Posts Tagged ‘Arts’

Fear Not, Garrison! iPad, Kindle and Company Seem to be Helping

In Entertainment, Technology, Uncategorized on May 29, 2010 at 9:41 am
Mr. Garrison Keillor

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Garrison Keillor, whose words and voice have given me comfort in the years in his books, radio show and  his daily poem, is very worried.

In a piece for The New York Times, Keillor writes that he is worried “that book publishing is about to slide into the sea.”

He fears that e-books and self publishing will close the door on an era when “e became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an an editor smiled on us and wrote a check and our babies got shoes.”

He describes a future with “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”

First off. As far as I can tell, the only real difference in Keillor’s future is that the average author will have six readers who are not blood relatives.


How many people do you know who have been slaving away, tinkering on, working at what they think could be the Great American Novel? Everybody’s a writer or thinks they are. People have been writing bad short stories, poems, sketches for hundreds of years.

And most of them haven’t made a dime.

Mr. Keillor — there’s really nothing new about that.

What’s great about self-publishing operations like Amazon’s BookSurge and Pubit from Barnes and Noble, is that it makes it easier for people to get out there and take a chance. Maybe they make nothing, maybe they made Keillor’s mythical average of $1.75.”

The important thing is that people are giving it a go.

Don’t we want a world where more people are trying to communicate? I mean, does he really he think that everyone who self-publishes thinks that they’ve really written the Great American Poem, Novel, Short Story? I’m sure some do. But I’m betting the majority are just people who feel they have something to say.

And let them say it, write it, shout it, blog it, self-publish and podcast it.

Let people dream and share those dreams.

The great writing will still find its way through.

In the meantime, grab a pen, pencil, typewriter, iPad, Kindle, whatever and write! And share what you’ve written.

There’s an audience of billions looking for something to read — the American Association of Publishers on Friday announced that book sales in March were up 16.6 percent, that they’re up eight percent for the year. Audiobook sales overall are up 14.7 percent for the year and the sales of downloaded audiobooks are up 29.3 percent.

AND e-book sales are up 251.9 percent for the year.

251.9 percent!

I would say that iPads and Kindles and Nooks and so forth are helping more people become readers and writers.

I mean, really. Does it get better? A nation where people are reading and writing? Maybe it’s not all good writing. Big deal. At least people are communicating!

Please relax, Mr. Keillor. It’s all going to be okay.

Possessed by Elif Batuman

In Uncategorized on May 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm
Cover of "The Possessed: Adventures with ...

Cover via Amazon

It was love at first paragraph.

“In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a young man named Hans Castorp arrives at a Swiss sanatorium to visit his tubercular cousin for three weeks. Although Castorp himself does not have tuberculosis, he somehow ends up staying in that sanatorium for seven years. The plot of The Magic Mountain mirrors the history of its composition: Mann set out to write a short story, but ended up producing a 1,200-page novel. Despite the novel’s complexity, its central question is very simple: How does someone who doesn’t actually have tuberculosis end up spending seven years at a tuberculosis sanatorium? I often ask myself a similar question: How does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?”

So, begins Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

It’s a magical book, a testament of love to reading, to writing, to dreaming. At its heart are essays Batuman has written including her tale for Harper’s about Tolstoy and her first, glorious essay for n + 1, which brought together Isaac Babel and King Kong.

Subtitled, Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Them, Batuman’s book is part travelogue, part dissertation about a million parts just wonderful celebration of reading and knowledge.

It’s “ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of “King Kong,” working for the Let’s Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan,” Dwight Garner wrote in The New York Times where he called the book “funny and melancholy… Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?”

As for the funny…

“Every morning I called Aeroflot to ask about my suitcase,” she writes. “‘Oh, it’s you,’ sighed the clerk. ‘Yes, I have our request right here…. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?'”

Writing in Slate, under the headline — A Comedian in the Academy, Who knew studying Russian literature could be so funny? — Adam Kirsch calls the book a “smartly comic new memoir.”

I read the book very fast the first time, swept up in Batuman’s romance with words and belief in their power.

“While it is true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for?”

And then I read the book again, slowly, patiently, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, wanting to savor, enjoy, learn.

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”

I know I am far from the first writer to sing Batuman’s praises. I’m not even the first or second here at True/Slant.

Still. I just want to say that I think everyone should buy Batuman’s book — even if you don’t like or don’t think you like Russian literature — and read more of her work.

Most importantly, though. I think everyone should read. Whenever you can, wherever you can.

The Short Story is Dead! Long Live the Short Story!

