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The Sunday Post for September 20, 2015

I created a fake business and bought it an amazing online reputation

Kashmir Hill’s fascinating look at the business of sock-puppeting business reputation. She starts a fake Karaoke truck, and manages to establish online credibility without too much effort.

Mark my words: reputation online is the battleground of the future. Trust is the key component.

For $5, I could get 200 Facebook fans, or 6,000 Twitter followers, or I could get @SMExpertsBiz to tweet about the truck to the account’s 26,000 Twitter fans. A Lincoln could get me a Facebook review, a Google review, an Amazon review, or, less easily, a Yelp review.
Nom de Vie: Literary social media in the age of Ferrante

The delightful Alexander Chee looks at Ferrante’s deal with her publishers, and what it means for the modern author, exposed and available at all times through social media.

The postcards I once made for my first novel back in 2001 have been joined by blogging and social media—which have a much bigger footprint online than a postcard or in some cases an ad—and come with a relatively low financial cost, if you already have a laptop or a smartphone. Thus the seemingly essential role social media and the Internet play in the marketing of books now. Most of us who write and publish fiction in 2015 are participants in a process that extends from before publication to well after, and includes creating a kind of electronic diorama of our writing process and lives, extending across several platforms, all of it available at a glance to any interested consumer. Your feed as native advertising, an open answer to the questions so often asked at readings: “How much of this is autobiographical?” or “What is your process?” or “Where do you write?”
How many books should you write in a year

As John Scalzi points out, it may matter how you define what a book is:

Also, you know. What a “novel” or “book” is, is a very fungible thing. The term “novel” encompasses a book like The Goldfinch, which is almost 300,000 words, and Redshirts, which was 55,000 words, not counting the codas. The more-or-less official lower length of a novel is 40,000 words; at the other extreme, Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, slated for publication next year, is a million words long. I don’t recommend trying to write four Jerusalems in a year. But on the other hand, four 40,000 word stories? That’s entirely doable for a very large number of writers.
Today in 1968: Margaret Atwood schools her interviewer on the meaning of "poetry”

It’s absolutely delightful to hear a young Margaret Atwood here, and never mind the idiotic terms with which the writer cast the interview. She’s nuanced and brilliant, and responding to stupid questions that intend to be heady, but instead are broad. Interviewers! Ask very specific questions and you will get good answers. “What is poetry”, on the other hand, is a horrible question. It’s insulting. You don’t ask accountants “What is accounting”. It’s a question designed only to make you look deep, and trust me, people are tuning in for her, not you. That Atwood offers such an interesting, engaged answer is testament to the fact that her genius started very young.

The tetchy writer who posted this wants to cast her as an barely understandable McLuhan figure. Ignore the write-up and skip right to the audio. Her own words from her mouth are more than enough.

The Sunday Post for September 13, 2015

Man, weeping

Sandra Newman — who is the funniest person on Twitter, and an amazing writer to boot — looks at the history of male tears.

So where did all the male tears go? The truth is, we don’t know for certain. There was no anti-crying movement. No treatises were written against men’s tears, and no leaders of church or state introduced measures to discourage them. Their decline occurred so slowly and quietly that no one seems to have noticed it happening. But by the 18th century, proponents of the Cult of Sensibility were exhorting men to be more sensitive, with an emphasis on free-flowing tears, which implies that males were already regarded as lachrymally challenged. By the Romantic period, masculine tears were reserved for poets. From here, it’s just a short leap to the poker-faced heroes of Ernest Hemingway, who, despite their poetic leanings, cannot express grief by any means but tippling and shooting the occasional buffalo.
By Any Other Name: The Best American Pseudonym 2015

Over at the Kenyon Review, poet Amit Majmudar takes a deep, nuanced, and fascinating looks at the Sherman Alexie white-poet-appropriating-Chinese-name-for-idiotic-reasons thing (white dudes: on't do it).

Editors often say they are looking for what is “unconventional” or “new,” but the new doesn’t exist (just ask Ecclesiastes), and literary conventions vary from clique to clique and era to era—is free verse conventional, or is a sonnet conventional? Depends on which century you’re referring to. What readers and editors alike desire is for the familiar language—English—to be estranged into poetry. For the familiar object to be perceived anew, as a strange thing, as if for the first time…so that a red wheelbarrow you have seen a thousand times before is no longer a red wheelbarrow you have seen a thousand times before. It is, forever after, the red wheelbarrow.

