Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Read Knausgaard

I can forgive you for not liking Ulysses or Lolita or Tristram Shandy or In Search of Lost Time or really any masterpiece of literature of any time, by any author, and in any genre. Masterpieces are, almost by definition, distinctive and when something is distinctive, again, almost by definition, not everyone will enjoy, like, agree with, whatever distinguishes the work from everything else in the world. It is probably too early to tell whether My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is a masterpiece, (I think it is) but it certainly is distinctive. Which means some readers won't like it and I'm fine with that. (A little less fine with accusation, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, that everyone who says they like it is just saying that because they think it will make them look cool. Just because you didn't like the book, doesn't mean it is unlikable, in the exact same way that just because I think it is a monumental achievement of the written word doesn't mean I think you are deficient if you disagree.)

Often, distinctive books need to be read distinctively as well. Because they tend not to follow the guidelines of whatever genre they reside in and because they also tend to pose new ideas and new challenges, you often need to learn how to read the world's greatest books as you read them. (Insert extremely long, well-researched, point on how the structure of American schooling, though efficient in teaching literacy, is inherently incapable of teaching literature. Thanks.) If you're willing to put in that effort to be uncomfortable, to be baffled, to be confused, to be totally and utterly lost, I believe you end up a better reader (and, yes, to me “better reader” is essentially synonymous with “better person”) with new reading tools you can apply to any books, distinctive or typical. I've read all three of the current volumes of My Struggle in English, so for those of you thinking or participating in “The Great Knausgaard Debate of 2014,” here's how to read My Struggle.

"This is my 'humble' face."
Forget the whole fiction/memoir/autobiography debate.
The autobiographical nature of the work raises major questions about the distinctions we draw between what is “real” and what is “that other thing that isn't real.” Given the unstable nature of memory, all “memoirs” have aspects of “fiction.” (And, of course, some memoirs are complete fiction.) But given the inherent artificiality of a book in general, all books, no matter how well-researched, well-annotated, well-fact-checked, will have aspects of fiction. The very act of compartmentalizing something into a book removes it from reality and, unless you're reading about something that happened to you specifically, asks the reader to use their imagination as much as anything else.

My Struggle pressures this long standing debate about the divide between fiction and non-fiction, but, obsessing over whether this fact is “true” in the “The New York Times will say it is true” way or “true” in the “it is an expression of human experience,” way will only hobble your reading experience. It's a vital part of the overall literary effect of the book, but in the reading moment, it's a distraction. Since Knausgaard calls it a novel and the bookstore shelves it in the fiction section, while I'm reading I think of it as fiction. Though I'm not sure it responds to the close reading I like to do in the same way most other great works of literature do, I've found it a lot more satisfying to think of Karl Ove as a fictional character in the traditional sense, than as a fiction character created through the processes of memory in the contemporary memoir sense.

Let your memories roam.
My Struggle is written in what I think of as meditative prose. Though it has a fair amount of detail and a fair number of syntactically complex sentences, in general the prose is lucid, direct, and accessible. It manages to be both simple and complex. It engages my brain, without straining it. Which means, I begin to remember events from my own life. Which is part of Knausgaard's point. By writing his own life in novelistic detail and technique, Knausgaard provides us a means to approach our own lives with novelistic detail and technique. (Which places it firmly in the tradition of high modernism, but the persistence of high modernism in contemporary literature is an idea for another piece.) So if you find yourself drifting off, drift off. My Struggle will be there for you when you get back. And honestly, there's enough of it that you don't need to internalize every single word, so don't worry if you end up drifting and reading. That said...

Be ready for moments of brilliance buried in the endless pages of minutia.
Despite the constant comparisons, My Struggle shares very little with In Search of Lost Time. But, along with being really long and really autobiographical, the books share one other fact; sudden moments of striking brilliance. Some observation about art or literature. Some perfect encapsulation of a life experience. Some phrase like a display of fireworks that just appears above your brain. In Proust and Knausgaard, these moments are both rewards and propellants; payoffs for all the work you've done through some long and dense passage and promises that the next long and dense passage will have a similar reward.

But, if you've reached that meditative state described above, it can be easy to miss these, sometimes very brief moments. So you have to read in two minds; one that lets the drifting happen and the other keeping real track of things. For me, it's a lot like reading and walking. You focus on the book as you would, while keeping just enough of your thoughts external to make sure you don't bump into people or walk into the street. (Yes, there is a “The Dark Art of Walking and Reading” post kicking around in my head.)

