Saturday, December 22, 2007

New Yorker stories

Well, The New Yorker's winter fiction issue has finally arrived in my mailbox, which means I can close the books on a side project of mine: an index of fiction published in The New Yorker in 2007.

Why, you say? Well, more than anything else, I've guesstimated in the past how many stories The New Yorker publishes in a year, and I wanted an actual count. Turns out that my off-the-cuff estimate of 50-60 stories per year was pretty close. (I also did an informal survey of the proportion of male to female writers back in 2004, so I was interested to see whether that had changed—in short, it hasn't.)

Overall, I'm beginning to see why people get frustrated with "the New Yorker story." While nearly all of these stories were excellent, they're pretty consistent in form and method. If you're looking for experimentalism or fireworks, for the most part you should be looking elsewhere.

If I've noticed one advantage to keeping up with the fiction in The New Yorker, it's that it keeps you up-to-date with the new novels: The DeLillo, Johnson, and McEwan stories are all excerpts from The Falling Man, Tree of Smoke, and On Chesil Beach, respectively. (It's certainly possible that there are others that I've missed.)

Also, as good as Roddy Doyle and William Trevor are, I'm getting sick of them.

Adiche, Chiamanda Ngozi. "Cell One." 29-Jan.
Biller, Maxim. "The Mahogany Elephant." 2-Jul.
Biller, Maxim. "The Maserati Years." 24-Sep.
Bolaño, Roberto. "Álvaro Rousselot's Journey." 26-Nov.
Bolaño, Roberto. "The Insufferable Gaucho." 1-Oct.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. "Sin Dolor." 15-Oct.
Burnside, John. "The Cold Outside." 29-Oct.
Burnside, John. "Something Like Happy." 23-Apr.
Cooper, T. "Swimming." 20-Aug.
DeLillo, Don. "Still-Life." 9-Apr.
Díaz, Junot. "Wildwood." 11-Jun/18-Jun.
Doyle, Roddy. "The Dog." 5-Nov.
Doyle, Roddy. "Teaching." 2-Apr.
Duras, Marguerite. "The Bible." 25-Dec/1-Jan.
Duras, Marguerite. "The Stolen Pigeons." 16-Apr.
Dybek, Stuart. "If I Vanished." 9-Jul/16-Jul.
Egan, Jennifer. "Found Objects." 10-Dec.
Erdrich, Louise. "Demolition." 25-Dec/1-Jan.
Gordimer, Nadine. "A Beneficiary." 21-May.
Hadley, Tessa. "Married Love." 8-Oct.
Hadley, Tessa. "The Swan." 19-Feb/26-Feb.
Johnson, Denis. "1966." 11-Jun/18-Jun.
July, Miranda. "Roy Spivey." 11-Jun/18-Jun.
Kennedy, A. L. "Wasps." 30-Jul.
Kharms, Daniil. "So It Is in Life." 6-Aug.
Kim, David Hoon. "Sweatheart Sorrow." 11-Jun/18-Jun.
Kunzru, Hari. "Magda Mandela." 13-Aug.
Lethem, Jonathan. "The King of Sentences." 17-Dec.
Lethem, Jonathan. "Lucky Alan." 19-Mar.
Levi, Primo. "Bear Meat." 8-Jan.
Levi, Primo. "A Tranquil Star." 9-Feb.
Mattison, Alice. "Brooklyn Circle." 12-Nov.
McEwan, Ian. "On Chesil Beach." 25-Dec/1-Jan.
Milhauser, Steven. "History of a Disturbance." 5-Mar.
Mueenuddin, Daniyal. "Nawawbdin Electrcian." 27-Aug.
Nelson, Antonya. "Or Else." 19-Nov.
Nelson, Antonya. "Shauntrelle." 23-Jul.
Oz, Amos. "Heirs." 22-Jan.
Platonov, Andrei. "Among Animals and Plants." 22-Oct.
Rayner, Richard. "After the Movie." 30-Apr.
Saunders, George. "Puppy." 28-May.
Silver, Marissa. "The Visitor." 3-Dec.
Simpson, Helen. "Homework." 25-Jun.
Smith, Zadie. "Hanwell Senior." 14-May.
Theroux, Paul. "Mr. Bones." 17-Sep.
Theroux, Paul. "Monkey Hill." 25-Dec/1-Jan.
Tóibín, Colm. "One Minus One." 7-May.
Tolstaya, Tatyana. "See the Other Side." 12-Mar.
Trevor, William. "Bravado." 15-Jan.
Trevor, William. "Faith." 4-Jun.
Vapnyar, Lara. "Luda and Milena." 3-Sep/10-Sep.
Walbert, Kate. "Playdate." 26-Mar.
Wallace, David Foster. "Good People." 5-Feb.

53 stories by 42 writers.
19 stories by female authors (36%).
12 stories in translation (23%).
8 posthumously published stories (15%).
2 stories by unpublished writers (4%).

By the way, in case anyone is interested, I read 52 of the 53 stories. $5 to the first person who guesses which one I didn't read. Post guesses in the comments, one guess per person. Contest ends Jan. 1, 2008 at 12:01 a.m.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Keeping up with the best books, if only by proxy

The NYT and Salon have each posted their lists of the 10 best books of 2007 posted, which reminds me that I promised to comment on the NYT Book Review's list of 2007 Notable Books a few weeks ago.

It's been a good year for big names, with Mario Vargas Llosa, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo all releasing new novels, as well as Haruki Murakami, Richard Russo, William Trevor, Ha Jin, and young favorites Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers.

Of course, I haven't read any of those books. (I started the Eggers, but I still wish that he'd written the book as nonfiction) In fact, I've read only one book released this year (two if you count Harry Potter, which the NYT apparently does), Remainder by Tom McCarthy. (Which was good. Not life-changingly good, but good.)

Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and especially since I'll be reading her translation of Swann's Way next semester, I may well try to fit her in my winter break intensive-reading period.

But those are the only two books that I've managed to add to my bookshelf this year. Not coincidentally, they were both paperback originals. The other books that catch my interest largely fall into the buy-it-in-paperback pile. Highest on that list are The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, a first novel by Junot Díaz, Out Stealing Horses by Per Patterson, which got a glowing review from Thomas McGuane, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño.

I'm also really excited to see Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine on the NYT's list. Between Tomine this year and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home on last year's list, it's nice to see really good graphic narrative getting some attention.

As in previous years, I haven't read a single book on either the NYT or Salon's nonfiction lists, but I do actually own one this year: Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things, and I'm very much looking forward to it. (I'm reading Bissell's first book, Chasing the Sea, right now.) I don't normally read biography, but I've been reading Gertrude Stein lately, and Janet Malcom's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice has caught my eye. I'm reading more Stein this spring, and maybe I'll be compelled to look for the paperback.

Well, December is wrapping up, so I'll have my 2007 read-list posted soon (hint: classes = more books read), but I'm hoping to add a book or two to that list before the new year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The hipster gamer

In one of Slate's best feature story ideas ever, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney plays Rock Band.

For those in the know, look for the shout out to her ThunderAnt partner, Fred Armisen, in the first paragraph.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Moving up to the first tier

Birds of Prey scribe Gail Simone is taking over Wonder Woman. According to the NYT, she's the first woman to serve as the writer of the Wonder Woman comic.

I'm not a huge Wonder Woman fan (although rumor is that Joss Whedon is), but I first bumped into Ms. Simone's writing in an episode of the excellent Justice League Unlimited cartoon, and recommend her unhesitatingly.

Which gets me to thinking, who are the really interesting comic book writers working today? For the purposes of this question I'd exclude non-superhero graphic novelists, who have been getting some well-deserved attention of their own lately, but that still leaves Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and, for the moment, the aforementioned Joss Whedon, who has been writing an X-men storyline and producing a Buffy comic. Who else is out there? What comics do you still read, wordwrighters? Or what comics do you remember from your comic reading days?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tis the season

Just like last year, the NYT has published its list of 100 Notable Books for 2007 just before Thanksgiving. I'll take a look at it over the next few days and get back to you.

