A teacher gave a poem to one of his students that her mother considers wildly inappropriate. You can’t help but wonder whether this is a poem we might all know or whether it’s one the teacher wrote himself and involves Nantucket. It’s one of those situations where someone is either overreacting or someone else is a scuzwad. Hard to tell with no details. Anyone? Teach is suspended, pending an investigation. (Thanks, P!)
Jay Parini responds thoughtfully to Roth’s PEN/Faulkner award in a blog at the Guardian.
The prizes and accolades must have become something of a bore for Roth, who prefers (one assumes) to stay holed up in his barn in Connecticut, writing and writing. On Monday it was announced in New York that Roth won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for his latest novel, Everyman. He has actually won this same award twice before, making him the first writer to win the prize three times over. One of the judges told the press: “The book haunts me. Its simplicity and brutishness, the unflinching look at life. Roth never looks away, never trivializes, never shrugs. He manages to wrestle with grief, the immensity of losing self.”
This is all true enough. But I read this latest novel with mixed feelings. I missed the elaborate scene-making of Goodbye, Columbus and so many of his other novels. I missed the poetic stillness of The Ghost Writer, a short novel as good as Goodbye, Columbus. I missed the nutty sprawling comic energy of Portnoy’s Complaint. I missed the sex, so wonderfully and weirdly overwhelming in The Professor of Desire. I even missed the wry egomania that dominates so many of his books, and the gorgeous late-blossoming rage of Sabbath’s Theater and The Human Stain. Everyman is about what we all know about, fear, try not to think about, try to engage, force to the margins, sometimes stare in the eye, mostly look away from: the big D.
Without falling into the trap of condemning all abridgement – it happens on radio without a squeak of protest – at least half these titles should not be on the list. The fact that Moby-Dick is a digressive, unboildownable whale of a book is the whole point; The Portrait of a Lady, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch are straightforward reads – page turners, even for less confident readers, though in the case of Middlemarch there are admittedly a lot of pages to turn. The rambling David Copperfield is ripe for cutting, but Bleak House, in which Dickens was consciously widening his scope as an artist, is not. A great novel is more than its plot; it is an ecosystem, a world. Tamper at your peril.
[I'm really stretching for that headline, eh? It's unseemly.]
Awesome children’s author, profiled at the Guardian. (We have two or three of his titles and they seem to hold endless fascination… And endless is good.)
London Magazine is sinking. And we don’t even want to think about what sludge under London that’s into.
The decision to pull the funding from the London Magazine is understood to be part of an overall policy decision from the Arts Council to withdraw all direct funding of specialist literary publications.
The London Magazine would be the largest and most prestigious title to have its funding cut, but others under threat are thought to include poetry magazine Acumen and general literary magazine Dreamcatcher.
This almost seems like an April Fool’s joke to me. The publisher of such alarmist right-wing propaganda mouthpiece rags as the Toronto Sun and the National Post is going to save The New Republic? Eesh. Cross your fingers. Hey CanWest, start in your revamping with that idiotic website that keeps all the articles locked behind subscription walls. I get emails every few days telling me to check out your articles on this, that or the other and I can’t get at them. It’s like saying, hey, want to try this free sample of Nutter Butters? And then making someone pay for the bag before they get to try. I don’t even bother opening those emails anymore, much less direct our readers there.
A number of big name authors have used writers as their protagonists. Is this experiment or ego?
The central character in a TV adaptation of an Ian Rankin short story being shown tomorrow is a policeman called John Buchan who has been bested in love and other areas of life by a rich, sexy, witty, bestselling novelist called Jack Harvey.
Most viewers will spot that the policeman’s name is an allusion to a famous Scottish novelist – the author of The 39 Steps – but fewer may pick up that Buchan’s nemesis is also a Caledonian literary reference. Jack Harvey is the pseudonym under which Ian Rankin published three early novels.
The interest of novelists in inventing novelists has both a practical and a psychological explanation. Realistic fiction demands that the details of a character’s job should be as convincing as possible, and the creation of a creative writer uses research already accrued, without the long Googling and interviewing necessary to portray a convincing undertaker or dentist.
