Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: Sideloading

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques is a running feature here at the Ape in which I observe, name, and discuss heretofore uncategorized (at least to my knowledge) literary devices. For a list of previous entries, please scroll to the bottom of this post.

Relaying crucial plot information indirectly.

"I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help."
                              -from The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

This one's a little tricky to see in a brief quotation because really it is about the lack of information that precedes it. To this point, we know nothing of the protagonist's location or activity. This passage is ostensibly about her quarrel with her grandmother, but the most important readerly information is embedded in a list.

I can't chart a historical line, but it seems that this kind of exposition is relatively modern. My sense is that it born of two trends in contemporary fiction: the elliptical, elusive opening and the evergreen exhortation to "show" rather than "tell." To serve both of these directives often means that it can take quite a while for a reader to have any sense of the salient narrative details until the novel or short story is well underway (here, we are ten pages in before being told where the protagonist is and what she is doing there).

Side-loading isn't then an intentional technique exactly, but the by-product of other writing decisions. And while it is not the most elegant way of providing necessary exposition, it allows for deferred information to be conveyed with seeming heavy-handed. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if many readers miss needed plot information because of its intentional understatement.


All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Previous entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques:


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Forum: Advertising, Attention, and Book Blogs

This week's forum topic was inspired by a couple of recent comments here at The Ape about advertising, attention, and literary writing.

First, Kevin, a longtime reader of this site and dedicated literary blogger in his own right, politely requested that I take advertising off The Reading Ape:

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to eliminiate advertising from your very fine blog. It's unnecessary, unless you're living paycheck to paycheck, and they distract from your content.

Second, in a comment to my post on the future of book reviewing, Tom Lutz expressed some discomfort in relying on advertising to support arts journalism:
I continue to believe that people should get paid for their intellectual labor, and I am particularly interested in paying people who aren't otherwise "economically viable" -- that is people who are saying things that won't immediately help someone sell fast food, and therefore won't immediately attract commercial funding.

I'm not sure that I can link these two comments directly, but I think they both spring from a deep distrust of advertising. Kevin (and he can correct me if I am misreading him) suggests that advertising somehow damages the experience of the content and that unless I am in uttermost need, I should forgo whatever income advertising generates.

Lutz's concern is about cause and effect; if advertising is your only means of support, then you are at the mercy of advertisers' (sometimes unsavory) desires. Actually, this is where the two comments connect: both are worried about advertising compromising content, at both the level of creation and that of consumption.

Rather than write my own response, I will let the fact that I have advertising on this site (and am more than comfortable with it) speak for me.

My questions to you:

What do you think about advertising on book blogs? What are the potential problems? Do you think the increasing amount of ads on book blogs is a positive or negative?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reviewing the Book Review

It hasn't been a good summer for mainstream book reviewing. First, the LA Times cut back its book coverage. Then, The Washington Post consolidated its arts coverage by splitting up its book coverage and moving the remaining pieces to other section, including moving the fiction coverage to "Style."

For book lovers, these are not welcome moves.

Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of the inchoate LA Review of Books, took the occasion of the LA Times reduction to write about the goals of the new publication (and to announce that they had brought onboard two columnists recently The Times recently laid off). In short the LA Review of Books aims to maintain a space for the kind of serious book reviewing that has been in decline over the last couple of decades.

This, I think, is an admirable goal, and I would certainly like the site to succeed. Still, two questions remain unanswered it Lutz's essay.

1. Why will the LA Review of Books succeed where mainstream reviewing has failed?

2. Will the writing and reviewing in the LA Review of Books mirror mainstream reviewing or will it do something else?

While the first of the questions is about money and the second about content, they are deeply linked. The unknown here is the market for literary journalism.

The LA Review of Books, Lutz says, will employ a hybrid model to generate revenue, which will include advertising, merchandise, subscriptions, affiliate incomes, fundraising, and grants. This already is acknowledgment that, as a commercial enterprise, literary journalism is untenable; you do not need grant money and non-profit money if there are buyers for your product.

That is, unless your product is really different than what has already failed. From what I can tell, the style of the first 100 posts in the LA Review of Books does feel considerably more modern than, say, coverage in the NY Times. The topics are more diverse, the writing more personal and freeform, and the general spirit more experimental. Unfortunately, I doubt that it is any more viable as a commercial product.

What I think Lutz doesn't really see (and that Edward Champion pointed out in his response to Lutz's essay) is the problem is not that there isn't cultural space for book reviewing and journalism, it's that it is happening everywhere---from book blogs, to Amazon, to GoodReads, to #fridayreads.