The Kindle

As always, I'm a touch behind. I'm sure that I won't be the first place that you read about Amazon's new e-book reader, Kindle. Most of the blogs I read have already chimed in. Short-Schrift is thoughtful and insightful as usual, and there's a robust conversation going on at Snarkmarket.

(As a supplement to Short-Schrift's list of links, let me add Farhad Manjoo on Salon and an update on the NYT's Bits blog.)

The first paragraph of Steven Levy's article in Newsweek echoes the argument that I tried to advance in response to the Sony Reader:

"Technology," computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, "is anything that was invented after you were born." So it's not surprising, when making mental lists of the most whiz-bangy technological creations in our lives, that we may overlook an object that is superbly designed, wickedly functional, infinitely useful and beloved more passionately than any gadget in a Best Buy: the book. It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or "For Dummies" guide needed.) And, it is instant-on and requires no batteries. Many people think it is so perfect an invention that it can't be improved upon, and react with indignation at any implication to the contrary.

It may not come as a surprise that since I've entered the e-book business, I've softened my hard line stance against e-readers a bit. A bit. Still, Kindle is expensive. At $399 for the hardware, and $10 per title (for frontlist titles, many backlist titles appear to be available between $1 and $2), you have to buy 27 frontlist books to justify the purchase price of a Kindle, and if you're a mass market paperback reader, you don't catch up until the 67th book. In either case, I'd like to suggest that's two to three years worth of reading, at which time a new, cheaper, better Kindle will likely be available.

Most electronic gadgets overcome this early-adapter penalty through a certain coolness factor, and while the Kindle aims in that direction, I don't think it's there yet. A text search function like Kindle's certainly has the potential to make up for the inability to place my own markers in the text, but there's something strangely authoritarian about the way that the Kindle deals with text formatting and display.

I was really excited when I stumbled across the Digital Text Platform at Amazon—a setup for writers to make their own work available for sale as e-books. If you buy the argument that the Kindle's real innovation isn't the device itself, it's the wireless delivery system (and I do buy that argument—the Kindle as a whole is an improvement over the Sony Reader, but considering the additional time they've had for development it's a disappointment that the e-paper itself is basically the same), then opening up access to the e-book format and a listing on Amazon to individual authors and indie publishers would be the single biggest push that a Book 2.0 format could get. Amazingly, however, Kindle seems to be using HTML as its basic delivery language. (Check out the formatting quickstart guide here, and the all-but-condescending tone of the formatting FAQ here, or the blink-and-you'll-miss-it mention in Levy's article that Kindle only supports one font.)

At first blush, something like the Kindle would seem to be the perfect delivery system for Revelator's titles, which, while beautiful as PDFs, are not entirely at home either on a computer screen or on an 8.5 x 11" piece of paper. We could probably even make the prose work, but the poetry would be a problem. Resizable text in Kindle is great, but it requires that the text be wrappable, which means giving up control of the line. PDFs may be clunky, but until e-paper catches up with the PDF's ability to play with font, line, and color, I don't think that an e-book reader will really be able to place itself as a killer app, especially since, as Short-Scrift points out, the iPhone and tablet PCs are already converging on what I think the ideal e-book reader would look like.

Addendum, 3:56p.m. I had meant in my original post to comment on the name Amazon's chosen for their e-book reader. Amazon claims that that the Kindle was "named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge," but I can't help but pick up Fahrenheit 451 overtones. I'm not trying to says that Jeff Bezos is the kind of guy who would burn the Library of Alexandria. (Levy's article actually makes him out to be something of a bibliophile.) I do think, however, that the choice of name for the device is not only awkward, but unfortunate.

Update, 11/28 Salon's Farhad Manjoo discusses the Kindle in depth. His math is a bit different than mine, but he still thinks that the Kindle is way too expensive.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

That time of year again

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award for fiction last night.

I don't normally follow the children's literature award, but Sherman Alexie took it this year, which is pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


The NYT reports that five authors are suing conservative press Regnery Publishing, charging that Regnery has sold books at discounted rates through subsidiary companies in order to avoid paying royalties.

Andrew Leonard at Salon picks out the money quote in the NYT article from Richard Miniter, author of Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror:

"Why is Regnery acting like a Marxist cartoon of a capitalist company?"

After all, who knew that the publisher responsible for such pinnacles of journalistic integrity as Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry and High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton was capable of fudging numbers on its royalty reports?

Friday, November 02, 2007

My own horn

In a glorious triumph of self-promotion, my e-chapbook project, Revelator, has published a set of my poetry, the imaginatively titled Nine Poems.

I've been getting good feedback so far. Quite pleasantly, everyone I've heard from seems to have a different favorite poem. I like to think of that as a good sign.

Check it out, won't you? If you're familiar with my writing from The Offbeat, you'll find mostly new stuff here, and even if you don't read much poetry, this should be a rather unintimidating collection: nine poems, nine pages. Not entirely unambitious, but hopefully quite accessible.

And of course, I'm always interested to hear feedback.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Too many piles on my desk

As my handful of loyal readers have probably noticed, my blogging activities have exploded in the past year. My efforts have shifted from a sole focus on the beloved if not-always-frequently updated Wordwright to participation, at one level or another in Revelator, East Lansing Lit Mags, Console Club, and I Read That Somewhere.

All this activity (and I ask you to be forgiving of my use of the word "activity," since as far as it can be accurately applied to most of the blogs I've listed, it often has little to do with me) has not necessarily led to an active readership. (I've started tracking information on Google analytics, and frankly, it's a bit depressing.) I do have an idea or two about how to address this, but I've always given at least lip-service to the goal of making my blog(s) a participatory project, and I'd love to get some feedback from the handful of readers that I have.

What do you love about Wordwright? What posts do you read and which do you ignore? What do I write about that I should never write about again? Perhaps most importantly, what sort of literary, creative writing, and book business conversations would you be interested in hearing or contributing to?

I need to have a few conversations with a few people, but my goal is to make a few of my conversations more active (which will involve both more writing on my part, and hopefully a few other specific active contributors), and an effort to create some sort of a clearing house for my diverse blogging efforts.

I'll try to start nudging things along immediately, but look for a big change at the beginning of the new year.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mirror, mirror has posted a list of winners of "the Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe." The obvious intended discussion point is whether JK Rowling is as worthy of the Nobel as Doris Lessing, but the list makes for an interesting read, as much for the awards that it agrees with as the writers that the list suggests that the Swedish academy has overlooked.

Greatbooksguide suggests that the Nobel got it right with Kipling, O'Neill, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Sartre, Beckett, and Solzhenitsyn (among others), and there are more than a handful of noncontroversial neglected names such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Woolf, Henry James, Kafka, Joyce, and Proust. But Lennon/McCartney? Zane Grey? Ian Fleming? And, my affection for the man aside, Jack Kerouac?

I think that it's interesting that the list carries a more powerful critique of the early 20th Century Nobel winners than the more recent laureates. It's far easier to discern in retrospect whose writing has really mattered than it is to make similar predictions about contemporary writers, and, on some level, it's not as fair to pick on the Scandinavian-centric picks that the Nobel made when it was getting established.

The alternate-universe list becomes more eccentric the closer it gets to the present. I think that 2000 is a good example—the real 2000 laureate, Gao Xingjian, is (was?) fairly unknown in the US. His first English translation wasn't published until 2001. As the alternate-universe pick, however, Haruki Murakami is well-known and respected in the US, but my understanding is that he is not considered as important a writer in his native Japan. Additionally, while it seems like a great idea to consider at least some songwriters as being on the same level as most contemporary poets, it's problematic that all the songwriters honored in the alternate universe write in English.

