wrap-up for Yotta’s users. In two weeks, Uberduck helped Yotta create and ship 150,000 professionally produced rap songs with lyric videos, every one customized to each individual user.

And below is the 15 second audio Uberduck created.

One Plotting Tool for All

From Writers in the Storm

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help all writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: 

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now.

The sentence is closer to a log line. But it’s not that either. It isn’t for marketing. It isn’t for your readers to understand. 

It’s a plotting tool, a sentence meant to help you focus your story. Maybe you’re like I was. You’ve heard writers are supposed to boil their story down to one sentence but you can’t figure out how to do it.

I did not get it until I took Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise A Novel” course. Simply put, she advised that the sentence included a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, and a hook. She recommended the sentence should be no more than thirty words in length. With her more detailed class instructions, I finally understood. Since then, I’ve studied how others use the story sentence and eventually made it my own. 

The Parts of the Sentence

I break down the sentence into parts–

An [adjective] [focal character] needs [to do something] for [an important personal reason] but [an adjective] [obstacle] needs [something] which [verb of conflict or stakes].

This is both easier and harder than it looks. Those of you who are grammar nerds may find my next statement objectionable. Don’t worry about grammar when you construct the story sentence. This isn’t about making a well-constructed sentence. It’s about getting the essence of your story down.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Want Strong Dialogue? Don’t Forget The Subtext

From My Story Doctor:

Realistic, evocative dialogue is an important part of any successful story. We need our characters’ interactions to be authentic, consistent, and engaging to draw readers into what’s happening. So when we’re learning to write, we spend a lot of time on mechanics—learning all the grammar and punctuation rules. But proper form is just the first step.

When writing strong dialogue, we often forget that real-life conversations are rarely straightforward. On the surface, it may seem we’re engaging in simple back-and-forth, but if you look deeper, to some degree our conversations are carefully constructed. We hide our emotions, withhold information, dance around what we really mean, avoid certain topics, downplay shortcomings, or emphasize strengths—all of which lead to exchanges that aren’t totally honest.

Completely candid dialogue scenes fall flat because that’s not the way people converse. Subtext plays a huge role in conversation. It’s often tied to how characters are feeling, which can trigger readers’ emotions and increase their engagement. So we need to include this crucial element in our dialogue scenes.

Simply, subtext is the underlying meaning. Hidden elements the character isn’t comfortable sharing—their true opinions, what they really want, what they’re afraid of, and emotions that make them feel vulnerable—constitute the subtext. They’re important because the character wants them hidden. This results in contradictory words and actions.

A Subtext Example

Consider this exchange between a teenage daughter and her dad.

“So how’d the party go?”

Dionne plastered on a smile and buried herself in Instagram. “Great.”

“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”

Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t dare swallow. Despite the hour, Dad’s eyes were bright, like spotlights carving through her mocha-infused fog.

“The usual. Sarah, Allegra, Jordan.” She shrugged. Nothing to see here. Move along.

“What about Trey? I ran into his mom at the office yesterday and she said he was going.”

“Um, yeah. I think he was there.” She scrolled faster, images blurring.

“He sounds like a good kid. Maybe we could have him and his mom over for dinner.”

Her stomach lurched. “Oh, I don’t know.” Her fingers trembled, so she abandoned the phone and sat on her hands to keep them still. “We don’t really hang with the same crowd.”

“Well, think about it. Couldn’t hurt to branch out and get to know some new people.”

Dionne blew out a shaky breath. How could her dad be so smart at work and so stupid about people?

Something happened at the party involving a boy Dionne’s now avoiding, and she clearly doesn’t want her father to know about it. While Dad is kept in the dark, the reader becomes privy to Dionne’s true emotions: nervousness, fear, and possibly guilt.

This is the beauty of subtext in dialogue. It allows the character to carry on whatever subterfuge she deems necessary while revealing her true emotions and motivations to the reader. It’s also a great way to add tension and conflict. Without subtext, this scene is boring, just two people chatting. With it, we see Dionne desperately trying to keep her secrets while it becomes increasingly difficult—even unhealthy—to do so.

So how do we write subtext into our characters’ conversations without confusing the reader? It just requires combining five common vehicles for showing emotion. Let’s look at how these were used in the example.

1. Dialogue

We all go a little Pinocchio when we start talking, and Dionne is no exception. Her words scream status quo: nothing happened at the party and she doesn’t feel anything in particular. But the reader can clearly see this isn’t the case.

2. Body Language

Nonverbal communication often reveals to readers the truth beneath a character’s words. Notice Dionne’s body language: the plastered-on smile, frantic social media scrolling, and trembling hands. Readers hear what she’s saying, but her body language clues them in that something else is going on.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

At the core of every moral code

At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.

Walter Lippmann

7 Common Types of Plagiarism

From The Grammarly Blog:

Plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s work as your own. That’s the most basic definition—there’s actually a lot more nuance to it, and you might be surprised to learn just how many different kinds of plagiarism exist.

. . . .

What is plagiarism, and why should it be avoided?

As we said above, plagiarism occurs when one writer attempts to pass off another writer’s work as their own. But that’s not all plagiarism is. Plagiarism also occurs when a writer references another’s work in their own writing and doesn’t properly credit the author whose work they referenced. It’s even possible for a writer to plagiarize their own work.

Plagiarism should be avoided for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s dishonest. Put simply, presenting another writer’s work as your own is lying.

Another reason to avoid plagiarism is that you don’t learn anything by plagiarizing another’s work. When your professor assigns an essay, they expect an honest effort from you to engage with the topic you’re covering, apply critical thinking skills, and demonstrate your ability to effectively develop, present, and defend your position. An original essay, flaws and all, shows your professor how you’re progressing in their class and any areas where you might need some extra support.

It’s also disrespectful to the original author. Writing is work, and it can be very challenging work at times. Claiming somebody else’s work as your own strips them of the recognition they deserve for the effort they put into creating it and gives yourself undue credit.

Keep in mind that although this blog post focuses on plagiarism in writing, it’s possible to plagiarize any kind of creative or academic work. Copying another artist’s work is a form of plagiarism, taking credit for another scientist’s research is plagiarism, and copying another app’s code and building your own with it without recognizing the original programmer is plagiarism. Basically, any act of presenting another person’s work as your own is an act of plagiarism. When you profit from an act of plagiarism, it’s known as intellectual property theft. Intellectual property theft is a criminal offense.

7 common types of plagiarism

Plagiarism comes in many forms. These seven types of plagiarism are the most common:

1. Complete plagiarism

This overt type of plagiarism occurs when a writer submits someone else’s work in their own name. Paying somebody to write a paper for you, then handing that paper in with your name on it, is an act of complete plagiarism—as is stealing or “borrowing” someone’s work and submitting it as your own.

An example of complete plagiarism is submitting a research paper for English class that your older sister wrote and submitted when she took the class five years ago.

2. Direct plagiarism

Direct plagiarism is similar to complete plagiarism in that it, too, is the overt passing-off of another writer’s words as your own. The difference between the two is how much of the paper is plagiarized. With complete plagiarism, it’s the entire paper. With direct plagiarism, specific sections or paragraphs are included without crediting (or even acknowledging) the author.

An example of direct plagiarism is dropping a line or two from your source directly into your work without quoting or citing the source.

3. Paraphrasing plagiarism

Paraphrasing plagiarism is what happens when a writer reuses another’s work and changes a few words or phrases. It’s a common type of plagiarism, and many students don’t even realize it’s a form of plagiarism. But if you’re presenting someone else’s original idea in your writing without crediting them, even if you’re presenting it in your own words, it’s plagiarism.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

While PG thinks plagiarism is a bad thing and no one should engage in the practice, he will disagree with some of the points in the OP.

In the United States, there is a vanishingly small possibility of being criminally prosecuted for plagiarism.

Generally speaking (no legal advice), to prove criminal copyright infringement charges (not exactly the same as plagiarism) in the US, the prosecutor/district attorney must produce evidence of three things the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt (and, since a criminal case can only be prosecuted by the government, you must persuade an overworked district attorney that your case is more important than the three murders, seven armed robberies and 18 burglary cases sitting on her/his desk when that individual has never heard of criminal copyright infringement before, let alone prosecuted anyone for it):

  1. the author had a valid copyright;
  2. the defendant used, copied, or distributed the material without the author’s permission;
  3. it was done on purpose; and (4) it was done for personal financial gain or business advantage.
  • Felony charges can be filed when 10 copies of a copyrighted work are reproduced or distributed with a retail value of more than $2,500.
  • Misdemeanor charges can be filed with just 1 copy and retail value of $1,000.

(Source of lists – Pate, Johnson & Church)

Plus some types of plagiarism described in the OP likely don’t rise to the level of copyright infringement.

That said, being publicly accused of plagiarism certainly has the potential to ruin an author’s reputation and, if credible, may attract attention online and in traditional media.

As the OP teaches, plagiarism is easily remedied by crediting the original source of whatever you’re writing.

Yes, if someone claims you’ve plagiarized their work and they’re wrong, you can probably sue them back as well.

With respect to using someone else’s idea without using their expression of that idea is not copyright infringement. Copyright protects the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves.

As PG has mentioned before, Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl (or many-gendered variations thereof) is not protected by copyright and he doesn’t think you can plagiarise a plot structure as simple as that or the wide variety of plots typically found in any sort of genre works.

Supreme Court Takes up Andy Warhol’s “Prince Series” Fair Use Circuit Split

From The National Law Review:

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to review the Second Circuit’s decision that Andy Warhol’s well-known “Prince Series” was not a “transformative” fair use of the copyrighted Lynn Goldsmith photograph that Warhol used as source material (see Bracewell’s earlier reporting here).

The Second Circuit’s decision conflicts with the Ninth Circuit, and is potentially at odds with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Google v. Oracle, which held that Google made “transformative” fair use of Oracle’s Java software language to build the Android smartphone platform. The Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the exact copying of computer code could be transformative if it “alter[ed] the copyrighted work ‘with new expression, meaning or message.’” Following Google, the Second Circuit issued a revised opinion in the Prince case that kept its original ruling and distinguished the Google decision as applicable to the “unusual context” of computer code. The high court is expected to settle the circuit split and provide much needed guidance on whether the Google ruling applies outside of the computer programming context.

The controversy arose when the Andy Warhol Foundation sued to fight allegations of copyright infringement from Goldsmith, a photographer who contended that she was not aware that Warhol had used her 1981 photograph of Prince until the music icon’s passing in 2016. A New York district judge ruled that Warhol’s series had transformed Goldsmith’s image from “a vulnerable human being” into an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.” Therefore, Warhol’s use of Goldsmith’s photo did not constitute copyright infringement.

The Second Circuit rejected the district judge’s consideration of the intent and meaning behind the work, and found that the Prince Series was not a “transformative” fair use of the copyrighted photograph because it retained the “essential elements” of the Goldsmith photograph without “significantly adding to or altering” those elements.

Link to the rest at The National Law Review

In the United States, there are both federal courts and state courts. Generally speaking state courts in a given state focus on resolving disputes arising under the statutes of a given state, although some federal questions are occasionally mixed-in with state legal issues.

Federal courts typically deal with matters arising under federal law, although disputes between residents of different states can, under some circumstances, be filed or removed to federal courts, (“diversity jurisdiction”).

The large majority of all legal disputes in the US are resolved in state courts and there are many more judges in state courts than there are in federal courts. Dissolutions of marriage, for example, are virtually all resolved in state courts.

There are a handful of states which have their own limited copyright laws, but the serious copyright action arises under federal copyright law and is those fights happen in federal courts.

United States federal courts are in three tiers

  1. Federal District Courts are found in every state and that’s where disputes governed by federal law originate.
  2. Federal Courts of Appeal fall into 13 circuits populated by about 180 appellate judges. These circuits were established long ago and range from geographically small – the Second Circuit covers the district courts located in Connecticut, New York and Vermont. To the geographically enormous like the Ninth Circuit, which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington plus the District Court of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth, governed by the US since the end of World War II.
  3. At the top of the Appellate Court hierarchy is the US Supreme Court, consisting of nine justices. As with all other federal judges, the Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.

The Supreme Court is required to hear appeals from a decision of one of the courts of appeal on some types of cases. With respect to other types of cases, the Supreme Court chooses which of the many appeals filed with them that the Court will accept.

The large majority of copyright cases end their lives in the Courts of Appeal. One of the more frequent types of cases the Supreme Court may accept is one where one or more of the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal has/have issued decisions that conflict with decisions made by one or more of the other Circuit Courts of Appeal.

Conflicting appellate court decisions regarding the Warhol copyright case is likely the principal reason why the Supreme Court accepted it. The Supreme Court doesn’t specify why it accepts an optional appeal, but conflicts between the circuits with respect to something that is a major financial player in the US economy such as copyright protection likely impacted the Court’s decision. Computer code, movies, television and books are only a few of the many major US industries that rely upon copyright issues. Of the top ten largest US companies per Fortune magazine, three – Amazon (2), Apple (3) and Alphabet (AKA Google) (9) generate an enormous portion of their revenues via copyright-protected products and services.

