Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Two-Tier Book Pricing Has Got To Go

by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 23, 2006 09:16 pm

Some recent news about a move towards affordable first editions hit a nerve with me. This is a positive development, but it's at least twenty years too late, and it doesn't go far enough.

The publishing industry's basic hardcover/paperback pricing structure is a dinosaur, and it's time for this dinosaur to die. Here are a few reasons why two-tier book pricing has got to go:

It's exclusionary. It's amazing that book publishers consider themselves socially enlightened, because their basic pricing structure forces non-wealthy readers to wait a year to read new books. Is somebody going to explain to me why this doesn't amount to a gated community for literature?

Take me, for example. I'm a middle-class guy working to support myself and my kids, and because of this I'm not going to be able to read Rick Moody's Diviners for another six months. I cribbed an article about Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace while getting tripped over in a Barnes and Noble's fiction aisle. On Beauty by Zadie Smith is supposed to be a good book. I'll let you know in 2007.

I don't ever like to throw around cliched words like "elitist". But two-tier book pricing is a seven letter word that starts with 'e'.

It's aesthetically wrong. Sure, I'd be interested in reading Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta. But why the hell do I want a premium edition of a first novel that I know very little about? I'm certainly not going to buy this book in hardcover, and by the time it comes out in paperback I'll have probably forgotten about it.

There are a few books I like enough that I've chosen to buy them in hardcover, like the Complete Works of Plato, The Riverside Shakespeare, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and a facsimile edition of On The Road. But for God's sake, a book's got to earn that kind of status. What the hell am I going to do with a premium edition of Intuition by Allegra Goodman or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safrar Foer or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld? Are you even kidding me? These books may or may not turn out to be worth their weight, let alone the space they take up and the money they cost. I'd like to be able to experiment with new authors, but I'm not going to experiment at $25 a try.

It's economically questionable. The New York Times article quoted in the links above states that two-tier book pricing is here to stay because it makes business sense. I'm not buying that, any more than I'm buying a $40 book of poetry by W. S. Merwin. Every industry re-invents its pricing structure periodically. If the book industry can't find a way to better serve its customers while building profits, they may not be trying very hard. Here are two ideas: publish premium and affordable editions at the same time, or publish premium editions a year after the affordable editions. This is a question of packaging, and I think our brilliant publishing executives and author representatives can rise to the challenge.

It's inconvenient. Goddammit, I don't have time to go to libraries and fight with blue-haired little old ladies over the latest Kurt Vonnegut. I am very interested in current writing, and if there's a new book out I want to be able to buy it. I'm not looking for a keepsake or a family heirloom. Let me buy the book. Put the book in the stores and let me buy it. I don't want to wait a year, because in a year I might not care about that book anymore. Let me buy the book. Now. Because I'm getting more and more pissed off the more I think about this.

I applaud editor Morgan Entrekin, the subject of the articles linked above, and many others in the publishing industry who are championing the cause of paperback originals and affordable first editions. I'm pretty sure two-tier pricing has no future, but then I was saying that twenty years ago, and Morgan Entrekin was too.

Rites of Spring

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 20, 2006 06:52 pm

1. To be a good litblogger, you can't just sit back and think up good jokes about whatever is happening around you. You have to get out and make stuff happen, and that's one reason why Ed Champion is probably the best litblogger on the planet right now. I'm inspired to declare this after reading his two (yes, two) recent mash-ups with the esteemed and intellectually intimidating William T. Vollman, who many avid readers wouldn't even approach once. I especially like this part in the afterstory: "I said, 'Gentlemen, that was a classic ditch technique'".

2. Then there's Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things, who must be hooked into some secret private Google or something, because he always seems to get the alert before I do. He knew about DeLillo's Game Six a month before anyone else, and he got the scoop on the new Bukowski movie about six months ago before anybody else (actually, where the hell is this movie?). Of interest today: the London house where Symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud gamboled and frolicked happily together when they weren't busy shooting each other is in jeopardy. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith are joining the effort to preserve this landmark, and we are glad to hear this. But somebody should have rung up Richard Hell.

