What do corporate book publishers like Random House, Simon and Schuster and Farrar Straus and Giroux have in common with financial powerhouses like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG? If you guessed that they are all doomed, you're wrong.
Here's the right answer: the book industry, like the financial industry, should be in much better shape than it is. Wall Street is suffering from the consequences of short-sighted management and greedy, over-optimistic expectations, despite the fact that the borrowers these banks finance remain generally productive and profitable. Likewise, many publishing industry complainers claim that nobody reads books anymore (Daniel Mendelsohn) or that the publishing industry is collapsing (Boris Kachka) even though books remain incredibly popular at all levels of American life.
Little known fact: book publishing is a $30 to $35 billion/year business. Consumers spend roughly the same amount of money each year on books that they spend on films or music. Here's another surprising (but easily verifiable) fact: companies like Random House, Simon and Schuster and Penguin are profitable, year after year. Yes, profitable. Doesn't sound like death throes to me.
The reason industry observers claim that book publishing is dying is that they interview industry executives whose own careers are dying. The business is highly irrational and unpredictable, and many high-powered execs are unable to remain atop the bucking rodeo bull. But what these execs are suffering from is an industry that changes too fast, that relies too heavily on high advances and other risks, that doesn't know how to price and market its properties in the new electronic marketplace. In other words, the book publishing industry is not too stagnant -- it's too dynamic.
Let's look more closely at the similarities between finance and book publishing. A great backlist title like Catcher in the Rye or The Alchemist or every Harry Potter book is like a blue-chip stock. They are dependable sources of revenue, and you can never go wrong with a blue-chip book or a blue-chip stock. Success comes to those who locate and develop those properties before they are identified as blue-chips. This is the foundation of smart investment banking, and it's also the foundation of smart book publishing.
The term "junk bond" sounds demeaning, though this should not necessarily be the case. A junk bond is an admittedly less proven loan asset that some investor deems worthy of taking a risk on. A first novel by an unknown author or an unusual title by an experimental author is like a junk bond. If it takes off, that's a big surprise and a big win. If it doesn't, the price wasn't very high to begin with, so the investor (or publisher) can handle the loss.
The problem comes when good fortune inspires investors or publishers to start confusing their junk with their blue-chips. And the real problem comes when this investor or publisher manages to convince others to confuse their junk properties with blue-chips, and to join in on the investment. Often this is a matter of packaging or marketing. Most recently, mortgage bankers found ways to package high-risk home mortgages into bundles that seemed, on the aggregate level, less risky than they actually were. The widespread investment in these questionable assets led directly to our current financial crisis.
Similarly, big hits like Da Vinci Code and Cold Mountain inspire book executives to take great risks on possible future successes. Given the reflective and hype-hungry nature of book publishing, these risky investments generate a lot of attention but then crash and burn more often than they succeed. Sales and marketing efforts create big expectations, but junk is junk, and you can't fool readers into buying a book they instinctively dislike. These highly visible failures are what lead to the mistaken impression that consumers must not be buying books, when in fact consumers are buying books. The publishing industry is simply tripping over itself trying to monetize their readers' interests. They can't stop overrating (and overpaying for) their junk.
The bumpy ride will continue, because book publishing has never been anything but an exciting and high-risk industry. It's aggravating, though, to hear commentators like Daniel Mendelsohn claim that new media has harmed book sales, or that internet publishing has anything to do with industry problems. I can't repeat this fact enough: we spend over $30 billion a year on books. That's plenty enough revenue to allow any industry to prosper.
Book publishers have nobody but themselves to blame for their gullible investments in questionable properties. Here's the problem: the world needs investment firms and the world needs books. The US government can bail out Freddie Mac and AIG, but who is going to bail out Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck and Hachette?
If 240,000 units have really sold, then I am flat out wrong. Nobody, not even me, can argue with $75 million in revenue for an innovative tech product's first year. I do find this figure slightly incredible (especially since I live in New York City and have never yet seen anybody walking around with a Kindle), but I also believe TechCrunch to be a reputable source of information, so I'm not sure what to think. Many other industry observers are similarly pondering what this all might mean; Chad Post's roundup of recent Kindle buzz is a good starting point for the ongoing discussion.
