Friday, August 29, 2008

A few things before we go

It's almost Labor Day, folks, so I thought I'd post a few links for anyone whiddling away these final hours before the long weekend.

First, Richard Nash, the publisher over at the amazing Soft Skull (seriously - I'm still working through the great selection we got from them when they did a grab bag last year for $100), was a guest blogger over at Ecstatic Days. Recently, he posted a few links, and one was to an interview by Grove Atlantic editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler of agent Nat Sobel. Go read it! No really! It offers an interesting perspective that encompasses so many aspects of publishing and bookselling. One particularly interesting point Sobel makes is that the loss of independent bookstores has hurt first-time fiction writers. He also sings the praises of literary journals, which was good to see. It's long but well worth the read.

Next, I was going to offer this link to a VT's public radio coverage of Chelsea Green's controversial decision to sell their new book, Obama's Challenge by Robert Kuttner, through Amazon's POD service exclusively, to get it to people during the DNC convention. (I appreciate how the company allowed a single bookseller comment on their blog regarding this decision, with a single response from an appropriate sales rep. Surely others tried to comment there.) Shelf Awareness offered more links to coverage of this decision, which many independent booksellers felt was inappropriate for an independent publisher, seeing as it gave an unfair advantage to the enemy, Amazon. But we can all appreciate B&N getting huffy about it! They've decided to pull their order, refusing to carry the book in their stores (though they'll carry it online). Remember when B&N said they wouldn't carry O. J. Simpson's If I Did It? Then they decided to sell it due to consumer interest? I know they carry serious weight when publishers, especially indie publishers, are deciding print runs, but let's all agree that they are fickle, not smart about their orders but chasing the market. This pretty much, for many of us, sums up the problem with corporate booksellers taking over the planet.

And finally, I added a button for Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which I believe was instigated by the blogger over at My Friend Amy's. Amy herself sent out an email to participating bloggers with a list of all the participants. It's long but pretty exciting, so I've listed the first chunk of them below. I wanted to list them all but it wasn't formatting right, and it is an exhaustive list. I also should note that I have not been to most of these blogs so I cannot vouch for them, but I imagine there's tons of fun stuff. So... get to clickin'!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tragic Refusal

I don't have a lot of love for John Updike, I admit. I haven't read all those rabbit books, and quite frankly, I get him mixed up with John Irving in my head (fortunately, I don't usually do this aloud). I see his name and I think of bland older white men in suburban America. I suppose that's not fair.

Well in a post on the Guardian's Books blog, writer Joe Keenan really puts this old fella in his place. Keenan fairly uses Updike's famous address at Book Expo in 2006 to explain why Updike is falling behind, not in his writing style per se but in his effort to depict life as most of us currently know it. In that address, Updike complained bitterly about the digitizing of books, about the supposed end of books as we know it. I agree with him on the importance of books as "the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness." But it's clear he's resisting an inevitable change too much, and while I'm all for exalting independent booksellers at every and any opportunity, you are doing them no favors by praising them for refusing to roll with these changes. I don't like the market anymore than you do, but it's still a massive force that can crush you - you, but at this point, not Updike.

So Keenan and Updike's new novel, The Widows of Eastick: Apparently, in this novel,
"the characters inhabit a world that has disappeared. When they are not gossiping on land line telephones, the three widows write long information-strewn letters to each other which they despatch via the mail... Sukie, one of the main characters, is dismayed to find upon returning to Eastwick that the rather smart local newspaper she helped produce has been closed down and replace by a cheap Xeroxed sheet. Xerox? Even the smallest hamlets now have their dedicated websites..."

Yikes. In sum, Keenan reports: "His withdrawal from the hurly-burly of contemporary communication may be one reason why his novels have become less despatches from the frontline than cosy remembrances of things past."

This presents for me a question I have often considered when watching movies or reading modern novels, or I should say novels set in the present. How can one produce a work of gravitas but still incorporate our current, incredibly casual modes of communication? Will something weighty and significant be created using snippets of text messages? If you saw such a thing in flipping through the pages of a novel, would you not think it was YA or at least very commercial? I would be concerned if I found an IM conversation in the middle of a new novel I thought looked promising, but then I actively IM people and have had very serious conversations using this form of communication.

