Archives for the month of: March, 2014

NPR did a story on virtual reality the other day and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Perhaps it’s because the story tells of a virtual reality realization of a scene from Game of Thrones, to the reading of which I recently devoted many hours.

It makes me think about what it is we are really looking for when we read narratives. (I’ll restrict this discussion to fiction, though one can imagine pretty dramatic applications of virtual reality in teaching.) The human brain does seem to be set up to crave stories. Whether this is hard-wired, or just learned behavior, I’ll have to leave to cognitive science — but it does seem to be pretty universal. The novel, it could be argued, evolved because we had developed a printing industry suited to the manufacture of books of a certain length, and writers responded to the financial stimulus of printer/publishers to produce manuscripts of the desired heft. Maybe the narrative form is ready for another great leap forward?

For the origins of storytelling I suppose we have to think of a narrator sitting by a fire, keeping his caveman companions enthralled. The printing press enabled the storyteller to reach an audience far beyond the fireside, and allowed that audience to share (or to imagine itself sharing) the same vision as the storyteller had in his/her head. In an ideal world we would, wouldn’t we, want the picture conjured up in the mind of the reader to be exactly the same as that in the mind of the author? In other words when we read about Mr Micawber, should we hope that the chap we see is the same fellow that Dickens saw in his mind’s eye? Presumably, to some extent this is the ideal — otherwise authors wouldn’t waste ink describing their characters.

Unsurprisingly opinions differ. There’s an interesting discussion of the topic on Palimpsest, originated by one Flutty, who writes “My visually based memory places the episodes of the book in a familiar place to me, but with other memories and other intruding detail. This is an involuntary process. It just springs into my mind fully formed.” Flutty specifies his/her reaction to Silas Marner: “I have a good view of the inside of his stony cottage. But when he emerges from it he walks out onto Walton Road, in my home town. On that road there is a real cottage like the one described in the book, well there was one in the 1970s when I lived there. The problem is that I cannot eliminate other details from this view. I can see the main road that passes by, the knowledge that it is on the number 19 bus route and nearby is Walton Dam. What makes this harder for me is that these are often childhood memories and thus very strong.”

When I read a story I see people and I see a scene. The scene is time specific (ie not like Flutty’s version, with the 19 bus running past a nineteenth century cottage). Of course I don’t really know what any place would have looked like in say 1829, but I imagine I do. I wonder how close my scene is to other people’s, and how close that is to what George Eliot had in mind when writing the book? We probably all pick up our ideas of what a nineteenth century cottage interior looked like from a limited number of sources, so there may just be a few available pictures for us to “see”. Of course some authors don’t go in for physical description, which is fine: I wonder if this is because they have no picture in their mind, or because they resist imposing that picture on the reader. If an author does go in for detailed description of characters and settings, should we think that he/she actually wishes we readers could see the same scene? I think that would be so, otherwise why “waste” time doing it?

Virtual reality exists — I’m sure it’s fiendishly expensive, and not the sort of thing anyone’s going to invest in to bring Silas Marner before our (physical) eye. The Occulus company in the NPR story has sold 60,000 developer kits, so someone is working on this. The kit looks a bit cumbersome, it’s true. But we are all conditioned to assume that any technology will get smaller and cheaper, so who knows — we may soon be able to do this sort of thing relatively cheaply. If you are apparently there, sitting in the corner of Silas Marner’s front room, watching him without his being aware of any intruder — well, for me anyway, that would be amazing, and would definitely wean me from reading the words and convert me to “living the experience”. Probably, if we could do that, we could eventually go further and download, as it were, the author’s vision. After all if we can figure out how to transmit a visual reality experience, maybe it wouldn’t be a too gigantic next step to figure out how to record it all direct from the author’s brain*. Then we would be able to see exactly the same pictures as the author imagined when telling the story.

I can’t wait!

*  Yes, yes, it’s entirely different I know, but we are making steady advances in brain science. And I’m an optimist.

** Here’s a Gigaom post including a Kickstarter video about 3-D printing your own virtual reality set which will run with your iPhone.


This chart accompanies a Washington Post story headed “One reason to look forward to getting older”. When at the end they say “Click below for the rest of Walker’s charts” you need to look down to the bottom of the window to the red bar saying “Know more: datawovn”. Ignore the charts and pictures appearing just below this story.

At bottom all this talk about possible subscription models for signing up to a list of books — stimulated in large part by the music business and occasionally referred to as Spotify or Netflix for books — is describing nothing more than the book club reborn. True, with Book-of-the-Month-Club you didn’t pay for the book till you got it, but there’s no reason a book club can’t charge an annual membership fee and supply (printed) books throughout the year. New York Review Books runs one such club which works quite well. With e-books it is only simpler. One service already up and running is Scribd — this GalleyCat link reports their Kindle Fire app and gives some idea of their growth. C/Net interviewed the founder of Oyster which is offering subscriptions to a growing list of books from many publishers. This story from Business Week on 15 January suggests that Amazon will simply take over this business from the publishing industry too — you can always rely on someone to say those dumb publishers will lose out on whatever whenever to the efficiency of the giant Amazonian.

