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.
Natasha Wimmer has an interesting piece on Catalan author Merce Rodoreda. It’s great introduction to Rodoreda—considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of all time—even if Wimmer does prefer The Time of the Doves (available from Graywolf) to Death in Spring (which we brought out last year and was masterfully translated by Martha Tennent).
I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty. [. . .]
For those who’ve only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda’s full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda’s more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story “The Salamander,” in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover’s bed.
The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda’s writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like “The Salamander,” Death in Spring is set in a village that’s part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn’t about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village’s rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.
The Kertesz is a really positive review of both The Pathseeker (out from Melville House) and Detective Story (out from Knopf) by Ruth Scurr.
This year Tim Wilkinson has produced translations of the two short novels Kertész published in a single volume in 1977: The Pathseeker and Detective Story. Taken together, these translations are a wonderful opportunity to deepen our understanding of Kertész. While neither book is explicitly about the Holocaust, both assert the autonomy of fiction in its shadow.
Scurr has good things to say about Wilkinson’s translation as well:
In explaining something of the weight and importance of Kertész’s subjects and creative achievements, it is hard to convey simultaneously the deftness and vivacity of his writing: his sheer joy in making something new with words. Tim Wilkinson must be deeply responsive to Kertész’s delight in language to convey it so pervasively in his translations.
William Deresiewicz’s piece on Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl is also quite interesting, even if it does raise some questions about the book itself.
Zweig nibbled at The Post-Office Girl for years. The NYRB press material claims that the novel was found completed after its author’s death, “awaiting only minor revisions,” but the afterword to the German edition describes a manuscript in considerable disarray. Given that Zweig chose his own time of death, and given that he had just finalized two other works and dispatched them to his publishers, it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him.
Nevertheless, the book sounds fantastic—a sentiment echoed in an upcoming review of it that we’ll be posting over the next few days.
By renouncing the pleasures of vicarious feeling, The Post-Office Girl achieves an immediacy otherwise unequaled in Zweig’s fiction. No frame narrator screens us from the title character, 28-year-old Christine Hoflehner, postal clerk in the sleepy Austrian village of Klein-Reifling. The year is 1926. Christine shares a dank attic with her rheumatic mother. Her youth has been stolen by the war, along with her father, her brother and her laugh. But into the gloom of her days a sudden light breaks—a telegram from her aunt Claire, gone to America years before and now come back a rich lady. Claire invites her niece to join her on holiday in Switzerland. [. . .]
All of this represents an immeasurable advance over Zweig’s other fiction. Instead of a single emotion intensively examined within a narrow social frame—a fair description even, as its title suggests, of Beware of Pity, though that work is considerably longer than The Post-Office Girl—Zweig gives us fully rounded lives rooted in a broad historical context. This, he is telling us, is what the war has done to people. This is what history has made of their bodies. This is the fate of a whole generation. The question of historical luck, and thus of the possibility of alternative lives or selves, is everywhere at issue.
According to PW, Adam Shatz, the book review editor at The Nation for the past four years is leaving for the London Review of Books. John Palatella—formerly of Columbia Journalism Review—will be taking over.
Sounds like The Nation plans on keeping up its excellent commitment to book coverage.
Some changes are afoot though, as Palatella will look to bring more essays about literature and pop culture into the section and also beef up online coverage of books and the arts.
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