Here are small-form examples of some of the Warhol creations at issue in the above-described request for the Supreme Court to take the case.

Image Credit: The National Law Review

Is virtue signalling a vice?

From Aeon:

As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.

Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.

Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?

To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?

Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.

Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?

A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?

In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?

Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.

So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.

People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status

A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.

Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.

Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?

Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.

This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.

So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?

In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.

Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.

Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.

The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.

When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence

Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm ­making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG’s Rabbit Hole Warning: There are lots and lots of intriguing links in the OP that can burn up several hours of your time, seemingly in a heartbeat.

US Book Market: NPD BookScan’s Viewpoint on Q1 Book Sales

Publishing Perspectives:

The NPD report issued Monday (April 11) shows that United States’ market turning in a less high-flying performance in the week ending April 2 than some may have been lulled into expecting.

With her usual care to try to avoid scary headlines, NPD BookScan‘s Kristen McLean writes “While US print book sales in March lagged the previous five weeks by 1.8 million units, overall the US book market is turning in a very strong performance by historic norms.

“However, 2021 was far above historic norms, so that’s creating negative comps in all areas of the business, which is why it’s very important to benchmark against historic views.

“The book market is doing okay overall, but the sales softness is likely to continue past Easter in the wider American retail landscape, as domestic and global uncertainty, supply chain issues, and price inflation on non-discretionary categories cause consumers to tighten their belts. We’ll know for sure next month.”

As artfully as McLean is saying “what goes up must come down,” there are those who have been alarmed at the news this week, apparently having expected that COVID-19 would be a kind of permanent booster of the market into a new orbit.

. . . .

On today’s (April 15) “Velocity of Content” podcast from Copyright Clearance Center’s Christopher Kenneally, as a matter of fact, weekly regular Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly says the obvious: “We shouldn’t be so alarmed and it’s really not surprising, and it’s not as bad as the headline makes it sound. But it isn’t great news either. Right? So what is the news?

“Well, this is the NPD BookScan quarterly numbers are in and they show the unit sales of print books fell 8.9 percent in the first quarter, which ended on April 2, over the same period in 2021.

“Now 8.9 percent is a pretty big number,” Albanese points out, “and especially after the steady growth we’ve seen over the last two years. But again, none of this is unexpected.

“Remember, first-quarter sales in 2021 were crazy. They soared 29.2 percent over the first period of 2020.

“So while sales are down from a year ago, they’re still up about 16 percent over the first quarter of 2020 and the 183 million or so unit sales in the first quarter of 2022 is still well above 156 million units sold in the first quarter of 2019.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Perhaps PG is missing some nuances, but it seems to him that the headline might be something like, “COVID Caused the Book Markets and a Bunch of Other Markets to do Strange Things and Experts Don’t Know Why”

or

“Comparing Sales Without COVID to Sales With COVID is not Terribly Helpful Because COVID was a Black Swan of the First Order That Will Never Happen Again. Even If It Does Happen Again, It Won’t be the Same as It Was the First Time”

or

“Nothing is Going to Save the Traditional Book Business”

Creative Ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas

From Writers in the Storm:

Inspiration is a fickle beast. She strikes at inopportune times (3 AM, anyone?) then disappears for months on end. She doesn’t call, she doesn’t write. Or maybe she treats you differently, pouring on so many ideas that you can’t tell the golden nuggets from the stinky ones.

Finding and prioritizing story options can be a frustrating process, but it’s easier if you approach it from the right angle. Here are a few possible starting points.

Start with Genre

We know that emotions are transferrable, from author to page to reader, so writing something that gets you excited pays off in dividends.

  • What do you like to write?
  • What do you like to read?
  • Which kinds of stories are you passionate about?

Do you like fantasy? Which elements? Think dragons, portals, evil wizards, shapeshifters—then consider how those elements might be reimagined.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series gave us a whole new take on dragons, turning them from marauding villains into loving creatures that impress upon humans at birth and use their fiery powers for good.

Then, twenty years after the first book was published, she released the dragons’ origin story and how humans first came to Pern. While the previous books were straight fantasy, this one was also science fiction, showing the settlers traveling to the new world and using their technology to establish communities and bioengineer full-blown dragons from foot-long fire lizards. Dragonsdawn is an innovative blending of the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a way that was new and entirely fresh.

So think of the genre you want to write, then tweak the standard conventions to create something new. Or blend your preferred genre with another one and see what ideas come to mind.

Start with Character

Everyone’s process is different. It’s one of the things I love about the writing community—the vast diversity of thought and method that can birth uncountable stories. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who’s drawn to characters. They come to you fully-formed, or you have an inkling of who they are before you have any idea what the story’s about. If this is you, start by getting to know that character.

  • If you have a good idea of their personality, dig into their backstory to see what could have happened to make them the way they are.
  • If you already know about their troubled past, use that to figure out which positive attributes, flaws, fears, quirks, and habits they now exhibit.
  • What inner need do they have (and why)?
  • Which story goal might they embrace as a way of filling that void?

Characters drive the story, so they can be a good jumping-off point for finding your next big idea.

. . . .

Start with a Story Seed

But maybe it’s not characters that rev your engine. When I’m exploring a new project, I have no idea about the people involved. Instead, my stories typically start with a What if? question.

  • What if a man abandoned his family to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush—what would happen to them?
  • What if all the children under the age of 16 abruptly disappeared?
  • What if someone’s sneezes transported them to weird new worlds?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Romania’s streaming start-up Voxa targets EUR 1 million and international expansion in 2022

From The New Publishing Standard:

Running a catalogue of audio and ebook titles in Romanian and English, the Romania-based streaming platform Voxa has a market capitalisation of EUR 6 million ($6.5 million), up from just EUR 3.9 million ($4.3 million) in November.

The 54% leap in capitalisation reflects the way Voxa CEO Catalin Mester has aggressively marketed the company within the Romanian market.

Attracting the desired EUR 1 million ($1.08 million) comes on the promise of further expansion within Romania and beyond. Voxa intends to launch in neighbouring Moldova in this current quarter (Q2) and in 2023 expand to further countries.

The decision to expand into neighbouring Moldova is unsurprising given the shared history and language, but where the third country might be remains to be seen, although Germany, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary are known to be on the list.

Bulgaria is already home to Storytel, which dominates the market, but Hungary, Czech Republic and Estonia could offer Mester a chance to show off the Voxa potential to its fullest.

Another contender must be Serbia, where again a Romanian-speaking element would welcome the existing catalogue and Mester could likely bring on board Serbian publishers for the Voxa platform. Likewise Ukraine, but given the current situation there we can rule that out for the foreseeable future.

Voxa’s successful launch in Romania just six months ago has some impressive numbers to back the narrative, in mind Romania is a country of just 20 million people (helped by the fact that 15 million of those online).

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard and here’s a link to Voxa

No, there’s not a tight fit between Romanian streaming media and what TPV usually discusses, but, hey, its Romania and not Russia.

Let Fiction Be Fiction

From Publishers Weekly:

Since my debut novel, Other People’s Children, was published last April, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to tell which stories. Some of my readers don’t seem to think that I should have been allowed to write the book that I wrote.

I’m probably not the first new writer to obsessively read their Goodreads reviews. I know that it’s not good for me, but, well, we’ve all done plenty these past few years that isn’t good for us. My publisher’s sales force preferred to use initials on the hardcover. Many reviewers wrote that they didn’t realize RJ Hoffmann was male until after they finished the book and read the bio or noticed the picture on the jacket. That pleased me. Some of the most impactful characters in the book are women, and the assumption that I was also a woman suggested that I had succeeded, at some level, in writing those characters well. My favorite reviews remain those that refer to me with female pronouns. I was troubled, though, by the reviewers who found it problematic that a man wrote the book.

Other People’s Children tells the story of a couple who, after struggling with infertility, adopt a baby girl. The birth mother decides to reclaim her child after four days, and the adoptive parents choose to run rather than return the baby.

Was it my story to tell? I could tell you about the moment I first laid eyes on my own adopted children. I could tell you about the fierce love that hit me like waking from a deep sleep into a bright light. I could tell you that the book, for me, is about shattered expectations and the pain of separation from a child. I could tell you that my daughter was living in a residential treatment center while I wrote it, struggling with mood disorders layered atop autism, and I could tell you about all the expectations that experience shattered for me. I could tell you that, although Other People’s Children is not my family’s story, our story litters the margins of the book.

But what if I suggested that none of that matters? What if I let the story speak for itself? What if I asked you to judge my characters based upon their depth, their voices, their strengths, and their weaknesses, rather than upon the alignment of their experience with my own? My characters tend to be more interesting than me, stronger in so many ways. Strong characters facing down a difficult problem tend to demand the story that seems right to them, and I’ve learned not to force my own voice into their throats.

I’ve read many #OwnVoices novels in the past few years, and count some of them among my favorites. The movement applies a much-needed balm to the many decades of appropriation of marginalized cultures. But I chafe at the idea that those are the only stories worth reading, or, for that matter, writing. I would argue that many acres of fertile ground lie between cultural appropriation and direct experience. I would suggest that fencing writers into the back 40 of their own experience limits the imagination, tames the tales, and rations the portions of truth that nourish us.

For me, those vast acres are fertilized with empathy. I’ve read several thousand novels written from the subjectivity of people who are nothing like me (or like the writers who crafted them, for that matter), and I believe that experience has made me more empathetic. Considering life through eyes that aren’t mine seems the whole point of fiction. And as I learned to build a novel, I found that writing also centers on empathy. Empathy is the window to the core of every character. Writing Other People’s Children demanded that I inhabit every character fully, regardless of our similarities and differences. Nurturing empathy for my characters led me to respect them, to listen to them.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suggests that the question should be, “Did the author write a good book? Did it draw me in and engage my intellect and emotions?” instead of, “Was the author someone who has actually experienced everything that appears in the book?”

As PG has said before, stories don’t belong to the type of people depicted in the stories, they belong to the author, the person who created the story.

Nobody would expect an individual who wrote a history about the Roman Empire to be someone who actually lived then and there or whose great-great-great, etc., ancestor lived in Rome during the empire.

Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert and the book is now regarded as one of the most influential literary works in history, a seminal work of literary realism.

On the other hand, you have The Professor by Charlotte Brontë, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, in which the narrator, Dr James Sheppard, helps the famous male Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

One Way to Live Longer: Stop Worrying About Getting Old

From The Wall Street Journal:

Want to live an extra seven years? Think nice things about old people.

A new book on the psychology of aging argues that positive beliefs about growing old can add an average seven-and-a-half years to a person’s lifespan. Such good thoughts give the mind greater power over longevity than steps like lowering blood pressure (which adds roughly four years, according to the book), cutting cholesterol (four years), quitting smoking (three years) or losing weight (one year).

Becca Levy’s “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” uses scientific research to explore the impact of negative age beliefs on memory and hearing loss, cardiovascular issues and dementia.

What she found was a startlingly powerful mind-body connection, which is sometimes worsened by ageism and negative stereotypes about the elderly that can sabotage one’s future.  

“When it comes to how we age, society is often the cause,” she writes, “and biology the result.”

The book released last week offers hope for those who feel discouraged by the effects of aging, showing how people can improve their health by shifting their outlooks. It outlines what individuals and society can do to counter misconceptions about growing old. It examines cultures that revere the elderly, argues that genetics aren’t necessarily destiny and shows how physical accomplishments are possible even in old age. 

. . . .

How do negative thoughts affect health in older people?

People who take in more-positive age beliefs from their culture tend to eat healthier diets, exercise more, and they are more likely to take prescribed medications. When we strengthen positive age beliefs, people tend to have lower levels of different kinds of stress biomarkers—lower levels of cortisol over time, lower cardiovascular response to stress. And we have found evidence that they have higher levels of well-being and self-efficacy that can lead to beneficial health changes over time.

You challenge assumptions about old people and memory. Is the “senior moment” a myth?

The term is often used for labeling any kind of forgetfulness, which we know we can experience at any age. There are a lot of different reasons for it—somebody was distracted or stressed or angry—that can reduce our ability to encode information.

Some studies show that the ability to remember vocabulary and metacognition, or the ability to intentionally think about your own thought processes, can improve in later life. I talked with people for the book who showed some impressive examples of later-life cognitive mastery, like the 84-year-old actor who memorized the 60,000-word poem “Paradise Lost.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Why Every Writer Needs a Social Media Executor, NOW!

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

Social Media Executor? That may not be a term you’re familiar with, but believe me, you need one.

That hit home for me this week after the tragic death of my friend, the kind, talented, funny author Barbara Silkstone. I hadn’t heard from her for a month or two, so I went to check her Facebook page. But it had been gutted. All posts, photos, friends, etc. had been deleted. Nothing was there but her name, header and a link to her blog. And the link was dead. Her lovely website and blog had simply evaporated. Thunk.