But there is also a deeper mental explanation. Most writers have had a literary equivalent of the actors’ experience of self-division: the sense that their writing comes from someone or something separate. It’s perhaps significant that many of the writers mentioned here are torrentially productive writers who also published under pseudonyms, including Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) and Agatha Christie (as Mary Westmacott).
Listen, when I write about my long day stealthily killing imperial samurai from behind and then retreating to my hideout in the bamboo forest, I’m doing nothing more than describing the world as I see it. Much like those love scenes with Lisa Loeb. It’s not escapism. It’s the hard edged truth of my existence.
Regardless of how good or bad any of these poems might be, I can’t help but think this collection of poems from inmates “behind the wire” at the USA’s Guantannamo gulag will be hundreds and hundreds of times more valuable than most of everything else published in our lifetimes.
It all began when he turned up at the secure facility in Washington DC where all communications from detainees are sent, and found a poem waiting for him.
“The first poem I saw was sent to me by Abdulsalam al Hela,” he says. “It’s a moving cry about the injustice of arbitrary detention and at the same time a hymn to the comforts of religious faith.”
“It was interesting to me because I did a PhD in literature, but I didn’t think too much about it.”
A second poem from another client followed soon after, and Falkoff began to wonder if other lawyers also had clients who were sending poetry. It turned out that Guantánamo Bay is “filled with itinerant poets”.
Many of the poems deal with the pain and humiliation inflicted on the detainees by the US military. Others express disbelief and a sense of betrayal that Americans – described in one poem as “protectors of peace” – could deny detainees any kind of justice. Some engage with wider themes of nostalgia, hope and faith in God.
Of course, Uncle Sam wants these words silenced… because, you know, poetry is dangerous. Actually, I hope it is.
But most of the poems, including the lament by Al Hela which first sparked Falkoff’s interest, are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Not content with imprisoning the authors, the Pentagon has refused to declassify many of their words, arguing that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format”. In a memo sent on September 18 2006, the team assigned to deal with communications between lawyers and their clients explains that they do not “maintain the requisite subject matter expertise” and says that poems “should continue to be considered presumptively classified”.
The defence department spokesman Jeffrey Gordon is unsurprised that access to detainees poetry is tightly controlled. “It depends on what’s being written,” he says. “There’s a whole range of things that are inappropriate.” Of course poetry that deals with subjects such as guard routines, interrogation techniques or terrorist operations could pose a security threat, but Gordon is unable to explain why Al Hela’s poem is still classified, saying “I haven’t read any of these [poems]“.
As with prisoners within the American justice system, he argues, there are constraints on their first amendment rights. “I don’t think these guys are writing poetry like Morrissey,” he continues.
Morrissey? You. Stupid. Fucknut. (There should be a samizdat culture to capture and disseminate whatever doesn’t make it into this collection. We’ll publish it here if someone can get it to us.)
From child soldier to famous author with brief stops at grande half-caf, frappachino. (Is there some irony here, at least, regarding the history of the beans behind the book?)
Ishmael Beah thought he’d seen enough miracles in one lifetime when U.N. officials helped him move at age 17 to America, far from the African civil war where he’d been a 13-year-old soldier. Settled with an adoptive mother in New York City, he did well in high school and graduated from Oberlin College. But his good fortune was only beginning: Not only did Beah find a publisher for his subsequent book about his childhood, “A Long Way Gone,” but the memoir attracted enormous media attention, including an excerpt that became a New York Times Magazine cover story.
And now, with Starbucks’ decision to promote and sell his book in more than 6,000 stores, the 26-year-old author has been thrust into the role of spokesman for child soldiers worldwide. He’s become an overnight celebrity, with a 10-city book tour scheduled for the coffee chain. In a life filled with some truly shocking reversals, this new chapter may be just about the last thing he ever expected.
