Settle in, folks. This one will take a bit of your time, but I promise you won't regret it. Oregon (and ex-Seattle) writer Vanessa Veselka goes deep on her personal connection to a clan of Tlingit people in Alaska, and using that connection explores the history, legends, and relationships with Russians, of this Alaskan indigenous people. A stunning piece of writing.
The Tlingit don’t fit stereotypes of Native Americans. They’re more like Vikings. Or maybe they’re more like Maori. A fiercely martial people, terrifying in their samurai-like slat armor, their bird-beak helmets, and their raven masks, they never surrendered to a colonial power, never ceded territory. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Tlingit argued that the Russians held only trading posts and that the rest was not theirs to sell. The protest was unsuccessful, but it was the beginning of a narrative: The Tlingit had never signed away their land, had never sold it, had never moved.
I hate pontificating about Twitter as much as the next person (Twitter is the ultimate expression of the parable about the blind men and the elephant, except the blind men are 320 million men and women, and the elephant is just an idea), but this piece is pretty good, and has some good points about Twitter the network that people have feelings about, and Twitter the company that is trying to make a go out of it.
Since it went public two years ago, investors have rarely considered Twitter’s prospects rosy. The sliver of Twitter’s users who are interested in how it fares as a corporation have gotten used to this, I think: There’s an idea you see floating around that, beyond avoiding bankruptcy, Twitter’s financial success has little bearing on its social utility. Maybe there are only 320 million humans interested in seeing 140-character updates from their friends every day after all. If you make a website that 4 percent of the world’s population finds interesting enough to peek at every month, you shouldn’t exactly feel embarrassed.
All about story time at the New York Public Libraries:
Among parents of the under-5 set, spots for story time have become as coveted as seats for a hot Broadway show like “Hamilton.” Lines stretch down the block at some branches, with tickets given out on a first-come-first-served basis because there is not enough room to accommodate all of the children who show up.
Jessica Gross spends some time with the impossibly wonderful Maira Kalman (and even sat in her Eames Le Chaise chair)
I always told my kids, don’t have serious conversations with your mates at night, because everything looks so dark you’re going to have a fight in two seconds. Just don’t do it. I always say, “If you’re hungry you should eat something, and if you’re thirsty you should drink something, and if you’re tired, you should sleep.” They’re always making fun of me for saying that, but I think there are some truisms that are very, very basic. And if you just listen to what you need, sometimes it will take you out of troubling spots.
Thomas Mallon and Ayana Mathis tackle this question in the Times. This from Mathis' piece:
At the risk of stating the obvious, truth and fact are not the same things. Our belief in the truthfulness of facts is mutable. I recently saw Joshua Oppenheimer’s superb documentary, “The Act of Killing,” which takes as its subject the murders of, by some estimates, as many as a million people in Indonesia in the 1960s. The killers were never punished. In many cases, they became powerful people who proudly and publicly refer to their days of heroic government service as the exterminators of Indonesia’s “Communists.” The murder of all those souls was, until very recently, simply part of the national lore. There is another reality of course — the terror of the survivors and resultant silence of the families of the victims. Both are examples of constructed narratives, though only one is a grotesque manipulation of what transpired, a ghastly example of the way facts may be ignored to create a narrative as far from truth as can be.
Amazon's reviews have long been an outlet for mocking humor, which the company has long tolerated. They're mostly harmless, and get people in the door and engaging on the platform. But Jay Greene at the Seattle Times looks at the darker of review activism.
Increasingly, though, people are launching coordinated campaigns to push political and social agendas through negative reviews often only tangentially related to the product for sale. They are able to do so because Amazon welcomes reviews regardless of whether the writer has actually purchased the product.
Some retailers have always worked on razor-thin margins, but it's amazing to look inside the world of discount online booksellsers -- like Auburn's own Thirft Books.
