Archives for the month of: August, 2015

I’m always a bit suspicious of this sort of claim; but this looks like a fairly reasonable list, sent to me by “Gibson Square” of Cabbieblog — for which thanks. It would appear that Robert McCrum has restricted himself to one book per author. Maybe the list should really be called “100 best novelists in English, represented by one book each”. Still, if you settle down and read your way through these books, you’ll be suffused by warm feelings of self-satisfaction, and will of course also be keen to go on with others of their works.

Mr McCrum has apparently been doing this at a rate of one per week for the past couple of years. His account of the saga includes links to several of the selections with discussion of his choice. (You can also get there by clicking the title link in the original listing.) Guardian readers have been suggesting that the list lacks diversity. But isn’t “diversity” a rather recent concern, and however much we may regret the failings of our forefathers isn’t it just too late do do anything about the history? Whatever, The Guardian is appealing to us all to come up with a more diverse list. Read all this stuff, and you’ll be able to put off your serious reading for quite some time. Robert McCrum seems impossible to stop: here’s his 2013 list of the 100 greatest novels of all time (in any language, but translated into English). Unsurprisingly, there’s a good deal of overlap here — I remain puzzled why Three men in a boat makes it onto either list — it’s on both! Maybe it’s just an example of peculiarly English humour, to which I’m proudly impervious. What will he be listing next?

By the way I like Cabbieblog’s report on the idea of making disused subway tracks in London into underground bike paths. I rather hesitated when thinking about the air quality, but I suppose we can find a way around that after we stop the trains running through.

Laura Miller’s 27 March 2014 story on Salon suggests that readers are being deprived of “content” because of the struggle over royalty rates between publishers and authors and agents. But the example given is a bit more complicated than that. If the author insists that Julie of the Wolves be switched from HaperCollins (who have been publishing it successfully for 42 years) to Open Road Integrated Media so she can get a bigger royalty, whose fault is it if HarperCollins insists they want to do it themselves at their standard (lower) royalty — they “owning” the right to publish? We are prompted yet again to resent the iniquity of one of the Big Five fat-cat publishers. But surely the author is the one preventing publication.

Just what royalty rate would be right for e-books? 50% as per Open Road we can perhaps accept as the high bid (though there are of course indie publishing types who think even that rather cheeseparing). The Authors Guild thinks it should be 50%. If I was bidding to publish the e-book edition of an established strong-selling YA book like Julie of the Wolves I might be happy to offer a 50% royalty, knowing that I wouldn’t be encumbered by any cost for getting the book “known” or for developing it from scratch. With a new book, unknown to anyone but the author and partially to my editor, I might find such a royalty a bit too high. Once the book was written I’d have to pay for editing, copyediting, design of a cover, formatting (what we used to call typesetting). That’s pretty much it for an e-book, though of course the retailer is going to take a cut. Maybe I’d think 25% for the author, 25% for me, and 50% for the retailer might be a safer bet. After all the vast, vast, vast majority of new books fail, and who’s to know for sure this one would be an exception. Just because the cost of paper printing and binding is absent from e-books doesn’t mean that the entire amount of the resultant “savings” should be heaped onto the author. Royalty rates are a weapon of competition. If I set my standard rate at 50% I am really competing with my own margins. I expect the discussion will be going on for a year or two, and at the end I’d be surprised if it doesn’t settle down at something like 20% or 25% initially with an escalator clause bringing it up to 50% after X thousand sales.

The familiar argument that e-books are costless appears again in Ms Miller’s piece, though it is just not true*. There are always costs which need to be recovered. If we are on a slope which leads to 90% of books being sold as e-books, it would be a red-faced, red-ink-soaked publisher who had agreed to allow a 50% or 70% royalty on them from the get-go. We live today (and maybe will for ever) in a hybrid world where the needs to be a printed edition as well as an e-book edition. Demanding a higher royalty on one edition just means the other one subsidizes it even more. Loading costs onto the print edition — just because up until now that’s how it’s been since most e-books even now are conversions from a pre-existing print edition — is not a reason to continue to do so. After all, the print edition may not sell. Dennis Johnson of Melville House, referring to book buyers’ habit of browsing in physical bookstores to find out about interesting new titles, then going online to purchase an e-book at a lower price, said “Showrooming is real. In a way, the print book is an advertisement for the e-book and the e-book royalties subsidize the expense of getting those print books out to the stores where people can discover it.”


