Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Addiction Worth Having

I'm pleased to report that Jeff Gordinier was recently in touch with us, the good bloggers at SotB. For those of you not in the know, he is the author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking (Penguin paperback, pub'd in hardcover by Viking) and Editor-at-Large for Details magazine, which one might assume is a pretty badass job.

So Gordinier is successful and works with all these major NY publishers - Conde Nast, Penguin. But he still finds much to love in stupid old heavy impractical books, in particular, poetry. And he's happy to make that known, using the fame he's attained through these big publishers to talk about poets published across the publishing spectrum. For that, I give him respect.

But in addition, he's written about it in a pretty fun way. I appreciate him sending the link.

The story in question is this one, posted on the Poetry Foundation's blog under the headline, "Absolute Necessities: The recession confession of a poetry shopaholic." In this article, Gordinier talks about his addiction to poetry books, which he manages to find on any and every trip, from business trips across the country to his daily commute, rushing through Grand Central station. He can't help himself. And he wonders if he should be more frugal with this addiction in our current dismal economic era, when everyone is screaming out for cautious spending. 

It should go without saying that I was quite charmed by his reasoning:  
I justify my poetry slush fund in a variety of ways. I tell myself, for example, that buying a book of poetry constitutes a gesture of resistance. Gargantuan corporations can now cull, measure, and parse every move that we make in the global marketplace, but picking up a collection of verse is still so minuscule and arbitrary an act that it must surely defy all their algorithms—it feels as commercially untraceable as slipping an apple into your bag at an orchard. (For one thing, you’re not coerced into buying poetry because of, like, ads. You have to make a deliberate effort. You have to seek it out. And even in bookstores that do offer a diverse selection of poetry, merely finding it can pose a challenge: Invariably the poetry aisle is located way, way in the back—“yeah, just turn left at the Sasquatch section and it should be right across from Occult Interpretations of High School Musical.”) The publishing business relies on the massiveness of authors like Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown to such a degree that a stray underdog purchase of, say, Dean Young’sEmbryoyo barely even registers on their Reader Tracking Devices, and that’s what I love about it. It’s a tiny push in the opposite direction—a pipsqueak of peaceful defiance.

Now that's an argument I can get behind. This kind of call from an author published by a corporate house is reassuring to me. More authors need to take stock of their position and voice support for those writers who are not writing books popular with bigger houses.

So let's all remember, in this season of giving, that perhaps we should shop a bit less than we have in the past, but we should get meaningful gifts for those people who matter. Let's shop independents, and get books that connect with the reader, rather than just grabbing what's on the bestseller lists. This feels particularly resonant given the media's annual drunken celebration of Black Friday consumerism. Forget long lines at Best Buy and head over to your nearest independent bookstore.

I for one see Gordinier's article as serving, as well, as a useful guide for modern poetry, since this is a field that many of us find hard to get into due to our ignorance of what we might like. I think I'll start with Li-Young Lee, whom a friend of mine has loved for some time and whose poem "From Blossoms" Gordinier quotes as follows:

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can we ALL talk about this please?

I am worried that the discussion that should be started with the following link will not happen due to a certain holiday this week.

Michael Wolff has thrown something of a Molotov cocktail at the publishing world, and I'd happily stand out on the streets with him. In this article on Newser, Wolff calls for a book boycott, because, simply put, "Books are evil."

He takes issue with the many polibrity books - I'm trying to make up a term here that combines "politicians" and celebrities, people like Palin and Beck, whom he calls out, who claim to be political but are in fact vacuous, ill-informed, and tragically too deficient in a basic intellectual sense to be put in charge of so much as an ant farm. Will polibrity work?

Anyhow, these polibrities don't write books, they just put their brand on books that are written by others, who may or may not appear on covers. Wolff rightly points out that such books have been around for a long time, but were considered vanity books and not given any serious consideration. It was understood what they were, they had their readers, and the rest of us could move on with our lives. But now, the media does not discriminate. Oprah has Palin on to discuss her book, as if Palin herself actually wrote it and as if it contibutes anything to any larger discussion at all. It doesn't. It's a vanity book. It was written by someone hoping to please Palin, and it did, and Palin signed off on it. She's hardly even qualified to discuss it. In fact, she may not have even read it - she could have just paid a political handler to check it for her, just as you would a proofreader.