And that is what the byline “Chou” did to Hudson’s competent poem. “Chou” estranged what were thoroughly unstrange cultural references and sentiments. If we take a poem as inclusive of its byline—much as the word Monet at the bottom right hand corner is part of the painting of waterlilies—then that pseudonym is the most ingenious, most poetic part of a goodish poem; from this perspective, Alexie’s positive response to it was not a matter of nepotism at all.

I never noticed how racist so many children’s books are until I started reading to my kids

Anybody who has read around ages-old racial stereotypes in popular kids books while reading before bedtime will appreciate this Leigh Anderson piece on just that topic. It starts with her deciding to order a copy of Little Black Sambo.

I remember the story primarily for its description of the tigers chasing one another round and round a tree until they melt into butter, butter that Sambo's mother uses for a stack of crispy pancakes. In the 35 intervening years, I knew the book had been relegated to the dustbin of racist cultural artifacts, but I didn't remember it well enough to know why.

The young woman at the bookstore register flinched when I asked for the book and said she couldn't order it for me; Amazon, until recently agnostic on race relations, dropped a copy in a plain brown wrapper on my doorstep. A quick skim revealed illustrations with the minstrel-show aesthetic — bright, white, round eyes, bulging red lips — of "darky" iconography.

High Schoolers Stage "Read-In" Protest in Solidarity with Teachers' Strike

Seattle teachers are striking. We absolutely love the gumption of the kids, in this Rich Smith piece from The Stranger, staging a read-in. First, what a fantastic form of protest. Second, we at the SRoB are behind the teachers 100%. My kid is sitting out his first few days of Kindergarten during the strike right now, and we couldn't be more proud of where his teachers have drawn the line in the abuse the legislature and school district keep dumping on them. No cost-of-living increase in six years means their salary goes down every year. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court fines our pathetic legislature, who only find constitutional adherence something to crow about on the national level.

I propose that today when you read, read for the teachers. When you read this link, or whatever book you're on right now, think back to the teacher that inspired you to learn and want to keep learning. Then maybe write a note to your state respresentative and tell them to get their damn acts together.

Eli Konsker said he organized the event in solidarity with the teachers' strike because teachers have supported him during his three years at Nathan Hale High School. But he also wanted to offer students a chance to be productive even though they weren't in school. "I invited people to work on college essays, finish up summer reading, anything educational," he said.

The Sunday Post, for September 6, 2015

Book Bias Gets Magnified Between Shortlists and Winners — Some Data

A follow up for those of you who enjoyed the SRoB interview with Nicola Griffith. She posted this week looking at gender bias between the shortlist and winners of literary prizes — this data was drawn from the Literary Prize Data group, the folks who volunteered to put in the hours to collect the data when she put out the call.

Data suggest that the step from literary prize shortlist to winner might be an important inflection point in the operation of unconscious bias against women in the publishing ecosystem.
An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar

Vijith Assar’s grammar lesson dealing with passive voice, from his McSweeney’s column “Facepalm Pilot: Where Technology Meets Stupidity”. The great thing about this is his build. He starts simple, instructs and builds until he’s reached the complexity of the kind of language we see every day. And then, he drives it all home. Can't recommend this one enough.

As a thought experiment, let’s examine in extremely close detail a set of iterative changes that can be made to a single simple grammatical structure, turning it from a statement taken at face value into one loaded with unrealized implication. This makes for rich writing which rewards – or even demands – close scrutiny.
The Movies of My Youth

The New York Review of Books published this Italo Calvino piece this week, wherein he reminisces on watching movies as a young man in pre-war Italy

Italian spectators barbarously made entering after the film already started a widespread habit, and it still applies today. We can say that back then we already anticipated the most sophisticated of modern narrative techniques, interrupting the temporal thread of the story and transforming it into a puzzle to put back together piece by piece or to accept in the form of a fragmentary body. To console us further, I’ll say that attending the beginning of the film after knowing the ending provided additional satisfaction: discovering not the unraveling of mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and a vague sense of foresight with respect to the characters. Vague: just like soothsayers’ visions must be, because the reconstruction of the broken plot wasn’t always easy, especially if it was a detective movie, where identifying the murderer first and the crime afterward left an even darker area of mystery in between. What’s more, sometimes a part was still missing between the beginning and the end, because suddenly while checking my watch I’d realize I was running late; if I wanted to avoid my family’s wrath I had to leave before the scene that was playing when I entered came back on. Therefore lots of films ended up with holes in the middle, and still today, more than thirty years later—what am I saying?—almost forty, when I happen to see one of those films from back then—on television, for example—I recognize the moment in which I entered the theater, the scenes that I’d watched without understanding them, and I recover the lost pieces, I put the puzzle back together as if I’d left it incomplete the day before.
A Writing Lesson from Ursula K. Le Guin: In Pursuit of the Gorgeous Sound of Language

The best writing lesson what can be had on the internet, no doubt. LitHub excerpt’s Le Guin’s updated edition of Steering the Craft.