*Julie of the Wolves may be a relatively cheap book to convert to digital, plus a book which can expect to sell pretty well. But a very different story could be constructed with say Oswald Wynd’s Black Fountains, published in 1947 by Doubleday, and out of print for some time. Obviously no digital files exist – do these folks think they can be created for nothing? The fact that Wynd died in 1998 makes his books (all of them are OP in USA, and only The Ginger Tree seems still to be available in UK from Eland Books) difficult to bring back into “print”. The cost of chasing up heirs and getting rights is probably more than anyone could ever reasonably hope to make from selling his works as e-books.

This video from AbeBooks tells you why old books smell the way they do. The smell of a book has been the subject of three previous posts which can be reached via the tab “Index to all posts” at the top of the page.

Thanks to Open Culture for the link.

The New York Times Book Review of 23 August prints a review by Joshua Cohen (yes, that one, not the fictional Joshua Cohen who was ghostwriting the autobiography of that other Joshua Cohen in The Book of Numbers, recently published by Joshua Cohen, our guy). The book he reviews is Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa. In the course of the review Cohen writes “The subject of this one [non-fiction diatribe] is ‘our’ lack: of common culture, of common context, common sets of referents and allusions, and a common understanding of who or what that pronoun ‘our’ might refer to anymore, now that even papers of record have capitulated to individually curated channels and algorithmicized feeds. ‘Notes’ begins with a survey of the literature of cultural decline, focussing on Eliot’s ‘Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,’ before degenerating into a series of squibs — on Islam, the Internet, the preeminence of sex over eroticism and the spread of the yellow press — most of which began as columns in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. All of which is to say that Vargas Llosa’s cranky, hasty manifesto is made of the very stuff it criticizes: journalism.”

Why do people write this sort of nonsense? (I don’t mean Cohen.) If you can write stuff like this, and believe you have an audience that can understand it (i.e. has, and cares about, a culture), then by definition you must be writing nonsense. So by the very act of writing this stuff Vargas Llosa and others like him undercut the trite point they are making. These old guys need to protect against the temptation to groan on about how everything’s going to the dogs, unlike when they were young and on top of their game. Most reviewers seem to go along with the Nobel laureate’s doomsville thesis: The Scotsman is among the few exceptions. One interesting reaction comes from Reddit where Freakwent writes “Reading is not a prerequisite for culture, art is.”

Old fogeys have always feared the end of culture as we know it. Wasn’t Plato already worrying about this? The extent of the nonsense is pointed up by another review in the same issue of the Book Review. Turn the page and here’s a book, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, by David Orr, published by Penguin Press, and reviewed here in the NYT. Look, look: there are people who care enough to fork over $25.95 for 184pp on this cultural subject, a book-length discussion of a single poem no less, and an editor who thinks it warrants discussion in our paper of record.

Of course we are not losing our culture. There are of course many peasants doggedly focussed on tilling their fields without any thought of the literature and culture of the day, while the knight’s lady sits in her tower reading Le roman de la rose, or the latest Chaucer. Cultures differ; cultures change; feudalism changes; the changes change. But culture rolls on. What Vargas Llosa (and T. S. Eliot and George Steiner) were regretting is not the death of culture but the death of a particular type of culture of which they were rather fond. And they were wrong: it’s still to be found, as always among a minority. People who write like this about the death of culture have merely run out of things to say. Stop wasting paper.

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The fact that the review is by Joshua Cohen makes me want to say something about the reception of The Book of Numbers.

There has been a tendency to suggest that this book represents a new way of writing brought about by the Internet and social media. A writer may chose to write his/her book in any style whatsoever, including one which might be influenced by e-mail I suppose. But I am getting exhausted by these attempts to pretend that social media are killing writing. If anything, the opposite is true. Teenagers today are writing all the time. They are of course not writing with a focus on their style: they write to communicate. When I was a teenager we communicated in giggles and grunts. I see the flashing of tiny fingers over tiny keyboards as a hugely optimistic sign. The Times Literary Supplement says in its review of The Book of Numbers (17 July 2015) “In the twenty-first century, with the spread of smartphones and portable computers, and the rise of a small number of global corporations controlling them, a new self-justifying literary genre is emerging. Still in its infancy, the internet novel is interesting as much for what it tells us about the precarious state of fiction in an era when, as Joshua Cohen observes, ‘they’re phasing out the ink stuff’, as for the myriad ways in which networked technology now permeates our lives.”