Despite the naysaying about the death of publishing, the industry’s most vital numbers — sales and revenue — aren’t actually all that gloomy. In 2014, publishers sold just over 2.7 billion books domestically, for a total net revenue of just under $28 billion, a larger profit than in the preceding two years, according to the Association of American Publishers. There were just over 300,000 new titles (including re-releases) published in the United States in 2013. The book industry may not be as strong as it once was, but it’s still enormous, and generates a considerable amount of surplus product each year.
For as long as I'm penning the Sunday Post, Murdoch will be a commmon theme. There's a lot of interest in her works right now, as her letters are being collected and released. Here, Standpoint founding editor Daniel Johnson offers some remberences.
By the time I made her acquaintance in the 1980s, Iris had been a public figure for a generation. Her only rival as a philosopher-novelist had been Sartre, whom she had introduced to the Anglo-Saxon world. Having outlived and in many ways outshone him, she was a star of the first magnitude in the intellectual constellation of post-war Europe. Though she belonged to a brilliant generation of female philosophers — her “dearest girl” Philippa (“Pip”) Foot, her “friend-foe” Elizabeth Anscombe, and her friends Mary Midgley and Mary Warnock — all of whom made major contributions to academic and public life, Iris was the only philosopher of either sex among her contemporaries to become a truly national figure. She deserved her renown; her posthumous reputation as a writer and thinker has survived the scrutiny of biographers and critics. She never wrote an autobiography, but her letters reveal her introspective side, as she looks back over la vie antérieure and forward to new fields — and men — to conquer.
Rosemary Hill looks at a newly released volume of Angela Carter's poetry.
“Unicorn”, like The Bloody Chamber, draws out what a post-Freudian age sees beneath the surface – the phallic unicorn’s horn, the virgin in the garden – draws it out, blows it up into imagery as lurid as a flashing neon sign outside a sex shop and then drops it bathetically flat at the end. This woodland’s “innocent and fragile leaves” conceal the strip-club agents who are using an unappealing virgin, “raw and huge … the only virgin to be had” to lure the unicorn. As Carter once said of Walter de la Mare, a writer she, surprisingly perhaps, much admired, these are images that stick like a splinter in the mind.
George Saunders in the New Yorker on learning to write, and the writing instructors he learned from.
Doug gets an unkind review. We are worried. Will one of us dopily bring it up in workshop? We don’t. Doug does. Right off the bat. He wants to talk about it, because he feels there might be something in it for us. The talk he gives us is beautiful, honest, courageous, totally generous. He shows us where the reviewer was wrong—but also where the reviewer might have gotten it right. Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He’s in it for the long haul, we can see. He’s a fighter, and that’s what we must become too: we have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.
We liked Doug before this. Now we love him.
Great interview with Terry Gross in the New York Times:
The interview wish is as old as the form itself. Journalistic interviews in the United States increasingly began to appear in the 1860s. Before that, when reporters talked to people, they typically didn’t quote them. Once interviewing started, it became a craze. It had its own practitioners, often women, who were thought to be better at drawing people out. Henry James’s journalists were almost all "interviewers," and his characters, like Selah Tarrant in "The Bostonians," crave their scrutiny: "The wish of his soul was that he might be interviewed," James wrote.
The Kingston University Archives and Special Collections is revealing some of its gems in advance of its 25th anniversary. Like, Iris Murdoch's notes from a lecture by Jean Paul Satre:
The notebook contains Murdoch’s extensive notes made at the lecture, which are a fascinating insight into Sartre’s philosophy and Murdoch’s views on it at the time. The notebook is also unique as while we know Murdoch made notes on the writings of other philosophers, we are not aware of any others surviving taken from a lecture given by the philosopher themselves. The rear of the notebook is filled with notes that Murdoch made after reading many of Jean Paul Sartre’s books- Murdoch’s copies of which are also held in the Iris Murdoch Oxford Library, one bearing a personal message to Murdoch from Sartre himself.
It must be artifact day today for the Sunday Post. Here's Tolkien's annotated map, found inside a book that belonged to illustrator Pauline Baynes, who drew the maps for Tolkien.