Wrong is wrong, and if TechCrunch's reported numbers are right then the Kindle is a big winner and my prediction was wrong. I still say that it's crucial for the electronic book industry to make e-books affordable for readers in all income segments, and a format that requires a $360 initial outlay goes against the grain of everything I believe about the importance of reasonable pricing for books, electronic or otherwise. Still, if 240,000 Kindles have sold than I clearly missed this call.
On a completely different front: I had never heard of historian Niall Ferguson four months ago when I lost my temper after reading his cover article about terrorism and global politics in the New York Times Book Review. I felt that Ferguson's article offered Bush-worthy cliches about terrorism and Al Qaeda, and I mocked his puffy academic credentials as harshly as I could.
I still can't explain what went wrong with this terrible NYTBR article. However, I recently noticed Ferguson's name on a TV listing for a public television history series called The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century and tuned in to see what my nemesis had to say. I was surprised to discover in Niall Ferguson an aggressively original thinker with a valuable theory about the primacy of ethnic tension in the sad history of 20th Century international politics. I watched every episode of this series, and after it was over I bought a Niall Ferguson book called The Pity of War: Explaining World War I.
The Pity of War turns out to be a smart and important book designed to challenge long-settled notions about the Great War. Ferguson, who is Scottish, comes down particularly hard on Great Britain's role in escalating the conflict, and concludes that much of the misery that resulted could have been easily avoided. Like Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke or David Andelman's A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, this book urges readers towards a wider understanding of the two world wars that still so haunt our world today. In complete contradiction to my original statements about Niall Ferguson, I am happy to say that I now consider him one of my favorite contemporary historians. I am certainly going to read more of his books (probably this one next).
Wrong is wrong, and I now freely concede that I was definitely wrong about Niall Ferguson, and was probably wrong (we still do not have solid information here) about the Kindle as well.
If I'm ever wrong a third time, I'll let you know then too.
I can't use the excuse that I have no time. It's 4:30 pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I just had time to watch three innings of a losing Mets game on TV, along with several Olympic swimming races from Beijing, and I've already read every article in today's issue. I just don't find myself with anything worthwhile to say about any individual piece, and I'd rather not fake it. Instead, I'd like to use this space to talk about Random House's decision to cancel the publication of a major novel (they'd paid author Sherry Jones a large advance) called The Jewel of Medina about the life of one of the prophet Mohammed's brides.
As many bloggers representing diverse points of view have remarked, this is a highly disappointing move, and what's most disappointing is the way Random House is handling the controversy:
Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”
“In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel,” Perry said.
It's offensive that the book won't be published -- I don't believe the hearsay that it is unworthy of publication, since Random House paid a lot of money (reportedly $100,000) for it -- but it's even more offensive that Random House is resting their position on a blatant appeal to their own willful ignorance. Again:
"... the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”
Well ... why didn't they ask some radical Muslims and find out? It's not like they'd have to send a rocket to the moon to find an opinionated Muslim, but you'd think so from the distant tones of this public statement.
This recourse to silence and blissful ignorance reflects a broad belief among pro-war Americans -- this belief is a pillar of both the George W. Bush worldview and the John McCain worldview, unfortunately -- that there is little value in communicating with "the enemy" about political or social issues. The gulf is so wide, apparently, that there's no point even trying to talk across it. In fact, open public discourse is the obvious answer that Random House missed.
Why didn't they invite a few prominent scholars representing various sectors of the worldwide Muslim community -- Shiites, Sunnis, liberals, conservatives, Arabs, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans -- to participate in an open discussion of whether or not Sherry Jones' book is offensive, and if so why? It's highly likely that the dialogue would result in a positive finding for the book, and the whole thing would add up to a great opportunity for pre-publication awareness. Am I asking too much that a publishing company -- a publishing company -- might resort to open public discourse, rather than cloaked corporate legalism -- to resolve what is essentially a literary and spiritual issue?
Random House is not an oil company or a beef processing concern or an aerospace conglomerate. Random House is supposed to be the most respected and prestigious major book publishing company in the world. Hah.
I don't usually generalize about large organizations, but the way Random House is handling this problem represents a new low in timid, insipid corporate publishing behavior. It's not too late for them to announce a new decision, and I hope they'll do so. Otherwise, we must conclude that Thomas Perry and the other executives responsible for this cowardly move simply have no business working in the honorable field of publishing, a proud craft for the intellectually courageous.