3. The multi-day 2006 People's Poetry Gathering looks like it will be an amazing event. The broad lineup includes Robert Bly (whose poetry comes alive in performance), Miguel Algarin, Kewulay Kamara, Bob Holman, Galway Kinnell, Black 47 and many others.

4. A minor miracle recently occured on cable television. The BookTV network ran a show that featured a literary author whose latest book was not a biography of a dead President and did not involve a dead President in any way. I know what you're thinking: that's crazy -- but it actually happened. Norman Mailer was the author, and he appeared in a videotaped interview with his son, the wonderfully named John Buffalo Mailer, who seems to be stirring to follow in the old man's footsteps.

5. This is the best ode to spring I'm likely to read this year. Reclaim life! Eat jelly beans ...

Coupland, Kool Aid and the Macbeth of New Jersey

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 8, 2006 07:05 pm

Coupland's back. His new novel is called JPod, and it'll be published by Bloomsbury in June. The book is being alternatively billed as "Microserfs in the Age of Google" and "a lethal ride into today's breed of technogeeks".

Well, I'm about as technogeek as they come, and I'm also a Microserf who likes flat food, so I guess I should relate to this book. On the other hand, there's something about Coupland's fiction that feels almost as flat as the foods his characters slide under their office doors. Like Jay McInerney and T. C. Boyle, he writes fiction that feels like journalism but often fails to feel like art. He's always running around capturing one zeitgeist after another, but he doesn't quite capture the human soul.

Still, I read him and I like him. What about you -- is anybody out there really excited about a new generational statement from Douglas Coupland Industries, or not?

A quick glance at the JPod teaser up at Coupland's own website indicates that Japanese culture plays a big role in this story, what with all the Nissin soup, the smiling Japanese Lego people, the Asian typography. "JPod" may be short for "Joyful Pod", which calls to mind the amusing packaging on products like Kasugai Gummy Grape ("Enjoy the softness of gentle breeze that sweeps through the vineyard spread vast on the hill in each soft and juicy Kasugai Grape Gummy").

I think it's cool, anyway, that Coupland dabbles in numerous formats other than prose. Here's an attractive but somewhat incomprensible Dogmatika article describing a new art show in which Coupland has created a piece called Fight Club. Chuck Pahlaniuk is also involved with this art show, and a Coupland-Pahlaniuk collabo sounds like a great idea. Chuck can provide the depth, Coupland the clever packaging.

2. The Edwin Blair Collection of Beat and Modern Literature is being auctioned off tomorrow in San Francisco. This is apparently an old-school style real-life auction with velvet chairs and paddles, but even if you can't be there you might enjoy looking at the impressive illustrated catalog of vintage book covers and original manuscripts.

3. It was cool to see novelist Larry McMurtry stammering his Brokedown Mountain acceptance speech at the Oscars. His novels obviously translate very well to the movies (Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment are two of his older works) but aficianados of Ken Kesey or Tom Wolfe also know Larry McMurtry as a character in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He once studied writing at Stanford with Ken Kesey (Robert Stone was there as well), and the two were apparently pals. McMurtry's not a great speaker, but I guess the guy can write. Nobody's sure whether or not he ever drank the Kool-Aid.

4. The new season of the Sopranos starts Sunday night. Literary? I think so, even though I can't exactly explain why. I could come up with some allusions to Macbeth maybe, or I could just skip it. Let's just say that, for this literary-minded viewer, the show rings the same bells a good gritty novel by Conrad or Auster or Pahlaniuk might ring. And you should really check out this Sopranos Google Map, which proves that HBO has some techies on staff who actually know how to do cool stuff with XML-based web services.