Hollywood is making Jane Austen a babe. Is that TOO good for Jane? I mean, it would be hard to make me look too good, but… Wait a minute… what does that MEAN?! Did I just burn myself? Excuse me while I deal with this carbuncle.
Chatting the other day to another usher at the cinema where I work, I was distracted from our conversation by a new poster, from which a glamorous young starlet with flawless skin was gazing out with a faraway look. “What’s this?” I thought to myself: “We don’t usually advertise make-up.”
Closer inspection revealed that the poster was in fact advertising a forthcoming biopic of Jane Austen – engagingly entitled Becoming Jane. My initial reaction was incredulity, given that Anne Hathaway, last seen in The Devil Wears Prada, bears not a jot of resemblance to the little watercolour portrait of the author on the postcard on my wall. Jane Austen as a babe! Whatever next? Shakespeare as a hunk? Or have they already done that one?
The biopics of the future will be glad for the run of headshot honeys we’ve been publishing this last ten years or so.
Random House will be offering significant excerpts of text from 5000 current and backlist titles on its website.
Random House has introduced a search tool on its Web site that will make available a small portion of text from 5,000 of its new and backlist titles, the company announced yesterday. As much as 10 percent of each book, typically a front cover, introduction and first chapter, will be accessible on the Random House Web site (randomhouse.com) by clicking on the individual book and entering keywords.
It takes a while to get used to the spectre of Amis as he appears here in this lounge. Most publicity shots, even recent ones, try to capture something of the angry-young-man persona he inherited from his father Kingsley, which is to say: youngish, and angry. But he is now 57 years old and, physically, greying around the edges; he has something of the eight-year-old thrust into a grade-school play about, say, founding fathers, who has been sprinkled with too much talc by an enthusiastic teacher. His wardrobe of jacket and vest, which had seemed consciously dapper in a younger writer, is now merely the common dress of men his age. And anger? Amis spends most of the hour looking off to the side, to an unoccupied corner of the lounge, so those eyes, which are so steely when they peer out from the backs of his books, come off as almost uncertain and apologetic.
Award season, the spring issue, is upon us.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no good can come of it. Don’t respond to reviews. Just get back to writing books.
Should authors reply to wrong-headed reviews? Is it a good idea to write in to the offending paper and point out that, despite the sweeping claims of their reviewer, you did in fact mention Pompey the Great (indeed devoted most of chapter 12 to him)/ that you didn’t mis-spell Caesar throughout/ that you are not nor ever have been a member of UKIP . . . or whatever?
In one way, of course it is. If reviews are part of a dialogue, then why silence the poor old author? Needless to say, reviewers on the TLS are not the sort to make crass errors – and, in any case, there is team of hawk-eyed editors who try to run to ground any mistakes that may have slipped through. But there are still a good many readers (myself included sometimes) who head straight for Letters page. There’s nothing like it for a ring-side seat at someone else’s literary row.
Reviews are the cage-liner of the literary word. Useful for a moment, and then garbage. Just let it slide, man.
The world’s languages are drying up. Last chance to hear.
WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE ENGLISH word “chary”, meaning cautious or anxious. But if you were an elderly Siberian Chulym reindeer herder, and one of the handful of people left who speak the ancient language known as Middle Chulym or Tuvan, the word chary would translate as “a two-year-old castrat-able rideable reindeer”. (In Siberia, it seems, two-year-old uncastrated male reindeer have reason to be, well, chary.) The word tells us something specific about the ecology of reindeer herding in Siberia.
The linguist David Harrison cited this obscure word in a fascinating address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, as an example of the extraordinary interaction between language and biodiversity: the languages of ethnic groups, he pointed out, contain vitally important information about species often unknown to formal science. If the language is lost, so too will vanish the knowledge it contains about natural phenomena.
More than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to die out by the end of the century, taking with them irreplaceable knowledge about plants and animals. Global warming, loss of habitat and pollution are not the only threats to the environment: lack of linguistic diversity poses a direct threat to biodiversity.
If we want to be drop dead serious about this for a second, I propose that we might turn this trend by increasing our fantasy novel and cult science fiction television series production. There’s nothing like nerd obsession to keep fictional languages alive.
