Archives for category: Writing

A year ago on 6 January I wrote a piece entitled Motiveless Theft? Now, exactly one year later, here comes Publishers Lunch with a resolution:

The FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, 29, on Wednesday afternoon when he landed at JFK Airport in New York, and unsealed an indictment, in a long overdue deal,  charging him with with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Bernardini is accused of conducting “a multi-year scheme to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry in order to fraudulently obtain hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books.”

Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York FBI office Michael Driscoll said in a news release: “We allege Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts. Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”

According to his LinkedIn page Bernardini has worked in the rights department at Simon & Schuster UK since October 2019, a “junior staffer” if you will, and previously had interned at Mira Trenchard Literary Scouting and Andrew Nurnberg Associates). He is an Italian citizen, living and working in London. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges that, “Beginning in at least August 2016, Bernardini, who was based in London and worked in the publishing industry, began impersonating agents, editors, and other individuals involved in publishing to fraudulently obtain prepublication manuscripts.”

Simon & Schuster said in a statement it was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against Bernardini, who has been suspended pending further information. “The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator.”

Bernardini is said to have created fake email accounts at more than 160 internet domains and “impersonated hundreds of distinct people and engaged in hundreds of unique efforts to fraudulently obtain electronic copies of manuscripts that he was not entitled to.”

He is also accused of “a phishing scheme to surreptitiously gain access to a database maintained by a New York City-based literary scouting company” in 2020. The indictment says he acquired login credentials to two client accounts, and used those for unauthorized access to the scouting company’s site.

Vulture has a round up piece giving details of several victims.

“Motiveless theft” is how I referred to it last year, and I’m still puzzled about motivation, as it seems is everyone. The FBI says “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” Well, OK, in a way, but . . . If that was really his motivation wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to go to the library or read book reviews — it’s not possible to keep plots and ideas locked up inside books after all. Stealing manuscripts might have been a business plan forty years ago when they were either handwritten or typed out: you might even have been able to demand a ransom for a unique copy of a handwritten original, but there would have been a black market for manuscripts of questionable origin. Now surely all you’re getting is a duplicate copy of an electronic file. I suppose it’s theft, but I can’t see that he stole anything really worth stealing — though I guess the FBI wouldn’t nab him if there wasn’t a crime going on.

Did Filippo want to be a published author, making use of plagiarized texts? There is one Filippo Bernardini listed at Amazon, but as his book was published in 1929, I suspect this is a different person, as no doubt is the man after whom Via Filippo Bernardini in Rome is named. So if he didn’t want to be an author, did he want to be a publisher? Apparently not, otherwise that would surely have happened already, and nobody seems to have reported duplicate publications of the “hundreds of unpublished manuscripts” involved, even under noms de plume. A victimless crime? He is being charged with wire fraud and identity theft. It’s clearly not “right” to do this sort of thing, but really who has been harmed? The indictment states that Mr Bernardini shall “forfeit to the United States . . . any and all property, real and personal, that constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense, including but not limited to a sum of money in United States currency representing the amount of proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense.” So maybe there were some proceeds, but neither the indictment, nor the press release provide any details. A bit of wasted time would seem to me to be the “cost” for the authors and agents involved. At Defector Kelsey McKinney shares my puzzlement as to Mr Bernardini’s motives: she inclines to think he must have done it just for fun. Maybe it just goes to show that Simon & Schuster failed to keep a smart employee fully busy. Mr Bernardini has been released on bail.

Peter Ginna (Dr Syntax) sends us via Twitter, an approving note of Cory Doctorow’s Medium piece on publishing and self publishing. I took issue with this essay back in July, and have no reason to change my mind. Arguments against straw men are always hard to lose, and Mr Doctorow inevitably emerges from his “courageous” battle with triumph.

The piece is prefaced by this nice, if irrelevant, illustration:

Mr Barrett is probably not responding to enquiries these days, but being able to get lots of small checks adding up to worthwhile* money, and all with no tedious study, is of course not unattractive. One commenter suggested it wasn’t that easy as the cost of postage eats into your earnings too much!

