Monthly Archives: February 2009
Introduction: Ominous Remarks for Late in the Evening
Both Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald discovered a peculiar syndrome that affected critics of their work. They learned in the roughest way imaginable that if they were praised as great, fresh talents early on in their careers, that as they approached the middle years of writing they were “reevaluated.” The second guessers and the parvenus who could not, themselves, create the great and fresh stories, made their shaky reputations by means of pronunciamentos that advised those few literati who gave a damn, that les enfants terribles were now too long in the tooth to produce anything worth reading; that they were past it; and in the name of common decency should embarrass themselves no further by packing it in and retiring to the cultivation of Zen flower gardens. So they both croaked, and did the heavy deeds of assassination for their critics. But had they somehow managed to overcome cancer and alcoholism, had they managed to squeak through for another decade, they’d have found themselves lionized. Each would have made it through the shitrain to become le monstre sacré. Grand old men of letters. National treasures. Every last snippet they’d tapped out on yellow second-sheets sold at Sotheby’s for a pasha’s weight in rubies.
They never made it. Not rugged, spike-tough old Ernest, not lighter-than-air Scott. Time and gravity and the nibbling of minnows did them in. And so they don’t know that they are still famous–though seldom read–in the way that talk show guests are famous: you know their names and often their faces, but you can’t quite remember what the hell it is they did to make them “famous.”
The lesson we who work behind the words learn from this is that if your life is as interesting as your work, or even approaches that level of passion, there will be those who are not-quite-good-enough waiting in the tall grass, waiting to compound your fractures when your brittle bones splinter.
Never get too fat, never get too secure. The rat-things are waiting. Just hang in there long enough, like Borges or Howard Fast or Graham Greene or Jean Rhys, and the sheer volume of accumulated years will daunt all but the most vicious (who quickly self destruct when they try to savage the icons).
The fine novelist Walter Tevis, a sweet man who died on August 9, 1984, knew more than his share of pain. Walter once told me, when I was bitching about constantly being pilloried for trying to startle readers into wakefulness with fiery prose, “You can’t attract the attention of the dead.”
I am well in mind of that epigraph as I sit here writing an introduction to a book of occasional pieces, essays, columns done to a monthly or weekly deadline, that passed along to my readers the world I observed at those times. In the words of Irwin Shaw: “He is engaged in the long process of putting his whole life on paper. He is on a journey and he is reporting in: ‘This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today.'”
Well in mind of Walter’s consoling observation as I consider a scurrilous bit of business published in a jumped-up comic book called Heavy Metal last October 1983. A vitriolic hate-piece accurately titled “Hatcheting Harlan,” as written by one of the universe’s great prose stylists, Gus Patukas. If the name rings no carillons, don’t go searching through THE READER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA or WEBSTER’S AMERICAN BIOGRAPHIES. Turns out Gus is a kid who lives in Brooklyn; buddy chum of a Heavy Metal editor whose own literary accolades are on the level of sucking fish-heads. They’re into swagger, but not much into writing anything that will outlast the paper it’s printed on.
But the best part of the attack came several issues later, in the letter column of this illustrated irritation dedicated to drawings of women with breasts the size of casaba melons and comic strips in which people get their heads blown open like overripe pomegranates. Rather than admitting that they’d received several hundred outraged letters from readers who thought I might have a few good minutes left in me, they presented a “balanced response” by dummying up a couple of letters saying good for Patukas and ever-vigilant Heavy Metal, for bringing to his knees that fraud Ellison, who never could write for sour owl poop to begin with. One of these letters contained the statement that Ellison is an enemy of the People.
“Liberty is better served by presenting a clear target to one’s opponents than by joining with them in an insincere and useless brotherliness.”
–Benedetto Croce, 1866-1952 Italian philosopher, historian, statesman, and literary critic.