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 4:39 pm
Virginia Quarterly Review

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For as long as Google remembers, people have been writing articles offering proof that the short story is not dead.

In 1969, The New York Times declared that: “the death of the short story is announced as regularly as the decay of morals.”

In what appears to be a wire story from 1973 (the article appeared in both The Times-News of Hendersonville, NC and The Sarasota Herald News) it was reported that: “the reports of the death of the short story are greatly exaggerated.”

In 1988, Fred Lutz of the Toledo Blade said that “rumors that started about 10 years ago about the death of short story were definitely premature. The genre is alive and well in living in America.”

I suspect the problem isn’t with the short story.

Just look at the literary landscape and it’s dotted with people writing stories that people are reading: Wells Tower, John Grisham, Jhumpa Lahiri.

That’s not the issue.

The problem, I think, has to do with the evolution of the writer as celebrity.

While it’s probably always been true to come extent that there are people who think because they have access to a pen or a keyboard, they can be a Writer, that seems to have evolved into people thinking they can now be a Famous Writer. And with that there seems to be a growing sense of entitlement.

Just read this ridiculous piece on Huffington Post by someone who suggests (facetiously, I can only hope though I suspect not) that there be a literary draft in the style of football’s.

“Personally, I’d settle for $100,000 annually, for which I will absolutely produce a brand-new novel each year,” he promises.

The writer suggests it’s a system rooted in history but does anyone really think that Mozart, da Vinci, any number of people wouldn’t have created their art if they hadn’t had benefactors.

Yes, money is always nice but the best writers don’t write because of the paycheck, they do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

In a recent piece for Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, the editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, points out that there are hundreds of MFA programs on universities producing thousands of “writers” yet the average literary magazine prints 1.500 copies.

“In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves,” he writes.

As a result, literary magazines are on the ropes: Triquarterly was reinvented as a student-run online publication; New England Review has until next year to become self-sufficient, Southern Review has been having problems.

It’s been suggested that much as April is National Poetry Month, we should make May National Short Story Month and just as I suggested poetry month should be celebrated by adopting a poet by subscribing to a literary magazine or similar gesture… I say, the same should be true for May.

If you want people to read you, the least you can do is make sure you read other people — and pay for it: subscribe to a magazine, buy a book, even go on ITunes.

As The Guardian pointed out, the ITunes-ization of short fiction is here.

It’s not a perfect world but people have to stop acting like they’re entitled to support.

Help others if you expect to get help.

As Genoways wrote: “Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”

Natalie Merchant and the 'Flat, Dead Pages'

In Entertainment on April 20, 2010 at 9:02 am
NEW YORK - APRIL 13:  Singer Natalie Merchant ...

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife

In February, Natalie Merchant appeared at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference where she performed songs from then-upcoming album, Leave Your Sleep.

The album, 26 poems set to music, came out last week and is a delight to listen to. But that’s not why I’m writing about it.

When Merchant performed at TED, she spoke of the joy of taking the poems and setting them to music.

Unfortunately, as Carolyn Kellogg, the smart and talented writer at the LA Times pointed out, Merchant wasn’t all that delicate.

“What I’ve really enjoyed about this project is reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life,” Merchant said.

“What poet sees his or her work as being written for “dead flat pages’?” Kellogg responded.  “Most poems are written for the page, and many poems use the page layout as part of their expression. That would include the work of e.e. cummings, one of the poets whose work Merchant has set to music.

“Seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty, but that doesn’t make them new and improved. It transmutes them as lyrics, but it would be a mistake to think this improves on their original form.

“Flat pages? Sure. Dead pages? Maybe not.”

Kellogg is dead on in that regard.

Where I think she is a little off is in her sort of dismissive “seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty.”

Without a doubt, setting a poem to be music — no matter how beautiful the result may be — doesn’t mean it’s better.

At the same time, there’s always the chance that the adaptation — which is really what Merchant’s come up with — is quite good in its own right.

My Fair Lady vs. Pygmallion, for instance. Or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and King Lear? Emma and Clueless?

The Godfather the movie and The Godfather the book?

Merchant maybe came across as a little full of herself, maybe a little less than elegant. But the thought of adapting a work of art to another medium, adding a little of yourself and exposing a new audience to the original work (and Merchant is selling her album with a 74-page book with the poems and essays on the poets) is an admirable one.

Certainly a little more than a “nice novelty.”

Surfing the Wake

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Image by eduardomineo via Flickr

I’ve read every word of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake but can safely say that I’m not sure that I’ve actually read the book.