This is exactly my point about the power of learning how to read a specific book. The dual reading consciousness thing isn't one you use in the course of normal reading, but once you've developed it through My Struggle, it is yours forever to apply (or not) as you see fit.

My Struggle is a thought experiment, but then again so is every book.
Ultimately, My Struggle is a thought experiment, one that requires a massive multi-volume work to execute. Knausggard has asked a question: What happens if I write my life out in novelistic detail? and My Struggle is the result of his exploration of that question. Experiments, by definition, can fail. In fact, the power of experiments, in science and art, literature, music, whatever, comes from the value of their failure. If My Struggle is a “failed” book, as many people, so far, believe it is, we still learn about literature, life, and memory, through Knausgaard's effort. We still gain something through whatever effort we put into reading, and the world of literature is still richer for its presence.

But all works of literature are, at their fundamental core, thought experiments, it's just the nature of My Struggle makes its experimentness more overt. All books present a thesis. All literature is the written expression of one human being wondering if something will work. All that distinguishes “experimental” literature from other literature is the overtness of its experimentation. In a way, “experimental” literature is more honest, because it is upfront about the possibility of failure. Austen experimented. Dickens experimented. What we consider “traditional” or “mainstream” now, was once the radical experimentation of an outlier, executing a thought experiment to see what would communicate. In that sense, those who argue against experiments in literature, who assume that atypical forms or styles are just compensation for a lack of storytelling skills, or that any attempts to communicate beyond the most used forms of communication are proof of an insufferably arrogant writer, argue against the very idea of literature. Why are we writing books if we are not trying to continually remake the world into something new?

My Struggle and Literary Stardom
I have no idea why My Struggle has surged to literary stardom. I also have no idea why a trilogy of Twilight fan-fiction (not knocking Twilight fan-fiction) are some of the most bestselling books of ALL TIME. I have no idea why the persistence forces of radical humanism in literature all coalesced into modernism and I have no idea why so little of the energy of that modernism moment persisted into mainstream literature, even as so much of its content did. I have no idea why Ron Currie Jr. , isn't a literary superstar (or Jesse Ball or Kathryn Davis or...). Culture is chaos with moments that look like order and extracting those moments from the chaos in any kind of accurate or meaningful way is impossible. But we can try. We can propose solutions (a huge population of mostly women realized they were allowed to enjoy pornography) and even if those proposes solutions have limits (but why would that trilogy create the permission?) we grow that one step towards an understanding of our world.

The passage of time may reveal that My Struggle is everything its detractors accuse it of being. It might be the height of self-indulgence. It might be boring without redemption. It might, ultimately, say nothing about the human condition. It might be a complete and utter failure. But something happened in the course of that failure. We've discussed, we've debated, we've argued, we've critiqued, and we've learned, either in concert or in opposition to My Struggle.

Knausgaard tried, and even if he failed, his attempt belongs to the long process of human progress.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

One Thing Hachette Can Do

There isn't much Hachette can do in their protracted negotiations with Amazon. Simply put, Amazon doesn't need Hachette. Whatever loss in profits Amazon sees from lost Hachette sales is a tiny fraction of their overall corporation. For that matter, even if losing Hachette sales did meaningfully affect its profit margins, Amazon has been comfortable with unprofitably for its entire existence, especially when considering potential growth, so I don't see them miraculously changing that pattern. Really it's like negotiating with someone holding a shotgun who also believes he's bullet proof.

Customer retention? A smile and a blow gun, of course.
If I had to guess, Hachette is holding out until whichever publisher is next in the staggered negotiation begins their own contract dispute. Obviously, Amazon is going to offer them the same terms being offered to Hachette and obviously that publisher will reject them. (Unless Amazon plays some very long divide and conquer technique, giving every other publisher but Hachette acceptable terms, then slowly driving Hachette and Hachette alone into some from of non-existence, but that would be some three-level chess stuff and potentially illegal.) The hope would then be a slow moving, 100% collusion-free compromising of more and more of Amazon's book sales with the result that either, Amazon offers better terms or book buyers begin switching to other retailers in significant numbers.