It’s the TLS of course which is telling us that fiction is in a precarious state, but Cohen does contribute “they’re phasing out the ink stuff” which is it’s true slightly different. August journals offer of course no guarantees against error — fiction’s state seems to be far from precarious. In fact it looks to be in bouncing good health wherever I turn. The TLS certainly seems to find no difficulty filling its fiction pages, but maybe we are being sheltered from some agonizing make-shiftery going on in weekly editorial meetings. I don’t see any reason why the Internet novel should be anymore terminal than the epistolary novel, the electricity novel, the railway novel, the highway novel, the telescope novel, the telephone novel, the Telex novel — oops, I must have missed out on that category. Cohen is of course far from alone in his assumption that the e-book will wipe out the printed book. I might even agree if we changed “book” to “novel” or “popular novel”. His hero (Joshua Cohen, the ghostwriter) is resentful “of a publishing industry now dealing in adaptations, properties, options, anything but books”, which sounds like a criticism I might hurl at trade publishing — not at “the publishing industry” as a whole though.

“The text appears like Beta programming in which everything is included and open to revision — historically a mark of the novel’s intellectual integrity, its lack of parochialism, but, here, also a way of revealing how the net’s immediacy puts pressure on the novel, making its unfolding narratives seem archaic and slow”. [How often do we find 3 commas in a row? Maybe it’s the effect of the Internet!] These people who go on about how the Internet is affecting the way we write should all take time off to read once again The Life an Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760).


This video is brought to us by Open Culture who introduce it by saying: “Shot by Glen Milner at Smith-Settle Printers in Leeds, England, this short film lets you watch firsthand a book — Suzanne St Albans’ Mango and Mimosa — being made with old school printing methods. Enjoy.” It’s all a bit too fast for most of us to comprehend I fear, but it’s all there. The book is being printed by sheet-fed offset lithography, 8 pages to view, sixteen 16-page sigs, Smyth sewn, and hand bound with a yellow ribbon marker in cases of green cloth with gold foil stamping. The books are hand numbered; obviously a collectors’ edition.

It’s available today from Amazon for $21 which is a bargain for “Used — Like New”. The paperback edition has this description attached to it: “In 1921, in the wilds of the Malaysian jungle, a clutch of British children are being brought up by a Swiss nanny, with a monkey for a pet and deadly scorpions in the night nursery. From that eccentric childhood spent in Malaysia, the south of France, and only occasionally Britain, to her early years as a young news reporter in Algeria and Italy during Word War II, Suzanne St Albans has had an extraordinary life. Charming and utterly fascinating in its details of another time and another world, Mango & Mimosa is destined to become a classic.”

In the arts all big money corrupts, and excessively big amounts of it corrupt excessively. It is for this reason that I believe that the words “serious” and “movie” should never be seen together. (I will accept that it is possible to make a shoe-string budget film that could be serious and great. It’s just not possible for us members of the public to see it.)

To make a movie to be shown in the world’s cinemas is a hugely expensive undertaking. It requires lots and lots of behind the scenes technical workers as well as high-priced on-screen talent, buzzing around to locations, buying costumes, props and so on and so on. Film making is a business and companies indulge in it in order to make money. Money is to be made by attracting a mass audience. Mass audiences are to be attracted by mass entertainment. Thus film makers will tend to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator: sentimentality is good, melodrama is good, sensationalism and special effects are good. A serious story seriously told is bad. Books when they are unlucky enough to be adapted as movies are gutted; all the boring talk and thought are removed and incident is moved to the forefront. This makes perfect sense: the potential audience for a faithful adaptation of Ulysses would be tiny. Movies are good at what they are good at: mass entertainment. For me just about the only category of film which can both succeed and maintain integrity is comedy — some might say the more puerile the humor the better I’ll like it. Other possibly acceptable genres would be adventure movies, thrillers, horror movies, musicals. But a serious movie by a Hollywood studio should be avoided like the plague: they are either exploiting the misfortune of some individual or group, or sentimentalizing human tragedies, or both.

The same rule applies in book publishing. Of course mistakes happen, and maybe you can come up with a counter example, but I would claim that any book which receives a large advance cannot be a “good” book. An entertaining read perhaps, but certainly not a serious discussion of any meaningful content. The likelihood of such a book being read 100 years from now is infinitesimal*. If you worked as an editor and paid a million dollar advance to James Joyce, you’d need to go and jump out of the window when the manuscript for Ulysses was delivered. It’s big, it’s serious, it’s hard going: its sell-in, even with the world’s top sales force behind it, would be in the low thousands. You’d lose your job and never get another one in trade publishing. Of course over the next 100 years a great book would almost certainly earn out the advance, but businesses can’t wait around 75 years for huge advances to be worked off. Thus any book in the bestseller lists which is not designedly trivial will be there almost by accident — of course over the years lots of accidents have happened.