And then Wolff goes after the publishers - the cocktail is lit, and time for throwin'!

Publishers publish fake books because, if you have an “author” who has some larger cause to promote, the publisher gets free promotion. What the publisher has traded for such an abundance of promotion is its own brand. HarperCollins does not really believe Sarah Palin has written a valuable book—or even that it is really a book, not in the way that HarperCollins has historically understood books, or in the way that people have counted on HarperCollins to have understood a book. But, these are desperate times and real books are an increasingly equivocal proposition anyway, so almost all publishers are willing to engage in the strategic mix-up between real books and fake books.

Absolutely true, and we should hold these brands responsible. These corporate publishers say such books allow them to publish other, more literary fare, but this is bullshit. C'mon. You have a board demanding higher profit margins, and Palin will get you there. If you drop some money on a debut novelist, you are hardly excused for the damage you are unleashing on the world with this tripe.

Well done, Mr. Wolff. What next?!

(Thanks to the ever-reliable MobyLives for alerting me to Wolff's article.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Big Kids Have a Good Idea!

Sometimes here at SoTB, we get a little disenchanted with publishing, right? We just think screw it. Where is the hope? Where is the possibility? Where is the potential? In the world of corporate publishing, when independents are kicked around, when new and interesting voices are ignored, when the holidays we so love become merely an excuse to publish absolute tripe (and no, that link is not to a certain moronic Alaskan), what have we left?

But today's brief post is giving credit where credit is due.

Hachette Audio is releasing a new David Sedaris recording on vinyl, under the title Live for Your Listening Pleasure, reports Andrew Adam Newman in the NY Times. This seems like a great pairing of format and content to me offhand, even if I've grown a bit tired of Sedaris in recent years. Sure, an occasional article in the New Yorker can be fun, but page after page, he becomes a bit predictable. But hey, suddenly I'm interested anew.

As formats explode and everyone seeks out the Next Big Thing, I appreciate that this particular publisher is looking across all formats, old and new, to see what might work. I'm all for thinking aloud about formats that work and talking seriously about those that don't. In fact, Susan Ruszala has a nice post about hardcovers over at Follow the Reader worth reading. I just worry about our racing ahead and leaving valuable formats - such as vinyl - behind.

So well played, corporate giant Hachette. You could be onto something!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two book posts.

Hi. Sarah Palin's memoir has finally arrived in bookstores after too much build up. Please don't buy it because it will make you stupid and I don't want that to happen to you. Really. So far, the best paragraph I've seen about it comes from WhiskeyFire. Enjoy...and, seriously, don't buy it. Shame on you HarperCollins! Whatever happened to being able to read and write before becoming a HarperCollins author?

The most unbelievable thing about Going Rogue, by the author-function “Sarah Palin,” is that it’s supposed to be self-serving. The problem a self-serving narrative about Sarah Palin confronts is that it’s about Sarah Palin, whose entire life, it appears, consists of worse and worse attempts to create self-serving narratives explaining away bigger and bigger fuck-ups. Going Rogue’s burden is that it must claim to be the definitive, encyclopedic explanation, the final excuse, for a long history of failure begat by failure; it’s an epic of failure, if you will, and if the goal here is some kind of ultimate vindication, well, it is monumentally unsuccessful. Going Rogue is, at bottom, the story of every one of Sarah Palin’s projects ending in grotesque catastrophe; it is only self-serving in the sense that these catastrophes either prove benign or turn out to be some other schlub’s fault. If everything I knew about Sarah Palin came from this book (and basically it does), I would say her life has been like a play in which a deus-ex-machina descends at the end of every act to bestow peace and harmony, except the deus forgot to put on pants and everyone’s just standing around going “uhhhh…” and then the lights go out and the scene changes.
Yup. That's pretty much it.

Meanwhile, on another book front Gary Greenberg and illustrator Balvis Rubess have written The Pop-Up Book of Phobias. I just found out about it even though it was published in 1999. Two words: AWE. SOME.

Here's a video of the contents:

The Pop-up Book of Phobias from donvanone on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

National Book Awards - and nice shout out

So the National Book Awards were presented last night. Winners:

Fiction: Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
(which pleases me as I'm reading Borstal Boy and feeling all Irish nationalist)

Non-Fiction: T. J. Stiles for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf)

Poetry: Keith Waldrop for Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (Univ. of California Press)

Young People's Literature: Phillip Hoose for Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice (FSG/Kroupa)

Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: Gore Vidal

The Literarian Award: Dave Eggers

The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction: Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories

Congrats to all!