But I think, in the interim, there is at least one action Hachette can take that might give them something in their next round of negotiations, that also inherently strengthens the diversity of the book economy. Remove DRM from their ebooks.

One of the less talked about reasons from Amazon's dominance of the ebook market is the fact that they produced the first satisfactory, widely available, publicized ereader. You could argue that Amazon actually created the contemporary ebook market. Much of their current dominance has less to do with selling ebooks at a loss as it does just maintaining the head start they got with the first Kindle. Maintaining that head start is partially about prices, but it's also about DRM.

I'm illegally downloading the main ideas into my brain.
DRM (Digital Rights Management) is what prevents people from (legally) changing the format of the ebooks they have bought. (And copying them as well, but if you want to pirate a book, DRM is not going to stop you.) One reason why Amazon does not use the .EPUB ebook file, which has become the industry standard, is to lock customers into their content eco-system. Owning a Kindle essentially forces you to shop with Amazon. But those locks only work when customers are unable to convert their ebooks from one file to another. For example, if a Kindle owner, for whatever reason, wanted to switch to a different e-reader it would be almost impossible for them to (legally) move the library of ebooks they purchased to the new device. Likewise, it would also be (legally) impossible for a Kindle owner to take advantage of a sale Kobo might be running.

But once the publisher removes DRM it gets much, much easier for customers to leave Amazon. There might be lots of Kindle owners frustrated or disgusted with any one of Amazon's transgressions, but unless they are so frustrated that they are willing to give up their existing Kindle library, there really isn't a way for them to express their disgust. (As a reader, I don't think I could ever ask someone to give up their library.) Nor is there a way for them to, for whatever reason, buy an ebook elsewhere (like their local independent bookstore) and read it on their Kindle. In short, innovation gave Amazon a head start and predator pricing gave them dominance, but DRM sustains them.

Removing DRM does two things for Hachette. First, it makes it easier for customers to shop elsewhere. Second, given that DRM is important to Amazon it gives Hachette something (anything) to bargain with. I doubt there will be enough market movement for this to have a major impact on negotiations but something is better than nothing and right now, Hachette has nothing.

Life is an empty publicity stunt.
Which leads us, as nearly everything around this conflict will ultimately do, back to the DOJ's successful suit against publishers. DRM removal will really only have a major impact on the ebooks market if ALL publishers do it. A few customers might go through the effort of finding a Hachette book from Porter Square Books that can be read on their Kindle, but most customers want the books they want. Unless I can tell them ALL the books they buy from the store can be read on the Kindle (with a little help from Calibre) there won't be nearly enough cross-platform purchasing to make an impact. But I don't think any publishers have the stomach to risk another round of allegation, even though it doesn't take a backroom meeting somewhere in Manhattan to realize the value of ditching DRM. Even if they just made the change whenever their negotiations started, when seen from a certain perspective any action taken in common (except further consolidation, of course) will be seen as “co-ordination” or “collusion.” You know, like how early humans colluded over the spread of fire and agriculture. One of the many, many ironies of the DOJ case is that so many of traditional publishing's detractors vaguely argue for it's need to “evolve,” and “move into the future,” but fear of further litigation has essentially removed natural selection from traditional publishing; a good idea (still sticking with removing DRM) will have a much harder time driving innovation and evolution of publishing because the DOJ determined that “adopting best practices” is collusion.

At the very least, removing DRM would be a meaningful gesture (as opposed to an empty publicity stunt) to readers. It will enable debate about how we administer the economy of ebooks and it will highlight how Amazon and others seek to capture customers rather than convince them. And, it's doing something, anything, to demonstrate activity. Hachette right now, needs to be patient, but it will be a lot easier with at least one thing to do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In Defense of Judging

Statement of Principles (Yep. It's the kind of post that needs a Statement of Principles.)

At the Bookstore & On the T: I will never judge a specific book purchase at the store or a specific act of reading I see on the T. I'm going to defend judging in this post, but just because judging is an available action, doesn't mean I can judge whenever I want. At the store or on the T, I have no idea why you're buying or reading that book. Maybe you're getting the latest Anne Coulter because you need material for your sculpture garden of hate. Maybe you're buying Ulysses to set it on fire. Maybe you're reading Twilight because your Little Sister is reading Twilight. I don't know if you're reading The Empathy Exams to expand your understanding of the human condition or as a prop to impress the bookseller you have a crush on. In some ways, I would have to learn your entire life story before I could have any solid base for assessing and then judging your specific purchase of The Secret, and, as a wise scholar once said. 

