The Forbes article on "Freezing Out The Critics" by Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak, Unsolicited Advice (link first seen at Romenesko), is about the film industry, but applies, in part, to the book business too:
Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just donít matter quite as much as they used to.
Once upon a time, they were the point of origin for popular opinion.
In an age of ratings Web sites and consumer-generated content, they are just one voice of many.
Maybe a particularly authoritative voice, but no longer the popes they used to be,
They also suggest:
For movie studios, fan outreach represents a golden opportunity.
As it happens, many of the mainstream critics' least favorite genres, such as horror or sci-fi, have fan bases that use the Internet heavily and accept the opinion of a passionate amateur over that of a critic any day.
It wonít be long until the next big horror release is pre-screened to top horror bloggers, while professional critics are left out in the cold.
A new batch of reviews is available from the Review of Contemporary Fiction -- several titles we've already covered, and at least one we're very much looking forward to, the always interesting Lydie Salvayre's La Méthode Mila (see their review).
In The Columbia Spectator Sadia Latifi writes about Brand-New Lives With a Pulitzer Prize.
It's mainly about Richard Russo (who apparently won one of these things sometime back), but does offer some interesting background about the prize and how the finalists and winners are determined.
Over 2500 entries are received each year for the awards, including a thousand book submissions.
There are five three-member juries for the letters awards, one for each of five categories: fiction, history, biography, poetry, and nonfiction.
Each jury recommends three books for the entire board to read by December, and the board deliberates on these 15 books in April.
Deliberations for the final winners were held last Thursday and Friday in the Joseph Pulitzer World Room of the Journalism building.
We're stunned that there are only a thousand book submissions (that's in all the categories), as the Pulitzer is one of the most open (to submissions) major awards out there.
There are some eligibility requirements (including American citizenship -- for four out of the five book categories), but this is the rare prize where admirably: "anyone (including the author) may submit a book that is eligible."
(A reminder: most major book prizes only accept submissions from publishers -- and many restrict the number any single publisher can submit (most notoriously and egregiously the Man Booker).)
Why isn't every author in America submitting their book for Pulitzer consideration ?
We've told you to do so before, and are doing so again: check the eligibility requirements (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) and if your book qualifies (as most commercially published works do) submit it !!!
Latifi also notes:
The decision to announce the nominated books the same day as the award winners is also deliberate.
"Confidentiality is important because it allows the jury members to freely discuss books and it encourages a high degree of candor," Gissler said.
"We donít publish the finalists until after the awards are announced to prevent speculation and lobbying."
We don't have that much of a problem with them not announcing the finalists until they've announced the winner -- but do note that it is a publicity opportunity lost (witness all the attention every two-bit shortlist gets on these and so many other pages).
What we do mind, however, is that the titles in the running -- all the submitted titles -- are kept secret and never revealed.
A literary prize is only as good as the pool of titles that are in the running, and surely the public should be told what those are.
In the Sunday Telegraph John Sutherland looks at 'the changing chemical mix of the Man Booker prize' in Questions of judgement.
In it he identifies the "un-Flaubertian MP" who hadn't ever heard of Flaubert before judging the 1984 Booker (for which Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot was a finalist) -- though we note we outed Ted Rowlands last December .....
Sutherland also writes:
None the less, I felt a pang of vindictive pleasure when, last week, I saw Arthur & George on sale in my local Tesco in the 'Richard and Judy Book Club' cabinet, alongside marked-down cans of baked beans -- a snip at £4.99 (the novel, that is, not the beanz).
'At last,' I thought, 'Julian has found judges who recognise his talents.' Bravo, Richard et Judy!
If he were a regular reader of the Literary Saloon he might have recalled that Barnes was, indeed, thrilled to join the club; recall our mention of Deirdre Fernand's Sunday Times R & J profile, with the juicy quote
Barnes, for instance, the author of Arthur & George which was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year and was featured on the show last month, is reported as telling one literary agent that being chosen "was one of the highlights of my career".
Most English teachers might have their students explain literary characters and themes through essays, but a teacher at Starrís Mill High is trying a different approach, quilting.
Students in Gwen Thibadeauís ninth grade literature classes have been creating literary quilts for books they have read this year.
So far they have completed two quilts for the books Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as two heroic trait quilts.
Students are currently finishing quilts for Romeo and Juliet.
The article does, however, go into a bit more detail than we needed:
Thibadeau says she got the literary quilts idea while lying in the bathtub one night thinking of ways to get a grant through the Southern Poverty Law Centerís Teaching Tolerance grant.
(Sure, that's how we get most of our ideas too -- yearning for those SPLCTT grants --, but still .....)