There's a good argument to be made that at least some genre writing deserves to be considered at the same level as "literature," but the trouble with doing so lies not so much with the writers as with the critics. To an American Baby-Boomer, Bob Dylan is among the highest art, but the Nobel at least tries to consider honoring "literary" writers from all over the world. It would be difficult (but certainly not impossible) to do the same thing with music, lyrics, and most genre fiction, whose auidence, though broad and passionate, is usually much more locally focused than the (admittedly much smaller) audience for literary fiction.

I would use my (and anyone's) local bookstore to support that assertion. While translation in a US bookstore makes up only a small segment of even the fiction/literature section, how many translations can you find in mysteries, romance, or science fiction? (Sure, there are some, but proportionately far fewer, in my experience, than in literary fiction.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The system is down

Slate is running a series on "American Lawbreaking," which aims to explore "the black spots in American law: areas in which our laws are routinely and regularly broken and where the law enforcement response is … nothing." Today's entry examines copyright law.

Here's the nutshell summary:

It is hard to see how anyone could endorse a system that declares many inoffensive activities illegal, with the tacit understanding that the law will usually not be enforced, leaving sanctions hanging overhead like copyright's own Sword of Damocles. The symbolic legal message is preposterous: "Remember, copyright is important, and you're breaking the law and you may face massive fines. But on the other hand, your [fan]site is totally great, so keep going!"

But there's a reason we do things this way: political failure. . . It all boils down to this: Harry Potter fanboys don't have K Street representation. Consequently, the political system spits out one kind of answer—an answer friendly to the "property interests" of powerful media companies but one that all but ignores the interests of the basement-dwellers. The formal result of that is what we have today: a copyright law that covers almost everything we do in the digital world.

In a well-functioning political system, the copyright law might be reformed in a grand negotiation between all interested parties, with the long-term goal of separating out the harmful infringement from the harmless. But in 21st-century America, that's not a result our political system is capable of reaching.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I don't have time for this, but that's never stopped me before

Hey, there's a cool new blog where a group of guys play a video game at the same time and then talk about it. You know, kind of like Oprah, but with Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.

Oh yeah, and they even let me pick the first game: Ninja Gaiden.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Less than 24 hours later

Doris Lessing has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

As per usual with Nobel Prize winners, I've never read Ms. Lessing, and also per usual, there's at least some reason to be dissatisfied with the Swedish academy's choice. I'll refrain from passing judgment on Ms. Lessing's work directly, since I'm in no position to do so, but she's the second British Nobel Laureate in the past three years.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's that time again

The National Book Award shortlist was announced today. Paper Cuts describes it as "interesting and not miserably strange at first glance." The Lydia Davis is the only book on the list that I own, so I'll leave my readers to make their own judgments:

Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown & Company)
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Jim Shepard, Like You'd Understand, Anyway (Alfred A. Knopf)

Oh, and we're vaguely expecting the Nobel Prize in literature to be announced any day now. Any predictions?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Solipsism, more or less

The New York Times has an article today on the average time it takes students to earn a Ph.D (8.2 years, unless you're in education, in which case, don't ask), and some efforts universities are taking to shorten that time period (more frequent meetings with advisers, encouraging students to not think of their dissertation as a magnum opus, and student writing groups to ease isolation).

I have two initial impressions:
  1. This article would have been much better if it had been in The Chronicle of Higher Education

  2. Hey! They quoted Greg Nicholson from MSU! (15th paragraph)

Just in case any of you were worried, I'm in an MA program, not a Ph.D program. Although it will still probably take me at least 2.5 years to finish, since I'm also working a full-time job. And not teaching, which is nice for me, but I'm a touch concerned about how that might affect future employability or grad school applications.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I could use half a million dollars

Short story writer and poet Stuart Dybek is one of this year's MacArthur Fellows. (Click here for the full list.)

I'd like to take this opportunity to remind everyone of my "pick a MacArthur Fellow" pool, which, as of today, has no entrants other than myself.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Changes on the best-seller list

The NYT Book Review's "Up Front" column this week notes that the Review has tweaked its design a bit—most notably, it has moved the block of text listing the reviewed book's title, author, and other publication information below the first few lines of the review itself, which is a bit bothersome—and added a new component to the best-seller list: a "paperback trade fiction" list. (Previously, Trade or large format "quality paperback" and Mass-market paperbacks were listed together, which favored books released in both formats, since the sales numbers were combined, and also meant that mass-market-friendly genre fiction dominated the list.)

This is a fairly interesting change, since the Review's editors state upfront that the new list "gives more emphasis to the literary novels and short-story collections reviewed so often in our pages (and sometimes published only in softcover)." As the sort of person who, should I ever write anything publishable, would likely fall into the "literary," trade paperback camp, I think it's kind of cool, but is it weird to create a whole new list for such a purpose, or is it just an admission that the best-seller list is really nothing more than a promotion tool anyway?

While it's nice that the new list co-exists with the mass-market list (instead of replacing it), I have to admit that the old bookseller in me would be a bit annoyed that yet another crop of books will be able to put the words "New York Times Bestseller" on their covers. Everybody's a bestseller these days.

Oh, and in unrelated but noteworthy news, Paul Muldoon is taking over as The New Yorker's poetry editor.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

This is big news for those of us who live within spitting distance of Windsor

From today's NYT:
The [world currency markets] dumped the dollar today, pushing it to an all-time low of $1.40 against the euro and to parity with the Canadian dollar for the first time in three decades as currency traders around the world digested the full implications of the Federal Reserve’s new course for interest rates. (emphasis mine)

I've got a loonie in my pocket right now. I'm really not comfortable with the fact that it's worth a full US dollar.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where has he been? or: Didn't I warn you?

So it's been a little while since I posted on the Paris Review Interviews. "What has Gavin been up to?" you might ask. (I believe I did actually cover this in an earlier post. . .)

You may take comfort in the fact that I have not been neglecting my duties. I've been reading a great deal of poetry for class, and, as is perhaps appropriate, I have a collection of my own poetry in the queue over at Revelator. (Even though the collection is nothing like the stuff I'm reading for class. Maybe that'll come later.)

Yes, that's right! Gavin poetry! And interestingly enough, almost none of the stuff that was printed in The Offbeat! (At least while I was editor.) And thus does my unnecessarily ambivalent relationship with my own writing find expression. (This post is getting way too emotionally self-indulgent. I should cut it off.)

I'm also working on an "experimental prose" collection, which hopefully will stand as more of a centerpiece, but I need one or two additional pieces to complement and supplement the older stuff. (Yes, I plan to include "The Required Reading List for the New Revolutionary," and hopefully a new piece to comment on it.)

So that's what I've been up to. How about you?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Something cool that's not so cool

The new book on my shelf is The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 1. (Volume 2 comes out in October.) It is, of course, fabulous. Starting off with Dorothy Parker, the book also includes Capote, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, and Jorge Luis Borges. I might normally complain about the newsprint paper stock, but it just feels right. Even better, I got my copy free by renewing my Paris Review subscription for three years. (There's a just about zero chance that I'd let the subscription lapse, so I'll take my free book, thank you very much.)

There is, interestingly enough, a downside to this fabulous book. Before Philip Gourevitch took over as editor, The Paris Review received a grant from the NEA to make PDFs of all of the Paris Review interviews available for free download. Now that the interviews have been collected (at least partially) in book form again (the old Penguin Writers at Work collections are out-of-print), the interviews included in the book are no longer available online.

Don't get me wrong. I love my book, but a free, universally accessible archive all of the interviews would have been an incredible resource. It's a shame that project seems to have been abandoned.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The year of poetry

Even if it wasn't planned that way, this is quickly becoming "the year of poetry" over at Revelator. (And having worked up this momentum, part of me is inclined to try and keep it going.)

Our new set of poems is Pure Pop by Lansing poet and painter Tim Lane. As always, it's a free PDF download, so check it out and tell your friends.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Once more, with substance

All right, one more thing on this Larry Craig thing before I say no more forever. Because this is a new story, there has been at least some perception that Craig's arrest is an open issue. Certainly some sources have it right, but to support my assertion I'll reference Tom DeLay on Hardball and CNN's own current headline: "Toobin: Entrapment defense rarely works in case like Craig's".