But I also want to applaud Stiles, who reportedly did good:

Stiles said that books “are at the heart of our culture,” and went on to thank the vast army of workers—“ a complete eco-system” —that make books possible. “The editorial assistants, the copyeditors, the designers, agents, publicists, the guys in the mailroom, librarians—I hope e-books aren’t fooling us into thinking these people aren’t needed.”

I always appreciate when authors take advantage of an opportunity like this one to remind folks about all the good people who makes a great book possible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I don't need a library in my pocket, thanks

And besides, "library in a pocket" just calls to mind the horrible school coaches in Texas that were forever accusing us pubescent boys of "shootin' pocket pool." It seemed annoying at the time, but as an adult, I look back at that as, in fact, quite inappropriate and foul.

Anyhow, I'm referring here to Motoko Rich and Brad Stone's article in yesterday's NY Times on electronic reading devices, which sought to understand the ways in which readers are consuming books electronically - on dedicated devices and on phones with book features (ie, iphone, i-touch, etc). It's nice to see that this is of such wide interest. I know NY Times readers are a fairly specific demographic, but this article is currently the number 2 most emailed article.

But I can't help but feel this lingering suspicion as I read the article...

My partner's contention is that people do not want e-readers as much as e-reader companies want people to want e-readers. He believes the companies are generating this hysteria falsely, creating the illusion of demand in order to create demand. Is he crazy, and is this theory crazy? Well to be honest, those are two separate questions, but I don't want to digress again, as I've already said too much re: school coaches, above.

This article supports his case. Yes, we have the "man on the street" voice, from Keishon Tutt, a pharmacist in TX; romance (e)novelist Shannon Stacey; admin assistant and blogger Sarah Wendall. But mixed in, we also get quotes from e-reader execs who are trying to casually explain the allure of their products:
“It’s a surprisingly pleasant experience to read on a small screen,” said Josh Koppel, a founder of ScrollMotion, a New York company that has made some 25,000 e-books available through Apple’s App Store and has sold more than 200,000 copies.

"The Kindle is for people who love to read,” Mr. Freed of Amazon said. “People use phones for lots of things. Most often they use them to make phone calls. Second most often, they use them to send text messages or e-mail. Way down on the list, there’s reading.”

These quotes are provided as if the journalists ran into these folks on the F train and this topic kind of came up, perhaps with the opening line, "Whatcha reading, and on what device?"

I don't think we need to ban e-reading and insist on printed matter for all books. I really don't. But I'm not convinced that this demand is as real as these lobbyists of sorts want us to believe.

Here's another funny moment in this strange article:
According to the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, about 1.7 million people now own [a single-function e-reader], and that number could rise to four million by the end of the holiday season.

That's a huge increase. Is this a case of self-fulfilling prophecy? There is no other context, just this projection thrown into the mix.

Hey, if you're into e-reading, e-read away. Make yourself sick with it. But I continue to read these fluff pieces - which generated pretty strong responses questioning the thoroughness of Rich and Stone, the writers - with a fair amount of skepticism. I almost feel my lack of concern about attaining an e-reader runs counter to the underlying demand, and that suggests an article that is not, on the whole, balanced.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Only in Socialist FRANCE! Right?


Edward Cody has an article in the Washington Post that starts so sweet and, ya know, foreign. The lede is all about a funny li'l town square in Poligny, France, where "a bookstore has been dispensing culture and entertainment to the people of Poligny for 150 years." When it almost had to close due to financial pressures, the town rallied, "a group of townspeople put up cash to form a little corporation, capitalized at $70,000, and bought the lease to keep it running. As a result, the New Bookstore reopened two weeks ago with a coat of fresh paint but a familiar mission: to be a haven where people feel welcome dropping by to buy a ballpoint pen or browse for books."

Cody moves out from there, to show how France's insistence on keeping one leg in the past - with monuments and fine cheeses, etc - prevents it from modernizing and moving forward. It's an odd article. With subheads, this jump is clearly delineated: bookstore lede, France as old-fashioned and behind the times, innocently move back to specifics of bookstore. Something is amiss. Why bookend this story of France with a very specific article on a bookstore staying open due to committed townspeople?