Brave New World has an extensive analysis of the subscription model in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. They correctly point out that Scientific, Technical and Medical publishers have been selling their content on a subscription basis for years, and with considerable success. True their customers tend to be libraries, but databases full of journal and monograph material have been being accessed that way for a considerable time. Maybe trade publishing is different — “In the U.S., it is claimed that some 25% of people are reading ebooks, but is this enough to support a subscription model, where it’s not that you read an ebook, but more dependent on how many and how often you read them?” Brave New World asks. But I’m not sure that’s the right question: at $8.99 or $10 a month the deal must be attractive to some readers who are used to paying that sort of sum for an individual e-book — whether they read few or many need not concern the provider — one of the beauties of the e-book world is that your marginal cost is zero or thereabouts.

Brave New World ends “However it is often harder to see an industry which is often slow to change and diverse in its structure making those changes.” This I think is a bum rap: it’s an easy thing to say, so people say it a lot — but publishing has always been changing, is changing now, and will change more in the future. Nobody running a large business can just say “Stop what you are doing, and do something else”. Like the proverbial ocean liner, it takes time to turn this thing around. There are laws preventing industry-wide collusion, so naturally it is hard to discern any uniform direction.

Later: here from The Digital Reader of 30 April is a report on more publishers signing up with subscription services.

Huffington Post of 13 March carries this slightly over-hyped account of the origins of a few typefaces. I’m sorry, I didn’t find the stories “incredible”, nor are these my favorites, but if you just want to know a little about a few typefaces, here they are. I think they missed an opportunity in not using the font discussed in each section.

I was quite impressed to receive this e-mail from New York Public Library 4 days before my book was due back. In spite of this sort of capability, when I did return the volume the person in front of me was paying an overdue fine of $18.50, without apparent demur.

03-09-14 10:


The item you borrowed is due soon. Please renew or return the item.

Questions? Contact AskNYPL at 917-ASK-NYPL (917-275-6975)

Find out about programs at the Library

Give a Gift to All New Yorkers:

AUTHOR:  Grafton, Anthony.

The footnote : a curious history

CALL NO: 907.2 G

BARCODE: 33333121771212

Mid-Manhattan Non-Fictio DUE: 03-13-14

A nice video series initiated by The Lexicography Society at Columbia University.

Each video takes a word and films someone talking about it – what the word means to them. The words covered so far are “swish”, “infinite”, “mu”, “sanguine”, “beautility”, “stop”, “saudade”, “discombobulated”, “doughty”, “meditate” and “escalate”.

The prime mover, Yin Yin Lu, has recently transferred to Lincoln College, Oxford, and is looking for a video producer so she can continue the series over there. She hopes to resume filming this summer.

The “commercial at” has notoriously had a massive shot in the arm with the development of e-mail addresses. No doubt selected because it was the least used symbol on the keyboard, it may now be the most popular. It used to hide out in price listings, where it would show up as “2 lbs butter @ 11d = 1/10”. (For the puzzled: 2 pounds of butter at 11 pence a pound = 22 pence, which is 1 shilling and ten pence.)

The erudite blog, Typefounder, written by James Mosely, has an extensive history of @, dating from October 6, 2013.

#, which we call hash-tag now, is another symbol plucked from relative obscurity (by Twitter). We use it in the book business to mean basis weight.

Unsurprisingly, some have written to The Guardian disagreeing with Hanif Kureishi’s jaundiced view of creative writing courses, which was linked to in my post of 7 March.

The Guardian seems to be stirring this pot quite vigorously: here’s another piece from 3 March assessing the value of a creative writing degree.

I think the problem with all this is the way we have slipped into the assumption nowadays that a degree has to be about qualifying you for a job. What happened to the idea that education was a good in and of itself? Doing a degree course used to be “education” and thus good for you, training the mind, enriching your life, and so on. Now it seems it’s pointless if it doesn’t enable you walk into a job paying many thousands of dollars. Obviously needing to repay a large student loan will focus your mind on the desirability of getting a job paying enough to work off the debt — but that’s not the only good thing you’ll get from your university. Clearly lots of people every year think they’ll gain something by doing a creative writing course: the something doesn’t have to be a job, or a publishing contract.

From this Guardian story, it would seem that Wikipedia (unsurprisingly) has grown quite a lot since my earlier post about someone who had printed it all out and bound it as a single very fat volume. I’m not sure it’s worth $50,000 just to know how many volumes the complete Wikipedia would make. I’m happy to take their word for it that it’ll be a lot. Nor would I wish to refer to Wikipedia in any way other than the one in which it is designed to be accessed.