Okay, the Book Review. Sarah Churchwell hates the new novelisation of the JonBenet Ramsay murders by Joyce Carol Oates. Geoff Dyer hates the new book about running by Haruki Murakami, and he also hates running and he also hates Haruki Murakami. Stephen Burt kind of doesn't like Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry because the poems were obviously written for performance rather than print, but manages to eke out some praise for his colorful poetry nonetheless. Robert Olen "Pulitzer Prize Winner" Butler just keeps getting weirder and weirder, which isn't to say I'm not intrigued enough to check out Intercourse, 50 stories about historical figures or famous people having sex. Caryn James like the new Doris Lessing, I think.
And I promise to stay more on topic when next weekend's newspaper arrives.
2. Jessa Crispin on William and Henry James, who are a favorite of mine as well, and also obviously a favorite of a novelist named Richard Liebmann-Smith, whose new The James Boys posits a strange scenario wherein Henry and William's ne'er-do-well younger brothers Rob and Wilky turn out to be Frank and Jesse.
3. I hear that actress Estelle Getty, who died last week, was in the TV show "Golden Girls". Actually, all I know of her is from a great, great play I once saw on Broadway, Harvey Fierstein's autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, in which she played Harvey Fierstein's stubborn mother. The fact that this little lady could hold her own against the tornado of comedy that was young Harvey Fierstein says all you need to know about Estelle Getty. Later she was replaced by Anne Bancroft for a movie version of Fierstein's three-act play which was tellingly not as good.
4. It's good to hear that Frances Bean Cobain, now 15 years old, may be contemplating an editorial career by summer-interning at Rolling Stone. She has her father's piercing gaze; if she's going to make it in the tough New York City magazine biz, let's hope she's also got lots of her father's charisma and some of her mom's toughness.
5. From the computer science department at Columbia University: some truly intense palindromes.
6. Congrats to Kassia Krozser (one of the lively participants in our book pricing discussion last year) for her News Hour with Jim Lehrer appearance! I unfortunately missed it so I hope Kassia hits us with some YouTube.
7. This website is sort of strange, so that you have to scroll a full screen down to read Finn Harvor's article about future directions for the literary blogosphere. But I agree with him and I think this is worth reading.
8. Yay, there are functional iPhone e-book readers! In other news, I went to the Apple Store on 57th Street in Manhattan, heavily contemplating the immediate purchase of an iPhone. I said to a helper "I'd like to buy an iPhone!" and he said "Great! Be on line by 7:30 tomorrow morning and you should be able to get one!" I thought to myself "Goodbye!" and left. But I do believe an iPhone is in my near-to-distant future, and there better be a good e-book reader waiting for me when I get there.
9. If you liked Peter Carey's hilarious Theft as much as I did and are similarly not Australian, you may also have been wondering what a Magic Pudding is (via Inq).
10. It's only because Sarah Weinman turned me on to The Night Gardener that I know enough to be excited about The Turnaround, the new novel by popular Washington D.C.-based mystery novelist George Pelecanos.
11. Bill Ectric spins some thoughts around Thomas Pynchon.
12. Ed on the New York Times.
13. Detox, a new Dr. Dre CD, may come out as early as 2008. Dre doesn't release albums too often (the last one was the masterpiece 2001, actually released in 1999, and before that, "... my last album was The Chronic") so this is big news. Let's hope this gets out before Chinese Democracy.
14. Check out The View From Here, a new literary magazine, and see what you think.
I was thinking about "high tech, high touch" recently when I spent a weekend with my brother and our kids gathered around an amazing new gadget called Wii Fit. You know I'm no gadget-head, and I generally hate video games, but Wii Fit impressed the hell out of me. Perhaps the most appealing thing about it, as with many Wii games, is the deep integration of detailed personal avatars that are designed to realistically look like each player. With my brother and all the kids around, we were able to turn Wii Fit into not only a personal exercise/physical challenge game but a group exercise/physical challenge game, all of it taking place on a television in real time. Or was it taking place in the room? Or both?
That type of integration, as Mr. Naisbitt would now remind you, is called "high tech, high touch".
2. I was also recently thinking about "high tech, high touch" because a surprising number of LitKicks loudmouths commenters disagreed with me on a recent post about electronic books. I wrote that most readers would rather read books on high-end versions of the electronic devices they already carry (iPhones, Blackberrys, video players) than blow three or four hundred bucks on a Sony Reader or an Amazon Kindle. It seems that I'm alone in this opinion.