The map was found loose in a copy of the acclaimed illustrator Pauline Baynes’ copy of The Lord of the Rings. Baynes had removed the map from another edition of the novel as she began work on her own colour Map of Middle-earth for Tolkien, which would go on to be published by Allen & Unwin in 1970. Tolkien himself had then copiously annotated it in green ink and pencil, with Baynes adding her own notes to the document while she worked.
As a rule, the Sunday Post does not self-link to the Seattle Review of Books, but this piece about the public response to the City Librarian Marcellus Turner's plan for rebranding is too important to ignore. The board votes on Wednesday about this plan — if you want to have a say in the future of your library, now is the time to take action and write the board. Get more context in this article we published last Wednesday, by Laurel Holliday.
Oh, how I love Kathryn Schulz's takedown of Thoreau in the latest New Yorker! I've never been a fan of Henry David, and we see his offspring littering the Pacific Northwest hiking trails, beaches, and REIs — especially on sale days. This was a delicious read for me.
The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places. But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.
Meaghan O'Connell published a light-hearted piece in New York Magazine titled The Children's-Book Guy: An Ideal Crush Object. It's about how hot she found many of the young male illustrators of kids books. Although post-ironic and tongue-in-cheek (it's tagged with the title The Female Gaze), it drew a lot of negative attention from the kidlit crowd, who have been facing the same sort of gender issues the rest of publishing has. That is, it's mostly made of women, but the men get all the attention. They win the Caldecott awards. They get the bigger book deals. They get called cute and asked to show up on panels, at the sake of women not being invited. So O'Connell was taken to task for writing without knowledge of this context.
The great moral to this, though, is that O'Connell read the responses, and after understanding them, came out with a heartfelt apology and explanation.
In my personal writing I am often second-guessing and making fun of, or light of, my less admirable impulses. I am trying to write from a place of confidence, yes, but also fallibility, because I think that’s interesting, and true. This was definitely at work in that piece, but is often the first thing to get lost when people are understandably upset. Which MAKES SENSE.
Anyway that’s my own context. The greater context, I was more than a little horrified to discover, is an industry that is, yes, like most of publishing, female majority (more women writing, illustrating, editing, agenting, and BUYING books), but like most of publishing — and I should have known this, it was naive to assume otherwise — men get much of the credit, the glory, the jokey posts about how hot they are. CRINGE. I slowly learned this yesterday as a few very kind women shared some links with me, like this one, and this one: “Why Don’t Women Win Caldecott Awards?” Yikes. (And yes, this is about when I wanted to crawl into a cave and die.)
Josephine Livingstone goes deep into invented languages for the New Republic.
“Conlang” is short for “constructed language,” which is just what it sounds like: a language that has been constructed. There are a lot of them, of various sorts. International auxiliary languages like Volapük, Esperanto, or Interlingua are one specific type of conlang. Invented to facilitate international communication during the great techno-utopian-modernist thought-boom of the last two centuries, they never got terribly popular. Conlangs do not necessarily have to be useful. As Peterson explains in his new book The Art of Language Invention, conlanging is an art as well as a science, something you might do for your own pleasure, as well as for the entertainment of others. He is a conlanger for hire—besides Game of Thrones, Peterson has also worked on Syfy’s Defiance, in which humans and aliens coexist in postapocalyptic Missouri—an artist who will put words into the mouths of the characters, words which are part of a fully functioning language.
Hopes&Fears's Marina Galperina asked "neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists, technology theorists, and hallucinogen researchers if we can ever tell whether the 'reality' we are experiencing is 'real' or not."
