I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been paying attention or because of some arcane aspect of the publishing cycle, but it seems as if there is all sorts of interesting news in the world of books these days. Of course much of what I’m blogging about here is particularly relevant to my interests, namely the books I like to read and subjects I’m interested in. So there you go.
Thus without further ado: Random Book News, Vol. V (or thereabouts):
Is There Room for Facts in Truth?
When I was perusing the New York Times ’book section – online – last Sunday afternoon while feeding my coffee (shop) addiction, I clicked on a link by accident. Or was it fate? Because I discovered a book that I just have to read, one that I likely wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for that errant click.
On a side note, I absolutely loathe using the touchpad on a laptop, but the little mobile, carpal-tunnel mouse that followed me from Viet Nam to the United States and back to Viet Nam finally died recently, God rest it’s tiny little optical sensor. But in this instance it was perhaps fortuitous happenstance. But I digress.
The Lifespan of a Fact is a nonfiction account of a fact-checker at odds with a nonfiction writer, one who argues that art and truth trump facts – particularly when they inconveniently diverge from the author’s sense of timing and aesthetics.
I’ll let the Times’ review tell the story of The Lifespan of a Fact, and author John D’Agata’s head-butting with the diligent Jim Fingal (Fingal … apparently there is at least one of Tolkien’s Eldar that didn’t sail into the West). I will just add that as a writer and former journalist – some would argue that I’m not former, but we’ll save the semantics debate for some other time – truth vs. fact is a subject near and dear to my heart. On one hand, I understand where D’Agata is coming from, but on the other hand, I feel that we owe it to history to not subvert fact in favor of truth, as truth in this sense becomes subjective.
Part of my attitude undoubtedly comes from having worked as a professional journalist for 20-odd years (and some of them were quite odd years). There there was the time spent at the hardcore journalism school at Ohio University too (not enough money or grades for Columbia or Stanford) – an errant fact in a story was an automatic “F,” usually.
But on the other hand, when it comes to longer forms of nonfiction writing, there is room for art, truth and fact to coexist – at least there is in the hands of a skilled author. Don’t misunderstand me; in the eternal debate over whether or not writing (as distinct from journalism and news reporting), both fiction and non fiction, is art or craft, I tend to lean toward the former. But that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t require technical skill. A musician must know how harmony and melody work together; a painter must know how to hold a brush and how to use it. In the same way a writer must now how words go together – beyond grammar and punctuation.
Shadid’s Memoir Serves as an Epitaph
Speaking of journalism and the New York Times, it seems that esteemed foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack recently while covering the bloody civil strife in Syria, has published a memoir that was just released this week. Although Shadid died Feb. 16 at age 43 – the same age as yours truly – he accomplished more with his time than most, to be sure.
One would think that his memoir would be about his time covering wars all over the world; and if it had been, it no doubt would be a gripping read. Had that been the case it would be an account of winning Pulitzer prizes and getting shot while covering war and bloodshed, including in his ancestral home of Lebanon (Shadid is an American of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic fluently).
But Shadid left all of that at the office, so to speak, Rather, House of Stone is about a year spent restoring a family home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon, following the breakup of his marriage and family. This is framed by an historical account of his family’s flight from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to the United States.
But as Times’ reviewer, author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll notes, House of Stone is a far cry from This Old House: Lebanon.
House of Stone is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.
I think I’m going to have bump this one up to the top of my long, long list.
Amazon.com Bots: I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave
I don’t always agree with what Corey Doctorow has to say, and I’ve never read his fiction (although it’s on my list, as I’m curious). But he does tend to frequently post interesting book and publishing-related news on seminal blog Boing Boing.
Take for example this “damned weird story,” as he puts it:
Carlos Bueno, author of a kids’ book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon’s sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book.
Apparently Bueno isn’t the only author finding that Amazon’s HAL 9000 is acting strangely.
Veteran author Jim C Hines offered some of his titles independently direct through Amazon’s Kindle store. He discovered that Amazon reserves the right to arbitrarily reprice his books — slashing the cover price of a $2.99 title to $0.99 — and pay royalties on the lower price.