Well, this may shock you all, but I insist that I'm correct. For one thing, I notice that none of these enthusiasts actually own a Kindle or a Sony Reader. That says a lot about how the business is growing. All talk, no sales. Do you own a Kindle?
Electronic books will be a success. This is an absolute certainty. That doesn't mean E-books will replace or crowd out physical books, which will hopefully continue to exist forever. But there's a simple reason why I want to read a book on my phone. Because there's a phone in my pocket and I want to read a book. Make it easy for me. And if it's a good book, I'll forget about the fact that I'm reading it on my phone very quickly, because I will hopefully be engaged in the plot. That's what reading is about.
Those who wish to build businesses around E-books must remember to keep the barrier to customer entry low. I've written this before on similar business issues, and the same logic applies to electronic books. Readers will embrace the new format once it's made easily accessible and affordable to them. Why wouldn't they? It's a no-brainer, really.
Gimmicky E-book products like this one, which lets you simulate the "page turning experience" with an E-book reader, are absolutely laughable. This is the E-book equivalent of spray can leather scent for new cars. Maybe it will make a few odd people happy, but it has nothing to do with the future.
What else can E-book promoters do to get more traction with readers? Simple: high tech, high touch.
3. Tim W. Brown replies to an 18-month rejection slip: "When you say that my work doesn’t "suit our needs at this time," does that mean in 2006 or 2008?"
4. Sam Shepard's got a new play. It's good to see him out and about in New York.
5. Yeah, I'm still unpacked, I'm still a little crazed and I'm still very happy. Thanks for the nice wishes on the upcoming wedding, everybody ... one more short post tomorrow and then I'm closing up this lollipop stand for a couple of weeks. We'll be back in mid-July. Action poets, get your poems in quick ...
John Carey asserts that the English literary intelligentsia of this era made a conscious effort to segregate literary fiction from the newly literate (or semi-literate) mass culture produced by the late nineteenth century educational reforms to which many of the intelligentsia opposed. The Education Act of 1871 introduced universal elementary education in England. When a newspaper called the Daily Mail emerged in 1896 it carried the slogan 'The Busy Man's Paper' and announced its intention to 'give the public what it wants' This was in direct conflict to the belief that the public should be given what the intellectuals say they should be given. T.S. Eliot wrote in an essay:
There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards...destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.
The 1879 novel Immaturity by George Bernard Shaw was turned down by nearly every London publisher, and he concluded that the reason for its rejection was the newly adopted Education Act, which he proclaimed 'was producing readers who have never before bought books.'
Publishers of the time also did not want the 'excessively literary' George Eliot, but preferred the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).
As populist newspapers like the Daily Mail prospered, European intellectual hostility to newspapers grew. In The Criterion in 1938, T.S Eliot declared that the effect of the daily newspapers on their readers was to 'affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass'. Extensive campaigns against newspapers were abound. Critic F.R. Leavis wrote in Scrutiny of the mass media 'arousing the cheapest emotional responses,' declaring that 'Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction -- all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.' Evelyn Waugh satirised the new trend in popular culture in his novels Scoop and Vile Bodies.
To the highbrows of the time, it seemed that the masses were not fully alive. Many of the predominate literary icons of this period expressed clear hostility towards the explosive over-population of the third-world; and the triumph of hyperdemocracy and social power created by this newly created state. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun's anti-democratic views are epitomized by his character Ivar Kareno, hero of the Kareno trilogy:
I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be the ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.
Thomas Hardy wrote in 1887:
You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.
D.H. Lawrence argues that only the elite truly live, while the proletariat merely survives:
Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or
than in the palm tree,
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator...
Life is more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
Ezra Pound's complex Cantos are a good illustration of the fashion for obscurity in literature, a style that itself expressed contempt for the common man. In Pound's Cantos the multitudes and democratically elected leaders were a torrent of human excrement. The illustration of 'the great arse-hole' Pound contends, was a portrait of contemporary England.
A body of esoteric doctrine "defended from the herd" was adopted by a group of intellectuals who created a secret society called 'The Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn' in 1890. This secret society fed the craving for power and distinction to soar the intellectual above the masses.
The contempt for the masses expressed by the literary icons of this period not only opposed universal education, but many also supported the ever-growing concept of eugenics as a means to control the overpopulation of inferior beings. Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection inadvertently led a new ethics most expressed in H. G. Wells' New Republic. Wells writes:
The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalor dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through the sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.
