Over at The New Republic Ruth Franklin (who is working on a biography of Shirley Jackson, which should be amazing) has a piece detailing the five books that came out in 2011 that she wishes she had reviewed.
It’s a great list that includes Teju Cole’s Open City (“Reminiscent of the works of W.G. Sebald, this dreamy, incantatory debut was the most beautiful novel I read this year—the kind of book that remains on your nightstand long after you finish so that you can continue dipping in occasionally as a nighttime consolation.”), Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, and Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture:
Ugresic, a Croatian novelist and essayist who now lives in Amsterdam, is one of the most stringent and wide-ranging commentators at work today, bringing an ironic sensibility honed under communism to global pop culture. In the pieces collected here, many originally published in European newspapers, she sounds like the fantasy cultural-studies professor you never had, making crazy connections between unlikely ideas that turn out to be brilliant. In the long essay that opens the collection, she riffs on the concept of karaoke as a catch-all metaphor for the new forms of creativity, technologically enabled and often anonymous, that characterize the artists of the digital age—from users of the program Second Life to a performer on “Bulgarian Idol” who became an Internet sensation for her bastardization of the English language, rendering the chorus of her song as “Ken Lee / tulibu dibu douchoo” (“Can’t live / if living is without you”). Ugresic’s anecdotes and aperçus are as irresistibly quotable—“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies”—as they are haunting.
As I’ve mentioned a million times (or so), and will again (see the next post), Karaoke Culture is one of my favorite books of the year. And thinking about it now, like right now, like days before the holidays start in full, I think this may well be the perfect book for this month. It can help get you through any and all less-than-ideal family experiences. You will laugh. And rage. Seriously, buy it now, read the first essay, and you’ll be hooked. (If you want a preview, click here.
The new issue of Bookforum arrived in the mail yesterday. Traditionally, the summer issue (covering June/July/Aug) has a significant special section—last year it was “Utopia/Dystopia” and the year before was “Fiction Forward,” with a focus on six new writers.
This year’s special section is Best Sellers and opens with an essay by Ruth Franklin on the history and contents of best-seller lists. (Or, as she points out, fast-seller lists, since “the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”) There are also interesting essays by Gerald Howard and Michael Dirda, along with short overviews of a variety of best-sellers, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago to Jaws.
In terms of the normal reviews, there’s a piece by former Harper’s editor Roger Hodge on Intern Nation (a sweetly provocative choice considering Hodge’s exit from Harper’s and all that turmoil), a review by Eric Banks of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and New Impressions of Africa, one by Leo Robson on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova and Gaps, and a fascinating looking piece by J. C. Hallman on Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. (Yes, I suppose I am on a bit of a cults kick right now.)
Most of these pieces aren’t available online, but seriously, a subscription is $18/year. Pony up, people. (I feel like there is something interesting going on in today’s culture—we’ve gone from demanding everything for free to being completely willing to pay small amounts of money for the ease and convenience of having something at hand. Publishers always freak out about piracy, without admitting that if they made a very simple, convenient way to buy reasonably priced material—and FYI, $29.95 for an ebook is a long cry from “reasonable”—in the way readers want, at the time that they want, piracy won’t be all that much of an issue. Anyway.)
Ever since the year 2000, every year seems less believable to me . . . When I was a kid, I never thought I’d see the year 2000, much less the year 2010, after which, 2011 seems sort of anti-climactic. Sure, this technically marks the start of a new decade, but since we never named the last one, it feels pretty non-inspiring. (I mean really, “The Naughts”? WTF? Give me the “Roaring Twenties” or something that makes the time I’m living in sound totally BADASS.)