Here’s another group of ads from 1972, including another from Mr Barrett:

Writing short paragraphs has a trade signification here, and I guess we now have computers which can do this for us. But of course brevity is an ideal for any writer, though the paragraph doesn’t need to be the primary focus. We used to use at school a textbook called From Paragraph to Essay, by A. F. Scott (published by Cambridge University Press) but here the focus was on getting us lazy dogs to write more, not less. A paragraph is meant to contain the discussion of a single idea. Just get it done, and on to the next brainwave. Friedrich Hebbel’s introduction to one of his plays contains sentence which goes on for two or three pages before one meets with the relief of a full stop, and, it being German, the verb. Probably could’ve been a paragraph on its own, but nobody could ever get to the end of it remembering how it started off, so it’s hard to know.

Shorter is undoubtedly better: if your thought’s that complicated stop where you are, and start again. I find I’m increasingly grateful to authors who write in short chapters. When you are reading in bed, the prospect of another twenty pages before you can sensibly stop and fall asleep (rather than just pretending to be awake) is often a daunt.

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* No doubt Mr Barrett treats “worth while” as two words, because you often get paid by the word, don’t you?

Well of course writers are often not responsible for the headlines that introduce their work, but you’re trailing your coat quite a bit when you allow them to head your piece “The Strange History of the Worst Sentence in English Literature” as April Snellings does at Mental Floss. We’ll all fall over with surprise, won’t we, when we read on to discover that the “worst sentence” is “It was a dark and stormy night”, the opening of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, a well-regarded 1830 novel.

Lord Lytton in 1873.
GEORGIOSART // ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES PLUS

By the end of the piece Ms Snellings has gotten around to wondering, inconclusively, whether the sentence is actually that bad, but she begins her essay provocatively “if you want to start a novel badly, any cartoon beagle can tell you that there’s only one choice: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.” This is just automatic writing I’m afraid. Surely even a second or two’s thought would lead you to hesitate before writing anything so silly. Sure Snoopy is a cartoon character, and we are meant to laugh, but we shouldn’t think that that means we go to Charles Schulz for life advice.

Whatever you may think about “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” (not actually a sentence, just a clause — not a phrase as Ms Snellings has it) there’s no way it can be judged to be the worst in any contest. It’s not even bad. We can all think of ways to make it bad, I dare say, but as a straightforward statement of fact it doesn’t really seem possible to say it any better. All this fuss just seems ignorant — it falls into the same category of stupidity as “all Scotsmen are mean (tight-wads)” or “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief”. Nobody really believes that sort of thing, we’re all just joking around — except that poor old Bulwer-Lytton gets a stupid prize named after him, and the Scottish guy gets to buy the extra round of beers.

We pretend that reading makes you smarter, yet readers unthinkingly judge “It was a dark and stormy night” to be bad writing. Get your brain in gear and think just a little.

Strange name when you think about it, as Katie Herman at The Rare Commons provokes you to do. “Commonplace books are personal notebooks full of interesting snippets and quotations from other authors, thinkers and poets, known as ‘commonplaces’, that are all held in a common place (the book itself.)” Not sure I go along with the etymology she proposes though.

As the Oxford English Dictionary informs us commonplace is named “after classical Latin locus communis, itself after Hellenistic Greek κοινὸς τόπος (in ancient Greek simply τόπος (Aristotle: see topic adj.)), explained by Cicero ( Inv. 2. 14. 47 et seq.) as a general theme or argument applicable to many particular cases. Later, collections of such general topics were called loci communes (frequently from the early 16th cent. in book titles).” The meaning of words travels of course. Getting from Cicero to “something everyone knows” is an understandable first step, but moving from there to a sense of “a trite, boring comment” and then to “a record of important passages” is an odd journey I think. Though I suppose if you allow for the arrogance of the intellectual, step one does become fairly obvious — “If they know it, it must be rubbish”.

Nowadays I think we think of a commonplace book as a collection of quotations which have struck the copier as particularly significant. In the second of her four Parts Ms Herman shows us a more directed sort of book: a typed-up listing of story ideas by H. P. Lovecraft. I guess he’d carry it around with him in case some random supernatural visitation compelled him suddenly to put pen to paper. There are examples of a few others at her third installment. And here’s Part 4, in which she suggests that commonplace books may be compared to social media. To some extent I’d agree that this blog is to somewhat analogous to a commonplace book. I get to note random things which pique my interest, and make what amounts to a quick note about them, often quoting others via links.