How to use it effectively and maturely in art, then?

I don't have an answer, and I don't know if I've seen it done very well, so I appreciate Keenan raising this entirely fair critique. I'll have to continue looking out for examples of modern, casual conveniences in mature and artful literature... when I read it. (Which may not be for a long time, given the length of Strange Piece of Paradise!)

Monday, August 25, 2008

To each their own

My mother loves this expression - "to each their own." Having just spent four glorious days in Provincetown, a.k.a. Heaven on Earth, it should be no surprise that this phrase comes to mind.

But in fact, I'm thinking of this phrase as I ponder this post on Galleycat, regarding the publication of Crystal Mangum's memoirs - she's the young woman who accused three Duke University athletes of rape. The book, with the rather impressive title of The Last Dance for Grace: The Crystal Mangum Story, is going to be published by a new publisher called fire! Books, just getting off the ground led by her co-writer Vincent Clark.

Galleycat goes on to quote Clark on why he chose to publish in this way. In reading these quotes, I went from skepticism to... well my interest was piqued, though I'm still suspicious of motives. One must be when reading about this type of publishing, no? But he makes some points:
"[When I met her] She was being approached by people who said they could help her make a lot of money and all of them seemed to be a little slick and shady. I just talked to her about what she wanted to do with her life. We developed a good working realtionship and we worked on her just getting back to a normal life... It isn't about making money. She really wants to set the record straight about some of the things that have been said about her personally. Any large publisher would have been looking to do book tours and all of that stuff. She really wasn't interested in all of the extra stuff."

$1 from each sale will be donated to help battered women (though the post doesn't mention an actual organization, and who knows if the press release does. That's always questionable to me, when an actual org isn't mentioned.)

Clark's new business will also publish, eventually, something by the drug dealer who supplied Marion Jones and other "elite-level athletes" with performance enhancing drugs.

What piques my interest is that Clark seems to be developing this niche that could be just plain exploitative or it could be legitimate, in trying to publish voices getting maligned in the press who are problematic but are also, to some extent, in a position in society in which that are marginalized. They responded perhaps in an unhealthy way but that does not make their voice worth silencing, and they could offer an interesting perspective on a story we all, as a nation, know due to media hysteria. They are the people we want to disappear, the relatives that are embarassing. They are the Other in a way, right?

And he's publishing this in a way that is not entirely different from Free Press publishing Michael Phelps' Built to Succeed, his memoir that will conveniently be out by the holiday season this year. (Expect more gratuitous shots of his taut body, folks - at the pool, in the pool, from above looking down, from under the water, etc etc etc.) It's opportunistic publishing, trying to jump on a media sensation and capitalize on it while the iron is hot, knowing that many of those million books you print will end up on remainder tables and/or in used bookstores for years to come. Working in this kind of publishing, while surely exciting, must be hell, as you are just producing crap over and over. I'd be curious to hear of someone who enjoys this. Maybe the editor of Kathie Lee Gifford's autobio still has it proudly displayed on a bookshelf, and I'm the fool.

So I can't fault Vincent Clark for seeing an opportunity and going for it, and maybe he really is going to protect his subject/client/co-authors from media sharks. I'll be curious to see how it plays out, because a book by this Crystal Mangum could easily be another My Story by Amy Fisher, and surely no one wants that.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Review etc

I will do a book review, below, but I first wanted to point readers to the nice community forum that Shelf Awareness has set up regarding Amazon's Kindle. Readers of Shelf Awareness have been writing in regarding sightings (or lack thereof) of the Kindle, and feelings about this device. Some points are interesting, anecdotes are somewhat informative, comments are a bit annoying and even borderline rude, but to hear this was frustrating:

Ellen Smith of the Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio, had a money-saving tip for all e-readers. "Train commuters who are inclined towards e-books (or audiobooks, for that matter) should realize they can save themselves their hard-earned dollars by downloading books from their public library for free--so long as they DON'T use a Kindle. Amazon has not made its device compatible with any public library version (a product of OverDrive), therefore everything viewed on a Kindle costs money!"

