Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The "I"s Have It

I came across a review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad on a book blog I read regularly that caught my attention. Not only was it a rare negative review of the book, but it also used "I" 57 times. about 1100 words. That's more than one use of "I" for every 20 words.

This is an extreme case, but still exemplary of the kind of reaction review that dominates book blogging. Opinion, not assessment, rules. That's not to say that it should be otherwise but simply to note that it is.

My question, though, is this what we want?

At its core, I think book blogging is an antidote to the more detached, analytical reviewing of academia and first-rank reviewing outlets like The New York Times. I think book blogging performs a needed service of re-injecting passion and public conversation into reading.

The "I loved it" mode of reviewing, though, has its problems. For one, it undermines the public and collaborative nature of online discourse by privileging the subjective taste of the reader. Your "I loved it" review will only convince me to be interested in a book if I can be reasonably certain I share your sensibilities.

Second, the spread of "I"-centered reviewing covers for a relative lack of vocabulary and strategies for reviewing books. Rather than discuss the particulars of a novel, these reviews resort to generalities under the cover of the reader's impression. "Unlikable characters," "stilted prose," "uninteresting plot": these qualitative statements absolve the reviewer of doing the hard work of thinking deeply about a book.

Let me be clear: I do not want book blog reviews that sound like The New York Times. I want book blogs to be as diverse, interesting, and engaging as the readers themselves are, but this requires an effort to be interested and engaged.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Year One at The Ape: Sincere Thanks

April 4th marked one year of blogging here at The Reading Ape. I have to admit It doesn't feel like a meaningful milestone: the blog is still very much in motion and little in the way of observations or conclusions about it come to mind.

I does seem to me, however, to be an appropriate time to say thanks to folks who have helped with advice, responses, reading, publicity, and support. I should also say I'll probably forget someone or have missed something; I should have been tracking the scores of small good deeds done for The Ape along the way.

If I have it right Rachel at A Home Between the Pages was the first backlink I remember seeing.

Greg at The New Dork Review of Books and Amanda at Dead White Guys started blogging right around the same time I did. Both have commented, retweeted, and blogrolled beyond what The Ape deserves.

I think I owe Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog at least 10% of my Twitter followers, if not more.

Jackie at Farm Lane Books gave me a fantastic plug during Book Blogger Appreciation Week last year. It came at an opportune time; my energy for the blog was waning a bit during a particularly trying semester.

John Williams at The Second Pass has retweeted and backlinked several pieces. Since I kind of want to have a site like his, this was both flattering and motivating.

The Morning News folks have been particularly good sports about passing along my obsessive Tournament of Books "coverage." I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a contest that is about open discussion doesn't mind including an anonymous internet crank.

Shout-out to a couple of regular commenters and retweeters: Mayowa of Pens with Cojones, Patrick at The Literate Man, Brenna at Literary Musings, Kenneth Griggs at The Ken, lifi of Fat Books, Thin Women, and many others I can't think of right now.

A meta-thanks to the literature bloggers I read before starting The Ape: Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, Maud Newton, Mark Athitakis, and Ron Hogan at Beatrice. I saw what these folks were doing and I wanted in. So far, it hasn't been a mistake.

My friend Clint was there for a couple of early discussions about what would become this blog and has been a great supporter and reader all along.

Least digitally, my better half deserves a mention. I spend a lot of time reading and writing for this little hobby, and if she didn't think it was pretty cool, there's no way I would still be doing it. She reads everything and tells me straight what's what.

Thanks to all mentioned here and all you readers out there.


The Ape

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

9 Dead Writers I Follow on Twitter

There's a lot I love about Twitter, but it has one major fault: you have to be alive to use it. That might seem a strange complaint, but think about it: the vast majority of the most interesting people are dead. This limits what you can read on Twitter to people with a pulse (plus @colsonwhitehead). Or so I thought. 

Turns out, there are thousands of dead people on Twitter, many of them writers. And they are dead fun. These accounts tend to fall into three categories: quote machines, parody accounts, and estate accounts. Here's a brief sampling of each:

Quote Machines
Not since the bumper sticker has the pithy one-liner experienced such a renaissance. Jokes and flaccid self-help dominate the Twitterverse, so a little craftmanship is welcome in even the most carefully crafted feed. 

Note: You gotta knock the champ out. 
Representative Tweet: "I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life."