John Locke provided instructions on how to do a commonplace book properly. You can follow along at Harvard Library’s page viewer. Perhaps wisely Mr Lock, as they seem to have referred to him back in his day, emphasizes the finding of items using an indexing system. I rather think the chaos of a commonplace book is part of the charm, but of course if you are using your commonplace book as an aide-memoire it does make a difference if you can’t actually find the thing you’re trying to remember.

I do think there are some character traits which determine if you are the sort who likes this sort of organization, or one who’d prefer not to be forced into it. I have taken my BoB and entered it in Numbers in my MacBookAir (how I miss FileMaker Pro). It’s now easy to see when I last read Foundation ( — 1998); you just hit Command F and enter Foundation. But I still feel that searching though all those analog pages of listings brings with it an extra zing — “Oh I remember that book”, “Has it really been that long since I looked at Wuthering Heights?” etc. Even more intriguing is the all-too-common experience of “What on earth was that book about?” — e.g. in this picture that book by Robert Goddard: without out more research I fear it is indeed Beyond Recall.

I do of course have a commonplace book — stubbornly analog, indeed handwritten. Anyone who worked in book manufacturing in the last century had access to lots of blank books — we used to make a blank paper dummy for many books in order to make sure the die and the jacket fit the spine — and once you’ve used them for that purpose there they are — worth nothing, but beautiful objects just begging you to write something inside them. Mine is the bulking dummy for Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (CUP, 1970). This book had an unusual format, rather taller and narrower than standards (5¾” x 9″), and my copy’s bound in a nice bit of cloth. I’ve used it merely as a sort of informal anthology of poems published in ephemeral sources — magazines, newspapers etc. To me the idea of indexing it is truly weird.

In some way one might regard Beethoven’s Conversation Books as the ultimate in commonplace books. When he became deaf he carried a notebook around with him in which may be found all sorts of aide memoire stuff, shopping lists, appointments, things to do, plus half of the conversations he’d hold — the incoming half. At a book event the other day Paul Griffiths told us he’d used the Conversation Books extensively to source the dialog he used in his novel Mr. Beethoven (NYRB, 2021), an imagining of Beethoven’s coming to Boston to attend the premiere of his (fictitious) oratory “Job” — a work which had in reality almost been commissioned by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society before the composer’s death.

Not that long ago I had occasion to allude to Robert Burns’ commonplace book. Doesn’t it look suspiciously lavish for a poor farm boy?

Publishing Perspectives reveals that 30 September is (was) International Translation Day. Sorry to have missed alerting you to this.

Their story is mainly about an initiative by The Society of Authors to get the names of translators mentioned on the cover of books they have translated. This is, rather surprisingly, somewhat rare. Given the fact that a translation cannot really avoid being a collaboration even a rewrite, you’d think translators would always get prominent credit. The campaign even got a short segment on BBC World News this morning.

Here are the 10 titles longlisted for the 2021 US National Book Awards in Translated Literature: publishers of five of the 10 don’t credit their translators on the covers.

No doubt this apparent lack of respect originates in the structure of the business. A translator may perhaps be regarded in the same light as a freelance worker, and we wouldn’t think of putting the name of the copyeditor on the cover would we? (Should we?*) But of course a translator is usually more than an editor — probably somewhere between editor and author is significance — so such thinking needs revisiting. It’s notable that our largest translation publisher is the most compliant in this #NameTheTranslator and #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement. I expect others will be scurrying to catch up quite soon.

The Economist missed an opportunity when they reviewed Simone de Beauvoir’s latest, Inseperable or The Inseperables depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on. They listed both UK and US editions, as they always do, and it turns out each has a different translator. Sandra Smith is credited on the US edition jacket, while Lauren Elkin’s name isn’t on the front of the UK version. The missed opportunity is that the review doesn’t say anything about the differences between the translations — which there must be, or why would the publishers have gone ahead with different translators. I hope some other reviewers will do the job.