Nevertheless, the start of a new year is a great time for year end lists (LOVE) and resolutions of the diet and reading variety. I usually don’t do things like this, but when Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times asked for my literary resolution of 2011, I came up with two goals: 1) to give away more books than I acquire this year (good luck! As of this morning I’m already a book and a manuscript in the hole) and 2) to read at least 52 translations over the course of the year. Which seems doable . . . maybe. I’m hoping to post reviews of most of these here (where I’m hoping we can review 100 titles over the course of 2011—a third goal for the new year), but will definitely post short write-ups on Goodreads (username: Chad Post), which has become my latest neurotic pleasure. (Seriously, as soon as I finish a book and/or start one, I log it in at Goodreads. So weird.)
So far, over the weekend I finished re-reading Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, which is by far my favorite of all of his books, and which I plan on using in the “World Literature & Translation” course I’m going to teach this spring . . . One down, fifty-one to go . . .
Going back to Carolyn’s post for a second, I would like to point out a few of the cooler resolutions for 2011:
David Kipen, former NEA director of literature and owner of Libros Scmibros bookstore in Boyle Heights: Find my Kindle.
Rachel Kushner, author of the novel “Telex From Cuba”: One of my resolutions is to finish the Recognitions, by William Gaddis. I’m on page 650. I have a ways to go, since it’s almost 1,000 pages. I’m not sure why I need a resolution to finish such an incredible novel: it’s startling on a line by line basis. I think I am almost afraid of its cumulative effect. So slick and erudite is it that it may pose some worldview that’s entirely retrograde or demonic or at the very least curmudgeonly, and I won’t know it, and will have internalized whatever its message is, and by the time I realize this, I will have been thoroughly indoctrinated. Because the tone of it, the one that can be grasped, convinces the reader she is in the hands of the Subject Supposed to Know.
The staff of Electric Literature: Our book-related resolution is to stop drinking so much.
I have a better chance of this 52 translations goal if I sign up for resolution number 3 . . .
But in terms of literary resolutions, Michael Orthofer called my attention to this piece by The New Republic senior editor Ruth Franklin on “being a better reader in 2011”:
3. Learn a new language. I have a degree in comparative literature and read a few languages well, yet even I didn’t review many books in translation this year. Critics love to bemoan the dearth of foreign literature available in translation in this country, and to avow our support for presses—like Open Letter or Archipelago Books—that devote their resources to promoting global literature. But how often do we actually review it? This year, I pledge to devote more space to work in translation.
Finally, to close this first post of the XXXX 10s, here are a few things I’ll be posting/launching over the course of this month: new update to the Translation Database, the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award Fiction longlist, a new series covering each of the BTBA fiction longlist titles, reviews of Hotel Europa, Sixty-Five Years of Washington, The Box, Primeval and Other Times, and at least four more, and more info on untranslated books from around the world. Also going to start a new Friday feature of excerpts from new books. Probably start with some Open Letter titles, but hopefully this’ll expand quickly to include other interesting books and presses.
So there. Welcome to 2011.
Over at The New Republic, Ruth Franklin has one of the most rational pieces on Amazon.com that I’ve seen in a long while. She wrote this in response to Colin Robinson’s The Trouble with Amazon article that appeared in a recent issue of The Nation. (And which I haven’t read, because after subscribing to The Nation, I received all of four issues before someone promptly deleted my information. I’ve been too busy/lazy to try and correct this, so I’m always behind . . .)
Thankfully Ruth recaps this piece and Colin’s main objections: that “its business policies are inarguably draconian,” that discounting has hurt publishers and authors, that the “tendency of the Internet shopper to search rather than browse leads to a ‘loss of serendipity’ that was once key to the way people discovered new books. Criticisms that are valid and valuable, and also fairly common and well-documented. As Ruth wittily puts it, “I might as well try to defend Pol Pot.”
(When I gave a report on Jeff Bezos for business school, the general reaction was that Amazon’s business practices weren’t nearly as vicious or capitalist enough. Most b-school kids think book people are sissies. Then again, these opinions were coming from students who respect the banking industry. And EvilWylie has shit on the bankers of the world.)
Ruth nails it when she points out the primary advantage of Amazon:
But we have known all this for a long time. The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. Wal-Mart is not known for its catalog of obscurities; the merchandise it sells is all available elsewhere. It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices.