Well the sandwich fillin' in this here story really speaks volumes about the bookstore story itself. By kind of counter-framing the narrative of the bookstore with this tangent on the French character that makes the case that "France must also go beyond its past because the world has largely moved on while France was stuck contemplating glories that were," our reading of the bookstore story becomes a joke. These townspeople saving this bookstore are clinging to a dying institution and preventing progress, just like the national response to Sarkozy's attempt to start a discussion about all the new immigrants became "focused on the need for new arrivals to adhere to values arising from France's past."

But wait... this happened here in the good ol' US of A just a few years ago, in fact in a place deemed too conservative, by many folks, to even warrant a mention unless there is a serious sneer involved.

In 2006, community members came together to keep Brazos Bookstore in my (kinda) hometown of Houston, TX open:
When owner Karl Kilian announced that he would have to sell the store or close because he was taking a position at the Menil Collection, a Houston museum, many wanted desperately to help. The problem, Moser said, was no one could take on the entire financial or operational commitment of a bookstore. However, one of the bookstore's champions, Gabrielle F. Hale, proposed the idea of forming a group to pool resources. Fourteen of the store's supporters each agreed to invest a minimum of $10,000 to keep the store open, according to Moser. At a party celebrating the deal, 11 additional partners signed on. The 25-member group formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, with its chief investor, Edward R. Allen III, as president.

Sound familiar?

My point is that this idea isn't as radical and certainly not as backward as Cody presents it in the Washington Post article, and in fact should be considered a viable idea for other struggling independent bookstores around the country.

Let's not chalk this one up to crazy France, with it's baguettes in bike baskets, 6 week vacations, and constant cigarette smoking. We could all learn something from France - and from H-town.

Monday, November 09, 2009

For a good time, call a 1832 edition of Pride & Prejudice

Yes, of course Christopher's right. I'm anti-fun, while he's a good-time-aholic, rockin' the antiquarian book fair.* Check out this binding, bitches!

Anyhow, I'm here to tell you about something that's more suited for those with a pulse. My apologies it's so last minute - I only found out about this today.

Bookbuilders of Boston is hosting a talk entitled Beyond the Pitch Letter: A Roundtable with Authors, Agents, and Editors. I'm planning on attending so I have more to tell folks about this process, even if I ain't working with them. (I did this a lot at an academic conference this weekend, but more on that in another post.) (Except I will say that I loved DC as much as I thought I might.) The participants on the roundtable are:

It should be a good time, but don't let me stop you from blowing dust off jackets and debating the best quality backstrips from 17th century editions. 

* For the record, I've actually attended and enjoyed this fair and my comments above are only here to irritate Christopher. If others get offended, it's merely friendly fire. My apologies.

The 33rd Annual International Antiquarian Bookfair

Hi all,

This coming weekend the Boston Book Fair is returning to the Hynes Convention Center. It is a great place to eat, sleep, breathe, buy, smell books. You can go to their website for all the details but I will just say here that it costs:

  • Friday night preview (includes Saturday and Sunday) $15.00
  • Saturday only: $8.00
  • Sunday only: $8.00
to get in so plan accordingly.

See you there!

CV (but not Brian cuz he is anti-fun these days)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Love to Local

I'm excited to be attending the Massachusetts Center for the Book's MA Book Awards ceremony at the State House here in Boston tomorrow (Wednesday, Nov 4). Little did I know, there was some excitement happening before the awards!

At 11 am, there will be a rally we should all consider attending. The Massachusetts Library Association is holding a “Don’t Close the Books on Libraries” Rally at the State House. If you love books, you should love libraries, and if you love libraries, you should fight against the severe budget cuts they face.

Before learning of this rally this evening, I stopped by the Harvard Bookstore and found, much to my delight, two novels by Charles Willeford, who was written about in Sean McCann's Gumshoe America, which I got out of a library btw, alongside Jim Thompson, thereby making me interested. (They both reflect the tragic loss of New Deal ideology in the face of liberalism, obviously.) What's amazing is that these two novels - High Priest of California and Pick Up - are together in one, reversible volume from the 1980s. Yes, folks, you read through one and come to 2 gray pages. Close the book, flip it over, and read the second. Just incredible. I sometimes love Harvard Bookstore's used section.