Profiled at the Times on the occasion of his death’s silver anniversary.
John Lennon had read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (one of Dick’s best, and quite possibly the weirdest book yet written) and wanted to make a film of it. Perhaps, in some alternate universe, Lennon survived to do that, but in our world the big breakthrough was Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, based on one of Dick’s most popular novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dick never saw it. He died on March 2, 1982, after a paralysing stroke, at the age of 53, months before it was released. But he approved of the final script and had been impressed by the stylish look of the clips that he saw. In the final three years of his life, he was finally making money and receiving wider acclaim. A friend, Paul Williams, has suggested that Dick’s increasing fame “scared him a little. If people choose their own deaths, he probably died because he was finally getting the kind of broad-based recognition he’d hoped for and feared all along.”
You know, the one mistake Ridley Scott made with Blade Runner was not using the original story title… I mean, come on. That was a no brainer. I have a theory that Dick could have been wealthy earlier if he’d let sober people title his books and stories for him.
Rowling is suing eBay for allowing the sale of illegal copies of her books. Someone’s been hanging around with the RIAA too much…
J. K. Rowling, Harry’s creator, is suing the online auction hosting service eBay after unscrupulous sellers used the Indian version of the website to sell unauthorised versions of her books.
Rowling is not the first person to sue the website for breach of copyright, but she has won a unique victory by obtaining an injunction that prohibits eBay from listing illegal copies of her work. The court order is a setback for eBay because it is the first time the company has been obliged to police its sellers’ auctions for copyrighted material.
Meanwhile, I am suing eBay for always letting some scumbag yoink my highly desired auction right out from under me at the last second, beating my price by $0.02.
Goes to Phillip Roth. Mr. Roth will now enjoy the attention of major media outlets and may even ride this wave of publicity to a contract with an A-list publisher.
Is Daniel Radcliffe (the manchild who plays Harry in the movies) trying to kill of his Mr. Hyde with horsesex?
Let’s put aside the obvious point that Harry has been growing up already – both in JK Rowling’s novels and in the slavish adaptations that lumber in their wake. What the current row highlights is a growing rift between a studio that regards Harry Potter as an ongoing franchise to be protected and a writer and actor who want to quit while the going is good. Because if Radcliffe is indeed attempting to be rid of the wizard, the evidence suggests that he has a powerful partner in crime. It was Rowling who steered him towards the role in Equus, and it is Rowling who is rumoured to be poised to kill off her creation in the last book of the series, set for publication in July.
Regardless, the whole horsesex thing is something I hadn’t considered as a possible end for Harry, so I tip my hat to Mr. Radcliffe for his imagination and thorough dedication to the cause. Hermione: “Harry’s dead?! How!?” Ron: “Horse.” Hermione: “Ah.. Say no more.” They both whistle and walk away. It’s perfect, really.
But my real beef with his critique is that it’s not a critique. Words like “twaddle” don’t offer any substance to a debate about books; such a contribution is basically, well, twaddle. You can’t bear James or Hardy … so what? That’s your problem – and your loss. If you don’t want to understand late Victorian literature, just ignore it. Alternatively, read and reflect upon the whole of James (most critics would say early, middle and late James almost constitute different writers); read Leon Edel’s psychologically probing five-volume life of James; assess his fruitful relationship with Edith Wharton (explored in Hermione Lee’s new biography of Wharton); place him in the context of Victorian and Edwardian letters; look at his legacy; read the spate of recent fictions (Hollinghurst, Lodge, Toibin) that have circled round him – and then report back. Maybe with more than four paragraphs, the principal conclusion of which is that he’s shit.
More on that French professor, pictured here in the middle of a hearty French guffaw, who’s written a book on chatting about books you haven’t read.
My challenge to you, dear Ninjas, is to, at least three times in the next week, enter into conversations with others about this book as though you have read it. Using just what you know from the articles posted here at Bookninja you must, 1) claim to have read the book; b) refute or laud the author’s point and logic in increasingly vehement bold statements; and fourthly) liken his audacious conclusions to Hitler. Go forth, my silent, deadly minions. Go forth and confuse.