Of course lots of books — what we think of as the classics — get translated by more than one translator, just not usually on first publication. We seem to have a need to redo the classics every generation to keep up with changing sensibilities. My favorite translation of War and Peace is the Everyman 3-volume version. The publisher refers to it in a Publisher’s Note as “an anonymous translation of 1886”, and that’s that. Whether the translator wished to be anonymous or the publisher refused to disclose the name is not discoverable.

Making up in part for the absence of the translator’s name on two of their books in the picture above, The New York Review of Books registers a first (to me anyway) in their Fall Books issue, September 23, 2021 — a review of a translator. The review covers two novels translated from the Italian by the late Frederika Randall. As the reviewer, Geoffrey Brock, puts it translators are “notorious for our invisibility. Our tendency to vanish is partly our own fault. Many of us work hard so that our translations don’t ‘sound like translations’, by which we mean bad translations . . . The more we succeed in our task the more transparent we become and the less our work may be noticed by casual readers or reviewers.” OK, invisible to readers and reviewers shouldn’t have to mean invisible to publishers too.

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* I’d say no. If an editor or a copyeditor does work above and beyond the normal call of duty, a grateful author will/should thank them in the Acknowledgements section. I don’t think Maxwell Perkins would even have wanted to go that far.

Having demonstrated its power in selling books TikTok has been boosted into conservative respectability by having the MLA determine how it ought to be referenced. FastCompany (linked to via BookRiot) tells us about it.

Publishers Weekly discusses the mechanisms of TIkTok’s bestseller generator. The hashtag #TikTokMade­Me­ReadIt shows the sort of things going on. As an example they cite the S&S/Atria book It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover, which was published in 2016, but took off late 2020 as a result of a TikTok storm, since when the publisher has had to reprint 24 times.


The power of TikTok is that its users are utterly frank and sincere in their reaction, often tearful, to the books they have read. “Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made” George Burns famously told us, and of course publishers are trying to get in on the on-line act by creating content, and paying influencers. The goose who laid the golden eggs probably already has her days numbered. Maybe the real influencers will move on to some other platform, or will readers end up just abandoning the whole “reviewing” thing, recognizing that sincerity’s always available for sale?

Vampire Weekend’s Oxford comma, which follows, addresses (glancingly) a serious dilemma in grammar: to comma or not to comma in a series of three. See Genius for the lyrics and a bit of commentary.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

I wrote, somewhat less lyrically, about the Oxford comma six years ago. Just because you can think up a sentence where a list of three or more items becomes ambiguous without an Oxford comma (a comma before the “and” preceding the last item) this doesn’t mean that an Oxford comma should always be used, whatever they may do on the banks of Isis. Are we not clever enough to recognize an occasion on which the missing comma might make meaning less clear, and selectively add a comma in such cases?*

Maybe what I’m suggesting is that rules in writing are never right all the time — so the only rule that should count is the one mandating clear communication between writer and reader.

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* The example given in the infographic at my previous post shows one problematic situation — “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey”. Clearly a comma after Clinton helps, though so of course would a simple reordering.

Alphabetical order certainly wasn’t handed down to us when Moses descended from Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are in numerical, not alphabetical order: I wonder if any translator has ever bothered to try to make them alphabetical too. As we grow up we (mostly) internalize that a and b are followed by c. But who decided that this should be the case? Alphabetical ordering is of course, as anyone whose studied foreign languages knows, not altogether universal.

The idea of an alphabet, of letter symbols to represent sounds, appears to date back 3000 years or so. It seems quite likely that the different letters would rapidly fall into a conventional sequence, but evidence for this is unsurprisingly not available. A 3rd century fragment of what appears to be a copy of Callimachus’ catalog of the Library of Alexandria suggests that books in the Library (founded around 300 BCE) may have been stored in alphabetical order within genres, but it’s generally accepted that the idea of alphabetical order didn’t catch on till the 12th or 13th century. The introduction of alphabetical order was (naturally) resisted. Judith Flanders (quoted at ABC News) tells us that twelfth century churchmen insisted that topics be “in the order of God’s creation because to not do that — to put angels, ‘angeli’, before God, ‘Deus,’ just because ‘angeli’ starts with A and God, ‘Deus’, starts with D — it not only meant that you probably weren’t very smart, you probably didn’t understand God’s creation”.