One of the reasons that book reviewing had a home in newspapers in the early 20th Century is that there was no where else to turn. Now, reviewing is everywhere.

My sense is that the kind of writing that the LA Review of Books wants to preserve needs preservation for a reason--it is no longer able to survive in the main of American cultural life. And that's not saying it isn't valuable, only that it  needs propping up by extra-commercial forces for it to survive.

What I would like to see, and I readily admit that I don't know what this would look like, is writing about books that engages with readers to the point that those readers (and the advertising dollars their attention brings) can support it directly (one possible example is Martha Southgate's essay about The Help in Entertainment Weekly). This would not only mean a future for professional literary journalists, but also that what they write can be culturally current and accessible.

The long and short of it is that people still read. What they want to read about what they read is still very much a mystery and the crux of the problem for contemporary book reviewing.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Two Additions to Notable Release Calendar

A little while ago, I created a shareable calendar for The Millions' list of notable forthcoming releases and a modified version of it with a few personal additions.

Today, I'm adding a couple of new titles to the list: We the Animals by Justin Torres and When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.

Significant Twitter chatter spurred me to find out a little about We The Animals. After a little follow-up, this debut novel about a working-class, mixed race family not only sounds compelling from the synopsis, but glowing blurbs from Marilynne Robinson, Paul Harding, Dorothy Allison, Michael Cunningham and others raised my eyebrow. There are a few authors who can get me to read a book by blurbing it and Marilynne Robinson is one of them. The last book I read on the strength of blurb from her was Paul Harding's Tinker, which went on the win the Pulitzer Prize.

I don't remember where I first heard about When She Woke, but a dystopic retelling of The Scarlet Letter warrants at least a sample download. Haven't heard much early buzz, but I will give this a wide berth to be interesting.

If you have other books you are looking forward to that are not on the calendar already, I'd like to hear about them. Can't have too many in the dugout is what I say.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Forum: The Reader-Centered Review

The most interesting blog post I read this week was Greg's interview with an author he reviewed at The New Dork Review of Books. The author responded not because Greg wrote a negative one, but because he wrote that the book was mediocre. (Is there a book out there about mediocrity? I would read this. I am not sure I am happy with what this says about me).

The interview touched on what a fair review is, what an author wants from a review, and the delicate balance between being honest and being respectful. It's a good read for book bloggers, reviewers, authors, and really anyone that's interested in reviews of any kind.

What struck me as being left out of the conversation is audience. Reviews aren't primarily for the author nor are they primarily for the reviewer; they are for potential readers.  One thing the author Greg interviewed couldn't see from the perspective of a guy with a book to sell is that calling a book mediocre is a great service to readers, who have to martial their time, money, and attention.

I have to admit I often forget that most people who read my reviews haven't, nor probably will they ever, read the books I am writing about. This frames the task quite a bit differently than how I normally approach it, which is to babble incoherently about stuff I noticed. The first and perhaps most important realization is that virtually everyone who reads my review is not me. This might seems obvious, but for many reviewers, your humble ape included, the expression of personal reaction is foremost in our their minds.

This led me to the idea of the "reader-centered" review, a review that exists primarily to serve readers. It seems to me that this way of thinking affect many aspects of writing a review, but my theorization here is still in a larval state.

So I put it to you: what do you thinking of this idea of "reader-centered" reviewing? Does it seems interesting? What about a review serves a reader? What kinds of reviews do not serve the reader?

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: THE CURFEW by Jesse Ball

I’ve read some quite beautiful prose this year (Patchett and Obreht come to mind), but I’ve read only one truly great novel—and that is The Curfew by Jesse Ball.

One of the difficult things about writing a rave is that it sometimes devolves into writing a list of adjectives about certain elements of the novel; with a pan, it is easier to be both specific and entertaining. The passionate reviewer/recommender will, in their efforts to blow the trumpet as loudly as they can, sometimes focus on decibel and not on articulation. I think there is a good reason for this: in our age of ubiquitous recommendation,  volume is the only means of getting attention.And there is plenty of reason to wield hyperbole when writing about The Curfew.