I thought about that one for some time. And then I had to smile. The author of that letter, someone who signed himself “William Charles Rosetta, LA, California” (though no such person–as one with the “Jon Douglas West” you will encounter in these pages–seems to exist in Los Angeles or anywhere else), had miraculously stumbled on a hidden truth.
I am, indeed, an enemy of the people.
Ibsen, who noted that “To live is to war with trolls,” codified the “enemy of the people” in his classic drama about a courageous man who tells the truth about a public menace–the contamination of the town’s famous healing spring waters–which will bring about the community’s economic demise. This honest man, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, plans to shut down the springs to make improvements for the public good. But when “economic realities” dictate otherwise, Stockmann’s brother, Peter, who is the mayor, undercuts his efforts by turning him from a hero in the eyes of his neighbors, into “an enemy of the people.”
“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
The sixty-one personal essays that make up this book are my proud statement of enmity toward the people. Not just to people like Patukas and “Rosetta” and the pinheads at Heavy Metal whose dreary little lives move them to such ignoble attacks of foaming idiocy against their betters, but enmity toward the censors and the pro-gun lobbyists and the filmmakers who brutalize women in the name of “art” and the smoothyguts politicians who secure their futures with arms manufacturers by stealing money from the schools and the lousy writers who monopolize the spinner racks and their venal publishers who have destroyed the mid-list in search of bestsellers and the bible-thumpers who want prayer in the schools as long as we pray to their God and to the gray little bookkeepers who know their dancing decimal points cheat honest men and women out of their annuities and the garage mechanics who lie and tell you they can’t repair that thingamajig unless you buy a new whatzit for seventy-five bucks and the headless snakes that are the multinational corporations that remove products you like from the supermarkets because cheaper items move more units per capita and the terrorists and the zealots and the true believers and the insensitive and the dull-witted and the self-righteous. All of whom are parts of “the people.”
“I have sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
You’d better believe it, I am an enemy of the people. The people who stand by and do nothing. The ones who don’t want to get involved, and the ones who don’t want to risk a dime of their money; the ones who permit evil to walk unchecked, and the ones who abet the monsters because “If I didn’t do it, someone else would”; the ones who beat up their kids because they’re part of the household goods, and the ones whose rapaciousness gives them coin to bully the weak. I am foursquare and forever till the moment I go under … an enemy to the people who lie to you and want to keep you stupid. To those who sell you shitty rock music and drive classical and jazz off the FM dial, to those who tell you wallboard is better than lath and plaster, to those who say bad grammar is okay as long as you understand (however vaguely) what’s being said. To the ginks and the creeps and the trendies and the destroyers of the past, who deny you your future.
I am a yapping dog with mean little teeth. I am as often as wrong as you, as often silly as you, as often co-opted as you, as often sophomoric as you. But I maintain. As do you.
And here, in these sixty-one personal essays that need no introduction because they are, themselves, introductions, I pass along what I saw and wrote about for three years, from August 1980 to January 1983. (With a one-shot relapse in August of 1984.)
They were written with an edge in my voice, and they may make no more profound statement than to assure you that for the duration of this book you are in no other hands than those of an enemy of the people.
Danielle Belopotosky is a dedicated “real-book person” but was prepared to keep an open mind as she road-tested the Kindle 2, a variety of Sony readers and some iPhone nouvellement arriveés like the Stanza and Shortcovers. The net result is that she’s still a dedicated real-book person, but now maybe a little less so. “I’ve come around on my opposition to e-book. Somewhat,” she grudgingly admits in her New York Times e-book survey.
The new Kindle is thinner than the original and has a sharper screen with more shades of gray, producing easy-to-read, crisp text in any light. But while the Kindle is nice to look at, it is a pain to navigate. There’s a five-way joystick that you can use to maneuver through menus, but it’s stiff and tough to master. Would a touch screen be too much to ask?
The keyboard lets you add notes to text, but no one is going to want to write a novel of their own using its small plasticky buttons. Also, Amazon’s page numbering system is ridiculous: Instead of “page 23,” you get data such as “location 47-82” and “2%” along the bottom of the screen. After using the Kindle for a week, I still don’t know what all that means.