Note: Diarist of the Elizabethan Age. This feed gives a daily account of life in 17th Century England. Come for the slice of life, stay for the truly mesmerizing comma-usage. 
Representative Tweet: "Took up my wife and Deb., and to the Park. Being in a hackney, and they undressed, was ashamed to go into the tour, but went round the park."

Note: I truly, deeply wish Dorothy Parker was alive for Twitter. Enough to make me want to smash my head on a toilet in hopes of designing a flux capacitor. 
Representative Tweet: "Four be the things I'd have been better without: love, curiosity, freckles and doubt."

Note: Add a little gravitas to your feed; it makes all the differance. Or just be reminded why graduate literary studies kind of suck. 
Representative Tweet: "we go through the detour of the sign. We take or give signs. We signal. The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence."

Note: Clever, inspiring, and despairing by turn. Sometimes all at once. Side note: I wish Tom Robbins tweeted. 
Representative Tweet: "To me, wanting every habitable planet to be inhabited is like wanting everybody to have athlete's foot."

Take one part authorial identity. Add two parts clever interloper. Stir and enjoy.

Note: Satire on the events of the day from the gutter of Romanticism. 
Representative Tweet: "Our savage selfish interior lives yearn to be followed, but dread w/ an ugly despair the tedium of following back."

Note: Imagine if the dean of English literary critics sat around watching TV. This would pretty much be the result. Also, I dare you to reverse-engineer the capitalization conventions. See you when you finish in 300 years.
Representative Tweet: "The Goodfolk of Brooklyn gad about clad as Lumberjacks, Jack-Tars & Mesmerists, to my Amusement & Mrs THRALE'S Wonderment"

This is an emerging category, and one I hope becomes robust. These accounts track events, articles, and goings-on about a particular writer. 

Note: These good folk index the mind-bogglingly active world of Austen fanaticism and scholarship. From museum exhibits to arcane TV adaptations, they'll cover your Jane addiction. 
Representative Tweet: "Mrs. Smith, A Portrait of a Regency Woman from the Rising Merchant Class & Mrs. Poole, Georgette Heyer's Vulgar Creature:"

Note: This one is run by the honest-to-God literary estate of William Styron. Super, super smart move, and one that other literary estates should steal. I'm looking at you, people-who-control-the-David-Foster-Wallace stuff.
Representative Tweet: "Hilarious and cutting: Styron's play set in the Urological Ward of a U.S. Naval Hospital in the South, summer of '43"

If you just want a quick glance at these, I've collected them all in a Twitter list (don't need to use Twitter to see). 

I'm sure there are other notable dead-writer feeds out there and would love recommendations. Who do you follow? Or what pulseless penman would you like to see Tweencarnated? 

Through April 15, I am donating all referral fees generated through The Reading Ape to an effort to buy Rock City Books up in Maine. So if you have a little Powell's, Indie Bound, or Amazon shopping to do, click through the below links and a percentage of your purchase will go towards the effort.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why You Should Be Cheering for the Ad-Subsidized Kindle

It's so easy to predict the reaction of the literary web to some stories. Combine the specter of Amazon with inserting advertising into the reading space, and you have yourself a sure-fire whipping boy. Which is too bad, because the new ad-subsidized Kindle is a really, really good idea.

For some, the idea of advertising in literature is anathema; it contaminates the sacred space of art-writing. The publishing business, literary historians, and writers themselves have long gone to great lengths to keep the business of books outside the realm of literary discourse. It is devilishly difficult to know much, if anything, about the economics of literature: how much writers are paid, how many copies a particular book sells, and the other ledger items of publishing seem to be actively obscured. This has, in turn, created the illusion that money and literature are somehow separate.

The division of "writing" from the literary-publishing economy has been a real obstacle for the ongoing viability of the publishing business. Thinking that literature exists beyond the pale of economics allows and excuses a variety of practices and beliefs that are detrimental to the maintenance of a healthy, diverse literary economy. For example, in what other business can you borrow, subsidized by state and local government, the products of an entire industry? That literature exists in an imaginary space outside of financial pressures makes it even more subject to economic forces.

So that's one reason to be interested in the new ad-subsidized Kindle. When you now flip on your Kindle to read the new David Mitchell, you see a Buick ad first; it will be difficult to maintain an artificial separation of the business of writing with the texts themselves. Some argue that introducing advertising into literature will cheapen it. I would argue just the opposite; commercializing the literary space will reinforce the idea that that space has financial value, just as the annual ritual of tracking how much a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl costs reaffirms the value of the Super Bowl.