The funny thing is, in both cases, the media get it right in the end, but you have to dig through the whole piece to figure out what's actually going on. DeLay himself seems to want not to defend Craig, but to try to avoid admitting that Republicans ever do anything wrong, and Matthews rightly takes him to task for it. (In fact, DeLay's own "biased liberal media" defense seems to be so ingrained that he states that Chris Matthews is a liberal, which even Matthews seems to find ridiculous.)

Likewise, CNN's piece ends with the following information, starting in the 14th paragraph. (Emphasis mine.)

[CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin:] I don't mean to suggest that entrapment defense would have necessarily been successful, but it was not an implausible defense given the facts.

The whole issue is moot because he pled. I don't take seriously his protestations of entrapment because he pled guilty. You know, he's not innocent until proven guilty [at this point]. He's guilty.

He's an intelligent, sophisticated man with access to lawyers, and he actually told the authorities that he'd consulted a lawyer. He had weeks to reflect on whether to plead guilty.

It would have been one thing if the day of the offense, he signed a paper pleading guilty. He could have made the argument that he just panicked on the day of the offense. But there were weeks between the offense and the guilty plea. Is there any way that Craig could use entrapment as a defense to improve his case -- to work backward legally toward vindication?

TOOBIN: Out of the question. No way.


I felt a bit unsatisfied after my last post. You know, that it really ended up being a fluff post, and especially that I had kind of danced around some issues—on which I really have strong positions—in a way that could be read as implying that I don't really care that much after all. "LGBT rights and acceptance? Sure, but I can make fun of a barbershop quartet!"

It was almost enough to make me question whether my opinion was really worth expressing.

Then I read David Brooks' insipid column this morning, and it made me feel much better.

Do I really have anything to say about this? Apparently, I do.

I'm sure by now that all of my readers have heard about Larry Craig's guilty plea to a charge of disorderly conduct for soliciting in a St. Paul/Minnesota airport bathroom, so I won't bother linking. (Really, if this is news to you, Google "Larry Craig bathroom" and see what you come up with.)

There's really a lot to be said, but most of it has been said already. Personally, I'm not sure that I have any outrage left over the hypocrisy of people who try and inflict moral standards on others because of their own self-loathing or faux righteousness. Mostly I've just settled into a general state of contempt. Still, I've been surprised at my own feelings of pity for Senator Craig. If he had been able to come to terms with his own sexual impulses instead of projecting them into a belief in some external moral and political threat, I can't help feeling that he would have led a happier life. At the same time, I'm sure even when he resigns that no one will ask him to return the generous U.S. Senate salary and perks that he's been collecting for the past 16 years.

The real tragedy, though? Senator Craig's resignation would likely mean the final and irrevocable end of our friend John Ashcroft's Singing Senators.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Variation on a theme

The On the Road scroll. Click here for a high resolution version.

My bookshelf's latest acquisition is Viking's new edition of On the Road: the Original Scroll. (Viking has also released a 50th anniversary edition of the novel, but I don't see any reason why I need to replace my puke-green Penguin 20th Century Classics edition.)

I've resisted most of the "new" Kerouac books of the past several years, most of which are college-student writings or collections of throwaways which are either justly forgotten, or only of interest to an archivist or biographer. (Even Kerouac's first published novel, The Town and the City, is almost entirely ignored in favor of his much improved second try.)

This new edition of the On the Road manuscript has forced me, however, to make an exception. The NYT Book Review speaks highly of it, and the book itself seems to share a character with the Yale University Press's recent lauded edition of Tennessee Williams' Notebooks, which also graces my shelf.

Hypocritical? Perhaps, but there's so much Kerouac crap floating around out there, that I'm looking forward to having something new to peruse, even if it is just a different version of an old friend.

(I've been talking about Jack a lot lately. You can see my other posts here and here)

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Michigan is my antidote to Manhattan"

Mario Batali, clebrity chef and host of a seven-course dinner for Jim Harrison that I noted back in June, apparently owns a vacation home on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Oh, and you can find the quote from which this post gains its title in the second paragraph. Batali's wife goes on to say, “We invite friends from New York to come here, but truthfully, our friends are often too busy to get here.”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

This is what happens next

In an example of unmitigated arrogance, Australian Bookseller Angus & Robertson has demanded cash payments from small publishers and distributors who want A&R to continue to carry their books. The actual letter from A&R, along with a reply from Tower Books director Michael Rakusin, can be seen here, and really must be seen to be believed. Very slightly more of A&R's angle is provided here. (Thanks to MDD for bringing this to my attention.)

The most striking aspect of this situation, is that A&R's demand is based solely on its own profitability targets—the products of certain suppliers are not meeting A&R's internal profitability targets for the supplier's product line, and the company is asking the suppliers to make up the difference in cash. (Once again, the response letter from Michael Rakusin highlights the A&R operations issues that have likely contributed to lower-than-desired profitability.) While I can imagine some misguided MBA imagining that they are doing the suppliers a favor by offering them the opportunity to continue to do business with a major retail outlet, this letter makes no business sense whatsoever. If you find that a particular supplier's product is underperforming, you either negotiate for a better price in the future, or you end the relationship. Asking for cash payments to make up for your own business failures is ludicrous, and given A&R's market share (20% of the Australian market, according to The Brisbane Times), is tantamount to extortion.

I've complained about the coercive pressures exerted by market giants like Wal-Mart before, but this really crosses an entirely new line, in an entirely new way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Thanks to Etta Abrahams

I have the editorial staff lists from RCR vols. 2 and 3 now posted on the EL Lit Mags blog.

As noted in this post's title, I am indebted to Etta Abrahams (RCR Fiction Editor, 1965 – 1966, Managing Editor/Associate Editor, 1967 – 1969) for this information.

Subtle changes

As a few of you know, the next couple of weeks will bring the start of my graduate studies in Literature. While this will likely lead to a dramatic increase in the number of books I read, it will also mean that I have somewhat less control over what exactly I'm reading, and that I'll be thinking about my reading in different ways.

In short, you should expect to see something of a shift in the topics I discuss on Wordwright. I have no plans to use this blog as an outlet for academic projects, but, for example, it's likely that the number of "publishing and bookselling" posts will decrease, and "libraries and archives" may receive more of my attention.

I hope that you'll stick with Wordwright as we remodel, and if there's anything that I should be talking about, please let me know. I'll keep posting one way or another, but procrastination is much more fun when it's a shared project.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ah, the covers!

Paper Cuts posts on the UK paperback re-release of James Kelman's books.

I know nothing about Kelman, and the short write-up doesn't really catch my interest, but the books themselves are beautiful—an immediate favorite for the best matched set I've ever seen. (Rick Moody's paperbacks are bumped to second place.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Let's switch it up a little

Normally, I would blog about James Wood leaving The New Republic for The New Yorker, but Short-Schrift beat me to it.

So, instead, I'll put up a link related to the new, slightly redesigned iMac. Sure, the computer looks good, but that new keyboard is damn sexy.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I can even forgive the awkward 10,000 Maniacs reference

Paper Cuts (which has quickly become essential reading for, uhm, me and people like me) has an excellent collection of links to good reading about the 50th anniversary of On the Road, including the NYT's original review. (More here, including Kerouac reading On the Road on Steve Allen's Tonight Show.)

My own thoughts on Mr. Kerouac, from back in March, are here. Oh, and they're publishing an edition of the original typed manuscript.

Monday, August 06, 2007

You thought we were gone, didn't you?

We finally have a new chapbook up over at Revelator: The Bridge and the River by Timothy Carmody.

