Friday, December 29, 2006

What good are new features if you don't use them?

I did a quick swipe through my archives today and added labels to selected old posts as appropriate. I apologize if it plays havoc with your RSS reader as it seems to be doing with mine, but think of it as a selected "best of Wordwright."

It also means that I've been able to really highlight some of the things I've written about consistently over the past few years instead of just what I happen to have written about in the past few weeks that I've been able to take advantage of the new Blogger features.

So, enjoy! Check out some of my old posts. Some of them are actually worthwhile.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

It seems to me I've heard that somewhere before

Did I say that I don't like writing about ads. Apparently, I lied.

I was reading a rather entertaining piece over on Slate about the worst ads of the year, when I came across this:

Please, please deal with the blasphemous Audrey Hepburn-skinny pant-AC/DC horror that seems to haunt me whenever I turn on the TV. (And since I don't have cable, and live in Maine, that's only three channels with ads!) I feel like it's perfect for Halloween—a possessed, dancing zombie terror that was once our dear Funny Face—but terrible for an ad campaign. I wasn't partial to the Gap before, and I can solidly swear that I won't go in now. Not when their pants are used in such a necromantic fashion.
—Monique Bouchard


I, too, was disturbed to see emblem of style Audrey Hepburn being used, without her consent, as a pitchwoman for Gap—the emblem of stylelessness. I'm really sick of celebrities being dug up from their graves to sell us products. I was similarly upset when Gap used the image of deceased rapper Common in a Christmas commercial. (What's that you say? Common's still alive? Sorry, but after making that ad, he's dead to me.)

Me, I despised the Hepburn ad, and if I remember correctly, a certain artist friend and I were making fun of the Common ad the last time we visited a certain clothing store. Right before he bought a scarf. (Hey, it was a nice scarf.)

Peace, love, and Gap, yo.

Friday, December 22, 2006

2006: a meta-list

As promised, here's my quick survey of lists of the best fiction for 2006.

The Boston Globe
The Christian Science Monitor
The Guardian (UK)
The LA Times
The New York Times
NPR
Salon
The Washington Post

I've already highlighted the books that caught my eye in the NYT's list of notable books, but there are a handful of titles that turn up on several of these lists, and probably deserve a mention of their own. Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg is mentioned on six of the eight lists that I surveyed. The Road by Cormac McCarthy on five, and both Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children make four of the lists.

I have my own list of books of special interest ("honorable mention" is such an also-ran word): The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel made the NYT's list of best books of the year, and has been impossible to find since then. (It looks like the print run has sold out and we're waiting for a reprint. I know her publisher is kicking himself for the missed holiday sales.) The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian is a book I've heard murmurs about from time to time, and is of particular note as a book published by McSweeney's not written by Dave Eggers that has actually turned up on anyone's radar. Finally, I've already plugged Alison Bechdel's illustrated memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy some books. Or better yet, go buy me some books. Other than The Lay of the Land, which I already own, any of the books I've mentioned would be a welcome sight under my tree on Christmas morning. Or, of course, in the mail anytime after.

(Ed note, 6:23 p.m. Actually, it turns out that the McSweeney's book that I kept hearing murmurs about was Icelander by Dustin Long, but there are some good blurbs up on The Children's Hospital on the McSweeney's site—Julie Orringer in particular carries weight with me—so I'll leave the link up.)

Merry Xmas to you, too

Well, things seem to have slowed down for the holidays. While the fall is the busy season for big book releases, at this point, if your book isn't out already, it's too late to pick up on those essential holiday sales. If I have time this afternoon, I'll try to do a survey of end of the year best-book lists, but even book news seems to slow down this time of year, as the only thing that any one is listening to is the ring of cash registers. Things will pick up again in the spring when awards season gets going again.

Still, there is an interesting piece in the NYT today on a feud brewing between Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and her now un-authorized authorized biographer. I've never read Gordimer—other than some stories in the New Yorker—so I don't have anything to say about it, but I may have to scan the New York Review of Books to see if someone doesn't write up a longer examination. There seems to be a lot going on bewteen the two and in the broader context of South African politics and race relations. Read the Times piece. I couldn't possibly summarize the situation, and even the Times seems like it only scratches the surface.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYT Book Review, answers reader questions.

Of particular note to me is Tanenhaus's assumption in nearly all cases, that a prominent review in the Review leads to substantial sales. Of course, my own experience as a bookseller suggests that he's right. It seems to be a truth, whether the source be Oprah or the NYT Book Review, that people are looking to be told what to read. Of course, with the number of titles published in any given year quickly approaching six figures, it is any wonder that people are looking for someone to sort thrugh the pile for them?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Eavesdropping is not always a bad thing

There's an excellent conversation going on over at Snarkmarket about the nature of authorship, especially in the digital age. (Prompted by an article in Forbes, which ran a pretty good series in a recent issue.)

Tim from Short-Schrift brought the Forbes issue to my attention a while ago—there's some interesting stuff on copyrights and an entertaining piece on McSweeney's—and the piece on authorship was written by Ben Vershbow of Institute for the Future of the Book, whose if:book blog I recently de-linked from this page.

Why? And why am I not attempting to continue the discussion here? Because I am convinced that most of the potential for hypertext, interactive composition, and online presentation exists for informational and non-fiction texts. I think the way we get information has been revolutionized, and the next few years will lead us further away from printed, static newspapers and encyclopedias. This is all fabulous, but you may have noticed that I don't write about non-fiction.