My point is that if you want to make money, go Hollywood and do what you have to do. If you want to make art, stay in your own backyard. If you earn anything from your art, be happy. If you earn a lot then you are one of the extremely few blessed with unbelievable luck.


* I do have to admit that Romola, for which George Eliot received $85,000 as an advance in 1861, is still being read more than 100 years later. I would suggest that while it’s not a bad book, it’s not a very good one. But it’s one of those exceptions proving the rule: George Smith pulled the equivalent of paying a $1,000,000 advance for Ulysses.

Henry Raeburn. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Scott by Henry Raeburn. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Here are “Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Walter Scott” from Interesting Literature. I’m not altogether convinced by that “glamour” item though. It does seem that the derivation Interesting Literature quotes from a Scots corruption of the word “grammar” is correct, but the word was being used that way well before Scott was ever born. But the OED also credits him with introducing the word into “the literary language”. I’m wondering in what way Oxford thinks that Allan Ramsay wasn’t literary though. Two of their references predating Scott are from Ramsay. Maybe he’s just not glamourous enough.

Back then “glamour” meant something like a magic spell or enchantment, and travelled towards its modern sense following the track of the fairy-godmother type of spell, wishing great beauty on the little princess. I guess its journey from grammar may have resulted from some sort of “correct form of words” sense, though in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries “gramarye” did mean learning in general, so a move to occult learning was perhaps inevitable.

One of the nice things about Scott was his friendship with James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. This was not always of the smoothest; Scott was after all a dyed-in-the-wool Tory with a strong appreciation of his superior position in Border society. Hogg was always willing to address any artist (or anyone) on equal terms, but as he often appeared in Edinburgh salons stinking of sweat and sheep dung, the fellowship was not always reciprocated. I just finished reading Karl Miller’s Electric Shepherd (“electric” was a surprisingly prominent word in writings at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century). Indeed one of the most striking impressions I brought away from this book is how much of the Scottish vernacular as spoken by Hogg and his fellow Borderers back then is exactly similar to the language I would hear as a child.

I wrote about Scott’s ill-fated involvement in printing and publishing back in 2013.

Confusingly, wood free paper is not free of wood. It’s just free of part of the wood fiber that gets included when you chew up a tree. “Wood free” means that the lignin has been taken out of the paper pulp. Wikipedia tells us “Lignins are one of the main classes of structural materials in the support tissues of vascular plants and some algae. Lignins are particularly important in the formation of cell walls, especially in wood and bark, because they lend rigidity and do not rot easily. Chemically lignins are cross-linked phenol polymers.” Lignins left in the pulp are what causes the yellowing of newsprint.

Here’s Glatfelter’s explanation:

If you want to see the rest of their videos you can get to them by going to YouTube (click on the YouTube icon at the bottom right of the screen above) and then clicking on the other videos listed to the right of the screen.

Those who know the brown paper used to wrap parcels as Kraft paper may be puzzled to hear the Glatfelter commentator refer to the process used as the Kraft process. But although it is brown, Kraft paper does indeed not have any lignin content, which would weaken it significantly. The Kraft process was invented in Germany by Carl Dahl in 1879. It’s name is a reference to the strength of the paper thus made. Kraft paper is just made from unbleached pulp.

Be careful! You’ve been warned. Confucius say . . . (well, not Confucius, 12th century poet Yang Wanli actually):

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

This is translated by Joanthan Chaves and comes from  Zen Poems: Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets,  and was reproduced by Maria Popova in a Brain Pickings post. Thanks to Andy Ambraziejus for the link.

graphic_macbook-air-1This seems like a good idea — a free citation tool. RefME is a UK company which launched their app last October. The free app enables you to pull across full bibliographic data when you copy and paste text from the Internet. This seems like a real time-saver for students — maybe we think students shouldn’t be cutting and pasting, but we know they do, and will continue to do so. It’s surely better that they should automatically import the reference to their source than that we should leave it up to them to remember, or forget, to do so.

RefME had a booth at this year’s American Library Association meeting in San Francisco. It’s not altogether clear how they will be able to make money — no doubt ads are what they have in mind.