This is one that I've been looking forward to publishing since Revelator got going, not just because Tim is a good friend of mine, but because he's been one of the strongest and most interesting poets that I've been able to read and interact with over an extended period of time. The poems in The Bridge and the River have been favorites of mine for a long time, and should be read by as many people as possible. We offer links to our authors' e-mail addresses on the Revelator posts, and I want to make a personal plea to all of my readers that if you read and enjoy Carmody's work, please get in touch with him and let him know. This is a person who should be writing, and is worth encouraging.

(I would like to make explicit that his plea for support of Mr. Carmody is not meant to be in contrast to the other Revelator writers. In fact, one of our primary goals is to provide exposure and support to our writers in a way that will encourage them to continue writing, and to continue to develop as writers. If you find yourself with things to say to any of our writers, please, please do. It's just that Mr. Carmody is a special and particular project of mine.)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Once again ahead of the NYT

Joe Nocera in the NYT discusses discounted sale prices on the new Harry Potter book.

While Nocera goes into a bit more detail, you get the gist of the article if you read my post from a week ago. (I do have to mention though, that counter to Nocea's assrtion, I haven't encountered anyone in my town who is charging full price for HP7. Even the local used bookstore is selling new copies at 25% off.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

For your edification

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a "Poetic License Exam." (Subscription required, but I got a kick out of even the first three questions available as the free preview.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

It is the big thing in the book world right now, after all

Aunty Beeb reports that J. K. Rowling is peeved that the NYT and other publications printed reviews before the book was released.

In all truth, the only part of the article that I'm interested in is the last two paragraphs, which are included almost as a throwaway:
UK supermarket Asda has announced it will sell the book for £5 - just over a quarter of the recommended retail price [of £17.99].

Bloomsbury had originally cancelled Asda's order, with the supermarket calling the price "potty" and accusing the retailer of "blatant profiteering".

Given current exchange rates, the UK recommended retail price is roughly the same as the US cover price of $34.99, and Asda is selling the book for the equivalent of $10.

As an old bookstore employee and assistant manager, I'm interested in what people are selling Harry Potter for. Both my bookstore and the local branch of B&N are selling the book for $20.99. Amazon is selling for $17.99.

Standard retail markup, as many of you know, is 100%. Thus you can fairly safely assume that when you buy an item at full retail price that whoever is selling it to you bought it for half the price that you're paying. Books are an exception to that rule because bookstores have the ability, in most cases, to return unsold books to the publisher for a full credit of the invoice price. Because bookstores bear less of the risk, they keep less of the profit—generally 30-40% as opposed to the 50% of a standard retail sale.

Now of course, the power of the market plays a role. Thus, large single-item buyers like the big box stores (read: Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, etc.) can negotiate a better price from the publisher and offer deeper discounts. I don't shop at Wal-Mart, so I don't know what they're charging for HP7, but word from Target was that their price was closer to Amazon's than my bookstore's.

The kicker is that my amateur reporting indicates that my local bookstore, even at $20.99, is making about six cents on every copy sold. You read that right. Six cents.

This is a continuing frustration for independents and even small chains; while no one (except Scholastic and JKR) are making much money off Harry Potter (and other similar headline-grabbing titles), customer perception is often that the store selling for $20.99 is either greedy or gouging. I understand the benefits of retailers who can take advantage of market efficiencies. I just wish that people wouldn't take it personally when my market isn't as efficient as someone else's. We can't all be Wal-Mart, and, in the end, I think that's a good thing too.

Wal-Mart never has the new Rick Moody title I'm looking for. :-)

A pair of notes

The reviews are coming fast and furious on the 7th Harry Potter book. While I've finished the book, out of respect for a particular fellow reader I will request that Wordwright remain spoiler-free until Friday or so. After that, it's all fair game.

I will go on record, however, as saying (in contrast to Robert McCrum, the Guardian UK's literary editor) that I think that Rowling has constructed a series that will be considered a classic with a devoted readership on par with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or [insert your own favorite children's or genre series here]. Sure, the Potter books have flaws, but so do Tolkien's and Lewis's.

McCrum's list of backhanded compliments is as follows:
So what to make of it, now that it's done? From the point of view of the English canon, it's hardly great literature. But if Rowling is neither CS Lewis nor Tolkien, nor Philip Pullman, hers has been, none the less, an extraordinary performance. At the end of a decade of accumulating Pottermania, you have to acknowledge, first, the ambition to undertake such a marathon, then the dedication to execute it, and finally the ability to bring it off.

To write one successful children's book requires uncommon gifts, to write two suggests a touch of magic, but to complete no fewer than seven bestsellers and apparently retain your sanity, and your all-round niceness, is a marvellous achievement. The completion of this world-shaking heptalogy is something close to a triumph.

So what does it all amount to? It's not difficult to find things in these books to sneer at. Cardboard characters? Tick. Torpid paragraphs? You bet. Flat-footed dialogue? On every page. A more-than-slightly autistic attention to minutiae? No doubt.

Perhaps it's the autism that animates it. The fair-minded critic has to concede that Rowling's devilry lies in her attention to detail. The magic of Potter is that he inhabits a fully realised parallel world. Moreover, Rowling does that unbeatable thing: she makes it work. How exactly she does it remains the mystery, but it's to do with a primitive grasp of basic storytelling.

(The full review contains some light but off-puttingly important spoilers.)

Secondly, and completely unrelated, many of you may have noticed that I've brought E.L. Lit Mags just about up-to-date. Those of you who pay close attention will have noticed that The Offbeat is the one area in which I'm a bit behind. While it would not be entirely unfair to surmise that a certain dissatisfaction with the last few issues plays a role in my procrastination, the larger factor is that I'm unhappy with the photos I've taken to be used on the website. Most of the RCR covers survived my amateur digital photography. The Offbeat covers didn't hold up so well. (Damn flash glare.) Hopefully I'll have the impetus I need to complete the job when I get my hands on the 2007 issue: Tell Me Everything.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I did it!

As of 11:30 last night, I no longer need to worry about spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

If you haven't finished the book yet, I'd stay away from any Harry Potter Wikipedia articles for now.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In my shell

I have been, for the past week, actively avoiding online discussion of the upcoming book by a certain British children's author—even to the point of neglecting to post on Wordright for fear of encountering stray spoilers.

Finally, today, I broke down and read Michiko Kakutani's surprisingly spoiler-free review in today's NYT.

Well, you all know what I'll be doing on Saturday. With luck, I'll return to the world sometime on Sunday or so.

(If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, there's a hint here.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I'll refrain from quoting her. I only know the ones that have become cliche.

The NYT has a brief update on the lawsuit over the Penguin Classics edition of Dorothy Parker's Complete Poems. (I'll let you read the article for the details. There's a semi-interesting question over whether the editor of a collection of Parker's uncollected poems exercised enough of a creative function in order to merit copyright protection, especially since Parker's estate isn't involved in the lawsuit at all.)

Me, I'd like to see the Penguin collection made available again. I nearly bought a copy when I worked in the bookstore and the original lawsuit meant that we had to pull the single copy in the store off of our shelves. Parker was clever, biting, hilarious, and she left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. when she died. (The NAACP now holds her estate, as well as Parker's ashes.) I would have loved to hang out with her.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

And in retrospect, I like his ability to get all worked up over a pickle

The NYT has a new visual blog from Rutu Modan. (As you may recall, they've done this before, and I certainly hope that they'll keep doing it.)

So, wordwrighters, do you think something like this would work in the printed Times, or is there something about online presentation that lends itself to the format?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Revisiting an old acquaintance

If you've been reading the NYT's books coverage, you know that Laura Albert, a.k.a. JT LeRoy, has been successfully sued for fraud by the filmmakers who bought the option for thr novel Sarah. Stephen Burt in Slate today makes the point that all of the fuss over LeRoy's identity seems to have little, if anything, to do with the work itself.