My temptation is to stop at a pat, blurbable hybridization along the lines of “The Curfew is like a combination of Kafka and Calvino, drawing on the former’s dread but tempering it with the latter’s fancy.” And I believe that, to an extent, but it falls prey to over-praise trap. What have I really even just said about it? To say that it is a cross between Calvino and Kafka is really to say it is like neither, since it’s difficult to imagine Calvino writing the futility of The Trial or Kafka to let his imagination rip as Calvino does in Invisible Cities.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why We Care About Literary Awards

Over at The Millions today, Mark O'Connell uses the occasion of the Booker long-list to ask a question that always seems to crop up around award time:
 ...why do we even care about this stuff? So Tom McCarthy — or whoever it was you might have wanted to win — didn’t get a prize. Does it really matter? By and large, awards like the Booker are intended to promote solid, well-written, more or less middlebrow fiction — the kind of books that broadsheet newspapers tend to give coverage to. And that’s surely a good thing for the publishing industry, for the literary editors of papers that still have books pages, for the small number of writers who get the nod, for booksellers and (I would guess) for the manufacturers of those stickers that get slapped with startling speed onto the dust jackets of shortlisted titles. But does it really matter at any other level — at the level, for instance, of literary culture as opposed to the publishing industry? I’m not convinced it does.
He then goes on to make a set of fairly common (and true) observations about literary prizes--that not everyone who deserves one gets one, that some of the past winners don't hold up well, that the prizes don't really reflect literary merit, and so forth. His argument, at its core, goes something like this: if a prize doesn't line-up with actual merit or import, then the prize really doesn't deserve the amount of attention it gets.

There are a couple of problems with this way of thinking. First is the old problem of "merit." It should be clear by now that there is no objective standard of literary merit by which we can measure the relative accuracy of given prize. The literary community might determine that certain works are more meritorious than others, and that, over time, should become part of the literary main. This doesn't mean that they are objectively better nor does it mean that their place at the head table is permanent. The canon, and I use that term loosely, is susceptible to change, and can do so dramatically (especially over relatively short periods of time).

The other reason we might care about literary prizes even if they do not accurately gauge achievement is, well, people care about literary prizes. Literary prizes are the last stage of the mainstream curation stage that starts with agents, then to publishers, then to reviewers, and then to awards panels. For many readers, a literary prize gives them the confidence to buy/borrow a novel/biography/history because they think that it is a fairly reliable indicator of quality.

So a pretty good reason to care about what book gets a particular award is that it channels a precious resource to that book--readerly attention. This, for those of us who care about literature, is both extremely interesting and hugely important. The books people read, get discussed, added to syllabi, and become part of our literary consciousness will inevitably shape that consciousness.

I'll end here with a reference to the next section after the quotation above:
I recently taught a night course focusing on novels which have won the Booker over the course of its short history. It was a hugely fun class to teach. The students were predominantly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies — retirees, middle-aged professionals and empty-nesters, mainly, who wanted to be better informed on contemporary fiction. 
The students in this class were using the Booker as a proxy for contemporary fiction. Whether or not we think that is reasonable position doesn't really matter; the position exists already. The answer to his question it turns out was sitting right in front of him: we should care about literary prizes because people care about literary prizes.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: Proxy Detailing

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques is a running feature here at the Ape in which I observe, name, and discuss heretofore uncategorized (at least to my knowledge) literary devices. For a list of previous entries, please scroll to the bottom of this post.

Proxy Detailing:
Giving the particular name, brand, or style of an object to give it specificity without actually describing it.

"Two days after his car--an '85 Chrysler LeBaron with leather seats and all-power accessories--vanished from the driveway, Warren Ziller crept past the expensive homes of his neighbors, trying to match his dog's limp."
                           ---from A Model Home by Eric Puchner

This is a particular pet peeve of mine, but I'll try to keep my discussion here somewhat reasonable. Proxy detailing seems to me a rather recent phenomenon (and by recent, I mean the last several decades) as advertising and brand recognition have allowed it to be at all useful.

The strength of this technique is fairly plain: if you tell the reader exactly what the car/object is, then they have a ready image of it. It is as specific as you can really be, without having to describe what the object is.

The weaknesses, though, are considerable. First, if your reader is not already familiar with the brand/object, it is quite a bit more frustrating for them than just saying "car." For example, I have no idea what an '85 Chrysler LeBaron looks like, so rather than brining me closer to the object, this proxy detailing actually creates more distance than just "car" would, as I am now aware that there is a gap in the information intended and the information received.

Another weakness of proxy detailing is that it shortcuts one of the things we ask literature to do, namely, to help us see the familiar in a new light. If I do indeed have a sufficient knowledge of an '85 Chrysler LeBaron to form an image of it, it is my image that is being formed, unaltered and unestranged by the author's artistic vision.

All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Previous entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques:


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.