A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.

The Sunday Post, for August 30, 2015

No Country for Young women

Erin Kissane on why she stopped reading fiction written by men, and movies with male protagonists: "I just got tired."

It’s not even that my politics quail at something I otherwise enjoy. I’m just stung and sad, and ashamed that I keep falling for the same trick. If a piece of fiction is made by and emotionally centered on men, chances are, it defaults to the belief that women are nothing but fuel. Doesn’t matter if I’m catching every reference and gleefully staying ahead of every jump. It will eventually declare that it’s not meant for me. Sometimes the women are missing, or just vacant; sometimes there’s a string of bloody bodies that look like mine. The point comes across.
The Price of Diversity

Colleen Muir wonders, over at the Rumpus, if expensive writing conferences can really lay claim to promoting diversity?

On the Bread Loaf website, the director of the conference claims to “foster stimulating communities of diverse voices….” Yet I wonder if Bread Loaf, or any other fee-charging literary institution that waves the “we value diversity” flag, can genuinely make this claim. By charging writers such high fees, these literary institutions seal themselves off from what they claim to seek: diversity of talent, diversity of experience, diversity of voice.
Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked

The story of the journals that helped the CIA in their fight against communism.

“[I]n much of Europe in the 1950’s,” wrote Braden, “socialists, people who called themselves ‘left’—the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists—were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.”
Why there are no taboos in Scandinavian children's books

The Guardian published this piece by Norwegian writer Norwegian Ingelin Røssland on the openness in writing for kids in Scandinavia.

In Scandinavia there are no taboos when it comes to writing, even for children and young people. Books for teens exploring sexuality with explicit language are not censored. It’s so normal for us. There is nothing I can’t cover as a teen writer and I know my publisher would stand by me no matter what.

Here are a couple of examples to explain what I mean. The book Fittekvote by Axel Hellstenius and Morten Skårdal, about young girls in the military, won a literature prize in 2011. It would be called “Cunt Quota” if translated into English.

The Sunday Post for August 23, 2015

Dictionary Stories

A neat project from Jez Burrows, one of the few designers at Facebook who actually work with analog materials, and the publisher and designer of a fantastic short story collection. He's writing short stories "composed entirely of example sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary."


He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery, a study of a man devoured by awareness of his own mediocrity. The place was dreadfully untidy. Tattered notebooks filled with illegible hieroglyphics, the evolution of animal life, the mysteries of analytical psychology, victorian architecture… The street lamps shed a faint light into the room. It was beginning to rain.
Ruth listened to the rhythm of his breathing. She sat very still, her eyes closed. She heard the click of the door. He was thrown backward by the force of the explosion.
Her hunting days were done.

“Don't mention the war." - Some Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft and Race

A piece from David Nickle, published last year, that explores his trouble in getting people to talk about Lovecraft's race problems.

I'd make the case that Lovecraft's fiction—and Lovecraftian horror—depends on the xenophobia that was endemic to Lovecraft's work to the point that without it, many of his stories lose their unique and uniquely profound effect. "The Horror in Red Hook" is a direct channelling of Lovecraft's loathing of newcomers to New York City; the real horror of "The Call of Cthulhu" is not the octopus-headed demigod that emerges out of his underwater city to kill all the people, but the people themselves—all either eugenically unfit denizens of the bayou or "primitive" island cultures whose religious practises amount to a kind of proactive nihilism. The manifestation of Nyarlathotep in the eponymous story is that of a black man bearing trinkets, who seduces the good white folk of America into authoring their own demise.
Orwell's review of Mein Kampf

Did you know Orwell wrote a review of Mein Kampf in 1940?

Suppose that Hitler's programme could be put into effect. What he envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state of 250 million Germans with plenty of "living room" (i.e., stretching to Afghanistan or thereabouts), a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. How was it that he was able to put this monstrous vision across? it is easy to say at once stage of his career he was financed by the heavy industrialists, who saw in him the man who would smash the Socialists and Communists. They would not have backed him, however, if he had not talked a great movement into existence already. Again, the situation in Germany, with its seven million unemployed, was obviously favourable for demagogues. But Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhemling when one hears his speeches…. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. Once feels it again when one sees his photographs—and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett's edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that this is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate, the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can't win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon such themes.