This isn’t the case with Amazon. Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers. As a child growing up in suburban Baltimore—not exactly a backwater!—I felt keenly the lack of ready access to the books that I wanted. (Remember the joke of a selection at your local mall’s Waldenbooks?) And with the quirkier independents—such as the great Louie’s to which I paid tribute above—you were at the mercy of the owner’s idiosyncrasies, which meant that you might find shelves stocked with contemporary poetry but nothing by, say, Tolstoy.
I know I’ve said this before, but I grew up in Essexville, Michigan. You know how many books by Tolstoy were available at our local bookstore? Exactly zero. Same as the number of bookstores we had in town. I don’t even know what my childhood would’ve been like if I could’ve ordered any book my head desired.
It’s all fine to now praise the availability of near everything to nearly everyone, but I particularly like this bit about the general publishing business model:
If the publishing industry is suffering from the price-lowering trend that Amazon has led (though not entirely on its own), it also has its own poor business practices to blame. Robinson quotes a boss at Scribner, where he used to work, saying a few years ago that in terms of advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” This isn’t a scandal; it is a necessary correction to inflated prices in the wake of a global recession. I understand that the metrics can be somewhat complicated, but a system in which 70 percent of books do not earn back their advances is destined to collapse. There’s something to be said for supporting books of quality regardless of how much revenue they bring in—this is why literary houses also publish diet books—but in recent years the amounts have gotten out of hand. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was a prize-winner and bestseller in France, but no one could have imagined that a 900-plus-page novel about a Nazi could sell anywhere near enough copies in the U.S. market to earn back the $1 million that Harper paid for English rights. (It reportedly sold fewer than 20,000.)
This is also all very true—and very well documented.
I know this is a personal flaw, but I tend to get defensive when people lay into Amazon and complain about how it’s ruining book culture. For fuck’s sake, there are dozens of things that have been ruining book culture for years and years and years. Suburban chains, TV, World of Warcraft, thousands of crappy books that are shoved down our throat, etc., etc. But what really gets me is what I see as the inherent hypocrisy in all this. Big publishers are big corporations wedded to the concepts of the free market and pure capitalist beliefs. The same principles that ensure that way more of [insert big six publisher of choice here]‘s books are displayed, sold, reviewed, and pimped than those from [insert indie/nonprofit publisher of choice here]. The same principles that ensure certain books don’t get published because they’re “too literary” and the P&L sheets don’t work out. This is the same game that allowed Amazon to become so powerful. As Ruth Franklin concludes, “Amazon is a quintessential capitalist enterprise, and it cannot be faulted for exploiting the free-market system that, for better or worse, we have embraced.” And yet we do. Loudly and vitriolically.
Ideally things would be different. I’d love to live in an America where literary fiction was still appreciated, where indie bookstores were a key business in every neighborhood, where people talked more about actual books and less about how well they did in the marketplace, where there was a lot more book coverage and a lot more book coverage devoted to “smaller books” from smaller presses. A LOT would have to change for something like this to happen. A fixed book price law. A much larger public-private investment in literature and literary culture. A bit of a cultural sea change away from TV and Twitter and back to reading. In this socialist paradise, Amazon probably wouldn’t be quite so powerful. But until that day comes, I have to say, for all the unsavory business practices they might embody, it sure is nice that I can order a copy of Cossery’s The Jokers, since there are no indie stores in town and the local B&N doesn’t carry it.
Since I’m fuming today over a number of things (including the general shittiness of my ultra-slow computer), I want to end by simply saying that I don’t think the relationship Amazon plays in book culture is all that cut and dry. There are good aspects and bad. There are nuances. There is predatory pricing, the long tail, a wonderful grant program, ways to make book recommendations more social, and the questionable effects of automatizing recommendations. We all love having a purely evil enemy, but Amazon is part of a complex publishing ecosystem that has a lot of flaws and middling enemies.
At least that’s my opinion. At this moment.
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