Reviewing the Review: February 26 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 26, 2006 10:53 pm

The New York Times Book Review totally calls postmodern whiz-kid William Vollmann on his bluff today, assigning somebody who actually understands science to review his new impressionistic book about Copernicus and heliocentrism, Uncentering The Earth. The critic in the Times corner is Dava Sobel, who wrote a well-recieved book about the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, then followed it up with The Planets, a substantial but popular study of astronomy.

As much as I like Vollmann (which is, precisely, enough to buy his books and not enough to finish them), it is very pleasing to see somebody stand up to this awe-inspiring prodigy of knowledge, this legendarily long-suffering David Blaine of contemporary culture who goes by the name of William T. Vollmann. Because Vollmann's books really are painful to read, and his sentences really could be a hell of a lot clearer, and it's about time somebody with some intellectual heft stood up and got in his face. Sobel describes his new book as "an onslaught of taxing concepts expressed in an often wearying style." Welcome to the world of William Vollmann.

And, for the same goddam bizarre reason that I keep seeing Oliver Stone movies and I keep eating at White Castle, I will probably end up reading this Vollmann book too. Starting it, anyway.

Book Review regular Liesl Schillinger is usually excellent, but her review of Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic, leaves my head spinning. The book delves into the inflamed controversy between two major 17th Century European philosophers, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Liebniz. I'm not sure if it's the book's author or the critic who sees fit to reduce the issues between these two intellectuals to a trite Salieri-vs.-Mozart formulation, but it seems the culprit is Schillinger, who tells us a lot about Spinoza or Leibniz but very little about Stewart's book. These are two heavyweight philosophers, yet Schillinger speaks of them breathlessly as if they were characters in The Da Vinci Code. When she solemnly explains Leibniz's quirks by telling us "he was orphaned while still in his teens" it reads like a bad parody of psycho-biography.

It gets worse. This book's author apparently funded his career as a philosopher and a writer by founding a successful management consulting firm, and Liesl Schillinger lets us know that she's clueless about how the business world works when she equates the author's good fortune with "winning the lottery" and creating "his own good luck". I take it Schillinger has no idea what a management consultant does. But somebody at the Book Review should have an idea, and somebody should have fixed that before it went to print.

It's rare that I criticize the usually excellent Schillinger, and in that same bizarro spirit I have nothing but praise for today's endpaper about Betty Friedan by Rachel Donadio (whose previous pieces I've had nothing good to say about). Donadio makes some important connections, smartly crossing the gender line to compare Friedan's groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique to William Whyte's study of the conformist workplace of 1950's America and it's male archetype, The Organization Man. I also enjoy the way she places Friedan's book in its own context, informing us that it was published "the same month as the paperback edition of The Centaur, John Updike's myth-inflected novel of high-school life, and J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey."

Elsewhere in the Times, there's an informative obituary of the fiction author Frederick Busch in the News section, as well as an essay (of the heartwarming variety) about a mother whose daughter has become a latter-day Beatles freak, written by novelist Ann Hood, author of Three Legged Horse.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, February 21, 2006 02:10 pm

Julian Barnes does a magic trick in his historical novel Arthur & George. He makes the index cards disappear. He scoops up what must have undeniably been copious notes and footnotes, shuffles those note cards, deftly blends them, and fans the deck into a colorful moving picture of the sites, sounds, intrigues, and essentials of a true turn-of-the-century London adventure.

Sometimes one reads a good book and thinks, "I could do that," but Arthur & George leaves one thinking, "How did he do that?" Well, perhaps Barnes employs patience, practice, and hard work; but it still reads like magic.

The book has two historical figures as characters, famous Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle's friend George Edalji. Both are introduced to us as children. Only gradually do we share George's realization that he is perceived as "different" by his fellow school children. When one bully accosts George on the playground, taunting, "You aren't a right sort!" we think at first maybe it is simply because George is shy and awkward, or maybe even because he is smarter than the other kids. But the reader learns, as George learns, that he is different because of his skin tone and ancestry: One of his parents is from India.