The specific claim against Albert seems to hinge on marketing: that the LeRoy identity was created as a ploy to bring attention to and help sell Albert's novel. This led to some particularly weird arguments. Albert's defense was that LeRoy was a genuine identity, created in part to help Albert deal with past sexual abuse. Antidote International Films countered that "LeRoy" had stiffed them for the tab at a lunch meeting. (The NYT articles, behind the Times Select wall, are here and here.

I think I've discussed this at length in this post, but I have to lend support to Burt's argument that the LeRoy controversy is really about nothing but marketing. I've never read the book (and have no intention to do so), but I don't see why it matters whether it was written by a gender-ambiguous street prostitute or by a committee of trained monkeys. I am, however, irked by the cult of personality that surrounded LeRoy and the implied argument that the book was only worthy of attention if it was an authentic result of someone's experience. ("It's a novel, but it really happened!")

So I smiled when the golden boy identity came crashing down, but Albert on the whole seems much more worthy of our pity than our contempt. And the book, good or bad, should stand on its own.

The kicker is that there are rumors of interest in an Adaptation-style film project revolving around Albert/LeRoy and her work. I hope she makes back the money she lost in this lawsuit and then some.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'll post almost anything that has to do with Batman

Batman's new costume from the upcoming movie The Dark Knight. (via No pics of Heath Ledger in his Joker makeup, but let's not get greedy. (Actually, the Wikipedia article has this fuzzy picture. I'll wait to form an opinion.)

Also, according to Wikipedia, Maggie Gyllenhaal is taking over the role of Rachel Dawes. I love Maggie Gyllenhaal. Eric Roberts is also apparently signed on to play Sal Maroni, the guy who makes Harvey Dent into Two-Face.

Check out the teaser site too, complete with faux campaign poster for Harvey Dent. The tagline, "I Believe in Harvey Dent," will ring a bell with anyone who has read The Long Halloween.


(Update, 1:58 p.m.—AH passed along this link to an apparent picture of Heath Ledger in his Joker makeup.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, but you should see it

A cartoon review, as such, by Tony Millionaire of God Is Not Great. (via Paper Cuts, the NYT's books blog. Oh yeah, did I mention that the NYT has a books blog? It does.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Room for one more?

One more blog: I Read That Somewhere. Quotes, excerpts, and other material that has caught the eye of a blogger on the team. These are ideas that have caught our interest and made us think. Hopefully they'll do the same for you.

At least for this one I don't have to write anything.

'Cause it's not good enough to just be on the page

MSU is joining the Google Book Search project.

And in other news, Oxford University Press is warming to the project. Ah, but students aren't always happy about laptop computers in the classroom. (via the Chronicle.)

Friday, June 01, 2007


Michiko Kakutani reviews Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach:

"As for Edward, he too emerges as a bizarrely opaque character: volatile, self-absorbed and incurious, a myopic twit who never seems to think it odd that Florence dislikes kissing him or making out."

Did Michiko Kakutani really just use the phrase "making out"?

Like Oprah, but with Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

Kokatu (who the hell is Kokatu?) proposes video game groups—where members would play through a game on their own, beginning to end, and then get together to discuss the game. (via the Chronicle of Higher Ed)

Cool idea, although, at least for me, I forsee a few obstacles.
  1. time—if you assume that the average game takes 40 hours to complete (often a very conservative estimate), that's a great deal of time to commit if you assume a monthly meeting of the group. (Granted, the group may not have to meet every month, but I'd say that you run into danger of losing momentum and group coherence if you meet too infrequently. (Also, what about the fact that many games are set up to provide additional content and story on the second play-through?)
  2. money—at $50 a pop, you average video game makes even a hardcover novel look like a deal, much less a paperback.

I tend to assume that your average (paperback) novel costs about $15 and takes about 10 hours to read.

Still, like I said, the idea sounds cool, and I've said before that I don't read science fiction or fantasy anymore largely because the Final Fantasy series gives me everything that I look for in a good sci-fi novel. Also, I'd love to hear an in-depth conversation on whether strategy guides are the new Cliffs Notes, or whether so many extended games have become so intricate that strategy guides are now an essential part of the game experience.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Font fanatics

Slate posts the favorite working fonts of a handful of writers. (A follow-up to a photoessay on Helvetica: "the font of the 20th Century.")

In case you're interested, I used Geneva most of the way through college for papers for class, and Courier, starting about the time of my playwriting class, for most of my creative work. I switched to Times in 2002 or so, since it seemed less pretentious. There is a part of me that misses Courier, though, and if I return to more intensive work in scripts and screenplays, I may pick it up again since script formatting demands it.

I am a bit embarrassed to say that I can't name any of the fonts we've used in Revelator's chapbooks. Brandon Kelley, our designer, has done such a good job that I've been almost entirely hands-off, but normally I'm kind of wonky about that sort of thing.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Just what we need, another blog

After having set it up several weeks ago, I've finally started posting to my East Lansing Lit Mags blog.

So, along with Revelator and Wordwright, that makes three, although EL Lit Mags will probably be more of an archive for the information I've been digging up than a blog per se, but that may depend on what sort of comments I get. I know I have some interesting anecdotes from various sources, so if it seems like people are stopping by, maybe I'll find a way to work those in somehow.

Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Good for you, McSweeney's

Buried in this NYT story on the National Magazine Awards, you'll find that McSweeney's won for fiction this year, beating the New Yorker, Playboy, Virgina Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All Story.

I've been trying to dig up old lists of finalists, but haven't had much luck. (I haven't really tried all that hard. I know that at least a couple of them are available at Snarkmarket.) What strikes me about this year's list is how few surprises there are. Where are the small lit mags no one has heard of that are printing great stories? (VQR is the only "small" magazine on the list, and they've been getting a lot of attention lately. Esquire and Granta are the only two big story publishers I can think of who weren't finalists this year, especially since the Atlantic Monthly doesn't print fiction anymore. (A quick glance a Snarkmarket's lists of old finalists reminds me of two more: The Paris Review and Harper's, although under their new editor, TPR seems to be focusing as much on reportage as fiction this days, which is a bit of a disappointment to me.) Is that it? Are the New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, and Harper's really the only four magazines reaching a mass audience who print fiction? (As much as I love them, I'm not sure it can be said that McSweeney's, VQR, TPR, Zoetrope or Granta reach a mass audience.)

Please tell me that I'm missing someone.

Yet more on book reviews

The NYT weighs in on major newspapers, especially the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, reducing or eliminating their book review sections.

The NYT seems to imply that blogs are picking up part of the slack, but I think I'm with fellow MSU alum Richard Ford on this one. I think that the blogs are great and provide an essential additional venue for books to receive attention, but won't reach many of the audiences who look to the larger weekly newepaper book reviews to find something to read.

I also like Ford's point on the question of responsibility. PBS's Frontline had an excellent series recently on the changing role of newspapers in society and in competition with new media. Once again, while I'm excited by the prospects of participation in new media, I'm also struck how almost no one in the new media projects really considers themselves journalists, much less wants to even consider the sort of questions of ethics and responsibility to the reader that most journalists deal with all the time.

The new media is fabulous, but I think that it's incredibly short-sighted to act as though it makes the old media obsolete. Increasingly, we need both.

(Speaking of journalists, Ellen E. Heltzel at provides a good summary of the issue.)

Monday, April 30, 2007

More book reviews!

Mystery novelist Michael Connelly argues in the LA Times that newspapers are hurting themselves but cutting their book review sections. (via A&L Daily)

The ten-cent soundbyte:
The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down — and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On the popular archive of American drama

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the Library of America, and look forward to the day when I'll be able to afford a subscription.

On a trip through their most recent catalog, it struck me that they seem to be making an effort of late to incorporate American theatre into the series. For quite a while, Eugene O'Neill was the only dramatist included in the LOA, and, if you ask me, only because he won himself a Nobel. In the late 90s, the LOA produced a two-volume Tennessee Williams set (which is gorgeous, but leaves out a great deal), and in the past year, an initial volume of Arthur Miller has been released, as well as a collected Thornton Wilder. (We will, for the moment, ignore the volume of "Broadway Comedies.")