The entirety of John Carey's study is overwhelming, enlightening and extremely disturbing, especially as literary elitist tendencies may be an inevitable part of many intellectual communities, even today.
1. Now this is a good idea. I've said this before and I'll keep saying it: readers are ready for e-books, but we don't want to buy puffed-up $400 Kindles or $300 Sony Readers. We want to read e-books on the devices that are already in our pockets: iPhones, Blackberrys, high-end full-screen cell phones. This is the way e-books will succeed in the marketplace.
2. Here's an even better idea: a truce between Israel and Hamas. Many of my friends don't support this, saying that a truce can't possibly last. I say if it lasts one week with no rockets and no tanks, then that's one week with no rockets and no tanks. I'm pretty sure both sides will remain highly vigilant, so I think critics of this difficult truce are mistaking hope (and common sense) for weakness.
3. A sunset on Mars.
4. Caryn and I were at this very wet R.E.M. concert at Jones Beach, Long Island Saturday night. The funny thing you won't read in any of these articles, though, is that before all the thunder and lightning the opening act The National stole the show. R.E.M. did a fun and crazy set too, though. I liked it near the end when, mindful of the fact that everybody involved in this concert was risking their life and needed to eventually get home, they said "okay, pretend we just left for the encore and came back".
5. Sara Nelson of Publisher's Weekly taking a wider view of the industry:
it does seem that we're at a crossroads, reaching critical mass, name your cliche here. Something, in other words, is going on in the book business, and while the overall mood of its practitioners must be described as nervous, there also may be some -- dare I say it? -- hopefulness underneath. Is it just me, or is the hunger for change we see growing in the political world actually trickling down to l'il ol' publishing?
6. New York has a new literary-minded travel bookstore, excellently named Idlewild.
7. Artist (and Jack Kerouac's good friend) Stanley Twardowicz died on June 12 in Huntington, Long Island. A couple of years ago I got the chance to play in a Jack Kerouac tribute softball game with Stanley Twardowicz (on Kerouac's own favorite baseball field in Northport, Long Island). I remember him as a quiet and sturdy guy, proud to represent the memory of Jack.
Now I've got the same problem with novels -- specifically, novels by newer or lesser known authors. It feels horrible to exchange emails with a nice friendly author, get a crisp good-looking book with a nice handwritten note in the mail, and never write about it. But this keeps happening, because I am a slow reader and I've barely been able to begin most of these books. I really do feel horrible about this. I know the writers deserve better.
Then again, just because I run a literary blog, who says I want to run a filtering service for new and unknown novelists? This is not a role I ever wanted to play, and it's not the kind of reading I most enjoy. At least 2/3 of the books I read are older texts (lately, hmm, Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station, the Gunter Grass Reader) or history or politics titles (recently, Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy, David Adelman's A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today). I also sometimes read cheesy rock biographies (Suze Rotolo's A Freewheeling Time, etc.), and I try to read international titles as much as I can, so there's just not that much time left for new upcoming novelists or desparate last-gasp novelists, as good as their books probably are.
And yeah, sure, I'm interested in knowing who the next big sensation is going to be. But I really don't need to be the first to know. Hell, I haven't even found the time to read Roberto Bolano yet.
I am going to run some very few long-overdue book reviews in the next couple of weeks. But once again I have to warn any novelists who communicate with me that I'm always happy to hear from you and I'm always happy to check out your books, but please don't send it unless it's okay that the odds are against me writing about the book.
But please do keep those global history/politics titles and cheesy rock biographies coming! I need some good beach reading.
2. Oxford University Press's Evan Schnittman has written a refreshing analytical piece that projects the likely (secret) sales figures for the two major E-Book devices, Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader:
The chatter, as reported in the NY Times, has publishers and others speculating that Amazon has sold somewhere between 10,000 - 50,000 Kindles.
I think all the speculations are completely wrong. By my calculations, combined sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader will be 1,000,000 units in 2008. This estimate is based on solid data.
Schnittman's math is fine -- but a projection is just a projection, and since these conclusions are largely based on parts (screens) ordered for manufacture, his research is probably over-optimistic. But he's right that E-books are a growing business.
Of course E-books will eventually succeed. Anybody who thinks they won't is out of touch with the 21st Century. But pricing is key, and the Kindle is too expensive. By slicing across the price differential, Schnittman's research misses the main lesson the industry needs to hear -- make it affordable, stupid. Still, the article is a worthwhile read.