She likes many things about Sony’s PRS-700, especially its touch screen, virtual keyboard, easy page numbering and access to many book websites and digital libraries. Some other functions, especially the annoying difficulties of downloading e-books via cable instead of wirelessly as in the Kindle, got lower marks from Belopotosky.
Check out A Walk Through a Crop of Readers and note what she has to say about the hot-off-the-press Shortcovers.
Despite increased respect for e-books Belopotosky will stand pat with book-books “unless Amazon comes out with a special ‘book scented’ Kindle.” Don’t laugh: if Amazon can make a book talk, they can make it smell.
CrunchGear’s John Biggs conducts a debate with himself about whether or not to buy a Kindle. He offers ten reasons pro and ten con, and it’s logical to conclude the results are a draw. But every consumer brings different criteria to decisions.
For instance, travelers will put great weight on carrying lots of books in one slim device. (It also helps that the Kindle works well in inclement weather.) Scholars will agree with his criticism that it’s terrible for research, reference and student applications (“Expect ebooks to hit colleges in perhaps five years and high schools and grade schools in about seven” Biggs says). For some, cosmetic beauty is a consideration, and the sleek look and feel of the Kindle (v. 2) trumps functionality. For others, such functions as highlighting, bookmarking, dictionary lookup and 16 greyscale shades are paramount.
And then there are those who love the idea that you only need one hand to read on your Kindle. What you do with the other hand was a source of great hilarity when Jeff Bezos appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to hype the newly released device. For a good smirk, click on Bezos’ appearance, and note his laughter, which soars beyond good-natured and approaches the diabolical.
If you’re still on the fence about buying a Kindle, read 10 reasons to buy a Kindle 2… and 10 reasons not to and see if it helps you make up your mind. And keep both hands where we can see them.
Yesterday was one of those days when the stars aligned for Amazon’s Kindle PR team. All the major tech blogs published multiple articles on the Kindle 2, coinciding with the recent deliveries of the new device into people’s homes and offices. And then today, even a few more articles shuffled out of the gate.
The Kindle 2 has some serious opponents, namely the editors at Gizmodo, who have been eager to take the e-book reader down a peg because it’s not yet their dream device, but all press is good press in the end. Here’s a round-up of some of the best and most colorful blog writings about the Kindle 2 in the last 2 weeks.
The Kindle 2 at Blogs Round-Up:
Review Matrix of Kindle 2 (USA Today vs. Wired vs. NYT), by Gizmodo, Feb 25th, 2009
Jeff Bezos chats up the Kindle 2 with Jon Stewart, by Engadget, Feb 25th, 2008
Amazon Kindle 2: a full review, by CNET’s Crave Blog, Feb 25th, 2009
10 reasons to buy a Kindle 2… and 10 reasons not to, by TechCrunch, Feb 25th, 2009
Kindle 2 Unboxing and Hands-On, by Engadget, Feb. 24th, 2009
Kindle 2 Stripped Naked; Chip Is Faster Than iPhone’s, by Wired, Feb. 24th, 2009
Designing the Kindle 2, by CNET’s Crave Blog, Feb 24th, 2009
What’s the average age of Kindle owners?, by CNET’s Crave Blog, Feb 24th, 2009
Kindle 2 dissected, found to contain space for a SIM card, by iFixit, Feb. 24th, 2009
Kindle’s text to speech feature voiced by “Tom” Cruise?, by Engadget, Feb. 20th, 2009
Showdown: Kindle 2 vs. Sony Reader, by Wired, Feb. 9th, 2009
And more from Gizmodo’s War Against The Kindle 2:
First Kindle 2 Destroyed, Showing Extended Warranty May Be Worth It, by Gizmodo, Feb 25th, 2009
Giz Explains: Why There Isn’t a Perfect Ebook Reader, by Gizmodo, Feb 12th, 2009
Why Kindle 2 Isn’t a Big Step Forward For Voracious Readers, by Gizmodo, Feb 9th, 2009
– Michael Gaudet
Before, We couldn’t Tell Publishers Without A Scorecard. Now, We Have a Scorecard But Nobody’s Buying
Bertelsmann owns Random House Inc. and Random House Inc. owns Crown Publishing Group and Crown Publishing Group owns Broadway Books. You follow? But Bertelsmann also owns Random House Publishing Group which owns Little Random House. You still with me? Crown Publishing Group owns Crown Business, which incorporates Doubleday Business. Somewhere in there is WaterBrook Multnomah which incorporates Multnomah and WaterBrook Press. And let’s not forget Potter Craft, Back Stage Books, Lone Eagle Publishing, and Wendy Lamb Books.