The closest we come in science to "real" or "objective" is intersubjective agreement. If a large number of people agree that something is real, we can assume that it is. In physics, we say that something is an objective feature of nature if all observers will agree on it - in other words, if that thing doesn’t depend on our arbitrary labels or the vagaries of a given vantage point ("frame-independent" or "gauge-invariant", in the jargon). For instance, I'm not entitled to say that my kitchen has a left side and a right side, since the labels "left" and "right" depend on my vantage point; they are words that describe me more than the kitchen. This kind of reasoning is the heart of Einstein's theory of relativity and the theories it inspired.
A manifesto by This American Life's Stephanie Foo that tackles excuses for lack of diversity in public radio, and how, exactly, to address it.
There’s a question I’ve heard a lot lately. Program directors and hosts approach me at radio events more and more often (it’s not hard to spot me — I’m often one of the only People of Color [POC] in the room) and ask, “How do I reach a more diverse audience? And how do I hire more people of color?”
I’m glad they’re asking the question. It’s about time that public media came to terms with the fact that it does not serve the public as a whole. More hosts and program directors realize that a market of POC exists — and if they don’t cater to it, they’ll fail to grow their audience. And I’m glad the people in charge are realizing that when it comes to attracting minorities, throwing some hip-hop beatz as a transition between stories is about as effective and transparent as Mitt Romney’s spray tan. Finally, finally, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the solution to our diversity problem is hiring producers of color, and that diversifying your business is smart from a content perspective.
Maris Kreizman on evesdropping as part of the job, and evesdropping on how you learned your job, when you were a new editorial assistant.
The telephone was the preferred mode of communication for any busy editor, and we assistants were essentially operators, connecting our bosses to writers or to the bosses of other assistants, hearing how they flattered and evaded each other. We were supposed to learn how the industry worked by listening in, a step removed from the action but still hanging on the line, twisting the cord around our fingers.
The Awl published this long piece by Sam Stecklow on the state of the Chicago Sun-Times, and how their clunky, failing network was designed to take on bigger tech publisers.
The October 2014 press release announcing the launch of the Sun Times Network said that it was “designed to offer content in a manner similar to websites such as Deadspin and BuzzFeed, which aggregate news stories while offering additional commentary.” In an interview with Nieman Lab, Landon, who spent twenty-two years at the Tribune Company working on ad sales and classified services like Cars.com and CareerBuilder before being replaced during the disastrous Sam Zell era, said, “If I can take $10,000 a month, am I better off putting two or three kids against and creating lots of content? Am I better off hiring a known political writer that is controversial? Am I better off doing Facebook advertising? That’s the way you have to think about it.”
Michael Lewis takes a long look at Tom Wolfe for Vanity Fair.
In the late 1960s a bunch of writers leapt into the void: George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and the rest. Wolfe shepherded them into an uneasy group and labeled them the New Journalists. The New Journalists—with Wolfe in the lead—changed the balance of power between writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and they did it chiefly because of their willingness to submerge themselves in their subjects, and to steal from the novelist’s bag of tricks: scene-by-scene construction, use of dramatic dialogue, vivid characterization, shifting points of view, and so on.
I doubt I was ever alone in failing to find the whole New Journalism story entirely satisfying. (Hunter Thompson, for instance, wrote Wolfe, “You thieving pile of albino warts…. I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connexion [sic] with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting.”) For a start, there wasn’t anything new about the techniques. Mark Twain used them to dramatize his experiences as a riverboat pilot and a gold miner. George Orwell set himself up as a destitute tramp and wrote up the experience as nonfiction. Virtually every British travel writer who has ever left an unpaid bill might be counted a New Journalist. When you look at that list of New Journalists, what pops to mind is not their common technique. It’s their uncommon voices. They leapt off the page. They didn’t sound like anyone else’s.
Cheryl Morgan offers guidance on writing trans characters on Strange Horizons. Her audience here is SF writers, but nothing in her advice should be limited to that genre. Any writer could benefit from this read.
I reject the idea that trans characters should only be written by trans people because cis folk are bound to get it wrong. While there are some really fine trans writers, there simply aren't enough of us in the world to do what is needed. We have to be part of all fiction, not just fiction that we write ourselves.