I put a note on my own FB page asking if anybody had news of her. A FB friend posted a link to a page at the Austen writers’ group. Barb had written a dozen or more Pride and Prejudice “variation” novels, and the Jane Austen fans kindly put up a memorial page for her.

They said she had died in mid-February. That meant she went shortly after our last phone conversation. I knew she’d been suffering from a spine injury. But she had seemed chipper and positive and had been looking forward to crab cakes for dinner. I’d been planning to phone her again soon. Instead, I found out she’d been gone for two months.

Only the Jane Austen fans knew.

But what about the fans of Barbara Silkstone’s hilarious mysteries and other comic novels? They have no way of finding out about her. Will people still buy books from an author who doesn’t seem to exist? Social media is so important to book sales these days.

Whoever her heirs are, they will miss out on royalties by erasing Barbara from the Web. In deleting her, they are deleting their own profits. Somebody needed to clue them in.

None of this would have happened if Barbara had appointed a social media executor. I’m kicking myself for not volunteering to do it myself. I have written about this before, but I can see it’s worthwhile to do an update.

. . . .

A social media executor can be any trusted friend or relative who’s savvy about social media.

Make it clear to this person — it’s best to put it in writing — what you want to happen to your social media and website/blog when you’re gone. If you have a free blog, do you want your executor to keep it up and monitor it for comments and spam? (If you have a self-hosted blog or paid website you want preserved, that should be put into your will and communicated to your financial or digital executor.)

It’s often best if your social media executor isn’t also your financial executor. Appointing an online friend or fellow writer will take the burden off the family. Families have so much overwhelming stuff to deal with when there’s a death, that social media can seem trivial. That may be what happened with Barbara Silkstone.

A social media executor can protect your social media accounts and notify online friends of your death.

They don’t have to deal with anything financial.

Things like bank passwords — and book retailer information for indies — need to go to your financial or digital executor. (You’ll need a digital executor if your heirs aren’t computer-savvy.)

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

PG says a person’s title doesn’t bring any sort of magic with it. He doesn’t know what a probate judge in any jurisdiction would do if faced by someone claiming to be a Social Media Executor who is disagrees with what the Executor named in the will, whose powers and responsibilities are set forth in various state laws and legal opinions by the state’s courts, is doing with a deceased author’s social media accounts.

PG suggests that an author’s executor needs to be a responsible individual with business savvy and good judgment. If a trust is involved in the author’s estate plan, the same qualifications would be a good idea for the trustee.

While there is certainly room for innovation in designing an estate plan for an author (or a great many other occupations), selecting someone whose middle name is “Reliable” or “Conscientious” is the first and most important thing to consider. A reliable and conscientious person can make good decisions on the spot, based upon facts on the ground after an author (or anyone else) dies. Tying that person’s hands with extensive directions in a will or trust when the state of things in the future is simply not known is, in PG’s deathly reasonable opinion, almost always a bad idea.

One of the most common stories one hears from estate planning attorneys working in rural areas is the difficulty in talking a third-generation farmer or rancher from inserting a provision in the estate plan that boils down to, “Whatever you do, don’t sell the farm/ranch!!!”

One such story concluded with a wiser/cooler-thinking individual saying, “Frank, your daughter owns the biggest scuba-diving school in Honolulu and your son is an investment banker in Manhattan. Which one is going to move to Iowa to farm corn?”

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Abandonment

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Abandonment

Notes
While death and loss are a part of life, they’re incredibly difficult to deal with. Being left behind (whether the leaving is voluntary or a choice) by someone important is something that many people and characters can worry about, even to the point of it becoming a fear that takes over their life.

This is one of the worst feelings to experience and it can be inflicted by anyone close to the character—a family member (parent, spouse, sibling, child), lover or romantic interest, best friend, mentor, etc. Someone who has experienced abandonment may develop a debilitating fear of it occurring again, but so can people who have never gone through it because they know the anguish it causes and don’t want it to happen to them.

Whether it looks like guardedness or holding on too tightly, a fear of abandonment can manifest in a number of ways.

What It Looks Like

  • Maintaining shallow relationships (so the character never grows close to someone who could leave them)
  • Reluctance to fully commit to a relationship
  • Sabotaging promising relationships by pushing the other person away, treating them badly, cheating on them, abandoning them first, etc.
  • Believing that people are going to leave (due to insecurity, feeling unworthy of love, etc.)
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Becoming possessive or manipulative as a way of controlling the other person and keeping them from close
  • Staying in an unhealthy relationship because the character believes it’s better than being alone
  • Attaching too quickly to a partner, friend, etc.
  • Seeking frequent reassurance of the other person’s loyalty or love
  • Making demands of the other party that will “prove” their love or loyalty
  • Separation anxiety
  • Being extremely sensitive to criticism
  • Seeking to please and appease
  • Struggling with emotional intimacy
  • Reading too much into the other person’s words or actions
  • Common Internal Struggles
  • The character blaming themselves for things that aren’t their fault
  • Struggling with anxiety or depression
  • Being tempted to do something they don’t want to to keep the other party happy
  • Feeling worthless or unlovable
  • The character wondering what’s wrong with them (that causes people to leave)
  • Wanting reassurance from the other person but not wanting to come off as clingy or desperate
  • Feeling defective and unfixable
  • Worrying that they will never be happy

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Biographer Antonia Fraser Tells the Stories of Women Who Made History

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Antonia Fraser’s bestselling biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette probed the unique travails of female monarchs in eras dominated by men. Her 1984 book “The Weaker Vessel,” about the grim lives of women in 17th-century England, has been hailed by critics as a pioneering feminist work.

Yet despite her familiarity with historical sexism, Ms. Fraser was shocked when she learned about Caroline Norton. a well-born Englishwoman and prolific writer, who in 1836 was publicly accused by her husband George of having an affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. George punished Caroline by stealing away their three young children and keeping the proceeds from her writing for himself. “The fact that she was found innocent of adultery, yet George Norton could throw her out of the house, legally take away their three children and live off the copyright of her books, that absolutely stunned me,” Ms. Fraser, 89, says over video from her home in London, while her two cats sashay around the room. “I was surprised by the appalling state of women’s legal rights. It seemed there’d been no progress since the 17th century.”

In “The Case of the Married Woman,” published in the U.S. next month, Ms. Fraser writes that Caroline Norton was witty, beautiful and charismatic, the author of over a dozen well-received novels, plays and volumes of poetry. Yet the writings she is best known for today are her pamphlets arguing for the rights of married women. “A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men,” Norton once lamented. Her advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, arguably the first feminist legislation in English history, which made it possible for mothers to petition the courts for custody of their children. She was also instrumental in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which expanded access to divorce and gave women legal protection from exploitation by their husbands.

“The more I knew about her, the more I admired her,” Ms. Fraser says. When it came time to write about the tragic and needless death of Norton’s youngest son while he was in the negligent care of his father, she admits “there was a tear in my eye, because I identified so much with her at that point.” This sense of “tremendous kinship” came largely from the fact that Norton was both a writer and a mother—“those two strong calls, which I experienced, too,” Ms. Fraser says.

Ms. Fraser had just given birth to the last of her six children with her first husband, the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser, when she began writing her first work of serious historical biography, “Mary Queen of Scots.” Published in 1969 when she was 36, the book was a bestseller in 11 languages, and Ms. Fraser says it changed her life overnight. Her latest is her 30th book, including 10 novels, two memoirs and two books for children. She credits the daunting output to her discipline during her “sacred” working hours between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. “According to my children, there was a notice on the door saying only come in if you’ve broken a leg. I deny it,” she says with a mischievous smile. She now has 20 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren: “There’s something so exciting about babies, though they do grow into teenagers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

A Statue Gives Romans a Voice

From Public Books:

When I arrived in Rome, a little more than a year ago, the streets of the Eternal City had emptied. Previously busy thoroughfares looked like metaphysical paintings by De Chirico: unobstructed views down vacant streets were only punctuated by the passing of a single masked pedestrian, the green flash of a pharmacy sign, or the flutter of the plastic walls of a small white tent used for COVID testing in the winter wind. The famous palatial museums and domed churches of the city were all closed. When I had previously visited Rome, in the summers to work as an archaeologist on excavations, I was always amazed by the auditory volume: how animated conversations, the clanking of bottles, and the sound of wheels over cobblestones echoed off tall apartment buildings. But in January 2021, it was possible to hear a siren from an out-of-sight ambulance or the sound of a newscaster filtering out of a window, announcing the most recent totals: 80,000 dead.

And the numbers were rising again. The plateau of deaths achieved by the first strict lockdown had more than doubled. On December 3, 2020, 993 patients died in one day, the highest daily toll since the start of the pandemic. As I walked through the Trastevere neighborhood—normally full of tourists and those catering to them—I saw a bar famous for its normally raucous crowds and cheap beers, now shuttered. Above it hung a large paper sign, posted during the strict lockdown months before. It read “Ci vorrebbe un miracolo” (we need a miracle). The paper was tattered and starting to sag.

Nearby, but on the other side of the river, was the reason I’d come. I was in Rome to work on my dissertation project about ancient sculpture, and in particular one ancient Roman statue now known as “Pasquino.” Unlike most of the very old statues I study, this fragmentary monument still stands outside at nearly the spot where it was excavated 521 years ago. But in a city full of ruins, this one meant something special.

The first time I saw the Pasquino on the 2021 trip, I found that I was alone with the sculpture. Several small pieces of paper were taped to its plinth. Like the “We need a miracle” sign, these notes were torn and hard to read, evidently posted days or weeks before.

Rome is covered in graffiti to such an extent that posted and scrawled words on buildings in the city center seem to be simply part of the city’s carefully maintained patina, like the peeling orange and yellow plaster facades of Baroque buildings or the characteristic black cobblestones known as pietrini. Most of the posted notes were written in Italian. 

. . . .

I knew from my interest in the Pasquino statue that the practice of posting such notes on it was not new. In fact, the people of Rome have been leaving notes on the monument for over half a millennium.

. . . .

The next time I saw the Pasquino, this centuries-old tradition was in full effect. The night before, an Italian American artist had covered the statue’s entire plinth in strips of butcher paper as part of a guerilla installation. The brown paper was punctuated by anonymous quotes written in black marker, mostly in English, which the artist had collected online. This work was inspired by the same tradition that I had come to Rome to study: centuries of posting certain kinds of messages, known as pasquinades, on the Pasquino statue.

Still, most passersby kept moving.

However, by that afternoon, something curious had begun to happen: Romans were writing their own thoughts on the large butcher paper, or even attaching their own notes on small pieces of paper beside the artist’s. These began as small additions: a pair of initials, an “I love you,” or a crude drawing. However, the notes did not stop there.

When I returned the next day, there were more, including lines about politics written in the Roman dialect. Although the intervention had been initiated by a visitor, the relative lack of tourists in Rome created a unique situation: the Pasquino had reverted to a venue largely for Romans by Romans. The artist’s installation and the further contributions had a sort of magnetic effect, drawing in pedestrians and spurring the addition of more and more notes. Many were clearly by children: “I want everyone to be happy.” Many focused on the pandemic: “Go away COVID!”

Not all of the lines were appropriate or even legible. But I thought of how, even back in the 16th century, the people of Rome—whether born there, living there, or just visiting—had decided for centuries to document such writing. I felt that these should be similarly documented. I returned to the monument each day to photograph the notes and meet the locals who would gather to read them.

. . . .

The Pasquino monument witnessed the vicissitudes of empire, including a plague and multiple waves of religious persecution. When comparing ancient and modern events, there is always a danger of drawing false or simplistic parallels. But it is easy to see how history can repeat itself in the Eternal City.

The statue is likely about 1,900 years old. And, although broken, the original composition is still known: the statue represents the recovery of a fallen Homeric hero from behind enemy lines during the Trojan War. In the sculpture, the living warrior’s head twists dramatically to look behind him as he drags the corpse of his dead comrade: he is not yet safe.

Perhaps the dead warrior lifted from the ground was Achilles, or his ill-fated companion Patroclus. Either way, the image would have spurred an ancient Roman viewer to do the “right” thing: to be brave against all odds, to be dutiful to their country and comrades, and to recover and respectfully bury the bodies of the dead.

The marble copy of the statue from the Parione district in Rome was originally displayed near the Stadium of Domitian. This was a huge boat-shaped building, built around the year 80 CE, that was used to entertain the Roman masses with Greek-style footraces and other athletic events.

Some hundred years after the stadium was built, in the second century CE, Roman soldiers returning from campaigns in the east brought a new illness home with them, likely smallpox. As many as two thousand people died in the city of Rome each day in the year 189 CE. Some historians estimate that up to 10 percent of the empire’s total population was felled, including the co-emperor Lucius Verus. Spurred by this catastrophe and a series of other political and economic crises late in the Roman Empire, the demographics of Rome began to shift. Christians were publicly executed in stadiums like Domitian’s; their deaths served as entertainment alongside games.