Low Level Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to give away the outcome, but I am going to reveal an unexpected irony from this story. I believe this gets to the heart of why Julian Barnes said in a Times interview that he doesn't actually care for Doyle's writing. I did get the feeling, however, that Barnes likes Doyle as a person.

George Edalji studied law and became an attorney. He was a published author; his book Railway Law for the Man in the Train was part of the Wilson's Legal Handy Books series. He was a logical man who believed in law as the foundation of civilization. When he was falsely accused, by anonymous letters, of mutilating horses in the middle of the night, he could never have expected the incompetent, wrong-minded police investigation that ensued. He couldn't believe what flimsy evidence they used to convict him. When Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of this travesty of justice, he (in Doyle's own words) "made a lot of noise" until Edalji's name was cleared. What troubled Edalji in spite of his gratitude is that Doyle's case, upon close examination, was no less circumstantial than the one that put George Edalji behind bars in the first place. No one else seemed to notice this problem. It was ultimately Doyle's popularity as a writer, a sportsman, and a grand Englishman that won the day, not his mastery of the law. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes' "science of deduction" is sometimes flawed.

Consider this exchange between Holmes and Watson in The Sign of the Four,

"A savage!" (Watson exclaimed. "Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small."

"Hardly that," said (Holmes). "When first I saw signs of strange weapons I was inclined to think so, but the remarkable character of the footmarks caused me to reconsider my views. Some of the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are small men, but none could have left such marks as that. The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet. The sandal-wearing Mohammedan has the great toe well separated from the others because the thong is commonly passed between. These little darts, too, could only be shot in one way. They are from a blow-pipe. Now, then, where are we to find our savage?"

Circumstantial, my dear Watson. As is this passage from A Scandal in Bohemia,

"The man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence--'This account of you we have from all quarters received.' A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs."

In fairness to Doyle, it took some considerable time to glean those two examples of political incorrectness from a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories.

The point is, Arthur believed in George with the same emotional fervor with which he believed in Spiritualism. There is a very humorous passage near the end of Arthur & George in which George Edalji attends a spiritualist gathering of several thousand people at the Royal Albert Hall who are attempting to contact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after his death. The 'medium' on stage goes into a trance. Presently, she tells the audience she senses many souls present behind her. She raises her arms and straightens her back as though the spiritual forces are pushing her forward. Then, apparently, the departed souls begin speaking through the medium to their still-living relatives in the audience. Barnes writes,

"George listens to the crowd of spirits being given fleeting description. The impression is that they are all clamouring for attention, fighting to convey their messages. A facetious if logical question comes into George's mind ... If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue?"

A Few Things About Peter Benchley

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 13, 2006 05:31 pm

Lacking enough knowledge of Peter Benchley's life for a real tribute to the writer, who died yesterday at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, here are a few random associations:

1) His grandfather was Robert Benchley, a great humor writer from the sophisticated Algonquin circle of the 1920's and 30's. Peter Benchley wasn't funny like his grandfather, even though his book made a lot more money than any of Robert's ever did. The easiest way to get familiar with the distinctive satirical stylings of Robert Benchley is to watch the actor Campbell Scott's superb rendition of Benchley's amazing "Treasurer's Report" stage comedy bit in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

2. I read Jaws as a kid -- one of the first grownup books I ever read, in fact -- and I enjoyed it. One thing that stuck out in my then pre-adolescent mind and still does today: the film left out the book's only steamy sex scene, in which the police chief's wife has a quickie affair with the marine biologist. Yes, that's right, Roy Schieder's wife slept with Richard Dreyfuss -- in the book. Why do you think George Costanza wanted to be a marine biologist? I don't usually second guess Steven Spielberg, but I think this sex scene was part of the subtext behind the police chief's rivalry with the scientist, and I think Spielberg made a mistake in not filming that scene.