What’s that? Your head is exploding and you’re begging me to stop? Darn, I was just getting started and have a hundred more Random House divisions to go. And I haven’t even gotten into Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin and Macmillan.
The good news is that there is at last an organizational chart for major publishers, their divisions, imprints, subsidiaries, affiliates, their sisters and their cousins and their aunts, along with charts for about a dozen smaller publishers with multiple imprints. All thanks to Publishers Marketplace, an affiliate (or is it first cousin once removed?) of Publishers Lunch, the invaluable online publishing industry newsletter created by Michael Cader. The announcement states:
Spurred by recent realignments at a number of the largest publishing companies, we have finally launched a feature at PM to answer many member requests: a live, and fully-linked, list of large publishing companies and their many divisions and imprints (which also notes corporate parents)…We also linked in now-defunct imprints absorbed by other lines.
These family trees are accessible to subscribers of Publishers Lunch including bewildered agents needing to know whether ESPN Books is a division of Random House (it is), Hudson Street Press is a division of Macmillan (it isn’t), or Simon & Schuster is owned by Penguin (not yet).
Mr. Cader added a special feature that will further endear him to agents. He has tied his list “directly to Top Dealmakers, so that it reveals imprint size according to deals reported and clicks through to individual imprint Dealmaker pages.” Thus we learn that Berkley Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, was involved in 401 deals reported in Publishers Lunch, whereas Jove, a member of the same group, reported but one deal. How agents process that information depends on whether they are from the glass-half-full school (Berkley’s buying! Jove is starving for product!) or the glass-half-empty school (Berkley’s overbought! Jove isn’t buying!).
In any event Publishers Marketplace’s innovation will go far to reduce confusion for all denizens of Publishingland, but we hope Mr. Cader has retained a full-time data entry specialist to keep up with the mergers, acquisitions, deacquisitions, consolidations, spinoffs, reorganizations, reconfigurations and retitlings that seem to have been our daily portion for the last few decades.
Dinosaur family tree Copyright © Australian Museum, 2002
Note: This article was published 23 years ago. I reprint it unaltered. RC
I’ve always liked editors but I never used to feel sorry for them. That changed when the acquisition of Doubleday was announced in 1986.
Until then, whenever I heard that a publisher had been acquired by some sprawling conglomerate, or merged with another publisher, or had simply given up the ghost and shut its doors, my first thought had always been, This is bad for authors. The displacement, the disruption, the disarray caused by these corporate earthquakes have been nothing short of calamitous. The publishing landscape of the past thirty-five years is littered with ruined books beyond counting and haunted by the shades of authors whose careers have been maimed and prematurely terminated.
But in the tumultuous last week of September 1986, when deals were concluded for the acquisition of Doubleday and New American Library, my first thought was, How terrible this all must be for editors.
To continue, click here.