3. It's strange that Ben Child says in the Guardian that Deepak Chopra is the inspiration for the Mike Myers character in the new film The Love Guru, since the character looks a whole lot like real-life love guru Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi, who recently died. I'll go see this film ... Mike Myers hasn't steered me wrong yet.
4. Speaking of karma, Ed Champion is dishing some heavy stuff out here.
Have you noticed that the New York Times Book Review has been bursting out more and more into its own (successful) brand? A new 15-minute weekly radio show on WQXR-FM is no small potatoes, especially since it reflects the NYTBR's decision to define itself outside the shrinking newspaper category and become a multimedia brand. These are hard times in the newspaper business, but the Book Review has an identity and industry presence beyond that of its parent paper. Who remembers that New York Magazine was once the Sunday magazine supplement for the dying New York Herald Tribune? The New York Times is hardly dying, but still the NYTBR is doing the smart thing by positioning itself on its own terms and promoting the Book Review brand directly to the world.
I'm thinking not only of radio here, but of internet publishing. It's a surprising fact, and possibly a discouraging one to independent bloggers like me, that Paper Cuts, the New York Times Book Review blog, has a higher Technorati ranking than any other literary blog. It also often maintains a higher Technorati ranking than any other New York Times blog. We like to make fun of the stodgy NYTBR here in the 'sphere, but who's laughing last?
NYTBR's directors may be more savvy than they look, especially since the publication trades heavily on its "traditional" image in contrast to all that crazy internet stuff out there. But behind the "gray lady" aura and the retro ink-on-the-fingers chic, it's entirely possible that these executives are more focused than they want readers to know on playing both sides of this equation. The online edition of the NY Times competes for online ad dollars with Google and Yahoo, and does so from some position of strength. Like I said, more savvy than they look.
And maybe this is one reason why, in case anyone is wondering, I still keep my eye on the New York Times Book Review every week, even when I have to fight off waves of ennui to remain interested. Some LitKicks readers have suggested to me that this old media brand isn't worth the attention, but I'm not falling for that easy answer. They're on the radio, their blog's Technorati ranking kicks my ass ... no, the NYTBR isn't losing its relevance anytime soon.
Quality-wise, it remains a mixed bag. The best article in today's issue, David Gates' explanation of why he just can't endure another self-satisfied Salman Rushdie historical fantasia, rings completely true with me:
I'm probably not Rushdie's target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious -- as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka -- marvelous.
I also like Robert Pinksy's flights of pathos in connecting Kathryn Harrison's true-crime story While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family to Oedipus Rex, Dante's Inferno and the book of Genesis. Joanna Hershon's The German Bride, which is on my to-read pile, wins the approval of Deborah Weisgall, and Elinor Lipman's clear writing almost persuades me (as if I had time to read more novels!) to add Sylvia Brownrigg's Morality Tale, the study of a marriage in crisis, to the pile as well.
There's no awful writing in today's issue, but there are some deeply flawed critical stances. Bryan Burrough completely dismisses a modest biography of a Wyoming kid who dies in an oil-field accident, The Legend of Colton T. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller, for imagining scenes and dialogue in a non-fiction book.
Call me a strict constructionist, but I wanted to yell, No, no, no, you can't do that! Not if you want to call a book nonfiction. That's not artistic license. It's cheating. Not cheating in the sense that plagiarism is cheating. I don't belive Fuller has committed a major literary felony here, but it's clearly a misdemeanor, even if she comes out and admits it.
Burrough seems to lack confidence in his own emphatic position here, and he well should, because Fuller's book is written the same way good nonfiction has been written since, probably, the days of hieroglyphics. Nonfiction books almost always invent dialogue and imagine scenic details beyond the realm of what the author can authenticate. There is absolutely no reason to single out this book, especially since the book does not market itself (I went to a bookstore and checked) on its veracity but on the quality of its storytelling. Nowhere on the book's cover does it proclaim "A True Story!". The words "nonfiction" and "biography" appear only in the finest print on the title page. Alexandra has not committed a misdemeanor or a felony; she has attempted to write a book the way books have always been written. The sins of James Frey should not condemn the world's eager readers to a new publishing standard whereby nonfiction books are drained of all their imaginative blood and broadly vetted by lawyers. I can hardly imagine a worse fate for the important field of nonfiction publishing.