Oh Amazon. Tacky.

My review:

Young author Robert Leleux wrote an article for the Texas Observer about a gay Texan writer named Edward Swift, who wrote about a town just a few exits down Highway 59 from where I grew up, and I enjoyed the article, so I first wanted to read Leleux's book, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, before reading Swift's Splendora. Leleux is from outside of Houston, like myself, but my mother is not nearly as, um... fabulous as his, and this book is about her, his fabulous mother, in a way that I found a bit unsettling. If you get along with your parents, fantastic, but Leleux cannot get enough of this mother, who speaks in quotable quotes, and anecdotes that could be 2 pages long become 10 pages of "I know, can you BELIEVE she did that?! I KNOW!!!!1111!!omg!!1!!" If he didn't use the c-word, this book would be straight-forward YA and that would be fine, but as a book for adults, it's a bit l-i-t-e; having said that, he's a young guy and it definitely has its moments, so here's hoping he keeps at it, maybe gets over his mom and isn't quite as moonie over his husband, and turns to fiction to create an alternate bizarre world, rather than stretching this one to fit our current idea of whacky gay memoir.

(PS I couldn't get through Splendora after finding it in the library, as it's endlessly descriptive with little to no action (at least in the first 60 pages), but I still support any Viking novel published in the '70s in which a cross-dresser returns to his small town in Texas, a town I know and perhaps fear a bit, in complete drag. As you can see from what I'm reading on the sidebar, I've moved to Capote for southern gayness, and Other Voices Other Rooms, a book I'm thoroughly enjoying, should take care of this current gay-southern itch.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Seduced By Secrets: Inside the Stasi's Spy-Tech World by Kristie Macrakis

Yawn. I didn't think it was possible to make the first ever study of the infamous East German spy agency--the Stasi--boring but, yep, you can. Repetitious and overwritten (she tells us what "MfS" stands for in EVERY CHAPTER, for instance), Mackrakis's book just plots along and instead of presenting an extremely successful communist spy agency with all the built-in drama that comes with the espionage game, we get a history of gizmos, spooks, and traitors that has all the excitement of a piece of soggy lettuce. When you compare this book to the recent film The Lives of Others one wonders why Ms. Macrakis wasn't able to generate much enthusiasm in her readers when she had the whole paranoid history of the MfS (Ministry for State Security) at her disposal and all the film had was one dude in a room listening to people yet I was riveted. Strange...and too bad.

New Ways to Publish Old Material

A post by Blake Wilson over at Papercuts, "A Blog About Books" hosted by the New York Times, was all about yet another blog. Papercuts seems quite good by newspaper literary blog standards, as those folks are really trying to generate discussion. Smaller papers smartly use local literary events and local bestseller lists for content, like David Mehegan's Off the Shelf hosted by the Boston Globe, and while that makes sense, it makes for a rather dull blog. So here's hoping Papercuts sticks with it and finds a strong readership.

Wilson's post that caught by eye was entitled, "George Orwell, Tween Narcissist?" It was all about The Orwell Prize blog, which is publishing Orwell's diary entry by entry, as blog entries. As they explain, "From 9th August 2008, Orwell’s domestic and political diaries (from 9th August 1938 until October 1942) will be posted in real-time, exactly 70 years after the entries were written." August 12th entry reads,

Very hot in the morning. In the afternoon sudden thunder-storm & very heavy rain. About 50 yards from the gate the road & pavement flooded a foot deep after only 1 1/2 hours rain.

Blackberries beginning to redden.

I don't know, I find this rather charming.

I like the mundanity, and judging from the number of commenters, I'm not alone. (Wilson disagrees - read his post to see why). They are still working out the best way to provide context without taking away from the basic and simple concept, but I think we can get it from the About section.

This intrigues me as a way to publish important archival material in a engaging way, with modern technology that makes the material not just accessible, but strangely enjoyable. Orwell is on our level. The commenters are both amused and intrigued by their ability to speak back to the entries, clearly.