Kind of amazing, stunning even, to consider that the world of ebooks and ebook publishing is really only about five years old or so, and yet it’s come to this already. Perhaps HAL, the errant, sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t an apt metaphor so much as the Borg from Star Trek: The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation. We are Amazon. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
Science Fiction Author Dave Marusek Gives It Away
I think I originally discovered this on Boing Boing as well. Author Dave Marusek is notably going about things backwards, or so it would seem. Marusek penned the successful novella The Wedding Album, which was originally published in Asimov’s and subsequently reprinted a number of times and translated into five different languages as well.
He recently published the novella as an ebook, along with My Morning Glory, a collection of three so-called flash science fiction stories that originally appeared in the scientific journal Science. What’s more, he gave them away for free, in both Kindle and Nook formats, for one week each. I’m not sure what format the Nook version was, but the Kindle version is in Amazon’s proprietary standard.
Marusek explains why he’s ebpublishing an already successful print book in an lengthy and interesting post on his blog:
Not to make too big a deal about it, but this is more than just a book launch. It’s also the launching of my new role as e-publisher. The synergistic, skill-extension effect of the personal computer and the Internet has finally caught up with authorship, and all hell is breaking loose. With the introduction of the Kindle only three years ago, the traditional barriers to book manufacture and distribution have been battered down. Tens of thousands of aspiring authors have rushed in where only traditional publishers used to tread. Now, literally, anyone who’s ever wanted to publish a real book (in both digital and POD editions) and sell it around the world can do so at minimal cost and fuss. (Grammer, speling & punctuation is optional; )
Suddenly there are channels to put books into the hands of the reading public that do not involve traditional publishing. Trailblazing authors have already racked up digital bestsellers without NYC’s input. Traditional publishing is reeling with the changes and trying to adapt, and someday it may figure out a new business model (transmedia novels, anyone?). In the meantime, we mid-list authors of the old regime are scrambling to stay afloat in the new. One thing many authors are doing, now that we’ve been given the tools, is to bring out our backlists in ebook format. I’m giving that a try; in my case I only own the ebook rights to my short stories, and I’m only planning on e-publishing these few. (You can already buy “MMG” and “TWA” along with 8 other stories in my Del Rey collection, Getting to Know You.) If all goes well, I may self-pub my next novel, Camp Tribulation, (partly because I’m doubtful any legacy publisher will touch it–it’s that good!–or, maybe it’s no good at all; I don’t know; still too early to tell; it’s about two years away from completion).
One may wonder why I am e-publishing “TWA.” After all, it’s been reprinted about a dozen times and translated into five foreign languages and is easily found on pirate sites. Hasn’t everyone already read it who’s going to read it? I hope not. The fact that it has done so well for so long suggests that, given a little nudge, it might have the right stuff to find new readers on its own who may become new fans.
I may be one of those new fans. I’ll let you know before too long; I took advantage of the giveaway and downloaded both. But as someone who has been through the violent crash of print journalism and the Internet – literally at ground zero, in Silicon Valley – I can sympathize with the Marusek’s of the world and the a changin’ times. Believe me.
Grove Press’ Barney Rosset Dies
I’m only passingly familiar with Grove Press, having read a few well-thumbed volumes published by this imprint back in my university days, Beckett, Burroughs and whatnot – the kind of books that I wanted to read in college, but never really seemed to get around to reading. Yes, a bit cliché, I know.
Download the Universe: Niche Reviews for eBook Niche
As Carl Zimmer notes on the inuagural blog post of Download the Universe, science books have been around for about as long there have been books – and important books at that. Look at all the trouble Darwin’s Origin of the Species has caused.
Download the Universe is a new book review blog dedicated to science ebooks – not the print ones, but specifically the electronic ones. As Zimmer says:
Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.
But there’s something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.
Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books.