I think advertising in e-readers is exciting for another reason; it has the potential to open up channels of discovery. Book advertising is notoriously difficult, to the point that most people don't see any book advertising in their daily life. That "word-of-mouth" is the most powerful force in the industry speaks to the ineffectiveness of literary publicity. That said, the kind of reader-centric, targeted opportunity that integrated literary advertising presents is unprecedented.

Say I am the publisher (or, increasingly, author) of a novel about race relations in the South. Buying and crafting a specific ad that would appear to the tens of thousands of people reading Kate Stockett's The Help on their e-reader would seem outrageously appealing. From a reader's point of view, this might even be helpful; finding titles like a book you are currently enjoying is usually a task you have to take to your local bookseller, as long as they know what they are talking about. For most readers, this is a friction point that will not be surmounted. In this new scenario, a sample of the advertised, related work is just a couple of clicks away. (And if you don't think this can work, remember that Google's empire is built on accessible, contextual advertising.)

It is somewhat unfortunate that this effort is starting with Amazon, since most interested in publishing look upon them warily. I don't particularly care if this new Kindle sells, but I do think that it is in the best interest of publishing if something like it succeeds.

Through April 15, I am donating all referral fees generated through The Reading Ape to an effort to buy Rock City Books up in Maine. So if you have a little Powell's, Indie Bound, or Amazon shopping to do, click through the below links and a percentage of your purchase will go towards the effort.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Literary Fact of the Day | March 2011

It's time again for my monthly round-up of literary facts of the day (#lfotd). If you follow me on Twitter (@readingape), you get these everydayish. For the rest of you, here is a dispatch of tidbits from the writing world.

  • Wallace Stegner once refused a medal from the NEA because be believed the institution had become too political.
  • Joan Didion shares the screenwriting credit for the 1976 version of A Star is Born with her husband John Gregory Dunn.
  • Port Warwick, a 150-acre development in Newport News, VA, is named after a fictional city in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness.
  • James Salter defined youth as the time when one "mispronounces words and believes dreams."
  • Walker Percy's father and paternal grandfather both committed suicide with a shotgun.
  • In an effort to duck a drug charge, Ken Kesey faked a suicide by leaving his truck by a cliff with a suicide note.
  • HG Wells wanted his epitaph to be "I told you so. You damned fools." Instead, he was cremated and his ashes spread at sea.
  • In 1956, friends gave Harper Lee a year's wages to write "whatever she wanted"; it became the 1st draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Paule Marshall fought with her husband about hiring a babysitter so that she could finish her first novel Browngirl, Brownstones.
  • John Cheever came to hate his first short story collection so much that we would eventually destroy every copy he came across.
  • Paul Bowles was forced to return his advance for The Sheltering Sky because Doubleday said "we asked for a novel."
  • Norman Mailer married his fifth wife for one day in 1980 in order to legitimize the child they had together.
  • Betty Smith published and produced more than seventy one-act plays before A Tree Grows in Brooklyn brought her widespread acclaim.
  • Carson McCullers' husband tried to convince her to commit suicide with him. She then fled to France & he overdosed on sleeping pills.
  • At age 23, Nathaniel Weinstein changed his name to Nathaniel West, later citing Alger's slogan "Go West young man" as the inspiration.
  • After Margaret Mitchell divorced her abusive, bootlegging first husband, she married John Marsh, who had been best man at her wedding.
  • In 1928, John Dos Passos went to Russia to study communism. More than 30 years later, he would actively campaign for Richard Nixon.
  • John O'Hara had more than 200 stories published in The New Yorker
  • Henry Miller's first published pieces were under the name of his Chicago Tribune editor, since proofreaders weren't allowed to submit.
  • First published in 1934, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep received mixed reviews but went on to sell 1 million+ copies after a 1964 reissue 
  • After the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government denounced Pearl Buck as an "imperialist" & forbade her from ever again visiting.
  • Though he had contracted TB during WWI, Dashiell Hammett pulled strings to enlist during WW2. He was then blacklisted by HUAC in 1953.
  • A few months before his death, Thomas Wolfe submitted more than one million words of manuscripts to his editor.
  • Tony Blair closed his 9/11 speech with the last two paragraphs of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge on the San Luis Rey.
  • Between 1914 and 1917, Jean Toomer attended six institutions of higher education, including NYU, CUNY, U of Chicago, and Wisconsin.