So because I know nothing of your life, I will never judge a particular book purchase or particular reading choice.

Literature and Entertainment are Different Things: I think much of our culture's inability to have a productive conversation about the role of books in our lives is our refusal to distinguish literature and entertainment. Both are important aspects of a fully realized human life. I'll say this again, because these terms are so fraught with assumptions, it is easy to see them and make assumptions. Literature is important. Entertainment is important. Humans have many intellectual and emotional needs; some are met by literature, some by entertainment. To me, literature is any work (book, TV show, movie, song, painting, etc) that is most fully experienced through the interpretive efforts of the reader, both in terms of how the components of the work mean amongst themselves and how the work means within the wider world. To me, entertainment is any work (as above) that is most fully experienced through the reader simply absorbing the work. You engage with literature and give yourself up to entertainment.

Of course, “literature and entertainment” is a spectrum, not a division. Few, if any, works are purely one or the other, and even the purest examples of literature or entertainment will likely have moments of the other. And, part of what distinguishes one from the other is how the reader responds, which means the same work can be literature to one reader and entertainment to another. But this spectrum and the role of the reader shouldn't be taken too far. Patterns have emerged over the years. Some works are treated by most people who read them as entertainment and some as literature. Even if we can't identify a fundamental trait to distinguish them, it's clear, that as a society of readers, we can reach agreements. (Much more on this idea later.)

I Am Responding to a Minority: Most posts, essays, comments that deal with “judging” start with perfectly reasoned arguments about the false hierarchies that have historically constrained human expression, but a noticeable number of people go too far, leaving behind the specific act of judgment they are arguing against to condemn the act of judgment itself. They go from “This particular person has judged poorly, expressing outdated or perhaps even oppressive assumptions and biases,” to “No one can tell anyone about anything and they certainly can't make any kind of judgment about what I choose to read.” The first is totally necessary in our progress towards a truly humanist society and the other, I believe, negates the meaning and the fun of literature.

With those principles in mind:

A Defense of Judging

Democracy Requires Judging: Can I judge your political decision? In our attempt at democracy, who you vote for, who you donate to, what petitions you sign, what you repost on Facebook influences the policies that will change my life. The decision by someone in West Virginia to support a pro-coal candidate will contribute to human-driven climate change, and thus, to the potential collapse of, you know, society. Shouldn't I be able say, “In my judgment, your decision to support this candidate is a bad one, not just in my subjective opinion, but with a preponderance of objective evidence?” You could argue that democracy cannot function if our culture precluded the ability to judge other people's political decisions. If politics is just a collection of opinions, we can't sort one opinion from another, and thus, can't to enact policy. We might as well just spin a roulette wheel of possible solutions.

Your politics (both of the voting and petition signing kind and the how you spend your money kind) is a function of both your worldview and the way you interpret the world; a world view that is built, in no small part, on the books we read and a method of interpretation that is built, perhaps even more so, on the books you read and how you read them.

So, yes, because my political decisions affect you and my political decisions are based on my worldview and world-interpretation drawn from the books I read, you have the right to judge the books I read. Though you might not have all the evidence needed to judge one of my particular reading decisions, you do have all of the evidence to judge whether a book is likely or unlikely to contribute to me having a productive worldview, and, I would, add, you do have all of the evidence to judge society-wide patterns in reading. (Though, nearly everyone who tries to doesn't actually collect all the required evidence. More on this later.) And, honestly, given how easy it is for our politicians to manipulate our vote, for a powerful minority to sculpt our media, and for American policy to fly directly in the face of established scientific fact, I think there is compelling evidence that our reading abilities and thus our reading habits, need improvements.

Didn't Post-Modernism Get Rid of Ideas Like “Good” and “Bad?”: What we tend to call “post-modernism” is probably best understood as a complex and often contradictory amalgam of cultural processes that grew out of (and around) modernism's radical humanism. In terms of “good” and “bad,” that amalgam of processes leads us to this idea: “There is no universal fundamental truth upon which we can base our concepts of 'good' and 'bad.'” Which is not “There is no such thing as 'good' and 'bad.'” Humans are social animals. Our ideas are built, in part, through interactions with society. Though we cannot ultimately define what is “good” and what is “bad,” over the course of human history we have reached agreements on those ideas. All post-modernism ultimately does to “good” and “bad,” is reveal their agreement-ness.