I imagine that a number of contemporary writers will be considered for inclusion as their copyrights expire or as time makes their publishers more willing to share the rights for a reasonable fee. I am, however, left with a pair of questions. Since the LOA is so heavy on prose, is there a comparable project in drama of which I am unaware? (Or poetry?) And which dramatists should be included in the LOA, either right now, or as they become available? Edward Albee and August Wilson seem obvious choices. Anyone else? Clifford Odets? David Mamet?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The best part is also the biggest problem

Lee Siegel dissects Dave Eggers' What is the What in The New Republic. (via

I've long had an issue with Eggers' inexplicable decision to write his subject's "autobiography" as a novel. When the facts are so important and so powerful, why invent? There's precedent for the "nonfiction novel," why not head more in that direction? Siegel seems to share many of my concerns, and gives them a framework:
And Eggers's book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What's innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance—the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people's stories the way we need other people's oil.

One of the best parts of the writing in the McSweeney's circle is their dissatisfaction with everyday American experience, and their drive to expand that experience to include those whose lives aren't so safe and pampered. Often this is done through travel, and has led to writing that I view as spiritual heir to the early 20th century American expatriates. I find expatriate writing fascinating, but both the writer and the reader are obligated to realize that the experience of the expatriate is only a half-step removed from that of the tourist. The expatriate has a unique and worthwhile perspective, but isn't really a participant in the events and history that surrounds him, and so will always have a view slightly skewed and slightly removed. (Hemingway is an outstanding example of both sides of this argument.) They can be reporters and witnesses, but there is real danger if they start to believe that they can speak for those who surround them.

An excellent, sensitive and yet incisive review. A good read with a good point. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In much more pleasantly frivolous news

MSU women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie, less than a month after silencing rumors that she was considering the vacant coaching position at the University of Florida by singing a 5-year, $2.5 million contract with MSU, will announce tomorrow morning that she will become the new head coach of Duke's women's basketball team.

You know, that sucks. I mean, good for her, but it's hard not to feel betrayed, even if that's really, upon reflection, an entirely irrational reaction. She doesn't owe me anything, and who am I to keep her from her dream job?

Still, I hope we cream Duke the next time we play them. I mean really cream.

Resisting the easy conclusions

As you can imagine, since I work at a university, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the shootings at Virginia Tech. There have been at least three of four different links that I've finally decided not to post because they don't really add anything to the discussion.

In fact, I'm not terribly inclined to dive into deep discussion of the Virginia Tech shooting right now. Obviously, many people feel the need to make sense of this, to find something that went wrong, as is evidenced by the NYT's letters page, but I don't think that there are easy lessons. Is this an argument in favor of or against gun control? I think it's important that Cho Seung-Hui purchased his weapons legally, since that argues that current gun control laws aren't sufficient to prevent dangerous people from getting weapons, but it's nearly as valid to argue that VT's gun-free campus policies kept everyone from having weapons except Seung-Hui, who disregarded the regulations. Likewise, I don't find persuasive any of the arguments that cell phone text message warning systems, destigmatizing the pursuit of psychiatric counseling, or making character instruction part of school curricula would have made any difference on April 16. All reports are that Cho Seung-Hui was an individual that resisted all attempts at intervention, and, indeed, as much personal interaction as he possibly could. The only thing that could have prevented him from doing something like this would have been long term physical restraint, and as disturbing as his habits and writings appear to have been, I haven't seen anything that could justify institutionalizing or imprisoning him.

His plays for example. It's easy to read them and say that this was obviously a disturbed person and that it was irresponsible that nothing was done. The thing is, I've read worse. In fact, I shared a college playwriting course with an individual with a habit to writing disturbing and violent scenes and wearing a long black trenchcoat. He was quiet, and it could be difficult to interact with him. He was also one of the most creative people I had the chance to work with, and like many solitary, trench coat-wearing people I've known, he would never hurt a fly. I'm still not fond of the plays he wrote for that class, but I can state with certainty that he was no Cho Seung-Hui, and it would have been wrong to remove him from MSU for his writing.

There are no easy answers, and the frightening truth is that if someone is determined enough to hurt people, they'll find a way to do it. We should ask hard questions about what happened at Virgina Tech. What could have been done differently and what should be done differently in the future? We should, however, be prepared for there to be no easy answers.

I wish, with every fiber of my being, that it had never happened.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I have a 20 quid note I should totally go cash in

The pound sterling rises above $2. (via NYT)

(I'm really trying to write about anything but Virgina Tech, because there's nothing to say about that but that it's devastating. How could someone do something like that?)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Did I call it?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy has won the Pulitzer. I'd like to say that I called it, but really, I didn't quite.

In translation

The NYT Book Review has started to put out occasional "theme" issues—issues where are the reviews are devoted to new books with a common subject: books on war, books on food, etc.

This week's Book Review focuses on fiction in translation, with a lead review by James Wood of Roberto Bolaño. Read it. Cover to cover. (Except the reviews of children's books, which are not translations. You can skip those.)

Only 3.5% of adult fiction published in the U.S. is originally written in a laguage other than English. (This table, published as the Review's back page, provides some other interesting data.) I'm sure that I don't need to tell any of you that there's great writing being done outside of the U.S. It's really good to see a venue as public as the Book Review taking steps to point people to it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

When is a lie not a lie?

Jack Shafer takes David Sedaris to task for not sticking to the facts in his "nonfiction." (via Slate)

For all the noise that I've made about my old friend Mr. Frey, I'm actually a bit surprised that criticism of David Sedaris has been so strong in some places. (Although there does not, at the moment, seem to be a career-threatening critical mass coming together.) In my mind, there's a huge difference between Frey and Sedaris, and only the smallest part is the Sedaris is a better writer.

Frey and Sedaris both, at least loosely, market their writing as memoir. (I think that Sedaris is actually more attached to the word "nonfiction," which in my mind, makes his case more problematic, but more on that in a minute.) Frey, however, did not just claim that he was telling the story of his life. He claimed, in effect at first and then more explicitly once Oprah picked him up, to be articulating an alternative to traditional addiction recovery methods. If this claim is based on a lie, this is hugely important, because this is a lie that can hurt people. Sedaris, on the other hand, has never made any claim other than that his family history and his day-to-day life are each quirky and interesting.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that Sedaris not only exaggerates, but fabricates entire conversations and events. I've never given much credence to his claim to write nonfiction, and so, perhaps, that's why I don't give much weight to people who try to check his facts. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I don't exactly expect humorists to be journalists.

It is of course, entirely possible that my opinions are weighted by the fact that the bookstore in which I used to work shelved Sedaris's books in the fiction section.

So I think that Sedaris should really let his own insistence on the nonfiction label go. But ultimately, I don't think that the revelation that Sedaris's home life may not be as constantly amusing as he makes out is really all that damning.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The British are my heroes

Maria Kalman's inexplicable but beautiful series in the NYT wraps up today. I pass along the image above, which is probably Kalman's single best piece of second-hand advice, and an excellent reminder that the British are the world's leaders in crisis management. (Need I remind anyone of "Don't Panic"?)

Oh, and Maria Kalman and Sarah Mensinga are now my official art-girl crushes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Oprah still does books every once in a while

Oprah's book club has a new pick: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

So what do you think? Does this make the odds of a Pulitzer for McCarthy this year shorter or longer?

I try not to repeat myself

David Skinner discusses the appeal and short comings of the Sony Reader in The Weekly Standard. (via A&L Daily)

I was going to throw in some commentary, but I realized that I've already said everything that I have to say. In short, the printed book is an amazing technological achievement.

However, I do have to say that I have a hard time relating to a man who could write the following:
None of which yet saves the faithful reader from the clutter of his books. If, today, I threw out all the books in my house that could be uploaded for free onto a Sony Reader, at least one of my bookcases (out of five or six) could be retired. What I'd really like is to keep only as many books as could be squeezed into one or two bookcases.