Chuck Pahlaniuk's Snuff is likewise dismissed wholesale by Lucy Ellmann, who refers to Pahlaniuk as a "shock jock" and clearly can't stand his scummy, nasty book. What her review doesn't tell us is whether Pahlaniuk has written a good scummy, nasty book or a bad scummy, nasty book. And that's exactly what Pahlaniuk's readers will want to know.
But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the "outside world," but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can't find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.
When was the time in our glorified past when morale wasn't sagging, when huge numbers of liberal arts PhDs easily found gainful employment, when books didn't languish unpublished or unpurchased? Gottschall, author of a book about Homer, should know that golden ages tend to be highly overrated. To the extent that this article posits an urgent current literary crisis that a paradigm shift towards scientific exactness will solve, it's a highly unconvincing piece.
Flawed framing aside, though, there are good ideas here:
Homo sapiens is a bizarre literary ape -- one that, outside of working and sleeping, may well spend most of its remaining hours lost in landscapes of make-believe. Across the breadth of human history, across the wide mosaic of world cultures, there has never been a society in which people don't devote great gobs of time to seeing, creating, and hearing fictions -- from folktales to film, from theater to television. Stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature. Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition -- no full understanding of art, culture, psychology, or even of biology. As Binghamton University biologist David Sloan Wilson says, "the natural history of our species" is written in love poems, adventure stories, fables, myths, tales, and novels.
Amen. This is why, as a reader fairly obsessed with global history and politics, I turn so often to fiction and poetry and drama to help me understand societies of the past. Now, let's see an example of Gottschall's "scientific method" in practice:
In some cases, it's possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory. Consider the question of the "beauty myth": Most literary scholars believe that the huge emphasis our culture places on women's beauty is driven by a beauty myth, a suite of attitudes that maximizes female anxiety about appearance in order, ultimately, to maintain male dominance. It's easy to find evidence for this idea in our culture's poems, plays, and fairy tales: As one scholar after another has documented, Western literature is rife with sexist-seeming beauty imagery.
Scholars tend to take this evidence as proof that Western culture is unusually sexist. But is this really the case? In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women's beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.
Nicely done. If this is what Gottschall means by scientific method, I'll bite. What it really amounts to is the adoption of empirical testing for commonly held presumptions about literature, and I bet there are many insights to be gained by an approach like this. I would not want to go too far with it, though. In the age of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and William James, psychological investigations involved more imagination and speculation than observation and proof. But the field of psychology is now completely dominated by empirical testing and observation -- the "scientific method" -- and while much may have been gained by this paradigm shift, it should not escape our notice that there have been few great or visionary psychologists on the scale of Freud or Jung or James since. Empirical testing should complement the work of the imagination; it cannot replace the work of the imagination.
I'd like to follow the work of Jonathan Gottschall further. I see that he has also written a book called The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of the Narrative (co-edited by David Sloan Wilson, the same source Gottschall quotes in the first passage above, which indicates that the field of scientific literary criticism may be an uncomfortably small world). I am disturbed, though, to see that this volume is priced at a ridiculous $79.95. Empirical evidence tells me that books priced at $79.95 deserve the tiny readership they get. Gottschall may want to descend a few steps from his ivory tower, and then perhaps his interesting ideas may actually find an eager audience.
2. Even though I already know every word in this book, an appealing cover design compelled me to glance at a new paperback Kafka collection published by Penguin, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which was prominently displayed in a store. I then almost fell over in shock and knocked over the "New Paperbacks" display when I read the biographical note on the very first page and learned that Franz Kafka was born in 1833.
Yes, 1833. Empirical evidence tells me that this is highly unlikely, since he would have been 82 years old when he wrote Metamorphosis and 93 when he wrote my favorite of his novels, The Castle. In fact Franz Kafka was born in 1883. So, seriously, doesn't Penguin have a responsibility to recall this new "Deluxe Edition"? It's funny to read about this mistake on a blog, but it's not going to be funny when generations of readers and students are misinformed and confused by the error. I say Penguin is obligated to recall, and to eat the cost. What do you say?
I showed the mistake to my friend Dan Levy, who quipped "Sure, Penguin, what do they know about classic literature?" Exactly.
3. Here's the Best of the Booker Prize shortlist. LitKicks says J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace is the masterpiece of the bunch. Though Booksquare is correct to ask: "does it really help literature if the establishment keeps finding new ways to give awards to the same group of authors over and over again?"