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.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Didn't Superman die too?

How often does one see a comic book as the lead image on the NYT's web site?

Captain America is dead, a casualty of Marvel's Civil War storyline.

Anyone care to lay bets on how long before Steve Rogers returns to life?

Update, 3/9/07: The Onion weighs in.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

B&N killed the book review star

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Los Angeles Times is expected to end its stand-alone book review suppliment for lack of advertisers. (Yeah, I know. How weird is it that I'm linking to a WSJ article? Maybe it has to do with the fact that MSU's former president Peter McPherson is taking over as Chairman of the Board at Dow Jones. . . Nah.)

Why is book advertising down? According to Tom Perry, associate publisher of Bertelsmann AG's Random House Publishing Group, it's the chain bookstores, where publishers pay the store for prominent display placement of their titles.

"You want to see your books in prominent places," says Perry. "Such co-op advertising is where marketing dollars are going that might otherwise have been spent on advertising." According to the WSJ, "one publisher says that chain bookstores can charge $1 or more per book to stack titles in desirable locations, such as on a table at the entrance or in a display featuring new nonfiction titles."

Monday, March 05, 2007

I have always relied on the kindness of strangers

Yale University Press has released an edition of Tennessee Williams' Notebooks.

Phillip Hensher in the Telegraph (UK) is less than complementary, but, as usual, the NYT Sunday Book Review is more positive. (Also of interest, back in November, the NYT Book Review printed John Waters' introduction from the new edition of Williams' Memoirs.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Every vote counts!

All right Wordwrighters, I need help making a very important decsion—what should I read next?

The choices are:

  • Moby-Dick
  • The Early Stories by John Updike
  • A Piece of My Heart by Richard Ford
  • Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane
  • The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde

Vote by posting a comment, and write-ins are welcome.