More on the scandal dangling right in front of us all, turning America’s lockerrooms upside down and revealing the unseemly under…belly of a librarian-lead cultural conspiracy aiming to replace the word “scrotum” (seen here for the first time in print in all of human history) with the less profane, more schoolyard friendly, “angora teabag seedsack”. Is there no sector of western culture unprepared to humiliate itself?
Canada Reads winners from the last five years are lined up and ready to square off in a battle royale against Ken Jennings and Hoyce Gracie.
Roy Hattersley defends Auden against charges of being “too difficult” made by Alan Bennett.
Last week, when interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, Alan Bennett described the poetry of WH Auden as “too difficult” to be bothered with. Philip Larkin, on the other hand, was easy to understand and therefore a pleasure to read. I am reluctant to contest the literary opinion of the 26th greatest living Yorkshireman. But sweeping judgments rarely make critical sense. Auden and Larkin both wrote poems which the reader has to think about and are, in consequence, called hard. And each of them wrote poems which are, superficially at least, easy. Anyway, “hard” and “easy” are ideas which exist only in the mind of the reader. Do not take my word for it, or even Alan Bennett’s. Believe TS Eliot.
I find difficulty is a draw for me. When difficult poetry is done well, it’s like playing a puzzle set by a mad genius. Thus my love affair with Geoffrey Hill’s late work.
In what I thought was a profile by Coetzee at the Guardian, but I think is actually an excerpt from Coetzee’s new book of essays. Still… it’s Coetzee writing about poetry.
In one of Hugo Claus’s later poems, a celebrated poet agrees to be interviewed by a younger man, also a poet. A few drinks soon unleash the malice and envy that lie behind the visit. Just between the two of us, asks the younger man, why do you keep the modern world at arm’s length? Why do you pay so much attention to the dead masters? And why are you so obsessed with technique? Don’t be offended, but sometimes I find you much too hermetic. And your rhyme patterns: they are so obvious, so childish. What is your philosophy, your basic idea, in a nutshell?
The older man’s mind roams back to his childhood, to the dead masters Byron, Ezra Pound, Stevie Smith. “Stepping stones,” he says.
“Pardon?” says the puzzled interviewer.
“Stepping stones for the poem to tread on.” He leads the young man to the door, helps him on with his coat. From the doorstep he points up at the moon. Uncomprehending, the young man stares at the pointing finger.
The CBC literary prize contest winners have been announced. Some new, some familiar names on the lists. Check out the shortlists to see some ninjas who almost had the brass ring but were left with the tin cup. This is why I don’t enter contests.
You’re moving to a space that can hold half the books you currently have. How do you choose? How do you choose? I guess I would start by not taking the ones that are performing structurally questionable duties (ie, those acting as table legs, monitor and printer stands, door stops, teetering towers of eventual destruction that are seemingly without purpose but may hold up the corners of extra spatial dimensions…)
Seduction is a reliable path out of domestic cul-de-sacs, so I decided to try it on my wife–all for the sake of my books. Grandparents enlisted to take our young son for the night, I proceeded to cook a nifty meal for two, to be gargled back with a brace of bottles of her favorite red, L’Esprit des Pavot from the Peter Michael Winery in Calistoga. (Wine-buffs will know how hard it is to score this stuff, and I can only hint at the abundance of books I might have purchased with the funds I had to set aside for the vino.) And then, halfway through dinner, with the mood suitably softback, I popped the question: “Love,” I said–sincerely, but not unmindful of the word’s diplomatic possibilities–”do you, er, mind–the wine’s good, isn’t it!–er, may I bring . . . a pile of books home from the office?”
She (brusquely actuarial): “How many?”
He (now a quivering wreck): “Oh, I think about 3,000 . . .”
She (for there is a God, and He enabled a munificent compromise): “How about 1,500. And not one book more.”