We mentioned Martin Amis' forthcoming collection, House of Meetings, a few days ago.
Now The New Yorker (issue of 24 April) has published the apparently controversial story from it, 'The Last Days of Muhammad Atta'.
In their table of contents they provide a link to it, but every time we click on it we get the message: "Sorry, but we can't find the URL you tried to access."
(Updated): The link has been removed from the table of contents -- i.e. it likely won't ever be freely accessible.
Not too surprising -- but it would have driven a lot of traffic their way if they had made the story available online.
The 2006 Pulitzer prizes -- also awarded in a number of literary categories -- have been announced.
Most interesting; the Drama award, which didn't go to anyone.
Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow by Rolin Jones, and Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp were the finalists, but the five-person jury either couldn't agree or thought that none of them were worthy (i.e. they're crap).
We hope someone reveals the inside story of the deliberations .....
To us, the most surprising name on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize last year was that of Tomás Eloy Martínez.
Not so much because he lacked the name-recognition of many of the others on the list, but because only two of his books had been translated into English at the time.
(Recall that the judges said they didn't even consider an author like Peter Handke -- dozens of whose titles have been translated -- because too few of his books were readily available in English .....)
In addition, his range didn't seem too big -- the two translated novels are Santa Evita and The Péron Novel.
Well, now there's more to judge him by: The Tango Singer is now available in English (well, it is in the UK; you'll have to wait another week or two in the US -- though why a book by a New York area-based (if Spanish-writing) author should appear in the US more than a year after it's been translated into German ... well, the mysteries of publishing remain mysteries to us.)
Anyway, our review is now available
One thing that struck us about the book was that, despite being set largely in the fall of 2001 -- and the narrator even being in New York on 11 September of that year -- it managed to avoid almost all reference (and reaction) to that day.
Perhaps even more surprising: none of the reviews we've seen noted this.
We're curious to see how American critics and readers react, what with all the discussion about whether one can write about those events yet, etc. etc.
Martínez's solution -- essentially amounting to: no big deal, life goes on elsewhere (hey, there was a currecncy crisis in Argentina !) -- might not go over too big in the America-first (and only) world (i.e. the entire U.S.of A.), one imagines.
If so, it's a shame -- the book should be taken on it's own terms, and he didn't have that much choice re. the timing, since he is trying to capture a specific historic moment (albeit an Argentinian, rather than American one).
Still, it gives an even more unreal (or at least unworldly) feel to the book.
James Wood reviews some Flaubert biography in the 16 April issue of The New York Times Book Review (reluctantly linked to here) -- and, not surprisingly, doesn't sound like much of a fan of Bouvard and Pécuchet:
This last work, with its comic catalog of fruitless endeavors, has its admirers, yet it is hard not to feel that here Flaubert's will-to-nullification imprisoned him in tautology, wherein the repetitive exposure of bourgeois stupidity condemned the novelist to a repetitive anthologizing of that very stupidity; 'The Dictionary of Received Ideas,' which rather tiresomely alphabetizes examples of bourgeois cliché, seems at times a joke on Flaubert rather than by him.
(For what it's worth: to call it mere "repetitive anthologizing" seems like a pretty lazy reading of the book to us .....)
In the 16 April issue of The New York Times Magazine, in The Anti-Orientalist (reluctantly linked here) Fernanda Eberstadt profiles the great Juan Goytisolo.
Fairly pointless, but at least he gets some well-deserved attention.
Walk into a British bookshop in 2006, and it is impossible not to notice that jacket design, thanks to the immense pressure the trade is under, is in a more neutral gear.
Publishers are desperate to avoid putting anyone off, so anything too clever, and anything that might scare the horses, is out.
You see this a lot with literary novels. In the US, Jay McInerney's The Good Life was blessed with a cover by Chip Kidd, a great Knopf designer, of a cup and saucer covered with September 11 ash; here, he got a boring, monochrome drawing of the twin towers.
More noticeably, you see it with books aimed at women.
Publishers seem to have taken our more merrily carnal approach to books as a sign that we are unsophisticated, that we don't mind if they patronise us with endless pink handbags.
Now even Jane Austen gets this treatment.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Seven Stories.
Krzhizhanovsky is one of these literary figures from the 1920s and 30s in the Soviet Union who went essentially unpublished, and has only recently been resurrected -- though barely yet in English.
This volume -- the newest in the excellent Glas New Russian Writing-series -- is the first English publication of his work, but apparently there's some 3000 pages to the collected works.
The French are already way ahead: Éditions Verdier has published quite a few volumes.