Resources: digital First Folios

Scholar and historian Sarah Werner posted a list all the digitized Shakespeare First Folios available online.

I’ve written about digitizing Shakespeare’s First Folio before, looking at the interfaces of the many different copies out there. But I’m turning my attention to this again for my contribution on the subject for the in-progress Cambridge Companion to the First Folio, edited by Emma Smith. In my article, I’ll be thinking about why there are so many libraries digitizing this same book over and over again and what these many projects can teach us about what we look for from the First Folio and from digital tools.

The Sunday Post for August 16, 2015

An Accomplished Writer Takes a ‘MasterClass’ From a Gargantuan Selling Writer

Writer Joyce Maynard takes a $90 “MasterClass” in writing from James Patterson.

In the 42 years I have worked full time—day in, day out—as a writer, producing, so far, 15 books (a couple of memoirs, a collection of essays and a bunch of novels). I have made it onto The New York Times list for a lifetime total of four weeks—back when the movie version of my novel Labor Day sent the novel that inspired it very briefly onto the charts. Other than that one heady moment, I have labored, like most of my writer friends, in one level or another of financial challenge. But I have held onto the undying faith that any day now, things might change, and all those readers out there who have been buying books by people like Jodi Picoult and James Patterson would suddenly realize what they were missing, and pick up one of mine, instead. And then I, too, would be one of those writers whose books the person on the seat next to you on the airplane always seems to be reading.
Off the Books: For some communities, the controversial labor practices of Andrew Carnegie outweighed the potential benefits of his libraries.

Jacqui Shine Looks at Andrew Carnegie’s libraries, why he built them, and if this legacy tips the scales away from his actions against nascent organizing labor. Some of his motivations will ring true to lovers of Horatio Alger tropes:

Carnegie’s philanthropy consisted not of handouts, but of investments in civic institutions. He was particularly interested in libraries because he believed that “self-help is the basis of every improvement, material, intellectual or spiritual, and that no mode of public benefaction could be chosen which exacted cooperation from the individual to such an extent as the public library.” The library was also a symbol of his own self-making. In his autobiography, Carnegie credited access to a benefactor’s library as the force that kept him “clear of low fellowship and bad habits” in his youth.

The Story Is the Thing: On Lucia Berlin

Lydia Davis on Lucia Berlin:

Things actually happen in the stories—a whole mouthful of teeth gets pulled at once; a little girl gets expelled from school for striking a nun; an old man dies in a mountaintop cabin, his goats and his dog in bed with him; the history teacher with her mildewed sweater is dismissed for being a Communist—“That’s all it took. Three words to my father. She was fired sometime that weekend and we never saw her again.”

Is this why it is almost impossible to stop reading a story of Lucia Berlin’s once you begin? Is it because things keep happening? Is it also the narrating voice, so engaging, so companionable? Along with the economy, the pacing, the imagery, the clarity? These stories make you forget what you were doing, where you are, even who you are.

At Sea With Joseph Conrad

We end up talking about Conrad and London a lot in the SRoB Slack channel (not as much, as, say, Chimamanda, it should be noted), but if even if you are as against Conrad as some in our group, it’s worth looking at this Maya Jasanoff piece for the illustrations (but since you’re there, give it a read too, won’t you?)

The tall ship Corwith Cramer stumbled into the Celtic Sea, engine roaring, 7,500 square feet of sail furled up mute. Its two masts ticked against the horizon like a metronome set to allegro. I joined a row of pallid sailors crouched at the leeward rail. Foam-lathered swell swung for my face, then reeled abruptly away. By the third time I threw up over the side, the “wine-dark sea” of Homer’s poetry just looked like the basin of a billion vomits.

Misery loves blame, so I blamed Joseph Conrad, whose fiction had brought me here. Before Conrad published his first novel in 1895, he spent 20 years working as a merchant sailor, mostly on sailing ships, and fully half his writing — including “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord Jim” and “The Secret Sharer” — deals with sailors, ships and the sea. These loom so large for him that as I have researched a book about Conrad’s life and times, I have felt it essential to travel by sea myself.

The Sunday Post for August 9, 2015

How to spot whodunnit: academics crack Agatha Christie's code

At the bequest of television channel, a group of academics looked at Agatha Christie's work, and developed formulas to reveal the patterns within.