And thus began a process with which I have grown–as a man who has led a peripatetic life–heartbrokenly familiar. You take root someplace, then a call comes from Fortune herself and you move on to another place. And since there is no moving on without a leaving behind, you teach yourself to discard.
Just what it sounds like: more on the backlash against the book that brought you the word “scrotum”, in print for the first time in the history of mankind and a thousand times more profane than “teabag seedsack”.
Herzen regarded the world with a cool, ironic eye. It is the source of his comedy. But he burned with a sense of the world’s injustices. His denunciations of the bourgeoisie match Marx for vituperative heat. The petty, calculating side of British and French middle-class life repulsed him. Italy, with its spontaneity and warmth, was more to his taste — more Russian, in fact.
Fifty years ago this month, an obscure lecturer in Hull University’s adult education department was surprised to find his opinions prominently displayed across the pages of several popular newspapers. No doubt about it, the Daily Herald declared, in a lead review of his newly published The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart was “an angry young man”. Following up the story 24 hours later, it printed a quiz-cum-questionnaire inspired by Hoggart’s thesis and affecting to explore contemporary social attitudes. Mystified, but not ungrateful, Hoggart moved on to the next stage of a career that would see him become assistant director general of Unesco and the grand old man of what might be called English literary sociology.
A Freedom to Read week article from the perspective of a blind reader who is allowed into the clubhouse of books through technology.
So, you heat up a cup of your favourite poison, surround yourself with comfy cushions, and pull up a rug. In my case, you also don your inch-thick magnifying glasses, actual magnifiers that have been fitted into a pair of Ugly Betty frames. And then, with a happy squirm, you lose yourself for endless fascinated hours, long into the night.
But, if you are me, you pay the price of stiff shoulders, aching back, knotted neck muscles and the disapproval of your chiropractor.
Reading at the computer takes a physical toll as well – all kinds of muscular-skeletal injury, such as repetitive strain injury from excess keyboarding. To say nothing of the sheer hassle of converting materials from print-format into an accessible electronic format.
As a person who is what the library calls “print-disabled,” time and well-being are the price for sharing in the riches of the printed word.
To listen to him rhyme? About nothing and everything all at once? Setting Shakespeare to music.
For the past few months, I have been setting a group of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North. The sonnet form has a long history of being set to music, starting with composers in the Italian renaissance. To set a sonnet or series of sonnets – as with writing operas, string quartets or symphonies – almost inevitably and unnervingly, means writing within a historical perspective. The form itself, though, is particularly satisfying to work with, because of its sense of balance and its elegant and apparently simple formal structure. It lends itself to love poetry, but also to introspection and philosophical reflection. In the hands of its greatest writers, the sheer beauty of the language can be both a constant stimulus and a daunting challenge. In writing sonnets, poets generally speak in the first person, or at least from an individual viewpoint, which draws the reader deep into their world. For a composer this has the advantage of a very direct emotional link to the poet.
Blackblackblack, Blackblackblack, Blackblackblack, Dead. Ask a Ninja about poetry. Was there ever a link more suited to us?
I just got back from a job interview and am totally bushed. Here’s a bunch of links for your Friday. More later, if I find anything fun.
Bartell, a journalism major who was promoted to editor-in-chief in January 2005 after one year as Campus Affairs editor, now works as as a part-time receptionist for a Manhattan public-relations firm. Bartell had a distinguished career at the Free Press, breaking the news of the appointment of a new English Department chairman in 2004, and writing a three-part series on the revamped trash-can design in the student union.
Believing that his tenure “set a strong, rigorous example for quality news writing,” Bartell, who often travels back to Boston to attend college parties thrown by members of his old newspaper, is saddened that none of the staff has followed his example. Everything in the paper, he claims, from the coverage of the school’s annual Activities Expo to the campus radio station-sponsored date auction, has been “complete bullshit.”