Nice to see too that this relatively low-profile publication -- count yourself lucky if you live near a bookshop that stocks it -- has already gotten some decent review attention: John Bayley reviewed it in The Spectator, Robert Chandler reviewed it in the Financial Times.
A rare author where we would immediately purchase anything else available by him.
(Unfortunately, so far there's nothing, at least in English .....
Maybe we'll have to send for those Éditions Verdier editions.)
We're often (well, if we're being honest: permanently) confounded by how publishers go about their 'business' -- but what's really scary is that things could be worse.
Consider, for example, Damian Horner's look at Accursed bestsellers in The Bookseller.
He writes about the 'Publishers' Curse':
No, it's not the name of the next Harry Potter book.
It is, in fact, a reference to the "Surprise Bestseller".
Every year there is at least one book that takes everyone by surprise and rakes in massive sales.
Rather than being a positive force, this phenomenon has totally distorted the dynamics of the book industry.
Well, he does have point that publishers do not appear to be well-equipped to handle surprising successes.
Still, his solution terrifies us:
The only way to change this mentality is to research consumers.
The more we know about them, the less they can surprise us and the more often we can give them what they want.
It seems a simple solution--one that will lead to less money being wasted and more being made.
But this kind of understanding doesn't come easily.
The issue isn't with the process itself (there are numerous options to consider).
Nor is it overly expensive -- the money that publishers could save on inappropriate advances and bad sales would more than cover the costs.
Research consumers !
Like there's any possible way to pre-determine what sort of books will appeal to consumer X or Y (at least precisely enough to create that book) -- especially regarding fiction.
(We're constantly surprised by the unlikely books that we wouldn't think we'd enjoy but find to be appealing -- as well as the books by favoured authors, or with all our favourite ingredients, that turn out to be duds -- i.e. we're nowhere near as good predictors of the books we'll like than we'd expect to be -- though perhaps 'consumer research' could far more successfully plumb our minds and figure out what's going to be to our liking .....)
Never mind that the best-selling phenomenon has dynamics of its own, that there are fashions and fads in books as in anything else, etc. etc.
Sure, this guy is a former advertiser, and is now a "freelance marketing consultant" (i.e. looking to drum up business), but still .....
begins with a straightforward novella, the title story, a gothic love triangle involving two brothers and a Jewish girl across four decades in post-war Russia
But then comes the story that is presumably expected to be controversial:
As explained by his publisher, Jonathan Cape, the tale can be summarised like this: "Accompanied by one of the 'muscle' Saudis, Mohamed Atta drove to Portland, Maine, on 10 September 2001.
Noone knows why.
In 'The Last Days of Mohamed Atta', Martin Amis provides a rationale for Atta's insouciant detour, and for other lacunae in the 'planes operation'.
We follow Atta on that day: from his small-hour awakening in the budget hotel room in Portland, all the way to 8:46am - and beyond."
The final story in Amis's latest book also draws on contemporary world events.
'In the Palace of the End' is narrated by one of the doubles for a Middle Eastern tyrant -- clearly a figure such as Saddam Hussein or his demented son and heir, Uday.
No doubt, a lot more publicity will follow in the months to come .....
Things are starting up at the Litblog Co-op again: the Spring Read This ! selection will be announced on Monday (17 April) -- and you can already learn what the four nominees for the Summer selection are !
Orhan Pamuk, set to headline the PEN World Voices Festival two weeks from now -- he opens it with the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture -- got the criminal charges against him for insulting the Turkish nation dismissed a couple of months ago, but apparently some nationalist lawyers aren't willing to stop their efforts to see him punished and have filed a civil case against him.
They are "seeking 6,000 Turkish lira (3,700 euros) each from the writer as compensation."
(Compensation for what ?)
Only one AP report on this out there so far, as far as we can tell: see versions at Kathimerini and Kurdish Media (scroll down).
Considerably worse news: there are apparently no plans to get rid of the ridiculous Article 301 under which Pamuk was originally charged (and under which numerous writers still face potential jail time).
Cihan News Agency reports: No Amendment on 301st Article of Penal Code:
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, unveiling a new reform package prepared by the government, said on Wednesday there was no problem in the implementation of the new Turkish penal code.
Gul said the reform package did not foresee any amendment to the 301st article of the Turkish penal code under which several journalists and authors including Orhan Pamuk have been accused.
Hey, it doesn't need any amendments -- it (and all similar laws) simply need to be removed in their entirety from the Penal Code !
Fanatastic stuff happens: the 92nd Street Y weblog offers a David Hare Podcast.
As we mentioned last week, Hare's Stuff Happens is now in previews in New York.