Link to the rest at Public Books

via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons

Two years ago schools shut down around the world. These are the biggest impacts

From National Public Radio:

Two years ago this month, schools closed their doors in 185 countries. According to UNESCO, roughly 9 out of 10 schoolchildren worldwide were out of school. It would soon be the biggest, longest interruption in schooling since formal education became the norm in wealthier countries in the late 19th century.

At the time, I spoke with several experts in the field of research known as “education in emergencies.” They gave their predictions for the long-term implications of school closures in the United States based on the research on previous school interruptions caused by war, refugee crises, natural disasters and previous epidemics.

Two years on, schools are open and masks are coming off in most places, restoring a feeling of normalcy.

So, how have these predictions played out? Let’s take a look.

Prediction: Student learning will suffer. Vulnerable and marginalized students will be most affected.

Verdict: TRUE

In the United States, compared with wealthy countries in Western Europe and East Asia, schools were typically closed longer. A majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian students stayed remote through early 2021. In the fall of 2020, enrollment dropped, driven by families who sat out pre-K and kindergarten.

All the data we have to date shows students falling behind where they would have been without the interruption. As predicted, these gaps are consistently bigger for low-income, Black and Latino children. This study from November found these gaps were bigger at schools that had less in-person learning in the 2020-2021 school year.

Some of the latest research focuses on students learning to read. One recent study in Virginia found early reading skills at a 20-year low this past fall.

In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, schools were closed for a few months, and student learning recovered to its previous trajectory after two full school years – and then improved from there. Post-COVID recovery could take even longer.

Prediction: A spike in the high school dropout rate and a fall in college enrollment.

Verdict: MOSTLY TRUE

For the class of 2020, districts relaxed graduation requirements, and students graduated in similar or even improved numbers compared with previous years. For 2021, it was a different story. Data is incomplete, but Chalkbeat reported recently that high school graduation rates were trending down in most states for which they had data. And district superintendents have told NPR they are missing older students who have traded schooling for paid work.

Federal data, meanwhile, show college enrollment is down more than 1 million students over the past two years. This is an international phenomenon that could reduce earnings around the world by a total of $17 trillion if not addressed, the UN predicts.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

The COVID shutdowns were, among many other things, a huge sociology and psychology experiment for the world. Different nations responded in different ways, but most acted quickly and for most people, a lack of normalcy continued over an extended period of time.

PG suggests that the consequences/results of the COVID period will continue to be analyzed for quite a number of years into the future.

PG remembers reading about/talking about other similar shared shocks in somewhat recent history.

  1. Everyone in the United States who alive and cognizant of world affairs remembered where they were and what they were doing when they learned that the Japanese had attacked Peral Harbor.
  2. Everyone in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) (alive and cognizant) remembers where they were when they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
  3. Everyone in a much more media connected world remembers where they were when they heard that the World Trade Center in New York City was destroyed by hijacked airliners and recalls the experience of watching replays of that event over and over again on television.

These were shared events that shocked nearly everyone, traumatized more than a few and left lasting memories and, for more than a few, consequences thereafter.

Each event was different in significant ways, but the communal disruption and group emotional impact had some similar emotional impacts, short-term and long-term and certainly resulted in a more consequential communal impact than other memories during the relevant time period. PG suggests that COVID will be another such disruptive and traumatizing event, different in some ways from earlier events/periods, but similar in others.

Psychiatrists and psychologists will be picking up the pieces for a long period of time. Millions of news stories and think-pieces and masters/doctoral theses will result. Urban legends will proliferate.

Getting Over It

From Writer Unboxed:

Last week my youngest daughter went back to work in her office for the first time since the pandemic began. It was harder than she expected. Her office is an open space with dozens of cubicles, and she found herself distracted by all the faces and voices, by the need to be “on” all day with people, self-conscious about others overhearing her as she conducted meetings from her cubicle. It felt, she said, like being thrown into the proverbial deep end of the pool and being told to swim. And this kid is an extrovert. Maybe the organization could have handled this transition better, she said.

And I said, How much experience do you think your company has with transitioning employees back to in-person work after a global pandemic? They’re learning as they go, too. We’re all figuring it out.

This made me think of one of the newer aspects of what we’ve been through the past few years, which is RECOVERY. As writers, we spend a lot of time thinking through the trials and tribulations our characters have to face. We all know the basic story diagram of background/inciting incident/rising action/climax/falling action/resolution. But who are our heroes after they’ve survived their ordeals? How do they get through their days, interact with the world? If their ordeal has affected other characters and the world they inhabit, how are those others coping? What does this new world look like?

As you write your characters into the latter parts of their story, as they come out the other side of whatever you’ve put them through, think through all the aspects of their recovery (or rebirth or redemption or healing). Flesh out their adaptation to their post-ordeal selves and post-ordeal world. Consider:

What they value. Whether your character has been through a broken love affair, an epic battle, a devastating loss, a challenging journey, or whatever hell you’ve unleashed upon them, it’s a good bet their priorities have changed. Look at us as we emerge into this post-pandemic world, for instance. I know I spend less time sweating (or doing) the small stuff and more time prioritizing people I love and making time to do things I genuinely enjoy. Connection of all kinds means more to me than ever, and I will never take hugging for granted again., What were your character’s priorities before? What are they now? How and why did what they’ve endured change those priorities?

Who they value. Facing down challenges has a way of clarifying your vision, so you see more clearly the people who lift you up, and the people who drag you down. Forged by adversity, it’s easier to turn your time and attention and energy toward those who restore you, and away from those who deplete you. Who are those others in your character’s life? How has their relationship to those closest to them changed?

The dark side. Listen, when you go through an ordeal of some kind, you rarely emerge unscathed. Sometimes hardship heightens our flaws and our fears; sometimes it scars us in ways that leave us forever different and a little (or a lot) damaged. Someone who was prone to melancholy before an ordeal may find themselves more likely to sink into black holes of despair afterwards; someone who was filled with hubris may become more patronizing and condescending. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it may not make you kinder, braver, calmer, or cheerier.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Final Brandon Sanderson Post

From Kristine Kathryn Ruch:

Well, Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter is one for the record books. It became the highest grossing Kickstarter about a month before his Kickstarter closed. And then it continued to make money, finally ending at $41.7 million.

Brandon himself estimates that when this is all said and done, and every one of 185,341 backers have received their books and swag, he will get roughly a high-end novel advance for each book. That’s disingenuous, though, because these orders on Kickstarter are pre-orders.

I have no idea how many of his readers didn’t want to spend money on Kickstarter or lived under a rock somewhere and somehow didn’t hear about the Kickstarter. Those folks will buy the books in a bookstore, either online or brick-and-mortar. Libraries haven’t picked up their copies yet, and to my knowledge, no foreign sales have been made yet either.

The earnings potential for these books has just started, and they technically aren’t published yet. (I dealt with that in my first post, oh so long ago, on this Kickstarter.) One more thing about the way that Brandon will earn money on these books: the publicity for this Kickstarter alone is the kind that money can’t buy. He’s been all over TV and the financial media, talking about the Kickstarter.

Of course, this has sparked a heck of a backlash, particularly from those who work or have worked in traditional publishing. Some regular readers of this blog made me laugh out loud with their private letters, telling me that Brandon won’t know what hit him at tax time and that this is actually bad news for writers because it gets their hopes up.

I dealt with a lot of the jealousy and the willful blindness in this post, but let me simply say this: Brandon knows business, and I’m sure he’s aware of the tax consequences. I’m also certain that he has advisers who will help him through the financial maze ahead of him, especially considering he’s done this before (albeit on a much smaller scale).

The jealousy, the back-biting, and the fear from traditional publishing folks was to be expected, I suppose. A lot of people don’t want to see success.

And as I predicted at the beginning of March, the bulk of the argument against (against!) this Kickstarter is that Brandon is a unicorn.

But he’s not. Any writer who wants to spend the time cultivating their fanbase can grow a huge Kickstarter. Brandon put a lot of time and effort into his. He does things that I know I could do, and over the years I have actively chosen not to. Not because I disapprove, but because I know who I am and how I work best.

That’s what writers do.

But let’s move past the pettiness and the stupidity to something much more important.

The fact that, no matter what the trad pub folk want to believe, this is a game-changer.

I’m writing this in early April. A few days ago, I read a thread on Facebook filled with my trad pub pals—some writers, some former editors, at least one publisher, and to a person they agreed that no other writer will ever have success at Kickstarter. Ever, ever, ever. It’s sad too, because (these folks said) now writers will become even more disillusioned than before.

Here’s the thing: as is often the case with traditional publishing, these folks were going with their gut and not looking at the facts.

Because as they were pontificating, writers were making more than their usual novel advances on Kickstarter.

Kevin J. Anderson made $46,000 for the next book in his Dan Shamble series. The series, which he is now doing indie, originally started in a New York house. He never made that much as an advance on any of the Dan Shamble books. Kevin was doing it for the love. And as with Brandon, the earnings have just started.

Christina F. York set a modest goal for her Christy Fifield mystery novel and as of this writing it looks like she will triple it. She was dipping a toe into Kickstarter with an already finished (but unpublished) book, and has been surprised and pleased at the response.

Over two Kickstarters, which we conduct through WMG Publishing, we’ve made $54,000 so far in 2022—at least according to the front-facing data. We made so much more, through other means that the Kickstarter (um) kickstarted.

. . . .

A quick search of the publishing category on Kickstarter, sorted for active campaigns, showed me book projects that have funded and brought in (so far) anywhere from $50,000 to $500. The bulk of these are in the $10,000 category per novel…which is, roughly, what any new writer can expect from traditional publishing these days.

Of course, if the writer goes traditional, their advance will be split into (at minimum) three payments. I also have to assume that anyone who is going traditional also has a book agent, and they’re paying that person 15%. So, instead of getting the money up front, these traditionally published writers are getting 85% split into payments scattered over a year or more.

. . . .

What it means is that he is teaching his backers to look through Kickstarter as another way to discover books.

That’s 185,000 people who now know that they can find good books on Kickstarter. Often, those people can get the books early or at a discount or both.

Not all of those 185,000 people will ever back a Kickstarter again. Some of them will only back Brandon’s Kickstarters. But there’s a goodly percentage who will now browse Kickstarter as a way to discover new books.

The fun thing about Kickstarter is that it’s a great way to gauge reader interest in a project. We did so with Fiction River ten years ago. I was sorta kinda doing it with the Fey. I was wondering if readers even remembered the books, since they had been published so long ago.

We got a great response.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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

We Need to Talk About the Mental Health Effects of Book Bans on Authors

From Electric Lit:

It seems like every day there’s a new slate of bad news for the queer community in the United States. From anti-trans legislation in Texas to the Florida governor signing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to books being pulled off shelves—nationwide—for no reason other than who their writers are: queer authors, authors of color, and queer authors of color. It’s an unending slew of depressing headlines.

I feel helpless. When I hear the governor of Florida claim that discussion of sexual identity in school is “indoctrination,” I am filled with endless rage and sorrow. Telling kids about people like themselves is nowhere near as close to “indoctrination” as removing all other viewpoints and identities, or teaching them only one way to be good, and right, and acceptable. That’s the childhood I had, and its effects still linger.

Having lived through actual indoctrination, and knowing first hand what it’s like not having access to books that could have helped me see myself, and the larger world, in a better light, I am passionate about making sure future generations get to see their experiences; see those unlike them; and choose to live their lives to the fullest of their own identities. This is partly why I started writing queer stories myself—books helped me see my own identity more clearly. They helped me come out to myself as bisexual, and I want my writing to give that gift to others, especially teens who are trying to figure life out. As demoralizing as it is for me—a queer aspiring kidlit author—to read these headlines, they have a different impact on me than they do on the authors whose books are currently, and routinely, in danger of being pulled off shelves. 

I spoke with two kidlit authors, Mark Oshiro and Kyle Lukoff, about what it’s like to have a book challenged and/or banned. Both of these authors are award-winning and beloved, and I’ve seen them speak out on social media against book bans, as well as the distressing effects of having their books challenged. 

During our conversation, Oshiro referenced an interview Amanpour & Company did with Jason Reynolds, another author whose books have frequently been challenged and banned. Reynolds said having his books questioned in this manner, “ … offends me, and quite honestly, it hurts my feelings.” Oshiro added that seeing their books on lists challenging and banning them, “sucks a lot.” They said it reminds them of their own childhood, when sex education was so frowned on in their school district that there were literal portions of pages cut out of textbooks, which teachers could not acknowledge. “It’s triggering, it’s upsetting,” Oshiro said. “I worry about the kids who are in these emotionally precarious positions looking at the adults around them who … want to treat them like they don’t exist.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG posted this because it relates to books that public schools (or their boards or superintendents or principals or teachers or parents) don’t want to buy their books for students of the school to read.

As PG mentioned before, if an author publishes a book, does PG have to purchase it? Does PG have to purchase it in order to make it available for school-age children in the neighborhood around Casa PG?