It makes me wonder what else can be digitized and made part of modern culture like this, in a way that seems to be relatively free of branding (besides the literary prize, which seems okay to promote). There's always something disappointing about a song being rediscovered because it's in a new car commercial. But this uses the internet, html, for it's original purpose, as a sharing tool, without corporate involvement. Hell, it's not even Google sponsored!

Kinda exciting stuff.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Progressive Zeitgeist

I am intrigued by this idea being led by Jennifer Nix over at Guernica: the need for progressives to reclaim art as a way to open minds and bring people into progressive thinking. Perhaps in part because of my own personal professional experience, I appreciated her discussion of people leaving art for activism, not seeing that the two can work together, side by side, for the same purpose. She explains that art and activism "are very much part of the same continuum, [but] over the past eight years there has been a kind of damaging divergence between art and life, for many progressive activists." She sees blogs in particular as ideal vehicles to bring these communities together.

She's drawing her inspiration from novelists like Mark Twain who, during the Gilded Age, reached more common folk by publishing in affordable newspapers, thereby upping the literacy rates and hooking in readers to think outside of the elitist rhetoric of the era: "The masses were able to read fiction and to imagine better realities than those put forth and controlled by the era's robber-baron elites." She's also jumping off Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project, though I was confused by her quotes that she attributes to Hemon. If they were in this novel, the novel must break into some pretty didactic language.

Her point is that progressive blogs need to help "integrate literature back into American life." Who doesn't agree with this? But yes, she has a more specific plan of action, and I support her completely. Some novelists have made this effort - Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind, and of course writers from countries with oppositional leadership like Orhan Pamuk in Turkey - but we should encourage more. Let's get people over this idea that literary writers shouldn't muddy their hands with politics, or maintain objectivity just like journalists. So preposterous.

I then thought of The Poetry Foundation and their efforts to insert literature into the average American's life. If you'll recall, they received a massive $100 million donation from Ruth Lilly, great-granddaughter of the founder of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Initially, they had discussed "trying to figure out how to finance the notion of bringing poetry to people in libraries, schools and elsewhere," as reported in the New York Times. They then branched out to try to get poetry into hipper venues. This New Yorker piece by Dana Goodyear explains it well.
[T]the foundation is offering its services as an external poetry editor. Over the past year, it has sent a dozen magazine editors mockups with poems superimposed on actual layouts from those magazines (a Basho haiku in a Good Housekeeping spread showing how to “pair old china with fresh blooms”; Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” on a fitness page called “Love Your Curves”). To Details, the foundation suggested an essay by Jim Harrison: “If Jim Harrison, poet, novelist (Legends of the Fall) and walking vat of testosterone, needs a daily shot of poetry, it must not be for sissies. . . . A good hed for the piece might be ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Poetry.’ A better one might be ‘Read Poetry. Get Laid.’ ”

Yeah, seriously. Actually, the article does a fine job, nicely mentioning the foundation's history. Goodyear explains how Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in 1912 because “the well of American poetry seemed to be thinning out and drying up, and the worst of it was that nobody seemed to care. It was this indifference that I started out to combat, this dry conservatism that I wished to refresh with living waters from a new spring.”

I know another initiative in the foundation was getting poetry into smaller local newspapers, which I thought was smart. I don't know how successful the foundation's been in this new endeavor overall, but I respect the effort. I'm all for enlivening poetry and getting it to reach the masses in a form more sophisticated than children's verse.

And I applaud Nix's concept of reminding progressives that art and politics are not oil and water, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hemon's quotes in her article, including:
There is a loss of intellectual self-confidence all across the board, for capitalism prefers a non-thinking consumer to a thinking citizen. The restoration of public space in blogosphere, I think, alleviates that problem. I hope it can also provide space for a resurgence of serious literature."

Here here!

More on how to support her at the end of the article, so check it out - especially if you're a progressive political blogger.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Secrets of Book Publishing...or lack thereof.

This post by first time author Mark Hurst about the truths behind the book publishing industry (as he experienced it) has been sitting with me for a week or so now. Initially I thought that I would respond point by point to his laundry list of carping but, frankly, I don't have the inclination or the time. There are a few things that strike me as strange about his points that I must mention here, however.