Since days of yore (1986) “flaming” has been a regrettable part of the internet. Flame is what happens when otherwise decent people get dressed up in the masquerade costume of an anonymous internet chatroom, discussion board, or comment field, and completely lose their shit, saying things they’d never have the courage, conviction or reason to say to someone’s face. I’ve always marvelled at the phenomenon. I imagine little old ladies calling people shitfaced fucknuts. Maybe it’s cathartic? That was my best guess. Now the neuroscience behind flaming is explained at the NYT.
Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.
In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.
The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.
This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.
Research by Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, finds that this face-to-face guidance system inhibits impulses for actions that would upset the other person or otherwise throw the interaction off. Neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex lose the ability to modulate the amygdala, a source of unruly impulses; like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward.
Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.
Abebooks points to how powerful a well-placed recommendation from an A-list author can be. Scott from Abe writes in with this:
While checking our weekly bestsellers for AbeBooks.com last week and noticed something very interesting. A relative unknown that I had not really noticed before was on the top of our bestsellers, even sold more copies then The Secret which got huge press last week. It was a thriller writer named Meg Gardiner. There were no news stories about her however in several blog’s there was talk about her book getting recommended by Stephen King on his website and in his Entertainment Weekly column. Most interesting part is that she has no publisher in the US. Our Press release is linked below.
I don’t know how I missed this one: Fay Weldon rips bestsellers a new one.
TIME WAS WHEN popularity was the mark of artistic failure. David Shepherd’s painting Elephant was dismissed because so many people bought it; Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous print Chinese Girl appalled critics. Paganini filled concert halls too easily. Dickens always lingered as a slightly dubious figure in the ranks of fame, as did Tennyson. If the common man likes it, the theory went, it can’t be any good.
These days it’s the other way round. “Bestseller” betokens artistic success. It is the publishers’ ultimate accolade. If enough others like it, the suggestion is, so will you. Popularity becomes the measuring stick. A “good” book is, by inference, an easy book. A “good” book is one that sells.
Today’s famous writers are not the enigmatic Nabokov or the mysterious Kafka but Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling. Their pictures are on the jacket, their life histories known by all. Their function is to make money for their publishers. And this is bad for “serious” writers, who have something more complex to say, and also for those publishers who play safe and will publish only if a profit is assured. “Best selling” should not be an accolade so much as a warning.
Today the danger for writers who continue to aspire to “good” in the old sense is that they won’t get published at all, or it will be with miserable print runs. The synopses they must have approved before they begin a commissioned book will please marketing rather than the editorial department.
Gosh, I love articles that start with “Time was…” I feel like I could just settle in at the foot of the rocking chair and try not to cough from the smoke billowing from the corncob pipe.
Reader Frankie sends in a piece on the crumbling of an academic study that said the prayers of strangers can effect medical conditions. First an author withdrew his name, saying he never participated in the study. Then another went to jail for fraud. Now it’s being said parts of the paper were plagiarised. All of which leads to me ask one question: there’s more than one nutbar studying this pseudo-scientific crap?
Coming your way, Feb 25. One whole week of reading, and then you can get back to your internets and tv. (I’ll have freedom to read when people start paying me to sit on my ass with books.)
Mark Sanderson’s literary gossip column in the UK has a bit about a plot by the legal team at HarperCollins to find out who among the staff where trying to sell proofs on eBay for exhorbitant sums. The culprits were caught in the style of those stupid-criminal shows on tv.
The legal department, determined to put an end to this nice little earner, sent round a global email asking if any employees had a PayPal account (which enables money to be sent electronically) so that they could buy the copies and thus find out who the culprits were. The guilty parties failed to see the writing on the screen, did not withdraw their wares from eBay, and were duly caught.
Lesson learned: Rupert needs to pay people more.
Some more Auden links:
The NYT has a piece on a gathering of like-minded nutbars (read: the holy-spirit line) and good-natured nerds who meet regularly to appreciate the works of CS Lewis. I recently re-read the series, the first time as an adult, to suss out when I should read it to Ninja Boy, and was shocked at how slender it was. The series gets more complicated and, in some senses, enjoyable later on, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a pretty banged-off book. I had fond memories of it, but besides the occasionally cloying religious overtones, there’s the fact that it moves at breakneck speed through about one quarter of a story. I just can’t see how Tolkien kept a straight face when hanging out with Lewis. Maybe I’m missing something.