Publishing a book doesn’t mean that anyone has the obligation, express or implied, to buy that book.

PG has no doubt that LGBQT authors are upset when people don’t want to by their books because of their identity. PG has no doubt that Baptist authors or Russian authors or African-American authors are upset when people don’t want to buy their books because of their religion or nationality or race.

Operating a library other than the Library of Congress involves choices – choosing one book and not choosing another. If you were a librarian working for a government entity whose salary is paid by the people in the local community, would you feel that the wishes of the people in the community regarding books you purchased or didn’t purchase should be considered? Honored? Respected?

If you want to buy books with no consideration of whether people who you think might want to read them or will want to borrow them for themselves or others, start a private library. Use your own money to buy the books. Collect voluntary donations from like-minded individuals for the purposed of acquiring books for your library.

For a public library in the US, ultimately, there is a group of someones somewhere who are elected by the majority of those who vote and those elected officials quite often want to please the people who elected them, thinking that the elected official would run the governmental entity for which she/he/they are responsible in a manner that the voters think is useful and wise.

Exit Strategies for Alaskan Wine Bars

From Electric Lit:

Leigh Newman is a queen of detail. Not motes-in-the-air kind of details (though I’m sure she could describe a dust cloud and make it sparkle like rubies and emeralds), but the assemblage-of-particularities-and-peculiarities sorts of details that jump off the page and burrow into your brain. The first we encounter in “Valley of the Moon” is on the city bus, the delightfully (and truly) named People Mover of Anchorage. The narrator’s erstwhile neighbor “smells of poop and woodsmoke and sticky raspberry brandy.” Not a great list of smells, I’ll admit, but evocative, both of the smeller and the smelled—and important for our purposes. When we learn the smeller, our viscerally self-aware and self-deprecating narrator, Becca, is an experienced drinker (riding the bus because of her revoked license, owing to a “wet and reckless” the previous year), who’s had to clean up quite a few messes made by herself and her mother, suddenly the more subtle corners of that description billow out from a one-liner into something with a second and third dimension.

That variety of slight and slanted character development, her elegant and unsettling world-building, shows up again and again across “Valley of the Moon.” The next scene opens in Anchorage’s version of a schmancy wine bar, which was in a former life a dentist’s office and still has that vibe; the entry hall is lined in rent-a-plants and the bar shares a bathroom (the key tethered by a piece of forget-me-not driftwood) with a podiatrist’s office. Not the most ambiance, but perhaps the most this corner of the world, known for many things but not its French bistros, can offer. Here two sisters—one with a do-not-serve on her ID, one with a hugely pregnant belly—order a bottle of very expensive wine from the world’s most (rightly) skeptical waitress. From there, decades of lived experience, resentment and disaster and love, pour out of Becca, the glass of red and dozen raw oysters (“hunks of dead lung on a shell,” for the record) and the waitress’s scar all acting a bit madeleine-ish.

It’s a creeping suspicion at first, that there’s some architecture and intention to these wild, wily details, the weave of present and past, but as time and the story march on, you come to realize that while Newman’s descriptions may be presented casually, often seeming to be off-handed oh-by-the-ways, they are the opposite of chockablock. You’ll have to get to the end of “Valley of the Moon” to understand why it’s absolutely elegant, and a bit heartbreaking, that the story starts on public transit and that these sisters reunite in a French-ish bar, but Newman’s route through strange smells and vivid memories and delicately rendered disaster is worth every turn.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

But nothing of a nature foreign to the duties of my profession

But nothing of a nature foreign to the duties of my profession [clergyman] engaged my attention while I was at Leeds so much as the, prosecution of my experiments relating to electricity, and especially the doctrine of air. The last I was led into a consequence of inhabiting a house adjoining to a public brewery, where first amused myself with making experiments on fixed air [carbon dioxide] which found ready made in the process of fermentation. When I removed from that house, I was under the necessity making the fixed air for myself; and one experiment leading to another, as I have distinctly and faithfully noted in my various publications on the subject, I by degrees contrived a convenient apparatus for the purpose, but of the cheapest kind. When I began these experiments I knew very little of chemistry, and had in a manner no idea on the subject before I attended a course of chymical lectures delivered in the Academy at Warrington by Dr. Turner of Liverpool. But I have often thought that upon the whole, this circumstance was no disadvantage to me; as in this situation I was led to devise an apparatus and processes of my own, adapted to my peculiar views. Whereas, if I had been previously accustomed to the usual chemical processes, I should not have so easily thought of any other; and without new modes of operation I should hardly have discovered anything materially new.

Joseph Priestley

Priestly (1733-1804) invented carbonated water, argued with Lavoisier concerning the true nature of oxygen, wrote a noted book about English grammar and another titled The History and Present State of Electricity, 700 pages in length, which remained the principal history of electricity for over a century, plus Essay on the First Principles of Government. In this latter publication, Priestly distinguished political rights from civil rights with precision and argued for expansive civil rights. Priestley identified separate private and public spheres, contending that the government should have control only over the public sphere. Education and religion, in particular, he maintained, were matters of private conscience and should not be administered by the state.

Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

14 Books About Refugees Trying to Reach Europe

From Electric Lit:

Today, the world is divided between those who can easily travel and those who cannot, separated by the simple luck of where they happened to be born. Yet many of the unlucky dare to try, setting out on epic journeys out of desperation or necessity, even when the odds are stacked against them.

My non-fiction book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, is based on years of communication with refugees who were caught on the Mediterranean sea and locked up indefinitely in Libyan migrant detention centers for trying to reach Europe.

While writing it, I read widely—history, poetry, journalism and novels—in an attempt to learn more about how these stories have been told and understood throughout time. In reality, I was also grappling with a bigger question: why do we still have so little empathy and understanding, and why do we continue to inflict horrors on people who are simply trying to reach safety?

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees by Matthieu Aikins

Matthieu Aikins goes “undercover” as an Afghan refugee named Habib to accompany his friend Omar, former translator for the US forces in Afghanistan, on his asylum seeking journey to Europe. This work of non-fiction takes place right as the so-called “European migrant crisis” is winding down due to increasingly restrictive policies aimed at stopping movement from the Middle East to Europe.

This book is a love story, between Omar and his landlord’s daughter Laila, as well as a mediation on what it means to be a journalist from the rich world, with a passport that opens borders, while colleagues are unable to access the same privileges. Aikins is always conscious that he does not have to be on this route, unlike those he is accompanying. The book includes descriptions of life in Kabul before the Taliban takeover, limbo in Moira camp on Lesbos, time spent with activists in Athens, and firsthand experience of various parts of the smuggling routes.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Occasional Troll

PG received a couple of messages this morning about the appearance of a notorious troll making comments to one of his posts.

He checked the reported comments and they were, indeed, trollish, so he deleted them.

During his time on TPV, PG has been pleased with the general lack of trolls. He has only had the occasion to remove trolls and their comments a handful of times.

Please review the Comments Policy for PG’s general trollishness standards. Here’s an excerpt:

The rules on comments are simple. You can disagree with me or others, but be reasonably civil and non-abusive. Don’t demean or insult others. I’m a bit old-fashioned on language, but if you want to use asterisks or a substitute word, that solves my problem. I use a plugin that catches some language and inserts its own asterisks.

PG does have a spam filter installed on TPV, and it continues to catch a lot of spam. No spam filter is perfect, so he appreciates it if visitors point out a person/post that the reporter thnks crosses the line.

Regarding commercial announcements, here’s another excerpt:

If you’re an author, publisher, agent, etc., a low-key commercial announcement is OK from time to time, but don’t go crazy. I don’t mind relevant links in comments, but will zap comments and commenters that link to spam.

PG will note that he doesn’t remember the last time he deleted a comment that violated his low-key commercial announcements spam rule. But take note that PG’s memory is not the gold standard it once was.

As PG remembers having said several times before (he knows this is true): He thinks the comments are the best part of TPV and enjoys reading 99.99999% of them, so don’t hesitate to comment, disagree politely with PG or anyone else, etc. If you feel PG or the TPV spam filter has wrongly blocked/removed any of your comments, use the Contact PG link at the top of the blog to let PG know and he’ll check things out.

Colonel Ross still wore an expression

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

“You consider that to be important?” he [Inspector Gregory] asked.

“Exceedingly so.”

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Inspector Gregory and Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”

Good heavens!

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

Sherlock Holmes in “The Copper Beeches”

Texas leads among 26 states with book bans, free speech group says

From CNN:

More than a 1,000 books have been banned in 86 school districts in 26 states across the United States, a new PEN America analysis shows.PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, released a detailed analysis on Thursday of challenges to and bans on school library books and class curriculums. The group said it documented media reports, consulted school district websites, and spoke with librarians, authors and teachers from July 31, 2021, to March 31, 2022.According to PEN America, in that period, there were 1,586 books banned. Texas led the country with the most book bans — 713 — affecting 16 school districts, followed by Pennsylvania and Florida with 456 and 204 bans, respectively. PEN America describes a book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content” that leads to the removal or restriction of a previously accessible book. The analysis includes book removals or restrictions that lasted at least a day, the group says.

Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report, said challenges to books in American schools are nothing new, but the rate at which they have recently taken place is “unparalleled.”

“Challenges to books, specifically books by non-White male authors, are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen,” Friedman said. “What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success.”

. . . .

The group says the book bans were directed at 1,145 different titles, many of which tell stories related to LGBTQ people and people of color.

PEN America said the analysis of book titles was based on “standard publishing information provided through marketing and sales materials by publishers for books, as well as relevant reading and review of the books in question.”

. . . .

Politicians and school board members have played a significant role in book banning, PEN America says. At least 41% of book bans were linked to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pressured school boards to remove what he calls “pornography” from school libraries. Meanwhile in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill late last month that requires school libraries to post more information about their collections and seek community input on materials they acquire.

The trend, PEN America says, is a departure from past book removal practices, which were usually initiated by community members.

The book bans “have become a favorite tool for state-wide and national political mobilization” with groups such as Moms for Liberty, a conservative group whose “mission is to organize, educate and empower parents,” curating lists of books to be challenged and urging parents to mobilize, the analysis says.

The group also found that at least 96% of the bans were initiated by school administrators or board members and that for the most part, school officials did not follow existing guidelines, raising “serious concerns,” it said.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG wonders who else other than elected school board members and the parents of students attending a public school should determine what sort of books their children should read.

PG also doesn’t have a problem with people residing in some geographic locations making different choices about what is appropriate for their children to read.

PEN America presently has 7,500 members. Its principal office is in New York City with another office in Santa Monica, California and a third in Washington, DC.

The current president of PEN America, Ayad Akhtar, lives in New York City. The overwhelming majority of PEN America’s staff lives in New York City with much smaller number based in Santa Monica and Washington, DC. (For visitors from overseas, Santa Monica is solidly ensconced in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.)

If PG were asked to list three large metropolitan areas that are the least representative of the majority of the population of the United States, he would, without hesitation, name New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, in that order. PG has spent substantial periods of time in each of those cities/metro areas and can say with confidence that he has a pretty good idea of the sorts of people likely to staff PEN America’s offices in each of those places.

While he won’t categorically reject the opinions of the PEN staff regarding choices made by Texas school boards and parents about what their the children for whom they are responsible should read, PG will with confidence say that the opinions of those in the New York PEN office are exceptionally unrepresentative of almost everybody in Texas. PG would guess that few members of PEN management have close friends or acquaintances in Texas.

The current PEN America senior management appear to come from an exceptionally homogeneous backgrounds. The bios PG was able to access showed that virtually everyone attended college in New York or Boston (there was one outlier from the University of Chicago, an elite institution that isn’t located within 50 miles of an ocean). Everybody listed in Los Angeles appeared to have attended colleges located in the same places that staff in the New York office attended.

PG says that Texans and Floridians can be pretty certain that nobody at PEN America is much like them or holds views about almost anything that parents of public schools in Texas or Florida believe are relevant to their parenting decisions, including decisions about what sort of books their children should be reading.

PG will note that both Texas and Florida have a much higher percentage of Latinos (AKA persons of color) in their populations than the state of New York does.

PEN America is simply too provincial to be credible outside of the narrow social, educational and cultural sphere its employees inhabit.

“Unlivable and Untenable.” Molly McGhee on the Punishing Life of Junior Publishing Employees

From The Literary Hub:

Fiction writer and former Tor assistant editor Molly McGhee joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss details of her recent resignation from a position she’d fought for in the industry she loves. She also talks about what’s behind #PublishingBurnout for junior employees and what that means for the future of publishing.

. . . .

V.V. Ganeshananthan: As I was telling you just before we started recording, I was kind of off Twitter, uncharacteristically, working on my own book. And one of my former students texted me and said, “Did you see this?” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” And she said, “Search hashtag publishing burnout. It is not cheerful.” And there was this huge, important public conversation. I’m curious as to whether you got any responses from higher-ups?