First it seems like he knew nothing of the publishing process before he decided to try and get his book published and, judging by his responses to a publisher who linked to him in the comments section, still doesn't. He writes with such authority that you would think that he has been in the game for decades but alas, no, he is just now putting out his first book...but not with a publisher. He is self-publishing. I am not willing to get into a discussion about self-publishing but I will say that if his attitude during the submission process was even remotely like his voice on his post, well, I would've rejected his book simply because he would've been impossible to work with.

Quickly, he feels cheated that the publisher is making money on his work. This being a capitalist nation, I am wondering why that is a shock? Also, he thinks that the people involved in publishing don't do it for the love of books. This issue is so laughable that it must be meant as comedy. The people in the book business are just about the only people left in our culture who actually care about books. Just because they want a product--that's right, kids, a PRODUCT--that sells doesn't make them vulgarians...just capitalists.

There are so many more issues that essentially boil down to "I am being wronged by the mean publishing companies" that I would use up all my future words dealing with them here. Mr. Hurst knows nothing about the industry from the inside. What he thinks he knows is almost all completely ass-backwards. So, instead of getting into a fisticuffs word brawl with Mr. Hurst (though I suspect he would only end up punching himself in the head), I suggest to my esteemed editor of S.o.t.B., Brian, that we hold our first online symposium about the publishing process. We will give authors, aspiring authors, and the merely curious a full accounting of the economics, personalities, and realities of publishing as we have lived them. Brian and I were both editors. I am now an agent. With our expertise and the expertise of other professionals we will illuminate the darkness. Or as Golem put it: "follow us through the secret paths in the mist."

I will get this together and y'all can look for the first post about the submission process and what publishers and editors are looking for (in general) early next week.

It ain't me, babe

I had to post again so quickly to differentiate my general position on this blog from the position of Richard Cohen in this Washington Post op-ed, which I found through a Shelf Awareness link.

I'm concerned for many things in this world, including the pace of our cultural discussions, but I am not against digitization across the board. Reading this op-ed, that becomes more clear than ever. It's a tragic piece of writing, as many of the commenters note (sometimes nastily). Poor Cohen is misguided. He's right that bookstores offer a special and important environment, of course, and I'm all for someone promoting independents, of course. But you can find books online, using recommendations from any number of people - reviewers on Amazon, bloggers, bookstore employees who keep blogs, etc... And then when you buy that book, you may have no idea where you got it, just like he doesn't know where he got some of his books. He tells an anecdote about a bookseller guiding him to Her Privates We - "The Hemingway blurb sold me." I don't even understand that, but the reality is, one could stumble upon this book just as easily online.

In fact, I went to the Texas Observer site for some reason recently, where I found this terrific article by Robert Leleux about gay East Texas novelist Edward Swift. I'm now reading Leleux's book, as noted in "Now reading" on the margin here, and have Swift's novel, Splendora, out from the library, as well, to chase Leleux's YA-like memoir (sorry!). All done online! (The TX Observer, btw? **** (four stars). The New Yorker of the South! You heard it here... )

But Cohen says other tragic things, like:
- "I understand that it's bulky and expensive to ship and that it entails the consumption of paper, which is probably not green, but then what is?" What is green? Really?
- "If I were younger, I'd go [to the bookstore] to pick up girls. I'd look over their shoulders and say, "Oh, 'The Prophet,' a book of eternal truths" -- or some such tripe. (It used to work.)" Ugh. I mean, honestly. UGH.
- "It is called the Kindle, which must be one of those focus group words. Sounds like the German word for children. Sounds like kind. Sounds innocent. Of course, it is not." Oh Dick, the drama!

There must be a middle road, or at least a more sophisticated manner in which to navigate the electronic age. My concern is valuing knowledge and art and their (or its) production. I love bookstores and books, yes, but I also welcome technology.

So it's clear now, right? I'm not a luddite, and I'm not naive, and I'm all for moving forward. AND I don't buy books with Hemingway blurbs, I don't care what some ol' bookseller says.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Books of Connecticut Past

Off to Connecticut this past weekend, and despite my partner's feelings to the contrary, I quite like the state in some ways. I'm troubled by the gross inconsistencies, sure, wherein cities are intensely dangerous and rundown while the countryside is comically bucolic and moneyed, but I also find things to like in both city and country. But alas, I'll let those who know better debate the finer points.