When someone argues that there is only personal taste and opinions, for whatever reason, that person is abandoning the process of agreement. Maybe they honestly misunderstand post-modernism, maybe they don't want to exert the effort of agreement, and maybe, just maybe, they're a little afraid through the process, we won't agree with their taste and opinions. Honestly, I think avoiding this process is a little, well, sad. Not only does it, at a pretty fundamental level, abdicate one's social and political responsibility, I think it removes the point and fun of literature. If it's all just a matter of taste, then we have no mechanism for shouting at each other, maybe at a bar, maybe after a few drinks, about books. Who wants a world without that?

I knew Knausgaard before he was cool, (I have the signed Vol 1 Galley and this essay to prove it.) but the backlash against his work and those who praise it is starting. The debate between his supporters and his detractors is going to be FUCKING EPIC, hashing out everything from the nature of storytelling, to our definition of “fiction,” to the function of meaning in your (Yes, You!) life...unless we just accept that we have different tastes and give up. I know, ultimately and fundamentally, I can't argue definitively and conclusively against taste, but I can say a taste-only world sounds really fucking boring.

Judging Isn't Good or Bad: We judge salsas at supermarkets, waitstaff at restaurants, and we sure as hell judge drivers on roads. We judge co-workers, siblings, and celebrities. We judge fashion decisions. We judge public transportation. We judge conversations at parties. We judge performers on American Idol and we judge the judges who judge the performers. Why should judging books be somehow different from all the instances of judging in our lives?

Judging is like dancing. Sometimes it can be done well, sometimes it can be done poorly, and sometimes it can be done so poorly that you embarrass yourself in public. But just because your friend's date got drunk and danced like vengeful gnome filled his hips with loam, doesn't mean no one should ever dance.

How to Judge

The real problem we seem to be having with judging and books, is those who take it upon themselves to judge, have been doing a terrible job. So, before you publish your latest assessment of a major trend in American publishing, make sure your piece meets these qualifications.

Judge a Work on the Right Terms: Much of what I consider misdirected criticism around books, comes from the critic applying the wrong set of standards. If you read a work with the expectation that it is going to be literature and it is entertainment, you will be disappointed. But insulting a work of entertainment for not meeting the standards of literature is like shouting at your dishwasher for not doing your laundry. Similarly, complaining about the effort a work of literature demands is like whining about your personal trainer making you sweat. If you're not sure which a work is, well, figure it out before you publish anything and include in whatever criticism you do publish (even on Facebook) a statement that explains which standard you are applying and why.

Let Me Introduce You to My Friend Sample Size: Though science and book criticism are very different things, I think book criticism can benefit from the scientific method. If you want to pass judgment on a general reading trend, you actually have to read, let's say five of the books you consider to be in the trend. (Twelve would probably be better.) Otherwise, you're not writing about the actual trend, you're writing about what you think the trend is. I'll be honest, I have some concerns about the possibility that a significant percentage of adults spend a significant percentage of their reading time, reading books written for younger readers, but you haven't seen anything about that in this blog, because, frankly, I don't want to put the time into reading 5-12 popular with adults young adult books in order to understand the trend.

Never Tell Another to Feel Shame: If you have convinced someone that it is wrong to throw recyclables in the trash, they will feel shame when they throw their recyclables in the trash. You don't need to tell them to. People are perfectly capable of feeling shame for making mistakes on their own. Instructing people to feel shame compromises your argument in two ways: first, it instantly raises everyone's hackles and guarantees all of your other points, no matter how good they are, will subject to unsympathetic scrutiny; second, it implies you haven't actually made your point convincingly.

But more importantly, don't be a dick. Seriously.

Judge the Particular Not the Person: Finally, as above in my statement of principles, you will almost never have enough information to accurately judge a person. If you are going to judge, judge an entity that you can actually know with some thoroughness. A vote. A social pattern you've thoroughly researched. A book you've read.

What Is At Stake?
 