3. As a kid in the seventies, I thought it was very cool that Jaws took place on Long Island, where I lived. I was never scared of sharks when we went to Jones Beach -- exciting things like getting bit by a shark never happened to kids like me. Now that I am a father, though, I see it differently. I remember yelling at my 14-year-old son to get closer to shore this summer, and I believe he informed me that there were no sharks on Long Island, to which I loudly responded "Have you ever heard of a freaking film called Jaws?!"

Goodbye to Peter Benchley, author of one really good book.

Best American Short Stories 2005 (cont.)

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 23, 2006 10:16 pm

Here's the second and final installment of my Best American Short Stories of 2005 review. I finished about two-thirds of the stories (I said I read Houghton Mifflin's BASS book every year, but I didn't say I finish it). Here are my findings:

First of all, the 2005 collection is much better than average. I do heartily recommend that you buy it (especially since it only costs $14, miraculously, a fair price). I don't know how useful it is to consider a collection of stories as a whole -- clearly, the story and not the collection is the critical unit here -- but I will say that Michael Chabon's collection is a lot better than Lorrie Moore's from last year (even though I've always liked her better as a writer). Chabon deserves a lot of credit for putting together this package.

Suburban novelist Tom Perrotta's The Smile on Happy Chang's Face is a funny-serious little-league baseball tale narrated by a morally decrepit father who hates himself so deeply that the reader doesn't have to. Perrotta's plot ricochets around like a crazy grounder on a pebbly field, and when nobody's looking the author slides into home plate with a great ending. A story to remember.

Props to a former teacher of mine, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for her quiet exhibit of controlled anxiety and aggravation, A Taste of Dust. This is a bitter-toned first person narrative in which two middle-aged but perky divorced parents "meet friendly" for dinner to make the kids happy (and to satiate their own curiousity about what might have been). I didn't like Lynne Sharon Schwartz as a teacher (in fact I wrote about the fiasco here; she's the writer who looks like Joyce Carol Oates but isn't Joyce Carol Oates). But let's put the Joyce Carol Oates lookalike jokes aside here, because Schwartz's story is razor-sharp and beautifully constructed, and reminds me why I once sought her out as a teacher in the first place.

Yeah, I'm gonna keep praising these short stories. You got a problem with that? Rishi Reddi's Justice Shiva Ram Murthy is a quirky fable about two Americanized Hindus in Boston. One of them orders a bean burrito at a cheap Mexican joint and is served a beef burrito instead. He's enraged and seeks legal retribution, and that's all the plot this surprising comedy of manners needs.

I could recuse myself from reviewing Cory Doctorow's Anda's Game, since Doctorow is one of three judges for this year's Blooker Prize, which LitKicks hopes to win. But, what the hell, nobody really cares. (My virtual entanglement with Doctorow, who I've never met, also includes a curious incident involving identical book covers. Please note that the Levi Asher/Christian Crumlish book came out first, though it unfortunately went out of print first too).

Doctorow's story is probably the hippest in the book, the one most likely to have been republished by Dave Eggers if Michael Chabon hadn't grabbed it first. It's about a shy pre-adolescent girl with great skills at a particular video game who gets roped into an apparently global scheme to barter game points for cash. As a non-gamer myself (I think the last video game I mastered was Centipede, and then I ran out of quarters) I really enjoyed the chance to understand what the world feels and sounds like (Tom Wolfe style, although Doctorow has a calmer approach) to an obsessive game freak. I was so engaged in the first half of the story, though, that I was disappointed when the avatars emerged into reality to interact with various shady government-sponsored or exploitative-capitalist organizations that apparently thrive in gameland along with the innocent young players. It was really two stories in one, but I wish the second one had been as vivid as the first.

Will the praise never end? There's more. David Means has a lot of nerve appropriating the title of J. D. Salinger's made-up story (Holden Caulfield's phony brother was the author) for his own Secret Goldfish. Luckily, he pulls it off. It's another divorce story, a nice complement to Lynne Sharon Schwartz's above, with a slightly grotesque but symbolic domestic fish bearing the emotional weight of the confused family that surrounds it.