On Saturday, we left my sister's li'l oasis in Middlebury to hit three bookstores. The first one was the John Bale Book Co. in Waterbury. It looked so cool, but as it turns out, it's closed every Saturday in August due to building repairs. I was bummed. The cafe looked pretty nice, too.

It was not meant to be this time.

So we left the fine industrial big town/li'l city of Waterbury to find the next store on our list, which was about 1/2 way between Waterbury and New Haven. It was listed as a book barn, and my partner and I both love book barns (Especially Pleasant Street Books of Woodstock, VT)!

And the store was Whitlock Farm Bookstore in Bethany, CT - which has no website, hence this link. It was, indeed, a charming place, with a good collection of books. We arrived in the pouring rain, after driving down a charming country road. It turned out to be near perfect weather for browsing through dusty old books in a converted turkey barn, the rain providing a steady beat as we went aisle to aisle, corner to corner.

Having read his book, Rats, I picked up a copy of Robert Campbell's The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of the City, about that swampy area of New Jersey just outside of NYC that is protected but presumably polluted to all hell. I've become a fan of this urban nature writing, so I thought this would be a good addition to the library. My partner, an academic, figured out that a fellow leftist historian had just sold a large collection of leftist history books to the store, so he found a good few titles to buy as well as a number of books he would have happily purchased if he did not already have copies at home.

But there was more! Whitlock has a second barn - converted from a sheep barn, the woman told me - about 30 yards away, so we raced through the rain to that barn to find all the books under $5. What a great idea! Neither of us ended up purchasing anything from this barn, but I loved that it was there, and it was full of vacation reads and books you don't mind buying just in case, since they were cheap cheap cheap.

The rain had stopped by the time we left Whitlock, and we got back on the road for New Haven. We did not have Yale in mind in and of itself, as neither one of us felt the need to see another ivy league campus, but I did want to see the Labyrinth Books, the indie bookstore that I believe started in New Haven before opening in Princeton and in NYC, near Columbia (not necessarily in that order. Though I have since learned that the store where I bought the charming novel, The Boy Detective Fails, in NYC is no longer Labyrinth, but is now Book Culture.

The store in New Haven was fine - clean, easy to navigate, approachable employees. Rather quickly, we headed to the annex downstairs with remainders, and found some good stuff. It was a predictable selection - white leftist intellectual stuff - but my partner found another few books to purchase. I almost bought Barry Glassner's The Gospel of Food, but decided against it. It was a bit eerie because there were very few customers there on this Saturday afternoon, but the thunderstorm had just finished and it was Yale in the summer, so it made sense. It just gave the place a bit of a sterile feeling.

So that was Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, as we headed back to Boston, we stopped at a place I have always noticed and always wondered about, like so many drivers on I-84: Traveler Food and Books, or Restaurant, or Bookstore. I don't know the official name, but the place is pretty damn cool. It had a certain sense of books - as not disposable, but far from elite. Here, books are lying around everywhere, around the tables, as you walk in, outside the restroom - this is on top of the basement that offers a more traditional used-bookstore set-up. And they also had book bundles they had created, with themese like Bestsellers, Horror, YA, Romance... and you could get a dozen mass markets for $10. Terrific! Sadly, I found nothing to buy here, but I was hungry and a bit cranky after a weekend with the family. Then we went upstairs thinking we'd eat, but my partner had been there before and wasn't sold on the food, and the prices were not as cheap as one might imagine looking around. Add to this the fact that the two women working there refused to look up so as to seat us, and you can appreciate why we left. I should note, however, that my partner once again found some leftist book to buy, so we did give them some money. I'm anxious to go back in a more relaxed state of mind.

So a bookish weekend, proving Connecticut is more than rich white people, NYC suburbs, and pizza slices. I also discovered, upon coming back, a new Texan writer to read up on, but more on that in another post...

[please forgive the formatting mess - or blame blogspot!]