Few pleasures compare to reading early iterations of a famous book or musical composition. When Beethoven’s long-lost piano rendition for four hands of his Grosse Fuge (pictured here) was discovered and displayed at Sotheby’s, I lost myself gazing at it until impatient visitors elbowed me away from the glass case. Not only were there numerous changes and emendations but on one passage the composer had scratched out the score so violently he tore the script and had to apply a paper patch over it. With similar fascination we pore over drafts of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable”) or Beatles lyrics (Paul McCartney wrote something called, “Baby, You Can Wear My Diamond Ring” which John Lennon rewrote as “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”) or the Gettysburg Address, which flowed almost fully polished from Abraham Lincoln’s hand.
Since the dawn of computerized word processing scholars have rightfully expressed alarm that such drafts of works in progress will be completely expunged by technology. Andrew Motion, in an essay entitled Saving writers’ manuscripts for the nation published in the online edition of the Times Literary Supplement, writes,
“A manuscript can show the cancellations, the substitutions, the shifting towards the ultimate form and the final meaning. A notebook, simply by being a fixed sequence of pages, can supply evidence of chronology. Unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work all contribute to our knowledge of a writer’s intentions; his letters and diaries add to what we know of his life and the circumstances in which he wrote.”
And poet Kevin Stein, in a Kenyon Review article called Death by 0s and 1s, says,
“What eventually finds its way into literary archives may well be altered over time. Today it’s the poet’s worksheets, manuscripts, drafts, and letters – maybe even her notebooks and scribbled back-of-the-envelope verses. Given the above, however, one wonders if soon computer diskettes and flash drives will become germane to the notion of literary “papers.” Those media carry new poems and drafts that never made their way onto paper, so they carry invaluable digital cargo. Sure, hard copy drafts may be printed from each for storing in special collections, but what does it mean to take the original and present it in form the author never felt comfortable enough to give it? Maybe the poem as digital object must be retained as such.
Happily, revision control software exists enabling authors, editors, scholars and students to track iterations and save them for future analysts. Though not nearly as thrilling as standing inside of Walt Whitman’s mind as he constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs “Song of Myself”, at least the process will not be lost to us entirely, as it was in danger of doing in the early years of word processing.
But now there’s something just as ominous to worry about. “Consider”, we read in Amazon Kindle = Privacy FAIL by a blogger named Stephanie, “what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital format.
The US government, after reviewing the work, determines that certain passages amount to national security threat, and sends Amazon and the publisher national security letters demanding the offending passages be removed. Now not only will anyone who purchases the book get the new, censored copy, but anyone who had bought the book previously and then syncs their Kindle with Amazon…will, probably unknowingly, have the old version replaced by the new, “cleaned up” version on their device. The original version was never printed, and now it’s like it didn’t even exist. What’s more, the government now has a list of everyone who downloaded both the old and new versions of the book.”
“I hope,” says the blogger, “this comes off as a crazy conspiracy theory spun by a troubled mind with an overactive imagination.”
We hope so, too. But Nicholas Carr, writing about the automatically updatable book in his “Rough Type” blog, has elected to worry this bone. “One of the things that happens when books and other writings start to be distributed digitally through web-connected devices like the Kindle is that their text becomes provisional. Automatic updates can be sent through the network to edit the words stored in your machine – similar to the way that, say, software on your PC can be updated automatically today.” “Does history begin to become as provisional as the text in the books?” Carr frets.
It’s definitely a fretworthy issue. Given the state of our technology, censorship, rewriting of history, and mind control are only a few clicks away. As blogger Stephanie says, “Censorship in the age of the Kindle will be more subtle, and much more dangerous.”
Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Maybe. But is anything more fundamentally honest than shit?
A couple of months ago we expressed confusion about Barnes & Noble’s financial maneuvers. After the book chain’s czar Leonard Riggio announced the company had suffered the worst holiday season in memory, media mogul Ron Burkle bought an 8.3% stake in it. A short while later, Pershing Square Capital Management dumped its entire holdings of B&N, amount to nearly 12%. I wondered, “If things are so terrible, why is someone buying in? And if things are so wonderful, why is someone cashing out?”