Filled with beautiful language but written in a series of dreamlike streams of consciousness, the book has been imposing when it first came out in 1939.

Reviewing it for The New York Times, Padraic Collum wrote:

“How, in two thousand words or less, is one to review a book which even a cursory examination shows to be unprecedented, a book of considerable length by a thoughtful and tremendously equipped man who has spent sixteen years writing it? The only thing one can do is to indicate the value of the work and to show a way of approaching it with lessened perplexity. I say lessenedperplexity, for a certain perplexity cannot wholly be removed from a reading of it and the present reviewer freely acknowledges that there is much in the book that he is still seeking explanation for.”

The book — while not quite as much a part of popular culture as Ulysses — has spawned a veritable culture of its own.

There’s a Finnegans Wake Society in New York, which was the subject of a New York Times story and numerous websites devoted to the book.

And now comes word that a new edition is about to come out — an edition that makes more than 9,000 changes to the text.

Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon have spent the better part of 30 years going through the more than 60 notebooks that Joyce used to write the novel as well as the more than 20,000 pages of manuscrupt from various drafts.

The result is what they call 9,000 “minor yet crucial” corrections, covering everything from typos to misplaced phrases.

The Irish Independent recently referred to it as “Finnegans second wake… the greatest publishing event in Irish literature since James Joyce’s Ulysses appeared.”

Hopefully the reception will be less rocky than when the “Corrected” version of Ulysses was published in 1988

The new edition, published by Houyhnhnm,, is expected to be unveiled Thursday at Dublin Castle

Let the Real March Madness Begin!

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The Sixth Annual Tournament of Books got underway this morning.

The contest, sponsored by venerable website The Morning News (they’ve been around since 1999; venerable in web terms), takes 16 of the best books of the past year and pits them against each other, judged by well known literary figures (this year’s panel includes Jane Ciabattari, short story writer and president of the National Books Critics Circle, New York Magazine’s Sam Anderson and Carolyn Kellogg, who reports for the LA Times and writes their Jacket Copy blog.

Previous winners include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

This year’s competition includes The Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and  Let the Great Wold Spin, Colum McCann’s National Book Award winning novel, which just won round one.

The winner will be declared on April 5. In the meantime, follow the tournament, read the books.

Coming Soon: Cathleen Schine's Book

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2010 at 11:59 am

It was one of those reviews that just gets you excited to read the book.

On the front page of The New York Times Book Review on February 14 was what can be understatedly described as a glowing review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

Schine’s book “has it all: stinging social satire, mordant wit, delicate charm, lilting language and cosseting materialistic detail,” wrote Dominique Browning.

The book is “richly inhabited” with characters, minor and major, that have “a precisely imagined presence.”

For those who don’t know Schine and her work, she is no stranger to great reviews.

So, I headed over to Powells, the next day where they told me they had not yet received the book but hoped to have it soon. On Friday, the book was still on backorder, unavailable from them.

Apparently, they weren’t the only ones having trouble stocking the book. Amazon had it but said it would be six to ten days before they could ship it.

So, I emailed Laurel Cook, Schine’s publicist at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to ask her what was up with getting the book.

Cook said FSG is “thrilled that Cathleen Schine’s book is getting such great reviews and so many readers are buying the book.

“Even though there were a substantial number of copies printed and advanced, the demand after the NYT review was unprecedented….

Cook said the book went back to press for second and third printings before the Times review hit the newsstands but because of weather problems around the country, some have been slow in getting to stores. And, she added, the book has just gone back for a fifth printing so it should be available everywhere. Soon.

Sounds good to me.

The second and third printings were ordered before the review officially appeared (publishers get the NYTBR a week early) but were delayed from reaching accounts as quickly as they might have by the weather. Books should be available at this point, and the fifth printing is coming off press as we speak.

He'll Have Paris (the Paris Review, that is)

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2010 at 12:38 am
The Paris Review logo designed by William Pène...

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Lorin Stein is the new editor of The Paris Review, the magazine announced on Friday.

Stein leaves Farrar, Straus, and Giroux where he has been an editor since 1998 and edited writers such as Eiif Batuman, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Franzen and  Sam Lipsyte. In 2007, he edited three of the five nominees — Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski — for the National Book Award for Fiction.

He is only the magazine’s third editor, succeeding award-winning reporter and long-time New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, who took over for George Plimpton who edited the magazine from its founding until he died in 2003.

Stein is a writer in his own write, contributing pieces to places such as The New York Review of Books and Harper’s.