One or two bookcases? Ridiculous. I have more books than that in my office at work.

This is an unusual post for me, because I normally don't give a rat's ass about memoirs

Slate is running a surprisingly good series of articles this week in what they're calling their Memoir Week series.

The best pieces are those where a handful of memoir writers talk about the issues involved in writing about people you know—taking and retelling their life's stories in ways that may be objectionable or even just unrecognizable to them. I am especially fond of a quote from Alison Bechdel:
I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there's something inherently hostile in the act. You're violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that's just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

There is a certain amorality to authorship—even if I still believe that literature is essentialy a moral enterprise. These are difficult positions to try to reconcile. If you're unwilling to take pieces of other people's lives as if they were your own and use them as raw material, then you're in the wrong business.

Maybe one of the reasons I don't write more is that I still have issues with that.

Monday, March 26, 2007

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's

The James Joyce estate has come to an agreement with Joyce scholar Carol Loeb Shloss, allowing her to quote published and unpublished writing from Joyce in an online suppliment to her book Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, and in future books in articles. (via the Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required. Shloss's online suppliment is currently password protected, but is expected to go public in the next several days.)

The Joyce Estate, overseen by James Joyce's grandson, Stephen Joyce, has been especially particular about allowing scholars to quote Joyce's work, and Stephen has even been quoted to the effect that he didn't see any value in continuing scholarship on his grandfather's writing. (There was an excellent article in the New Yorker last year, but I'd have to go digging in the library to find it, since I don't save old copies of the magazine. I know. That sounds really out of character for me, doesn't it? I'll pick up the electronic archive one of these years.) Shloss had sued the estate, arguing that her intended use of Joyce's writing fell under scholarly fair use exceptions to copyright. As an avid reader of Joyce myself, I'm happy to see the estate allowing some use of Joyce's papers, but since Shloss and the estate came to an out-of-court settlement, no precedent has been set, and there's no guarantee that the same consideration will be extended to other scholars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In literature, we're trying to get away from this idea

Henry Lowood, curator of the History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford University, has announced a list (he's actually calling it a "canon," which is a particularly loaded term for a student of literature) of the "10 most important video games of all time."

Spacewar! (1962)
Star Raiders (1979)
Zork (1980)
Tetris (1985)
SimCity (1989)
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
Civilization I/II (1991)
Doom (1993)
Warcraft series (beginning 1994)
Sensible World of Soccer (1994)

(The NYT via the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Isn't that kind of like a Pepsi commercial playing the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" song?

I don't know if any of you have noticed the new UPS "whiteboard" ads. (Click on "TV spots" to see the actual ads.) They're really rather clever and well done, but when one came on while I was watching my guilty pleasure last night, I caught the background music for the first time. Who is it? The Postal Service.

(And, hey! This is post #200 for Wordwright!)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sales are down, and the outlook is good

Brad McKay in the Toronto Star writes about the downturn in the comic book market, and postulates that the lack of diversity, and in particular, a failure to embrace the African-American market may be responsible.

On some level, the downturn in the comic book market is a perpetual story. A decade or so ago, the end of the collectibles bubble market nearly killed the industry (at least, if you tend to believe the headlines). I don't want to make it sound like I disagree with McKay's point, which is that comic books are amazingly homogeneous—white, muscular men, and busty white women in skintight outfits rule the day—but comic books are far more than just superhero comics, and comics other than Marvel and DC are having a heyday both artistically and in the marketplace. Just check out the manga section of your local bookstore—really, I dare you—or check out the increasingly well-reviewed and available graphic novels which are the artistic progeny of Art Spiegelman's Maus.

The only comics that are hurting are superhero comics, and the only place that they're really hurting is on the newsstand. (Collected and bound volumes of serialized superhero comics sold in bookstores as "graphic novels" are matching if not surpassing newsstand or direct market sales of individual issues.) It may well be that superhero comics will be written and sold only as longer, bookstore-friendly volumes as opposed to the traditional 32-page newsprint once-a-month issues. (Which are also no longer printed on newsprint and are, accordingly, rather expensive—another issue that no one seems to talk about.)

Ultimately, comics will survive, although the comic book stores I remember hanging out in as a (rather geeky) teenager are already largely gone. If direct market serialized comic books are to survive, I think that they will have to undergo the genuine rebirth that Marvel's "Ultimate" imprint only hints at.

The real problem facing comic books (other than hackneyed writing, which has always been a problem) is that the most famous and popular characters are between forty and sixty years old. When Captain America was born, he was a soldier in WWII, immediate and relevant. Likewise, the Fantastic Four was a 1960s dysfunctional family unit, and Spider-Man was a geeky teen. If comics are to recapture the youth direct market, they will have to be cheap, well-written, and capture some part, either banal or mythological, of what it is to be a child growing up in the world today.

That's what the superhero comics of the golden and silver ages did, and that's (not coincidentally) what manga is doing now.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Didn't she win the Booker too?

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai has won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. (And in answer to my own question, yes, it won the 2006 Man Booker prize as well.

2 out of the past 3 years, the NBCC award winner has gone on to win the Pulitzer (and I'm convinced that last year the judges just got confused, awarding the prize to March instead of The March), so, normally this would have made Desai the immediate odds-on favorite, but the Pulitzer is specifically limited to "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life," so I'm not sure Desai is eligible. (I don't know where she lives or what citizenship she holds, so she may, in fact, be eligible, but it would be extraordinarily rare to see a book win both a Booker prize and a Pulitzer. The two are usually mutually exclusive.)

Of course, no one has expressed any interest in laying bets on the Pulitzer, so it may not matter anyway.

My old friend

In honor of Jack Kerouac's birthday, Slate has posted a photo essay organized around Kerouac, the Beats, and and On-the-Road-styled images from the late 1960s.

In my high school and early college days, I read a great deal of Kerouac and the Beats, and while I have rather mixed feelings about the man now (I feel like I've read all of him that I ever need to, and can't entirely imagine picking up more, even the unread volumes sitting on my shelf), Kerouac and the Beats shaped a lot of my aspirations as a writer and editor—particularly my fondness for writing communities and thinking about the creation of literature as the project of a group of people with shared aspirations. I've since rejected a great deal of what passes for the Beat ethos—especially the mistaken idea that Beat writing somehow stands opposed to the elements of craft—but my debt to the Beats can still be seen in everything from the name of the lit mag I started—The Offbeat—to my continued advocacy for a set of writers that hail, even loosely, from some common background through my current project Revelator.

One of the great problems involved in the Kerouac myth is that Kerouac himself doesn't really fit into it very well, largely because Kerouac never really fit in anywhere. Slate's photo essay includes several pictures of Jack, beret and all, reading at "Beat parties." Kerouac looks as silly as any man wearing a beret, and all the more so because of his football-player's build. (Kerouac was, in fact, a star football player in high school, and earned an athletic scholarship to Columbia.) Kerouac looks much more at home in the excellent picture of himself sitting (wearing a plaid flannel) between Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

The late 1940s world Kerouac wrote about in On the Road had long since ceased to exist by the time the book was published in 1957, and Kerouac himself wanted little to do with the "beatniks" who idolized and attempted to emulate him. One of my favorite apocryphal stories about Kerouac takes place at a political rally in the 1960s where Allen Ginsberg was distributing handheld American flags to be burnt in protest, and Kerouac followed closely behind, taking all the flags back.

Kerouac was a Catholic who wanted to be a Buddhist. A native French speaker who all but abandoned his first language to write in English. A restless homebody. An anti-authoritarian conservative. A writer of spontaneous prose who was absolutely devoted to craft. The energy behind a group of writers from whom he felt increasingly alienated.

Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 of a stomach hemorrhage brought on by habitual overdrinking—suicide by the bottle. He was a beautiful soul and we are the less without him. He would have been 85 today.