It is still possible that there will be new methods of storytelling that take advantage of the new ways of creating and disseminating texts, but as the Snarkmarket discussion points out, reading is already a collaborative activity. I haven't seen much in the way of engaging hypertext fiction, but I've had some great discussions and seen some great performances of Shakespeare. Every new staging, every new reading, every new performance creates meaning. But having a central text gives us a common point of reference.

New news is great, but what Pound said about poetry remains true today.

More McEwan

Jack Shafer in Slate makes a better argument that Ian McEwan committed plagiarism in his 2001 novel Atonement than I've yet read that he didn't.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Keeping up with the Joneses

I've been able to bring Wordwright over to the new Blogger. Things might be a little dusty for the next few days as I try to bring online some of the features I was playing with on the shadow site (which I will no longer be updating).

Woot! Woot! Not like I don't have more important things to do.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Duty calls

Ian McEwan has been accused of plagiarism in his 2001 novel Atonement. Several prominent writers have come to his defense.

I suppose I should weigh in on it, because it's kind of the news in the book world right now, but I don't really care. McEwan has always acknowledged his use of the autobiography of the late romance novelist Lucilla Andrews as a source and inspiration, and, what's more, Andrews appears to have been well aware of Atonement, and appears to have not been concerned. (Andrews died of cancer in October, 2006.)

My one complaint is that a lot of the authors defending McEwan appear to be doing so in a purely reflexive manner. There is a difference between what McEwan did in writing Atonement and what our good friend Kaavya Viswanathan did when she wrote How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. However, no one seems to be interested in trying to describe what that difference is. Even the NYT, in what seemed to me to be a fairly token effort, somehow failed to satisfy.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Who needs a title, anyway?

Here's an interesting piece in the New York Times on a little-known piece of bookstore insider info. How does Oprah keep her new book club selections a secret, and yet make it available in the stores on the same day she announces it on her show? Booksellers have to order the title blind, not knowing what the book is until they open the shipping boxes. (In theory, those boxes stay sealed until the "laydown" or sale date, but sometimes, a few of us peek.)

Apparently, this trend was carried to an extreme with the recently canceled O.J. Simpson If I Did It book. The title was such a secret that bookstores had to order it without any foreknowledge of the title, subject or author. As noted in the NYT article, this has happened at least once before, with the forgettable tell-all by Princess Diana's former butler. "The what? By whom?" you say? Exactly.

It's all, of course, a result of the event-book, blockbuster mentality. If you don't have the new Oprah book on the day of the announcement, you're going to miss a large fraction of your sales, and moreso because the people you turn away will go somewhere else the next time Oprah announces a title. When a book makes a big splash in a news cycle, it'll usually fade and be forgotten within weeks if not days, so booksellers are willing to make a gamble on an unknown title based on the sales that the promised newscycle event will drive into the store.

Sure, it sucks, but any reading is good reading, right? Right?

Even I sometimes miss the obvious

I picked up the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly (because of an article on EPIC 2014, co-created by future MacArthur fellow Robin Sloan), and missed something entirely until it was pointed out to me. (Jump to the fourth paragraph.)

The Atlantic Monthly no longer publishes fiction.

Remember the 5th of December

(Note: several of the links in this post will lead you to sites that will ask you to enter your birthdate in order to verify that you are of legal drinking age.)

I'm not usually one to write about ads. (Talk about them, sure; recite them like the Simpsons or Holy Grail, no doubt; but I don't usually write about them.) Still, Dewar's has been running pleasantly cheeky ads in the New Yorker lately centered on "Dewarisms," pithy bits of wisdom apparently stated by a member of the Dewar family sometime in the mists of history. Today, they have a clever site, somewhat in the spirit and tone of the semi-animated "brilliant!" ads for Guinness, celebrating the repeal of prohibition. (We'll ignore that booze runners during prohibition were gangsters and Kennedys. We'll also ignore my own alleged booze-running history.)

Seems as good a thing as any to celebrate. So all my legal readers, raise a glass, Dewar's or not. To your health!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Infinite variability (with some humor and a Shakespeare reference)

Back Bay Books is publishing a new, inexpensive edition of David Foster Wallace's breakthrough novel Infinite Jest (which is, if I remember correctly, Andrew Hungerford's favorite novel). Actually, it's amazingly inexpensive—$10 compared to the original (and still available) $19.95 paperback. I haven't seen the new edition, but I eagerly anticipate it, not only because of the volume's pleasing heft, but I want to figure out what they did to justify slashing the price—normally, in these situations, we'd be looking at the difference between a quality paperback edition and a mass market edition (larger paperbacks vs. the smaller, newsprint romance-novel-sized versions), but the dimensions on the two versions of IJ are nearly identical.

Anyway, I'm not writing about the new edition of IJ so much for the price difference as to comment on Dave Eggers' lauditory new introduction. As Amazon.com (of all places) points out, Eggers also reviewed IJ in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996, and seemed a touch less enthusiastic at the time.

Is this a huge scandal? Not really. But it's another interesting tidbit on a wildly energetic writer and editor (Eggers) who has an odd tendency to stretch both fact and fiction in his writing. (Beth Eggers, Dave's sister, took issue with his portrayal of events in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Eggers' latest novel, What is the What, fictionalizes, although I'm not sure why, the story of an African refugee who is apparently a friend of the author's.)