Now go rally for books, already! 

Monday, November 02, 2009

Oh, Mark Danner, just take it like a man for goodness sake.

Over at the pop culture festival that is The Awl, every once in a while they have something that is worth passing on to the six of you who check in on a regular basis. The something, in this case, is the very mean spirited, very public cat fight that author Mark Danner is about to have with his reviewer and (depending on which man you ask) friend George Packer. What fight? Well, in a nutshell Mark Danner wrote a book, George Packer didn't like it, wrote as such in the New York Times Book Review, and now Mark Danner is having a hissy fit. What was Mr. Packer's tone? Here is a small snippet of his review of Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War:

Untethering his essayistic ambitions from ground-level journalism does not serve Danner well. A tendency toward inflated writing and overstatement starts to appear: there are too many self-­dramatizing turns of phrase, like “The first time I was killed, or nearly so”; too many moments when the writer, confronted with a destroyed city or a bloody mess of dismembered bodies, finds George F. Kennan or Henry James coming to mind.
Ok, not too nice but so the-hell-what?!? So George Packer didn't like your book? Boo hoo...if it is worth reading it will be read, but if, as I suspect, you are so stung by one person's opinion that you need to write a full page letter in response to the New York Times (to be published this coming Sunday), then Mr. Packer's criticisms might just be on the mark, eh? How angry is Mark Danner? Well, they only have a short extract of next week's letter but here it is (click on the image to see a larger, readable jpg):

Add Image
If you want the overall tone of his letter, you can get it from the final sentence which reads:

"The corrosive tendentiousness at work here warps much of what Packer writes and accounts for his near superhuman ability to ignore what is on the page. Plus, everyone knows George Packer is a big, fat, yucky head." (Ok, that last sentence was mine alone. Funny, though, right?)

It is in such bad taste to respond to a review with a temper tantrum that Mark Danner gets a special commendation for being the biggest baby around right now. Good work, Mr. Danner! My advice? Just ignore the whole thing? If you had, a smart ass like myself wouldn't have even been aware of the bad review and I probably would've read your book as I was profoundly moved by your book on the Massacre at El Mozote. But now? Um, probably not...and not because George Packer said not to (though he really didn't), but because rewarding such stupid behavior might just encourage others to do what you've done.

Sheesh! Grow up! Even Rick Moody, when called "the worst novelist of his generation," simply brushed off the criticism and continued on with his successful career. I mean who the hell remembers B.R. Myers the author of that snarky comment anymore anyway?

*** UPDATE***

The full letter from Mark Danner was published on Sunday in the New York Times. You can find it here and George Packer's response here.

Packer's response is a marvel of "I don't know why he's so upset" writing. I am not picking sides here but the feud sure is fun to watch from the sidelines.

Put our money where our mouths are, no?

I am not really sure why this hasn't received more press but Suffolk University is commemorating the 35th anniversary of Graywolf Press tomorrow. Hosted by Catherine Parnell of Salamander, the celebration also features a conversation earlier in the day with Graywolf Press director Fiona McCrae before the readings in the evening . Details follow below:

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Graywolf publishes nearly thirty books a year. Many of their titles have included some of literature’s highest honors, including the National Book Critics Circles Award, the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and have been named best books of the year by the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Please join Graywolf Press and Suffolk University for a reading in honor of Graywolf’s 35th anniversary. Featured readers are Stephen Burt, Close Calls with Nonsense; Linda Gregg, All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems; Fred Marchant, The Looking House; Askold Melnyczuk, The House of Widows; Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Picking Bones from Ash; Salvatore Scibona, The End; and Jeffrey Yang, An Aquarium.

The reading will be held at Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre, 55 Temple Street, Boston, MA on Tuesday, November 3, 2999 from 7:00 – 8:30 pm.

Suffolk University also invites you to join us for a discussion (moderated by Catherine Parnell) with Fiona McCrae, Director of Graywolf Press. The discussion--held in Fenton 134, at Suffolk University-- will take place on Tuesday, November 3rd, at 1 p.m. The Fenton Building is at the corner of Derne and Hancock Streets.

Me? I'll be attending this as man can't live by words alone. Hey-yo!