The podcast is of a reading Hare gave at the Y (with Wallace Shawn) in December.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of the first volume of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy, recently released by Europa Editions, Total Chaos.
We're definitely looking forward to the next installments.
In his Literary life-column Mark Sanderson offers yet another example of how publishing 'professionals' treat unsolicited submissions, as someone submits "extracts from a washing-machine manual" and receives the same responses as he got for his fiction-submissions -- which either: a) speaks really badly for his fiction, b) speaks really well for the technical writers of the manual, or c) -- we think we have a winner ! -- says everything about the publishing industry.
The Guggenheim Fellowships -- US $7,500,000 handed over to 187 worthy folk (out of almost 3,000 applicants) -- have been announced.
(That makes for an average grant of about $40,000, by the way.)
Lots of quirky but no doubt worthy projects -- see the full list of 2006 fellows here.
Among the beneficiaries: Leon Wieseltier gets some cash for translating some Yehuda Amichai, and authors including George Saunders, Steve Stern, and Lynne Tillman also get support for their projects.
We rather like Jonathan Franzen's fiction, and are incredibly disappointed that his next book will be another non-fiction volume -- indeed (what could be worse ?) a memoir, to be titled The Discomfort Zone (no kidding).
It's due out in the fall (September in the US, October in the UK): see the FSG publicity page, or pre-order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
In The Columbia Spectator Andrew Martin writes about a reading Franzen gave from this thing last Tuesday, in Sweating With Franzen in Discomfort.
(Incidentally: we're rather disappointed with the limited amount of literary coverage that's found in American college newspapers, but The Columbia Spectator is far better than most.
Today's issue also wonders what contemporary titles might become Future Classics, while last week they even reviewed Linn Ullmann's Grace.)
(Updated - 14 April): Another report of Franzen reading (at Rutgers, this time) from The Discomfort Zone, Arielle Gomberg's Author caps reading series with memoir in The Daily Targum (link first seen at Maud Newton).
At least he feels properly ashamed:
"I am so embarrassed to be publishing a memoir," Franzen said at the event
Widely linked to already, Ben Yagoda writes about A critic with a fixation -- the Kakutani, of The New York Times -- at Slate.
A pretty feeble take-down, which includes 'criticism' such as: "The qualities most glaringly missing from Kakutani's work are humor and wit."
(We were unaware that humour and wit are mandatory and necessary in book reviews ... and don't really understand why they should be.)
And he observes:
Furthermore, in my observation, she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time. (...)
But the sour-grapes sniping from spurned authors should not obscure the fact that Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic.
Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation.
Oh dear !
Sure, 'interesting' critics would be preferable -- but for god's sake, look at what's out there !
Sure, there's a lot one can criticise about what the Kakutani does, but consider everyone else !
Indeed, if you're complaining about The New York Times' daily book coverage the obvious target is Janet Maslin and, specifically, the shit she covers (or is forced to cover).
That's a real problem and waste.
Much linked to, Matt Seaton profiles publisher Bloomsbury in The house that Harry built -- an article that's worth a closer look.
Bloomsbury has that peculiar problem that publishers occasionally face, of finding themselves rolling in cash because of a blockbuster.
A blockbuster series, in their case -- the Harry Potter books.
Publishers generally complain about low margins and limited cash flow, but Bloomsbury can't stop the flood -- the Harry Potter bonanza has:
made Bloomsbury not just the most successful independent publisher in Britain by far, but also one of the most cash-rich companies in the entire industry, with a reserve to draw on of over £50m.
Bafflingly, being cash-rich can be problematic, for individuals as well as companies, and Bloomsbury is a case in point, as they do not seem to be handling the situation well:
the Gary Barlow book is exhibit A.
According to a reliable source, the next nearest bid -- in the sealed-bid blind auction -- was £350,000.
In other words, Bloomsbury bid nearly treble the next best offer.
So the next question is: have they misjudged Barlow's currency ?
Gary who ? is our first question -- but regardless, they obviously paid way more than they had to (which is just bad business) and we'd be surprised if they hadn't paid considerably more than he was worth.
So who and what to blame ?
Capitalism, of course:
But, being a plc and quoted on the stock exchange, Bloomsbury must answer to its shareholders.
And that creates a fascinating and challenging conundrum for the company.
Admittedly, companies that find themselves with large warchests (from Microshitsoft to the petroleum giants) rarely seem to find ways to put the money to best use, so why should a mere publisher be any different ?
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern, a volume of Selected Poems by the often-mentioned-for-the-Nobel-prize-poet just out from the University of California Press.