Speaking of Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Joyce Carol Oates' The Cousins represents the quieter, darker side of this collection. It's an epistolatory tale about two elderly woman who don't know each other. One is a famous and angry writer who survived the Holocaust; the other is a placid and lonely humble lady who believes the famous writer is her cousin. Oates knows what to do with a great setup like this, and she does all that and more. It's a powerful, serious story; Joyce Carol Oates in a Cynthia Ozick mood.

I finished three more stories, all of which involve prisons, and none of which I am going to rave about. Dennis Lehane's Until Gwen, Thomas McGuane's Old Friends and Edward P. Jones' Old Boys, Old Girls all try too hard to be bad-ass, and Styles P said it better in a song called "Locked Up" that got played a lot on hiphop radio in 2005: "The walls is gray, the clothes is orange, the phones are broke, the food is garbage" There, we just saved a lot of words.

Finally, there are several stories whose first sentences didn't drag me in, but I didn't read them so I don't know if they got better or not.

Some Dusty Old Stuff

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 5, 2006 09:39 am

1. When I heard about the discovery of a long-lost Lord Byron poem, I immediately thought of The Aspern Papers, a great novella by Henry James about a scholar who learns that an ancient lady living with her neice in Venice was once the lover of romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern (who seems to have been based on Byron). She is guarding a trove of lost writings by the poet, and the scholar comes up with a grand scheme to insinuate himself into the household and gain access to the papers. Because it's a Henry James story, the scholar becomes unwittingly entangled in a pathetic and poignant romantic situation and the papers are forever lost.

Back in the real world, it seems the newly found poem was discovered by a librarian. There must be a juicy story hidden somewhere here, but nobody's telling.

2. Apparently 20 publishers and agents fell for an old trick and failed to accept or recognize a previously published, award-winning V. S. Naipaul novel. I like agent/blogger Miss Snark's spirited defense of her peers ("So we miss stuff. So fucking what."), but I'll go even further.

V. S. Naipaul is a boring author and I have never, ever, ever heard a real person speak with excitement about one of his books. I've cracked a couple open myself, and the stuff is instant sleep. Sure, he writes with dignity and precision, and according to Wikipedia he explores themes similar to those of Joseph Conrad. But people actually enjoy reading Joseph Conrad, and Naipaul has never mastered the art of captivating readers. The question isn't why 20 publishers and agents rejected his novel, but rather why so many literary awards get handed to a writer who is as dull as any college professor you ever met.

And, no, I don't care that he's Sir V. S. Naipaul, either. It takes more than gravitas and elegant prose to make a writer matter.

Shortlisted for the Man Blooker

by Levi Asher on Thursday, December 22, 2005 02:27 pm

Okay, so it's not the Man Blooker prize ... it's just the Blooker Prize, a new annual award for blog-based books, and LitKicks' Action Poetry: Literary Tribes for the Internet Age is in the running.

In fact, through the happy accident of alphabetism, our book is at the very top of the list, and we like the way that feels. We believe we should win this award, and in a vain attempt to drum up a huge groundswell of popular support I'd like to talk about what this book is and how it came about.

LitKicks Reviews

by Levi Asher on Friday, December 16, 2005 04:26 pm

Here are a few new indie publications you might enjoy:

A Voice Above the Din by Steven Holbrook Hill

Steven Holbrook Hill's first novel A Voice Above the Din kicks off like a buddies-travelling-together story, a sort of male Thelma-and-Louise. As in many roadgoing tales, the two main characters have complementary rather than similar personalities. John is the crazed, fast-moving one, and narrator Spencer supplies the caution and introspection John lacks. Anybody who knows On The Road will recognize the setup, but Hill's book is heavier on plot and lighter on tone than Kerouac's. One of the characters is dealing with a serious disease, along with legal problems and attitude problems, and the story takes twists you won't see coming. Hill has created a blog to promote this book ... he also contributes occasional excellent articles to LitKicks as Stevadore. Check his stuff out.


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