Among the editors – many of whom are authors themselves – listed on the site, I spied some familiar names (to me, at least, being the nerd that I am). Among them are: Annalee Newitz, whose byline has been popping up in alternative pubs for some time and who is currently editor-in-chief at Io9; Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger (Cocktail Party Physics, anyone?); and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who I’m familiar with from her work on Boing Boing.
An interesting and worthy endeavor, Download the Universe is. Among the reviews there already is an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: The state of the eBook, early 2012, by John Trimmer. It’s a nice overview of where the market and the technology stands at the moment. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to believe that the ebook market has only been around for five years, and the Kindle for three.
Living in the future is cool.
J.K. Rowling to Pen Adult Novel
I’m sure a lot of copy editors initially wrote headlines like this when the news first broke a few weeks ago that Harry Potter author Rowling has a new book in the works, this one aimed at big boys and girls. Then said editors paused and thought “wait, no, that sounds like she’s writing a pornographic novel.” And then they opted for headlines that were perhaps more clear.
To wit, this new book is to be for an adult audience, in that it’s not going to be written for children – not, ostensibly, an adult book in the sense that Anne Desclos’ The Story of O is a decidedly prurient adult novel.
Not that prurience is necessarily a bad thing. And judging by some of the freaky, twisted Harry Potter fanfic out there, there would be a market should Rowling decide to turn to erotica. Just think: The Story of H. As in Hermione’s erotic awakening at the hands of a dashing, elder professor at Hogwarts — we know she has a penchant for dashing professors, after all.
Moving on …
“Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series. … ” Rowling said in a statement – statement meaning that this was her marketing-and-PR-approved quote composed by some poor sap at Little, Brown and Company’s PR firm, and not words that she actually said in front of a journalist (God, as a former journalist I have always wanted to write that. Now I have). “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.”
Anyway, there apparently aren’t any more details out there beyond that. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. merely announced that it acquired the rights to Rowling’s next novel; there is no word on when Rowling’s next effort will appear in bookstores.
Having said that, I will I say that I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I reread all the books while on a recent vacation and can say that they stood up to the scrutiny of a second reading, for the most part, particularly the earlier works. They are not without minor faults here and there, but then most published works rarely are, and it’s to Rowling’s credit that she was able to maintain the quality of her writing across the seven works. So many sequels to initially successful popular fiction books today are clearly half-assed attempts to cash in on said success; it’s often painfully clear when an author is phoning it in and subsequently cashing in.
On the other hand, Deathly Hallows could have used some editorial pruning. But then given Rowling’s rock-star status and the tendency toward bloat in popular fiction today, I suppose that’s no surprise. In any event, it will certainly be interesting to see where Rowling’s muse leads her post Potter.
Life Imitates Art: Gawker Editor Lives William Gibson Novel Pattern Recognition
This is a strange post-modern tale, if there ever was one. Someone sets out to discover the creator of a Clickbank ebook seller website – ostensibly just one plot in an entire Clickbank content farm. Why would someone do this? Well it seems that creator of said horse-related ebook site, in order to get around Twitter’s spam bot filters, has set up an automatic scrape of random books and websites, publishing them out of context as tweets several times a day, ostensibly to pad the obvious spam bot tweets.
This random text has apparently developed a genuine cult following.
About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: “Worms – oh my god WORMS,” and “I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid.”
The feed’s strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.
Being one of the obsessives, Gawker editor Adrian Chen — quoted above — set out to find out who was behind Horse_ebooks. But it seems that some among the community were afraid this revelation might dispell the magic, prompting threats.
Seriously, this is straight out of William Gibson. Chen actually manages to discover the identify of this person, after doggedly pursuing his identity through the WhoIs information of his many websites – he’s a Russian web developer, but of course – and confirming it through a Facebook page, where there was a link to the developer’s personal portfolio website.
Ah brave new world, that has such webpages in it.
Now this is only tangentially related to books and book reviews. But if you’ve read Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, then you can see the parallels between this work of fiction and Chen’s story are downright eery – so much so, that I just had to comment on it.
Life imitates art — specifically that of William Gibson. As he himself has observed, he no longer has to write about the future; the present has gotten plenty weird as it is.