LitHub also has a piece by Judith Flanders, an extract from her book A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical OrderShe suggests that alphabetical, or any other ordering system, doesn’t become an issue until there’s a need for it — one of these ideas which is obvious once you’ve noticed it, but before that is simply invisible. In medieval monasteries where libraries might consist of twenty-five or so volumes, the idea of shelving them in any order at all would never enter your mind — you could put your hand on any one of them without hesitation. My own “library” teeters on the edge of this need. By 1500 she tells us the price of paper was a quarter of what it had been a century before, and this not only would create more volumes, but meant that you could “waste” paper by running experimental lists which would almost immediately require amendment.

One “good” thing about alphabetical order is that it is value neutral. The Domesday Book isn’t alphabetical because it’s sorted by region and then by social status within that region, and then by wealth — with the King at the top. Any other sequencing would have smacked of revolution. Nowadays value-neutrality is a big thing. No longer may we make kids sit in grade order. I don’t recall ever feeling any resentment that Adams or Anderson would come before me in any alpha list. Indeed at one school I was number 139 — when roll call took place, no doubt in alphabetical order I suppose, I had to respond “139 Sir”. To this day I cannot meet that number without that reflex Sir being added.

It always seemed a tiny bit pretentious to term your poet laureate the Scots Makar. OK, makar is a real word, often in the past spelled maker, which gives the entré to its sense, making stuff; “to mak” in the Scots Dictionary meaning among other things to compose verse. Charmingly the plural of the word is makaris — not a word I’ve ever heard spoken, but presumably one which ends up sounding like bakeries. Cue a discussion of analogies between making poems and baking cakes?

Here we see Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon welcoming our latest national Makar, Kathleen Jamie. The board they are holding might look like a sponsorship ad, but is, of course, just the names of all four Makars we’ve had since the Scottish Parliament established the post in 2004. In 2016 when Ms Jamie’s predecessor Jackie Kaye was being installed, there was discussion of changing the name to National Poet for Scotland, but such modesty was rejected: the rest of the world (in so far as it cares) can just learn what it is we’re talking about! According to Wikipedia Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Aberdeen and Dundee have all established their own local Makaris. It’s getting busy at the top; and for this appointment Ms Jamie is only being called upon to fill a three-year term, not five like her predecessor.

The Bookseller has a fairly comprehensive piece. They quote Ms Jamie as claiming “The post confirms a weel-kent truth: that poetry abides at the heart of Scottish culture, in all our languages, old and new. It’s mysterious, undefinable and bold. It runs deep and sparkles at once.”

Makar originated as a term pretty much called into existence to distinguish between the ancient oral bardic tradition and the new men who would write their poems down. The first Makar is generally held to be James I (1394-1437) who’s The Kingis Quair is fairly uncontroversially described by Robert Crawford* as “the greatest poem written by any monarch”. The word was less used in recent centuries, ending up being basically a descriptor of the Scottish renaissance poets. The word was revived for this office as part of our new cultural pride. It’s not one I ever heard in my (relatively acculturated) Scottish youth.

I have written previously about UK Poets laureate and US ditto.

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* Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature, (Oxford University Press, 2009)

We tend to assume, I think, that all agents will be eager to sign up any author — just as we know that all publishers are desperate to publish any and every book. A couple of seconds’ thought is enough to tell us that this just can’t be so. Just as there are publishers who specialize in cookbooks, say, or in advanced mathematics or what have you, so there are agents who specialize in this or that area of the business. And perhaps even more important for a successful agency business is the personality type of the authors you chose to deal with. Shrinking violets may not be overrepresented in the ranks of potential book writers, but if you are agent or publisher for one, you’ll have your work cut out for you. An author who can sell thousands of copies via their Twitter feed is clearly a better bet that one who’s embarrassed to sing the praises of their own work.

Here’s an attractive little chart showing what a literary agent will apparently want to know about you, aspiring author. (From a tweet by Carley Watters, a co-host of the provocatively named podcast ‘The Shit No One Tells You About Writing’. Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing – Issue #157.)

So now you know: or as the punchline of a ponderous joke told by our 3rd form Latin teacher put it “Weell, ye ken noo”.