The Economist story suggests that the book idea is a sort of victory lap on the part of Wikipedia itself. I usually respond their annual appeal – not sure it’s too appealing to think of my donation going towards this piece of vanity publishing.

There are hundreds of college writing programs in the United States – the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) provides “support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 500 college and university creative writing programs, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers”. Creative writing courses tend to struggle to get respect (except for Iowa’s apparently), but also seem to be heavily subscribed to. “Only about one percent of graduates from writing programs go on to write for a living, whereas 90 percent of medical school graduates become self-supporting doctors” I read recently, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Being a writer isn’t a job like being a doctor is, and many writers are also doctors. Studying medicine, which takes 6 or 7 years, doesn’t suit you for a job in any field other than medical, whereas a 1 or 2 year MFA (Master of Fine Arts) course really doesn’t suit you for a job in any field at all! The number of writers who are able to live on the earnings from their writing is small – I would have been willing to believe 1% of the whole, not just 1% of those who had graduated from a writing program according to Harbach’s Slate piece (see below). Hugh Howey has started a site called Author Earnings which is busily analyzing the fragmentary data available on e-book sales (his main contention being that self-published e-books outsell conventionally published ones, by a lot. This is a long article — Howey writes copiously and intelligently — but it is well worth reading). Maybe Author Earnings will be able eventually to come up with an answer to the question of how many authors are able to live solely from their writing – he has asked the question.

Intuitively one is inclined to agree with Chad Harbach’s harsh judgement of writing programs in his 2010 Slate article (now worked up into a book), MFA vs. NYC: “. . . populated by ever younger, often immediately post-collegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ’70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.” His article, a lengthy one, is really engaged in speculating of the future of the New York literary scene, striving for the great American novel, as distinguished from the MFA world with its obsession with the short story. Here’s Hanif Kureishi rather shooting himself in the foot in The Guardian on 4 March as far as keeping his teaching job is concerned.

There’s no denying the popularity of writing programs. I just attended the AWP annual conference in Seattle. (Here’s a report from The New Yorker‘s blog “Page-Turner”. The picture at the top of it is of Elliott Bay Book Co.) Four years ago there were about 4,000 registrants – this year there were between 12,000 and 14,000 (the upper and lower limits of the numbers I was told). There are a few regular  publishers in attendance – a couple of Higher Ed houses publishing “textbooks/readers” for an MFA course, and a few smaller literary houses. Then there are lots of literary reviews and small presses — lot and lots – all looking for material to publish. Naturally there was table upon table of Writing programs, soliciting attendees, and scouting for potential employees which will be found among the many recent and soon-to-be graduates of such courses. Then there are the writers, probably largely synonymous with the recent graduates group but not entirely, looking to hook up with a publisher, or maybe land that job. The program listed 388 Author signing events! The first question you were asked was “Are you a writer?”, or occasionally “Do you write poetry or prose?”. Eventually I started saying that as I do a blog I guessed I was a writer. Made me feel rather good actually. I was even asked to submit an article to a not-altogether-unheard-of journal!

All of the aspiring writers I spoke to wanted to get a “real” publisher. Self publishing was not an attractive option to them, in spite of Hugh Howey’s assurance that “. . . some writers today are deciding to forgo six-figure advances in order to self-publish”. He of course is successful already, and sounds like a man who always had a strong self-belief, so calculations like the following may be what goes on in his head: “Anecdotal evidence and an ever more open community of self-published authors have caused some to suggest that owning one’s rights is more lucrative in the long run than doing a deal with a major publisher. What used to be an easy decision (please, anyone, take my book!) is now one that keeps many aspiring authors awake at night.” Of course my sample was small but I think most first-time authors are desperate for the validation of a bricks-and-mortar publisher, and also for a printed book. They of course were not I’m sure looking at a six-figure advance, or indeed any advance. Not the sort of people Howey is talking about. No doubt a much larger population, who are still being kept awake at night by  the thought “Please, anyone, take my book!”

What all this makes me think is that this constant agonizing about the future of publishing is just so much nonsense. I didn’t ask, but I wonder how many of the publishers I observed in Seattle were less than five years old. The barriers to entry to the publishing business are virtually non-existent now: the material they need is being produced in a copious flow. And don’t say “But how much of it is any good”. How much of what gets written (not to say published) was ever any good? Sure, we’ll see many bad books, but the proportion of masterpieces is likely to remain fairly constant — the allocation of genius by our gene pool remaining invariable. Maybe eventually authors will become less fixated on a printed book; maybe formats will change as we invent new ways to tell stories; maybe self publishing will become a larger slice of the pie chart — it all doesn’t really matter: books will continue to be published.