Many of the results concerned the gender of the killer. For example, they found that if the victim was strangled, the killer was more likely to be male (or male with a female accomplice), whereas if the setting was a country house – not uncommon for a Christie novel – there was a 75% chance the killer would be female. Female culprits were usually discovered thanks to a domestic item, while males were normally found out through information or logic.
Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name

Cienna gave advice inspired by this article on Friday's Help Desk, but we didn't look at Catherine's Nichols essay about the difference in response when she submitted her work under a man's name instead of her own:

I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.
This Is How ‘Lady Authors’ Were Told to Promote Their Books in the 1960s

Now that we've completely figured out gender and how to treat women equally, it sure is fun to look back at a time when women authors weren't taken seriously.

In a LIFE photo essay called “What it takes to be a lady author anymore,” [Jeanne] Rejaunier posed for shots that demonstrated how a woman should promote her literary work. A successful lady author, the captions suggested, must “swim a little,” “exercise in a bikini” and be “photographed in bed.” The essay attributed the success of her book, a novel based on the dark side of the modeling world, to Rejaunier’s beauty rather than her literary talents: “Just possibly because she smiles so prettily on the book jacket (the back and the front of the book) The Beauty Trap is now in its fourth printing.”
Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117

Here's one, just for fun, from deep in the archives. Iris Murodch is a big influence of mine, and her interviews are sometimes funny affairs: stuffy, terse. But other times, she finds a good flow with the interviewer. Here she does. It feels quite personal, and is nice to see this side of her. For another side of her, look at some of the portraits British artist Tom Phillips did of her in 1988

Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, So that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist. I think one is influenced by the whole moral atmosphere of literary works, just as we are influenced by Shakespeare, a great exemplar for the novelist. In the most effortless manner he portrays moral dilemmas, good and evil, and the differences and the struggle between them. I think he is a deeply religious writer. He doesn’t portray religion directly in the plays, but it is certainly there, a sense of the spiritual, of goodness, of self-sacrifice, of reconciliation, and of forgiveness. I think that is the absolutely prime example of how we ought to tell a story—invent characters and convey something dramatic, which at the same time has deep spiritual significance.

The Sunday Post for August 2, 2015

(A collection of pieces we noted this week.)

The Last Days of Kathy Acker
Her books were also fever dreams of escape and reinvention, and Acker’s own forbidding physical appearance—she could look, alternately, like a deranged kewpie doll, a pirate from the future, an alien courtesan—embodied such transformations. She spent years turning her body, simultaneously a source of pain and possibility in her work and life, into a protective carapace.
Reverse Logic

An amazing story about Webster's editor Philip Gove, and how he used symbolic logic and other programming-esque tricks during the revising of Webster's dictionary, when it was time to update the famous 1934 second edition.

Structure was paramount to Gove. He was a linguist who used the logic of a programmer, and in the 1950s and ’60s he seems to have been thinking about the dictionary with the extreme rigor of a software engineer. Though he could never have imagined search as we know it today, he would have been among the first to intuit its uses for lexicographers. So as work on the Third was winding down he took another step to address a kind of question that only a computer could easily answer: he set the typing staff the new task of creating a 3”x5” slip for virtually every word that appeared in boldface in the dictionary typed backward, each letter followed by a space (and spelled normally, without the extra spaces, below its backward spelling).
A true digital recreation of Borges's Library of Babel

This one might take a month of Sundays to even start browsing. Borges’ Library of Babel is now real, on the internet, created by Jonathan Basile. In fact, we were able to find the phrase "the seattle review of books recommends this virtual reconstruction of borges library of babel"

From the About page: is now in its second iteration. When the project began, I thought that even a virtual universal library faced insurmountable limits that made its realization impossible. But with the help of some advice I received from friends and visitors to the first version of the site, I’m happy to say that I’ve proven myself wrong.

The library originally worked by randomly generating text documents, storing them on disk, and reading from them when visitors to the site made page requests. Searches worked by reading through the books one by one. It was a method with no hope of ever achieving the proportions of the library Borges envisioned; it would have required longer than the lifespan of our planet to create and more disk space than would fit in the knowable universe to store. I wrote about the cosmic proportions of this shortcoming in a former theory page.

Because the virtual world often inspires suspicion, I feel I should explain how the new library functions, to reassure anyone who might think some chicanery was at work. I would be the first to be disappointed if this site did not truly contain what it claims to: every possible page of 3200 characters. I encourage those who prefer a sense of mystery, rather than knowing what goes on behind the looking glass, not to read on.