And last year, writing for The Economist, he suggested a bailout for book critics.

“Bailing out the critics will mean thinking clearly about the uses and limitations of the web when it comes to the commerce of culture,” he wrote. “It will mean saving a free press devoted to books–a free press lively and big enough to do the job of separating quality from hype.”

In a piece for N+1, he held up the late Barbara Epstein as a model editor, saying she she was: “gentle, curious, encouraging, unforgiving. She could tease clear prose out of the famously opaque….She could also put the most timid contributors at ease. She was very good with younger writers—with young people in general. She seemed to take a sincere interest in their opinions, their gossip, their likes and dislikes, and this made it easy to risk stating the obvious or sounding stupid in the interest of saying what you actually believed.”

While some had suggested Dave Eggers would have made a great editor, it’s hard to argue that Stein is a tremendous choice.

Cover Stories

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm
Cover of "Let the Great World Spin: A Nov...

Cover of Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but what about simply judging a book’s cover?

Earlier this week, The Millions posted a nice feature comparing the US and UK book covers of some of the top novels of the past year, showing how designers (or at least marketing executives) think different constituencies are going to be attracted by different designs.

And how sometimes how those designs have absolutely nothing to do with the book.

For instance, the US version of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs doesn’t hold a candle to its UK counterpart, especially when it comes to conveying what the book is about while the UK version of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is almost laughable compared to Matteo Pericoli’s intricate, elegant drawing on the cover of the US version.

Speaking of McCann, check out the cover of his next book, In the Country Below.

The book is described as:

“In the 17th Century vast numbers of Irish men, women and children were forcibly transported to the American colonies by the British government. In this spectacular reinvention and examination of history, Colum McCann goes to the heart one of the great untold stories of our times as he follows a group of Irish indentured servants on their voyage to the West Indies, their plight on the Atlantic seas, their subsequent serfdom and their eventual liberation on the wave of a bloody revolution. This is a gripping portrayal of another century, another continent, another loss, told in McCann’s unique trademark prose, simultaneously stripped down and lyrical.”

Sounds great, right?

Well, the thing is I won’t be able to read the book because it doesn’t exist.

It’s part of a project called The Hypothetical Library being undertaken by Charlie Orr, a part-time book designer.

“I ask each writer to provide flap copy for a book that they haven’t, won’t, but in theory could, write, and then I design a cover for it,” Orr writes on his blog.

I’d say he’s off to a great start.

RIP Barry Hannah

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2010 at 9:40 am
Cover of "Geronimo Rex"

Cover of Geronimo Rex

Barry Hannah died yesterday.

For those who don’t know Hannah, I suggest immediately getting your hands on a copy of Airships, his collection of short stories that was honored by Esquire Magazine with its Arnold Gingrich Short Fiction Award in 1978 or Geronimo Rex, his first novel, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

Just read the beginning of the short story, Love too Long from Airships:

“My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to burst out of my ribs. All I can do is move from chair to chair with my cigarette. I wear shades. I can’t read a magazine. Some days I take off my binoculars and look out in the air. They laid me off. I can’t find work. My wife’s got a job and she takes flying lessons. When she comes over the house in her airplane, I’m afraid she’ll screw up and crash.”

When Geronimo Rex was published, Jim Harrison, writing in The New York Times, said:

“Hannah is one of those young writers who is brilliantly drunk with words and could at gunpoint write a life story of a telephone pole. He strains for the bon mot and comes up with half a dozen.”

Novelist Richard Ford, a long-time friend of Hannah’s told the Associated Press:

“Barry could somehow make the English sentence generous and unpredictable, yet still make wonderful sense, which for readers is thrilling. You never knew the source of the next word. But he seemed to command the short story form and the novel form and make those forms up newly for himself.”

Hannah, who was 67 and published nine novels and four collections of short stories, died just days before he was to be honored by the 17th Oxford Conference for the Book in Oxford, Missisippi, where he spent much of his life.

He didn’t always have it easy. As the Paris Review put it in the introduction to the 2004 interview it did with him (sadly, only a tiny excerpt of which is online), they wrote of his reputation “as a hard-boiled drinker from Mississippi who liked guns, rode motorcycles, and sometimes raised a little too much hell.”

“I want writing to be a lot,” he said. “I do want higher matters. Matters of salvation, matters of getting love. Matters of spiritual ecstasy in nature or the cities.

“There’s a ghost in every story. Something haunts the story and you’re turning those pages to find out what it is. And it better be good. I’d better be good, or just shut up.”

No worries, there. He was good. Better than good.