Molly McGhee: I had a lot of people reach out privately to me, and publicly, and express that this is something they felt as well, but that they were really nervous to burn any bridges. The thing about publishing is that no matter how high you are, especially if you’re in editorial, you had to start from the bottom. And so you have been experiencing this struggle for years and years, and then find yourself in a position of frustration where you cannot alleviate that struggle for other people below you.

And so this is something we’ve done a lot of thinking about, but because we’re in such a small industry, where so many people know one another, they don’t feel comfortable speaking out publicly about it. And they feel quite disempowered and alone in their struggle towards burnout.

Whitney Terrell: The other thing that’s interesting about what you’re talking about, is you’re talking about a specific kind of position that’s unique to the publishing industry, this editorial assistant position. I wonder if you could talk about that position, and what it is and how it’s developed over time, for listeners of ours who aren’t familiar with that.

MM: Thank you, Whitney, for asking. You know, I think that something really interesting and unique about editorial publishing is that it’s run in an apprenticeship model. So when you come in, especially to editorial, you start from the bottom, no matter your experience, with very few exceptions. Sometimes a celebrity editor can come in at a higher stage, or sometimes people make a switch from marketing and publicity to editorial, but for the most part, you start as an assistant and then go through a period of what I like to think of as hazing; that can take two to five years. I explain it to people like you’re entering into a profession that is highly competitive, with a lot of people in the junior position who want to get into it. So there’s a high pool of people you can hire from.

Before I became an editorial assistant mentor, I had taught undergraduate writing at Columbia, I had worked in associate positions at McSweeney’s and The Believer, but on the digital side of things, I had been a proofreader, a copy editor. I had done narrative consulting for clients like Google and SoulCycle, and I still had to start at an editorial assistant position. That’s because I needed to learn the ropes, as I was told. And this is not abnormal. Everyone that I was working with at Tor had either been in publishing for four or five years before they started an editorial system, or they had master’s degrees, graduate degrees. It is a highly competitive hiring environment.

Once you’re in it, you do a lot of support work, and what this looks like for you can really depend on who you’re supporting. For me, I was supporting three to four editors and their digital workload and their production cycles. What that meant was I was tracking submissions, corresponding with offers, handling the production timeline, working really closely interdepartmentally so that everybody was on the same page, maintaining what was fed out to retailers and sales teams—basically all the invisible labor that goes into getting a book to the consumer. A lot of logistics work.

Most people I talk to think about editorial assistant roles as production manager roles: you’re in charge of a lot of deadlines, a lot of tracking, a lot of high level communication. While your editor focuses on their job: editing, acquiring, making connections, positioning, pitching, those types of things.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Does a 2006 Russian Novel Provide Clues to Putin’s Next Move?

From The Interpreter:

Two months ago, Mariya Snegova, a Russian sociologist at Columbia University, suggested that Vladimir Putin was drawing on Mikhail Yuryev’s 2006 novel, The Third Empire, as a guide to his moves against Ukraine and as a source for a new imperial ideology.

Snegova’s conclusions about the impact of Yuryev’s thinking on Putin have been eerily confirmed by subsequent events. And that in turn suggests that Putin, who often cites the works of other writers and who is said by aides to identify The Third Empire as his favorite novel, may plan to act in the future in ways the novelist wrote about eight years ago.

Consequently, because the Columbia scholar proved so prescient about Putin and Ukraine, it is worth revisiting what she wrote in early March as well as considering the broader implications for Russian policy contained in the Yuryev novel itself, the text of which is available online.

Over the past dozen years, Snegova noted, Putin has regularly cited Russian writers like Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyev and Ivan Ilin, all of whom argued that Russia must have an enormous role in the international arena and build to that by promoting “Orthodoxy on the territories under its control.”

Indeed, despite the suggestion of many that the Kremlin leader does not have an ideology, Putin’s reading of these and other books suggests that he not only does but has been developing it for some time. Among the books that have most influenced him, she argued, is Yuryev’s The Third Empire: The Russian Which Must Be” published in 2006.

That book is a description of the world in 2054 purportedly written by a Latin American as a Russian history textbook. Drawing on Samuel Huntington’s vision, the book says that by 2053, “as a result of global wars,” there remained only “five state-civilizations, one of which was Russia in the form of the Third Empire.” (The tsarist and Soviet states were the first and second.)

In Yuryev’s telling, Snegova said, “the construction of the Third Empire began with the coming to power of Vladimir II the Restorer (the first, Vladimir Judas was Lenin) who was able to restore Russia to the status of a great power and to gather the Russian lands.”

That Putin views himself this way is clear, but what is more intriguing is Yuryev’s suggestion that “initially Vladimir the Ingatherer concealed his pro-imperialist impulses, built up reserves and waited for the weakening of the West,” that his state was “based on state corporatism and economic protection,” and that he destroyed the oligarchs and other “pro-Western agents of influence.”

In his book, Yuryev said that Vladimir the Ingatherer began with “an explosion in Ukraine” that led people in the eastern portions of Ukraine to appeal to Moscow to defend them “against ‘Western rule.’” Russia dispatched 80,000 troops, sparking a war with NATO.

As a result of this conflict, Ukraine was divided in two parts, one in the center and west linked with Europe and the West and a second, “Russian” part, consisting of Kharkiv, Dneprpetrivsk, Mykolayev and Odessa regions and oriented toward Moscow. Yuryev did get the date for all this wrong: he wrote that it would happen in 2008.

As Snegov wrote, Yuryev suggested that under Vladimir the Ingatherer, Russia would “gradually unify the territory of the Second Empire” because in his telling – and now in Putin’s – “the disintegration of the Second Empire in 1991 was not by the will of the peoples but rather was the result of a special operation of the West” in conjunction with internal “traitors.”

Yuryev then said that Vladimir the Ingatherer would, in order to establish “the real equality of all the peoples” of the Third Empire, disband the Russian Federation and replace it with a Russian (Eurasian or Customs!) Union.” Having restored a state with more than 200 million people and more than 20 million square kilometers, Russia begin a new “cold war” with the West.

Link to the rest at The Interpreter

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Government

From Writers Helping Writers:

Fears can be a struggle for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental condition, or stem from a past wounding event, some fears can be debilitating, influencing a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters for a variety of reasons, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of the Government


Notes: Fear is powerful, and it’s unfortunately widely used to manipulate emotion. When politicians use it to further their ambitions, it builds distrust. For some, this can turn into a fear of government due to the belief that those in power (or the system itself) are so corrupt, they’re an enemy of the people. This fear can have many layers and be taken to extremes, so this entry covers a range of possibilities for your characters.

What It Looks Like

Voicing pessimism about the direction the country is headed
Becoming obsessed with a particular viewpoint
Refusing to believe anything reported from the government
Focusing on abuses of power (and ignoring instances when it’s used for good)
Paying close attention to rumors and what the government tries to deny
Gravitating toward and feeling safe among people who voice the same fears
Joining protestsBelieving everyone in power is a manipulator
Fearmongering
Assuming malice—for example, assuming a bill passed because it grants someone more power rather than because it will benefit people
Feeling unsafe (believing the government is failing to protect its citizens)
Heightened anxiety when watching the news or scrolling news feeds
A tendency to look for a hidden motivation or agenda
Being distrustful of technology because it can be used to monitor and track people
Becoming increasingly agitated during political campaigning and on election day
Not voting out of the belief that everyone’s corrupt, so what’s the point?
Becoming more susceptible to related fears
Believing the country is under attack from within
Gravitating to a single “source of truth” (a TV station, a website, etc.) that confirms the fear rather than considering contrasting ideas from many sources
Becoming easily provoked (or enraged)
Being pulled toward political outsiders or disruptors (because of a belief that their unconventional ways or outsider status might make them less corrupt)
Purchasing weapons and investing in safeguards because the government can’t be trusted
A tendency to connect events to a bigger picture when there’s no evidence
Becoming evangelical about a view (and feeling others must be educated to the truth)
Moving off-grid, so the government has less control over the character’s life
Being drawn to conspiracy theories
Establishing a group of like-minded people to actively work against the government
Becoming an anarchist
Participating in domestic terrorism

Common Internal Struggles
Fearing for the safety of loved ones and not understanding why they don’t share the same sense of urgency
Believing most people are brainwashed but being unable to say it without ruining relationships
Wanting to do something to take the country back but fearing what the government will do
Judging people who see the world differently (and having to hide it)

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

When a vampire not called Dracula bested the copyright system, and what it tells us about derivative works

From IPKat:

Last month marked one hundred years since the first screening in Berlin of the iconic vampire movie—Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. And, while the copyright laws were used to try to keep the film from public view, ultimately it failed, to the continuing benefit of cinematic creation. The tale of Nosferatu shows the sometimes-uneasy relationship between copyright protection and the making of derivative works.

Nosferatu was a 1922 adaption (just how much was the subject of the copyright challenge to the movie) of the wildly popular 1897 book by Bram Stoker—Dracula. But the Stoker book did not emerge from a creative tabula rasa. Vampire folklore had been passed down for centuries. Their common denominator was the presence of a creature that feeds on the vital essence (e.g., blood) of the living. The vampire was an “undead” creature which, although deceased, acts as if it is still alive.

The first modern vampire book—The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori in 1819. Its genesis was the same story-telling gathering in the summer 1816 along Lake Geneva that produced “Frankenstein”. This was followed inter alia in 1845-1847 (as a series of pamphlets) by Varney the Vampire written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, and in 1871 by the book Carmilla written by Sheridan Le Fanu. Thus, when Stoker produced Dracula in 1897, there was an established literary tradition alongside ongoing oral folklore.

The specific sources for Stoker’s book are still much discussed, and they include Transylvanian folklore and history (Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century figure, is often mentioned). Some also refer to claimed structural similarities with the novel by Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. It is claimed that “[m]any of the book’s characters have entered popular culture as archetypal versions of their characters.” The upshot was that Stoker had plugged into extensive and multiple sources on vampire folklore as well as contributing to on-going archetypes of the genre.

Still, Stoker’s enormous success with the book took the vampire genre to a new level. It is not surprising that creative activity involving vampires, and particularly Dracula-like characters and story line, would be picked up by the nascent silent film industry.

And so it was that Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau and produced by Albin Grau, both German filmmakers, came into being. The report goes that Grau’s inspiration for the movie came from hearing stories about vampires from local farmers in Serbia, this while he was serving in the German army in 1916. It followed with the establishment of a film company and with the hiring of Murnau (as producer) and Henrik Galeen (as screen writer).

It is here that the story, as a copyright matter, become murky. It was one thing to get excited about the possibility of making a vampire movie; it was another when the focus was taking the best of the German expressionistic cinema tradition, then in vogue, to do a movie version of Dracula. Assuming that even if Grau was not familiar with Stoker’s book when he heard the stories from the farmers in Serbia, still his decision to focus on Dracula brought him directly into contact with the copyright universe.

A movie version of a published literary work might require permission from the author, depending on how close the move came to the book. Stoker’s estate (he had died in 1912) gave no such authorization. Undaunted, Grau pressed on, and the movie was produced.

With an eye towards copyright, changes were made, beginning with the name of the movie and the main characters. Also, the plot witnessed various modifications (in the words of one commentator, “Murnau really only borrowed the skeleton of Stoker’s plot.”). For example, the most effective weapon used against the vampire is not a stake, but sunlight; the movie replaces a male band of vampire slayers with the resolute Ellen, who by virtue of self-sacrifice, saves the day; and a swarm of rats accompany the main character on his travels.

That said, arguably the most notable aspect of the movie were its novel cinematic contributions. As described in the February 26th issue of The Economist, —

A century on, “Nosferatu” is still revered for its experimental techniques—shooting on rugged locations as well as in a studio; using stop-motion animation and fast-motion footage—and for the glut of horror-movie conventions it established. The film includes villagers in a tavern who warn the hero not to proceed, and the conceit that vampires are burnt to ash by sunlight. It is the archetypal Dracula film. And yet, its most strikingly modern aspects are those that leave Stoker’s novel behind.

Enter the copyright laws. Florence Stoker, in the name of Stoker’s estate, vigorously pursued Grau and his production company in German court. She prevailed (unwisely for Grau, it seems that the early releases of film still used the name “Dracula”), the court awarded damages (Grau’s company declared bankruptcy), and the court issued a destruction order for all copies of the movie (ripping the movies from their canisters to do so, and having court-mandated agents to track down and destroy copies or negatives). The movie had entered cinema oblivion.

However, there was no longer copyright protection of the book in the U.S. due to a defect in the copyright notice (this was a material issue under the 1909 copyright law then in effect in the US). So, if a copy of the movie could be found, the movie could be safely screened there.

That is what happened, with one copy discovered in the 1940’s and another in the 1950’s. With the book in the public domain, these discoveries enabled circulation of the movie, leading to a spate of other Dracula-based productions, taking their lead from Nosferatu.

To this Kat, the real horror story here is how the copyright system and, in particular, protection regarding the unauthorized production of a derivative work, nearly put a stake in the heart of an exceptional artistic creation.