So this has been a lot of words. And for what? Why spend all this time on the issue of whether or not we can judge books and reading decisions? (I mean, besides the fact that books are important to me, and thus the conversation around books is important to me.) Forbidding judgment outright creates a fundamentally passive world. You simply coast along on your own tastes or on the tastes carved into you by family, culture, and (in the U.S.) capitalism.

You know who benefits from a culture of taste-only passivity? Bud Lite. Mainstream politicians. The Koch Brothers. The corporations who make billions because, rather than exercising any kind of critical judgment, we just accept the shit they sell us. It benefits the people who respond to an argument about the social, ecological, and flavor value of farm-to-table dining with a dismissive, “Fucking hipster.” It benefits people who are willing to be active, when everyone else is passive. You know, assholes.

Simply put, assholes rule a passive world. Every “meh,” every shrug of the shoulders, every “whatever,” every thoughtless, “it's all just a matter of taste,” is an opportunity for an asshole (who is usually a rich, white, straight, man) to grab power. There should be judgment free zones in our culture. There should be a lot of judgment free zones in our culture, but if we make the entire world, including the world of reading, a judgment free zone all we do is empower the people who don't give a shit about anybody else. I'm not saying that those who argue “it's all a matter of taste,” are themselves assholes, but that this particular attitude enables assholes.

There are downsides to judging, and unfortunately, far too few of us practice judging well, but if I had a choice between a world ruled by critics who sometimes (maybe even often) judge poorly and a world ruled by assholes who exploit of our passivity, I'd choose the critics every time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Luck Denial in Sport and Society

I don't know exactly when the tide turned for my assessment of the series, probably game three or four, but the phenomenon was distinctive and persistent enough that coverage of game seven between the Bruins and the Candiens featured a highlight reel of Bruins hitting the post. Though you won't hear it from any players or coaches, and now that the series is over, any mainstream journalist, or even most fans who want to put a good sportsmanship face forward, the Bruins lost to the Canadiens because of bad luck. Frankly, the fact that they took the series to a game seven while hitting the post 13 (13!) times shows just how much better, overall, the Bruins are. And the posts weren't the only bad luck. There were another half dozen times the puck ended up on edge or slightly offline and a Bruin ended up missing an easy goal. And the luck didn't just prevent the Bruins from scoring. A blocked shot lead to a breakaway and a Canadiens goal. A puck flipped into the neutral zone made through gloves and legs to land for a breakaway and another goal. The third goal in game seven really encapsulated the entire series for the Bruins. Chara was perfectly positioned in the two-on-one. He forced Pachiaretti to the side of the net and Pachiaretti just kinda flipped the puck towards the front of the net (probably the best play he had) and, of course it bounced off Chara and in, stretching the lead back to two goals. Chara did everything right and the Canadians just happened to score. Story of the fucking series. As much as it sounds good to say there's no such thing as “puck luck,” that's all it does, “sound good.”

Beyond public perception, there are very practical reasons for luck denial, for coaches and athletes. You can't practice for it. You can't train for it. You can't trade or draft for it. You can't strategize for it. By definition, there is nothing a coach or athlete can do about luck and so any attention paid to it distracts from the aspects of their craft they can actually do something about. For professional athletes, not mentioning, discussing, or complaining about the role of luck in an outcome isn't just about sportsmanship; it's a professional performance strategy.

But luck doesn't just affect sports. It also, affects, well, everything. Anything that involves a convergence of phenomena beyond your control is luck. To provide a personal example, there is a long list of decisions other people made and events I had no control over (some of which weren't so positive), that culminated in me being able to pitch my novel directly to Denis Johnson at Melville House. At any point in that chain of events, something could have happened to prevent me from that moment. That doesn't remove the work I put into the novel and the preparation I put into the pitch, but it does mean I can't, logically, claim 100% of the credit for whatever happens with my book.

As in sports, with luck in the rest of life, comes luck denial. In fact, one could argue our economic system, restrained-profitism operating within a democratically administered meritocracy, is built on the denial of luck. To put it simply, acknowledging luck means super-rich assholes have no justification for being super-rich. The base of profitism and the justification for the unequal wealth it creates is that through hard work and talent the super-rich, deserve their wealth. If you acknowledge that maybe some of their wealth was the result of phenomena beyond their control that ended up benefiting them, then the entire structure of contemporary capitalism comes crashing down.