Craig Mod, one of the best investigators we have into the form of the book and how it is changing, looks here at the future of reading, and the formats we may be reading in. This is a delightful, deep, and personal essay. Highly recommended:
From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.
What we learn about our own reality can often prove as fantastic or strange as anything in fiction. Anyone who has spent hours on a Wikipedia bender that starts at “toothpaste” and ends at “Tesla coils” understands that part of the appeal is not simply understanding the “what” of a thing, but the “why” and the “how.” Fiction encourages readers to engage with the reality we already know with our views slightly tilted — to see the world we live in with fresh eyes. The imagining and understanding of new worlds can encourage us forward in the real world, towards a different or better state.
This absolutely wonderful article by Tiff Fehr, a senior developer at the New York Times (and Seattleite, now once-removed) will delight all word nerds early on. But keep reading, it includes actually non-trivial life-advice. (Also, her tl;dr burn is sick).
I doubt any readers stumbled over the word unlearning. We know negative prefixes (a-, anti-, dys-, in-, ir-, non-, un-, etc) and how they convey the inverse or opposite2 of a concept. Yet there was a time when that was new to “common” languages like English. To make it happen, negative prefixes needed to make their way via translation from the elite, literate world to the written local dialect and then into common speech.
Un- is fun among the negatives because it can express both a lack of something (unhappy) but also actions not yet performed (unread) or actions undone (undone). One of the early uses of the English root unlearn was by educated elites when they referred to common people lacking in education as the unlearned. Illiteracy was a huge socioeconomic hurdle—those “unlearned” people had to take oral recitations of translated works on faith, including rather important things like legal documents and mass. Unlearning emerged not long after, within the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a cultural revolt in Europe, starting in 1517 with Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses”—in Latin, railing against a corrupt, oppressive church—and concluding around 1617, shortly after “The Tempest” and the final works of Shakespeare.
Brian Merchant talks to Joe Haldeman about his classic SF novel, The Forever War.
As William Gibson notes in the blurb on the front of my paperback copy, “To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise.” It’s one of the best books about war, period, and it’s telling that the other accolades listed come from literary lights like Jonathan Lethem and Junot Diaz, who calls it “perhaps the most important war novel written since Vietnam.”
Haldeman was a veteran of that conflict—“I was drafted against my will, and went off to fight somebody else’s war,” as he put it—and the book projects the contours of his duty and subsequent return to civilian life into a future marked by what is almost literally forever war. Its power lies in the expert co-mingling of hyperbolic allegory with gritty speculation. It’s about a war that literally damn near never ends, one that spans the furthest reaches of space and time; the fighting can happen anywhere and is potentially everywhere. The protagonist, an almost-anagrammed stand-in for Haldeman named Mandella, is hurled across far reaches of the galaxy to fight a poorly understood, apparently undefeatable foe.
Seattle's own Real Change looks at banned books, and why they get banned. Surprise! It's because people are small minded about differences.
People attempt to ban or bar books from schools or libraries for a variety of reasons, but increasingly, the most challenged books are either written by or about people of color. The top 10 most challenged books in 2014 included novels, comic books and picture books. Half of them are written by or feature prominent characters who are people of color. Others deal with same-sex parents, personal sexuality and abuse.
Friend of the SRoB Rahawa Haile wrote this lovely piece this week about losing her grandmother, Florida, Eritrea, refugees, and how one person can hold all of those things inside at once. Such a thoughtful, honest, and beautiful piece of writing.
My grandmother was born to the Italian lira, grew up under the British pound, revolted against the Ethiopian birr, lived under the American dollar in order to raise me, and died, finally, buried under her country’s first currency, the Eritrean nakfa. She was home to me, my link to a land generations had fought for and to the sand in Florida on which I played. A reminder of how far and against what odds my blood had traveled for the promise of autonomy. And now she was gone.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
(A collection of pieces we noted this week.)
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.
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).
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:
libraryofbabel.info 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.