Link to the rest at IPKat and thanks to C. for the tip.

Business Musings: Copyright Fun Part 3

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Let’s talk money for a minute, because really, copyright and copyright licensing translates into money, if you do it correctly. Copyright is one of those lovely assets that will continue earning for writers if the writers manage the copyright correctly.

A short story can become a novel (more money, different licenses), sell in foreign editions (more money, different licenses), become an audio book (more money, different licenses), be reprinted in anthologies (more money, different licenses), become an hour-long TV special (more money, different licenses), become a TV series (more money, different licenses), become a movie (more money, different licenses), become a video game (more money, different licenses), become a board game…

Well, you get the idea. And the writer really doesn’t have to do any more writing after finishing that short story. Everything I mentioned above is licensing little snippets of copyright. Once writers start understanding that, then they can manage their assets for the rest of their life…and beyond.

. . . .

One thing we all know, because we read books and watch TV, is that lots of money makes people crazy—both in fiction and in real life. Financial expectations, even in the smallest instances, can cause some people to become homicidal when those expectations go awry. That’s the basis for entire subgenres of mystery fiction.

In real life, few people kill over financial matters. Most people go to court, and those court cases drag on for years.

As an example that hits the publishing industry, let’s take a look at the big shocker that happened to the supposed heirs of Scholastic Corporation in June of 2021.

For context, Scholastic Corporation grew from a magazine published in the 1920s to a $1.2 billion dollar corporation with most of its revenue still in publishing. Scholastic has had amazing success over the years. They publish Clifford: The Big Red Dog, Captain Underpants, The Hunger Games, and…oh…some little series called Harry Potter. Their contracts, while not draconian, aren’t really writer-friendly either, so all of that merchandising you see for most of the big series that Scholastic publishes? Yeah, that money mostly goes to Scholastic, not to the writers.

Scholastic has done some great things for literacy and for children’s literacy in particular. It also has worked with schools for more than fifty years to make sure that kids get books to read. I still remember Scholastic Day at my school, and I looked forward to it.

Corporations aren’t really soulless things. People exist behind the corporation. And in this case, Scholastic was a family business. That little magazine was started by Maurice R. Robinson. His son, M. Richard Robinson Junior took over the company as CEO in 1975, and ran it until 2021…when he died suddenly while on a walk with one of his sons.

Richard Robinson was 84 years old, so there’s sudden and then there’s well…not as sudden so much as unexpected right now. He did have a will, however, and rather than leaving his estate and his interest in Scholastic Corporation to his sons, he left everything to his girlfriend.

The will wasn’t new though; it was executed in 2018.

Let’s ignore the family drama part of this—that all of his belongings and such and his personal $100 million fortune went to his girlfriend. The real interest are the Class A voting stocks in Scholastic Corporation. Robinson owned 53% of those stocks, which meant that he had a majority on the board of directors. He could outvote all of them, and now his girlfriend can.

This isn’t as random as it sounds. She is Iole Lucchese, the chair of Scholastic’s board,  as well as executive vice president and president of Scholastic Entertainment. In other words, she knows business and she knows the company very, very, very well.

The adult sons are contesting the will. Neither of them works in the family business. At a quick glance, it doesn’t seem like either of them ever did.

As a number of experts have said in the various articles about this battle, companies are difficult to run when the ownership of the company is under dispute. And these cases can drag on for years.

. . . .

Music copyrights are extremely complicated. Some portions of them are regulated by U.S. law, including royalties and percentages that must be paid to the songwriters by cover artists. Music copyrights fall into several categories, which make my head hurt when I think about managing them, even as a low-level musical artist. I’m not going to try to explain them here.

Just put a pin in complicated.

I’ve done a lot of work with the heirs to writers’ estates. When the superagent Ralph Vicinanza died suddenly and his sister initially handled the estate, a bunch of writer heirs—who had been relying on Ralph to handle all things writing and publishing related—contacted me. I couldn’t say anything bad about Ralph at the time (except to hang up or walk away from my email cursing the contracts he had gotten them all into, contracts that benefited him more than the writers), so I listened.

And realized that these people, who were farmers and professors and stay-at-home parents, had no idea how the publishing industry worked and worse, had no real interest in learning it.

They just wanted Mommy or Daddy’s royalties, which to them were like a stock annuity, an income they could rely on so they could continue living their lives.

Publishing contracts and licensing agreements for novels and short stories are so easy compared to music industry contracts, copyrights, and licensing agreements, the differences are like this: Publishing is arithmetic; music is calculus.

. . . .

Cashing in is a really good idea for older musicians (and even some younger ones: John Legend has sold his copyrights for music he composed between 2004 and 2021.   Legend is 43 years old, and presumably has decades of composing and recording ahead of him. None of those rights in future compositions were sold.

John Legend makes money on more than his music. As Bloomberg helpfully explained,

Dubbed “Music Mogul of the Year” by Variety in 2020, Legend … has gone on to expand into other areas of the entertainment field, in part through the founding of a production studio that’s created shows for Netflix Inc. and ABC. Variety estimates that Legend, born John Roger Stephens before adopting his stage name, takes in between $50 million and $100 million annually from his various enterprises, including LVE, his Napa Valley wine brand. 

Legend made a business transaction. I’ll wager he and his advisors are thinking that the payments for music catalogs will go down by the time he’s Paul Simon’s age. Better to cash in now.

This is how you leverage copyright. What these musicians—these business people—are doing. They’re looking at the value of their complicated music catalogs to them over the next ten to twenty years or the value to others. Given the estate benefits as well, these deals will (with luck) protect their legacy in this way:

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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

Ed Sheeran Gets It: As He Wins His Copyright Lawsuit, He Decries ‘Culture’ Of Bogus Copyright Suits

From Above the Law:

We’ve covered a variety of recent copyright lawsuits against songs that sound vaguely similar, noting this ridiculous war on genres, and basically outlawing the idea of an homage. Even in cases where the lawsuits fail (which is frequently, though not always), it’s still an extremely costly waste of time that can still have massive chilling effects on creative people. Ed Sheeran has been sued a few times with these kinds of claims, and thankfully, just won a case in the UK.

. . . .

In case that video disappears (or you’re not able to watch it), here’s a transcript:

Hey guys. Me, Johnny, and Steve have made a joint statement that will be a press release on the outcome of this case. But I wanted to make a small video to talk about it a bit, because I’ve not really been able to talk about it whilst it’s been going on. Whilst we’re obviously happy with the result, I feel like claims like this are way too common now, and have become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court, even if there is no basis for the claimIt’s really damaging to the songwriting industry.

There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify—that’s 22 million songs a year—and there’s only 12 notes that are available.

I don’t want to take anything away from the pain and hurt suffered from both sides of this case, but I just want to say, I’m not an entity. I’m not a corporation. I’m a human being. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a son. Lawsuits are not a pleasant experience. And I hope that with this ruling, in the future baseless claims like this can be avoided. This really does have to end.

Me, Johnny, and Steve, are very grateful for all the support sent to us by fellow songwriters over the last few weeks. Hopefully, we can all get back to writing songs, rather than having to prove that we can write them. Thank you.

That’s a really fantastic statement. Copyright has long been a complete mess, and one that, in its current form, has done way more damage to creativity than helped it. And Sheeran is no stranger to recognizing this as it’s not the first time we’ve talked up his views on these things. Five years ago, we wrote about how he explained that piracy is what made his career possible. And not in the sense of this lawsuit, which falsely accused him of “pirating” someone else’s work, but he recognized that fans sharing his songs is what made it possible for him to build a devoted fan base.

Furthermore, when his big record label pulled a video down of someone singing a Sheeran cover on Facebook, causing her to lose her account for infringement, Sheeran stepped in to say he supported people singing his songs and got his label (Atlantic/Warner) to remove the copyright claim.

But this is not just about Sheeran. In the video above, he correctly notes that he’s a human being, not an entity or a corporation. But he’s also an enormously successful and wealthy human being who is able to weather these attacks more easily than nearly everyone else impacted by a copyright system run amok. For most people today’s modern copyright system is not doing anything to incentivize new creations or to “protect” artists. It’s doing the opposite. It’s great that Sheeran seems to understand all this, but it’s not enough for a few musicians (and the wider public) to recognize it.

Link to the rest at Above the Law

I belong to the most ancient empire on this globe

I belong to the most ancient empire on this globe. You, by your own statement, belong to the most dependent and ill-treated nation of serfs ever deprived of its liberties. The flag of my country floats over the third greatest navy in the world. Yours is to be seen derisively displayed on the 17th of March in the public streets and triumphantly hoisted on an occasional gin-mill. The ambassadors and consuls of my nation rank at every court in Europe with those of Russia, Germany, England and France. Those of your race may be found cooling their heels in the lobbies of any common council in which the rum-selling interest in politics predominates. The race which I represent is centuries old in every art and science. That of which you are the spokesman apologizes for its present ignorance and mental obscurity with the plea that your learning and literature are lost in the mythical past.

Wong Chin Foo, On Wong’s Chinese vs. Denis Kearney’s Irish (1883)

7 Books About the Chinese Exclusion Act

From Electric Lit:

p until my early 20s, I had never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I remember taking classes on Mississippi history during my childhood in Oxford, then Texas government, and later the story of the Alamo during my teenage years in Austin. Our history textbooks were heavy and thick, always a pain to take home. Still, for all their pages, they never discussed that period of history when an entire group of people was barred because of the threat they posed to white labor and racial purity. It wasn’t until I took an intro to Asian American studies course in my senior year of college that I was introduced to that significant moment of American history: in 1882, President Chester A. Aurthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act (then known as the Chinese Restriction Act), which banned Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years.

In my debut novel, Four Treasures of the SkyDaiyu, the 13-year-old narrator, is kidnapped from her home in Zhifu, China and smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean, where she is sold to a brothel in San Francisco. From there, Daiyu journeys to Idaho, hoping to find her way back home. It is not just the physical journey that stands in her way, however—Daiyu is in America at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, arriving just on the heels of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It is this pervasive hatred, this revulsion of the “moon-eyed heathen,” that poses the greatest threat to her return—not the wilderness nor the cold of winter.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is not a singular moment of anti-Chinese action in our history. Years before, for example, came the Page Act, which indirectly banned Chinese women from entering, thus contributing to the lopsided demographics of Chinese immigrants for years to come. Decades before that was People v. Hall, which ruled that the Chinese—following precedence from Section 394 of the Act Concerning Civil Cases—were not allowed to testify against white citizens in court, claiming they were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.” When examining the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we must also consider what came before as well as what came after, and the ugly culmination of violence and legislative escalation that leads us to where we are today. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG would have been happy to embed an Amazon ad that would allow visitors to examine the first several pages of the author’s new book, but, as PG mentioned earlier, the geniuses at Flatiron Books, the publisher of the book, didn’t have Look Inside working so PG could embed the ebook ad and have it work.

The One Popular Myth Writers Believe About Writer’s Block

From Writers Helping Writers:

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block!”

No doubt you’ve heard this myth before.

Worse, you may have believed it.

And that’s rarely a good thing, as it tends to keep you where you are—in that stuck place you dare not call writer’s block.

Myth: There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” says writer Leigh Shulman. “It’s an excuse.  Your way of telling yourself you have a reason for not writing.”

You’ll find a wide variety of writers echoing this same sentiment. Whenever I heard it, I worried. I didn’t want to be one of “those” writers.

“The secret about writer’s block is that it’s an indulgence,” writes Amy Alkon for Psychology Today. “…The way you end so-called ‘writer’s block’ is simply by sitting down to write—’blackening pages,’ as Leonard Cohen called it.”

Lazy! Undisciplined! We hear it again and again. Stop coddling yourself. Sit down and write!

I vowed to do just that. I wouldn’t be weak. I would be a strong, productive writer.

No writer’s block here.

Then along came my third novel, The Beached OnesAnd it humbled me in a hurry.

My Novel Taught Me All About Writer’s Block

Draft after draft, I came up against a wall. No matter how hard I tried or how many hours I put in, I could not figure out how to get past the midpoint of that novel.

Now understand: I was no newbie to the mid-novel struggle. I had gone through it with my other two published novels, but never to this extent.

I bought books. I went to conferences. I talked to award-winning writers. I sketched out the plot. I outlined the chapters. I examined each of the character’s inner and outer motivations.

I did everything you should do when experiencing writer’s block—things that before had led to a breakthrough—and nothing helped.

It was frustrating, to say the least.

I looked writer’s block squarely in the eye and withered. So much for strength and discipline. They weren’t helping me at all.

My Cure for Writer’s Block

I finally had to admit that I was suffering a bad case of writer’s block.

Oh, the shame!

I’ve since learned that other writers—much as they may lecture about there being no such thing as writer’s block—just have a slightly different definition of it.

Says Schulman: “Here’s the thing: Every writer who has ever existed feels stuck at some point. That’s why I say there’s no such thing as writer’s block because it’s part of the writing process.”