A bevy of presidential candidates (voteforobama) have stepped up to the plate in the (voteforobama) USA, many of them with their own (voteforobama) books that lay out their politics and (voteforobama) agendas. While some bloggers may try (voteforobama) to sway you (voteforobama) towards one candidate or (voteforobama) another, I, on the other hand, urge you to read each book (voteforobama) carefully and consider each (voteforobama) candidate as both a person (voteforobama) and a politician (voteforobama) before making an informed (voteforobama) choice that benefits the (voteforobama) whole nation that so sorely needs (voteforobama) healing.
Well, I would say the answer to that is mostly so that we can hang out with them at parties without wanting to smash them in the face. Sadly, this is mostly not the case. An interesting blog entry at the Guardian on an interesting subject.
A couple of weeks ago, Howard Jacobson wrote a typically lucid piece about the independent Jewish voice. As usual, I felt myself getting all twisted up about what I really thought about the actions of Israel. Then he mentioned Amos Oz and David Grossman. A gentle feeling of relief fell over me. I thought: the novelists will know the right thing.
But I soon realised that I had made the automatic assumption that modern novelists are good. It was an instinctive extrapolation: if someone writes brilliant prose, they must be an unimpeachable human being.
Think of the great moral dilemmas of the age – terrorism, global warming, multiculturalism. The ethical climate is not set until the novelists have spoken. On September 12th, 2001, it was the novelists who got whole pages to themselves.
It’s funny, because I’m stuck somewhat in this predicament lately. There’s a particular writer I consider to be a boot-scraping of a human being, but who is quite a brilliant writer. Said asswipe really needs his teeth punched in a few times (because I suspect that would be the only criticism he would understand), but who’d want the flow of such good prose to come out through a gap-toothed whistle at readings? After much thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that, however satisfying it might be to rearrange this guy’s face, it’s probably a misplaced urge to reach through his face to rearrange his personality that drives me. And it’s okay that he’s a dick. It’s like Lady Ninja, from whom I learn all my personality-improving lessons, said with a deep sigh the other night while grading exams: “I have to remember: it’s not personal that these kids aren’t doing the readings…” It shouldn’t affect me in any way that a good writer is a garbage bag of half-decomposed organs holding a pen. Not at all.
In case you’ve been following the PGW drama in the US, the blocked drain that is small press publishing world there saw a little movement last night. The plug of fried onions, oatmeal, and tomato pieces bubbled slightly and the overpowering stench of progress billowed through the country’s intellectual kitchen.
After a shake-up involving the sudden bankruptcy of book distributor Publishers Group West — and worries that their own finances and stock would be tangled for months to come — independent publishers are guardedly optimistic about a new distribution arrangement worked out last week in a Delaware courtroom.
“There’s a lot of work to do as to how it plays out,” said Charlie Winton, who helped found PGW, sold it five years ago, and now runs the publisher Avalon, which relied on PGW for distribution. “It’s the best possible situation. Compared to sitting in bankruptcy court, this is great. And that all of this can be settled in less than 60 days is nothing short of miraculous.”
Let’s see if I can keep this metaphor going: … … … Nope.
Inductees?! Oh no! Does this mean they’re in a secret CIA gulag or alien ship somewhere? Poor Howard Engel, Barbara Gowdy and Frances Itani! This is a travesty!
This is a day for Lady Ninja’s childhood friends, I think. She grew up with Kate Alton who has adapted the sound work of the Four Horsemen (a 70s and 80s ensemble who are famous in Canada for their performance art) into a dance performance. Sounds interesting.
Following last week’s rapture, which transported four members of the Marion Mockingbirds Book Club to heaven in order to be with Jesus Christ, the three remaining members have reportedly been scrambling to maintain a regular Wednesday meeting schedule as well as the usual coffee-and-pastry rotation.