We now learn that First Eagle Global Fund has declared in an SEC filing that it controls 11.7 percent of the B&N’s shares. Publishers Lunch points out that “with additional interests on behalf of clients their stake of more than 7 million shares comprises 12.77 percent of BN shares.” That makes First Eagle Global the largest institutional holder of the company’s stock.
After Riggio’s heartwrenching cri de coeur during the holiday season it’s comforting to know that some investors still believe there’s value in B&N.
Were the Sixties put on earth so that Marco Vassi could happen? Or was Marco Vassi put on earth so that the Sixties could happen? To read his classic works of erotic fiction and his masterpiece of autobiographical fiction, The Stoned Apocalypse, is to realize that the man and the era were created out of the same fire and primordial elements. It is not, however, enough to say that Marco Vassi was a child of his age. It could just as accurately be said that the age was Marco Vassi’s fantasy, a fantasy so intense and compelling that it is impossible to read any of his books in one sitting: one must either jump into a cold shower, relieve oneself sexually, or go for a long contemplative walk to reflect on the profundity of his insights into human behavior.
Vassi had done many things before he became a writer, but writing was not one of them except for some translations from Chinese and critiques of manuscripts submitted to a literary agency where he was employed for a few years. He had also tried numerous identities on for size as he acted out and lived out the experiences that were to pour from his mind like water raging over the spillway of a dam. When in the late 1960’s “Fred” Vassi announced that he was embarking on a journey, his friends knew that it was not to a place but to a state of mind.
The state of mind was what came to be known as The Sixties, and anyone seeking to live in that state must enter it through the vision of the author of these works. In cartographic terms it was a journey from the East Coast to California, a trip that resonates with meaning for every student of The American Experience. Speaking metaphorically, however, it was a trip into the heart of life, love, laughter, horror, and sweet pain. Fred Vassi came back Marco Vassi, having recreated himself in the name of the intrepid voyager to the ends of the known world hundreds of years ago.
Heart fecund with all that had happened to him, he started writing the work that was eventually to become The Stoned Apocalypse, a book that captured in coruscating words what others of his generation were capturing so brilliantly in music.
With no source of regular income he tried his hand at what were then popularly known as “sex novels”, a genre of tame pornography that pandered to the fantasies of repressed males still mired in postwar inhibition. With the wide-eyed innocence and self-deprecating humor that characterized every venture he undertook, he showed them to me, his friend and a fledgling literary agent. He merely hoped to raise a few dollars with them. I told him that they were the most incredibly arousing works of erotic literature since Henry Miller, and arranged for them to be brought out by Olympia Press, Miller’s publisher. Critics and reviewers confirmed my assessment. What distinguished his books from the rest of the pack was the application of Vassi’s intelligence. He knew that the mind is the most erotic organ of all. He termed this fusion of mind and sex organs “Metasex.”
For Marco Vassi, the liberation of sexual emotions, paralleling the liberation of so many others in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, promised a new age of beauty, love, and honesty, and he lived his vision to the hilt – quite literally. For a long while it seemed to him impossible that this vision did not rest on the bedrock of reality.
But, in the words of Robert Frost, nothing gold can stay. The bloody hand of Vietnam and the corrupt fist of the Nixon presidency crushed the fragile beauty of the flower generation. The unbridled commercialism that became the 1980’s captured and exploited the butterflies of Woodstock, enriching half of them and killing the other half with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Finally, the horror of a new scourge, AIDS, visited death upon the bodies of those who had dreamed of eternal love, irresponsible fun, and self-realization. It was then that Marco Vassi awoke from his dream of The Sixties. When he did, the virus had entered his blood. The first malady of any consequence to come along – in this case pneumonia – conquered his defenseless immune system and made short work of him.
Marco Vassi’s body died, but not the body of his work, which lives again in E-Reads editions. Like a rainbow over a bleak landscape, his dream of The Sixties shimmers above the depressing, sordid, and tragic decades that succeeded his. And ultimately, it triumphs over them.
– Richard Curtis