Oh. So it is writer’s block. You’re just calling it something else.

And that something else is comforting, isn’t it? Shulman is assuring us that everyone experiences being stuck now and then. Relax. It’s normal.

But I couldn’t relax. The story sat in the back of my mind bugging me day in and day out.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

PG notes that the link to the author’s “latest” book on Amazon shows that it will be published in June of this year.

This is not the only time PG has observed this phenomenon.

He expects that in some publishing circles, this may be regarded as the best way to induce friends, relatives, etc., to pre-order your book so it gets a big bump in Amazon’s ratings because a lot of online purchases of the book happen on a single day.

People have been using this strategy on Amazon for a very long time. PG has his doubts whether the strategy still works to finagle Amazon’s Sales Rank algorithm, but is happy to be proven wrong.

One consequence that does occur when an author writes an article for an online publication and includes a link to the book is that Amazon’s Look Inside feature does not work. It’s not an option and won’t work until at some time after the book is published.

PG believes that Look Inside is one of the most powerful tools for inducing a curious potential purchaser to be converted to a buyer. PG virtually never buys an ebook without checking it out via Look Inside to get a better sense than the book’s description provides about whether he is interested in the book, whether the author knows how to write or not, etc.

This is exactly the same manner by which PG examines a potential purchase at a physical bookstore. (PG thinks this is correct, but it has been quite a long time since he has entered a physical bookstore with the intention of purchasing a book.)

End of rant. PG is happy to be informed in the comments that he is the only person who buys books in this manner, is a complete fool, should listen to his betters in large offices of traditional publishers, etc., etc., etc.

Digital Printing: The New Normal

From Publishing Trends (July 31, 2020 – mid-Pandemic):

In the olden, pre-pandemic days when most books were printed offset, digital files were stored in case a book needed to be reprinted quickly. But this March, that dynamic was upended: everything shut down, some publishers’ warehouses and bookstores closed, and even Amazon slowed its bookselling to prioritize sanitizer over bestsellers.  

All of these abrupt shifts resulted in enormous strains on the supply chain, says Ingram Content Group’s Kelly Gallagher. Publishers couldn’t access their inventory; books couldn’t be shipped even to the few retailers who were open; printers couldn’t get their titles where they were supposed to be. Within weeks, Lightning Press, Ingram’s print-on-demand division, found itself creating everything from “virtual warehouses” for some clients, to print-to-order titles that were delivered direct-to-consumer via orders through bookstores and online retailers. 

Then, just as stores were coming back, protests erupted around the country and readers rushed to read up on social justice – often opting for backlist titles with low or no inventory on hand. Again, publishers looked to Ingram and other printer/distributors to supply those titles. While some, like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018), went on to sell hundreds of thousands of ebooks, print versions often had to be produced using short-run and print-on-demand (i.e. digital) techniques just to satisfy immediate demand.

“The pandemic has accelerated the move from print to digital by three years,” estimates Books International’s David Hetherington. Now, “more and more titles are born digital.” This isn’t simply a shift to ebooks, though some outlets, such as libraries have doubled their ebook downloads. Instead, “born digital” content refers to the shift from traditional first printings using offset, to smaller first runs that are printed digitally. Though the quality is not (yet) as good and the costs are higher, savings come in time and the ability to customize. 

Baker & Taylor’s Eric McGarvey agrees that digital-first is on the rise but says the shift has been taking place over the last five years, especially with university presses eager to keep overhead down while making the full range of backlist available. University presses have been in the forefront of innovation over the last few years, in part because of funding issues that forced efficiencies, and in part because some have been folded under their academic libraries, which have long embraced digital resources.

Many of these transitions are a result of improved technology. Digital presses can now handle everything from roll-fed printing and heavy paper stock to full color, a range of formats, and customization. Even the Big Five are looking to third parties to ensure books can be quickly printed and distributed through the appropriate channels. McGarvey cites a new largescale backlist title effort between a new PRH Publisher Services client and Baker & Taylor as an example. 

And BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary sees a possible “broader conversation” than one dedicated solely to how the book is printed. “This technology enables the shift in publishing from fixed to variable expense and the ability to match capacity to demand,” he says. In other words, the old model of looking at the unit cost of a manufactured book has morphed into looking at the cost per unit sold. And, as printers close and consolidate, he and others note that flexibility becomes more important, forcing publishers to look at “total cost of ownership.” How do the advantages of having inventory on hand in your own warehouse weigh against the carrying costs – or the possibility that the warehouse closes, or the inventory can’t get to the end user? It’s possible to play this scenario out, as publishers like Duke University Press are already doing, where the printing, warehousing, inventory, and fulfillment of all books are handled by third parties, leaving the publisher to focus on only on acquiring, editing, and designing the IP.

The other looming question of the moment is this: What happens when all the frontlist titles that publishers held off launching this spring and summer need to be printed this fall and winter?  Tyler Carey at Westchester Publisher Services has worked with Macmillan to make its files, including active backlist titles, ready for digital printing. Speaking at PW’s Publishing Now conference, Princeton University Press’s Cathy Felgar said that, though the press didn’t hold off on publishing their new titles this spring and summer, they are expanding their digital printing because of concerns about printer capacity this fall.  

Meanwhile, the move to custom printing this spring has increased direct-to-consumer sales.  Though born of necessity – bookstores and other retailers wanted their customers to receive their books even when there was no physical place for them to pick them up –  having D2C options is an important (and, many would say, overdue) step for publishers and their distributors and wholesalers. 

Link to the rest at Publishing Trends

PG posted this to illustrate how far behind the technology curve publishers were and continue to be with respect to printing.

PG started TPV over eleven years ago and has been exclusively digital ever during that entire time. For at least 20 years before that, PG was exclusively digital, printing only what had to be printed due to lagging technologies in the business and court systems. As a matter of fact, PG typically developed PC-based home-brew document assembly systems for any documents he had to prepare more than 2-3 times.

There are few American institutions that change more slowly than the court systems, both federal and state. US Bankruptcy Courts began allowing digital filing of the voluminous paperwork involved in starting a personal bankruptcy petition (30-50 pages, sometimes more) twenty years ago. Various state and federal trial courts have different rules regarding whether/how they’ll accept paper filings (or won’t).

PG thinks that individuals who aren’t represented by an attorney in bankruptcy court may be able to obtain paper forms and submit those, but in his brief dive online, he couldn’t confirm that, but can confirm that trying to dig through a government website looking for forms of almost any sort is definitely not an easy task.

If traditional publishers are behind the courts in the move to exclusive digital, they have to be the last in line.

Those who use Kindle Direct Publishing know that everything is digital. PG doesn’t think it’s ever been otherwise (but he’s not certain about the dawn of KDP).

Lost Charlotte Brontë Poems to Go on Sale on Author’s Birthday for $1.25 Million

From Book Riot:

Charlotte Brontë is best known for writing Jane Eyre, but before that, she wrote poetry for her and her sisters’ toy soldiers in a remote English village.

One of these poetry collections, written by the author when she was thirteen, has resurfaced after its last sighting in 1916.

The miniature book is 15 pages long, dated December 1829, and is in its original brown cover. The collection within is titled “A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Bronte, Sold by Nobody, and Printed by Herself,” and features ten poems.

It will be exhibited and offered for sale by James Cummins Bookseller of New York and Maggs Bros of London on Brontë’s birthday, April 21st, during the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. The asking price is $1.25 million.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Putting French Literary History on Trial

From Public Books:

Once, French theorists tried to bury the author. In 1967, in a now famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” critic Roland Barthes declared the author “dead,” suggesting that the literary text was merely a “fabric of quotations”—a dense weave of disparate borrowings, echoes, and recycled words. Two years later, philosopher Michel Foucault responded to Barthes’s dead author with his notion of the “author-function.” “What is an author?” anyways, he mused, and “What difference does it make who is speaking?”

Despite French Theory’s claims to the contrary, the identity of the author, in the case of minoritized writers, has always seemed to matter. This is especially true of “Francophone” writers—a designation that has long served as a byword for “Black” or “foreign” and frequently is applied to any Afro-descended writer working in French, even those born in France. In the history of Black authors writing in French—and in Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s new novel, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt—it turns out that authorship matters very much.

In fact, in 1968—a year after Barthes announced that the author was dead and cautioned critics against the pitfalls of confusing close reading with author biography—the French publishing world erupted in a literary scandal turned witch hunt, one that hinged almost entirely on questions of authorship and authenticity. For 1968 was also the year the Éditions du Seuil in Paris published a breakthrough novel by the young Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), which won one of France’s most prestigious literary honors, the Prix Renaudot. A baroque and bloody history of an imaginary West African empire spanning the thirteenth to twentieth centuries, Ouologuem’s novel met with critical acclaim. Then it became embroiled in a controversy that has spanned multiple continents and several decades.

Initially hailed as an African Proust, Ouologuem was soon denounced by critics as a mere plagiarist and charged with having stolen passages from writers such as André Schwarz-Bart and Guy de Maupassant. The English novelist Graham Greene even filed a lawsuit against Ouologuem and his publishers at Seuil, claiming that lengthy passages had been directly plagiarized from Greene’s novel It’s a Battlefield (1934). Seuil stopped production and removed the book from shelves; the novel was subsequently banned in France. (Only in 2018 has Le Devoir de violence been reedited and republished in French—the result of work by scholars in recent decades to rehabilitate Ouologuem’s reputation and clear his name, so to speak.)

What happened next both mystified and maddened French critics: Ouologuem disappeared from public view, seemingly without a trace. Although he would go on to publish two more works in short succession, Lettre à la France nègre (1969; A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France) and an erotic novel, Les milles et une bibles du sexe (1969; A Thousand and One Bibles of Sex), under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph, Ouologuem ultimately decided to “wash his hands of writing in French,” as Christopher Wise puts it. Ouologuem refused to state his case, turned his back on the French publishing world, and returned to Mali.

Now, a new novel has been dedicated to Yambo Ouologuem: 31-year-old Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (2021; The Most Secret Memory of Men), which won the Goncourt last year. In it, Sarr revisits Ouologuem’s story to confront the racist history of France’s elite literary prizes, the parasitism and hypocrisy of literary criticism, and the ambivalent status of African writers working in former colonial languages within a global literary marketplace.

With his masterful novel, Sarr has done more than set ablaze the French literary scene. Ultimately, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes puts on trial French literary history itself.

. . . .

Sarr’s novel is a literary history cum detective novel about an elusive Ouologuem-like figure. Inspired by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel about the search for an obscure poetess, The Savage Detectives (1998), it follows the peregrinations of Diégane Latyr Faye, a Senegalese novelist living in Paris in 2018 who stumbles on traces of a mythic text whose author remains shrouded in mystery. The manuscript, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain (The labyrinth of the inhuman), was published to much fanfare in 1938 by a certain T. C. Elimane, a young Senegalese student who became the darling of the French literary world before charges of plagiarism led to a very public fall from grace.

Hailed as a “Black Rimbaud” (Rimbaud nègre) before being condemned as a fraud, Elimane (whose real name, we learn, is Elimane Madag Diouf) emerges as a clear historical double for Yambo Ouologuem. But his story also bears similarities to the Antillean writer René Maran, the first Black writer to receive the Goncourt. In 1921—exactly a century before Sarr’s win—Maran was awarded the Goncourt for his novel Batouala: veritable roman nègre (1921; Batouala: A True Black Novel), which was subsequently banned for its harsh critique of French colonization.

. . . .

Diégane’s search for the ghost of Elimane is also ultimately a journey through texts and a patchwork of experimental literary forms. The novel incorporates press clippings, letters, interviews, text messages, journal entries, reports, oral histories, and manuscripts-in-progress. An entire chapter, told from the perspective of Elimane’s aging mother, is narrated without terminal punctuation.

. . . .

Formal virtuosity aside, Sarr’s novel performs an especially adept sleight of hand in its very premise, since Sarr both stages and enacts the ambivalences of navigating the French publishing world as an African writer, satirizing the world of French letters as he soars to its greatest heights. Sarr’s narrator, Diégane, is part of a throng of young, ambitious writers, mostly from the African diaspora, living in Paris and vying for purchase in a cutthroat literary scene, where success comes at the cost of leveraging one’s own identity—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—to become legible.

The world of French letters is where Diégane and his friends, like Elimane before them, explore and feed a passion for literature. But it is also a world fundamentally unprepared and unwilling to receive them on their own terms—unable, as Sarr writes, to see the African writer as anything besides a nègre d’exception.

. . . .

Sarr’s most biting commentary thus is reserved for the French literary marketplace, with its neocolonial and essentialist trappings. The novelist and playwright Marie NDiaye, who in 2009 became the first Black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, is a case in point. Despite being born in France, she was treated as a twenty-first-century évoluée, a term coined by French colonists to describe colonized subjects who had “successfully” assimilated France’s linguistic, cultural, and social norms.

Link to the rest at Public Books