Of course, it's never ONLY luck. Marchand dragged the entire team down. Not only could he not hit the net from two feet away, his absolutely inane snow shower penalty disrupted the Bruins momentum right when it seemed like they were going to start dominating play (again) in Game 7. Barkowski played like a rookie and for the first time all season, looked out of place in the NHL. Subban and Price carried the team on their backs until Pacioretti and Vanek got it going late in the series. But just because it's not ONLY luck, doesn't mean we should ignore the influence of luck in society. By far, the best metaphor for the general role of luck in our society is John Scalzi's essay on “Easy Mode.”  To summarize, those of us lucky enough to be born straight, white, American men (last I checked we didn't pass some pre-birth test that allowed us to choose our parents) play the video game of life on the easy mode. You still need to work hard to succeed, of course, and if you do, you will deserve much of whatever reward comes your way, but the undeniable fact of life is that at some point you will benefit from good luck.

Good luck and bad luck tend to even out you say? Over the course of time, you'll have just as much of one as the other, you say? Two things. One, not really an argument a Bruins fan is willing to hear at the moment. From Game 4 on, I just kept assuming there was no way the Bruins' luck could stay that bad. It did. One might argue that the Canadiens had their own bit of bad luck with Price's injury, but that really doesn't balance anything out, as it does nothing to benefit the Bruins. Two, if you flip a coin and it comes up heads, what are the odds the next flip will come up tails? 50%. How about if you flip it again and it comes up heads again? 50%. What if you flip it a million times and each time it comes up heads? 50%. Luck is like a flipped coin. Yeah, a lot of the time it “evens” out and most of us probably experience just about as much good luck as bad luck, but there is just no reason to believe the effects of good and bad luck will even out, or that there will be a zero sum gain, or that your bad luck now will somehow compensate whoever lost out because of your good luck in the past. I mean, Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy four times (FOUR TIMES!!!) and yet, his array of good and back luck have allowed him to still be insanely wealthy, despite, four (FOUR!!) bankruptcies.

Even though it is an illusion, and there is no real way to ensure the most talented and hardest working are always rewarded, I think the meritocracy can be a net gain illusion. I believe society has a whole benefits when talent and hard work are rewarded in some way. But that's not what we have now. How do we solve luck denial in society? It starts with raising the minimum wage. The best way to acknowledge that shit beyond our control happens, while also rewarding hard work and talent, is to ensure the lowest members of society, still live safe, physically comfortable, lives of dignity no matter what mistakes they've made or how flawed they appear. The point is not that everyone is equal in terms of wealth, but that no one in the world's richest country, for whatever reason, is forced to live in or near squalor. Once the floor is raised, acknowledging that nobody is 100% responsible for where they end up in life, the negative repercussions of our illusion of meritocracy are essentially eliminated without meaningfully affecting the positive elements of the delusion. Talent will still be rewarded. Mistakes and failures punished. There will be rich and poor. All it would mean is the people at the top wouldn't be quite so astronomically rich, which is fine by me, since they don't really deserve it anyway.

Since I started with hockey, I might as well end with hockey.

On Brad Marchand: I can't think of a worse performance by a professional athlete that I've ever seen. Not only could he not hit the net, he consistently turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and took stupid penalties, and did not, get in any opponents heads. He made bad decision after bad decision and played so poorly, not even Bergeron and Smith could hoist him to some level of competence. Along with “Another fucking post!” I think “Just dump the fucking puck in!” was my most frequent furious exclamation. There were other players who underperformed, but I don't think you could look at how Lucic (who had a wrist injury), Iginla, & Kreijci were as actively detrimental to the team. They were points when they were dumping the puck in, forechecking for a bit and then losing the puck. It would have been wonderful if Marchand's play lead to that. Yes, Rask needed to make a couple more big saves, and yes, Barkowski was generally out of sorts, but when you look beyond the posts for reasons why such a good team could lose, it's hard to look anywhere else but Marchand.

That said, I'm not sure trading him this off-season would make sense, if for no other reason than I can't imagine his trade value being very high. If the Bruins don't think he'll help them win another Cup, they would probably get the most value for their trade by giving him a chance to score some goals in the regular season before trying to move him. Then again, if the right deal comes around, as it did with Sequin, I wouldn't be surprised if Chereli made the move.

On PK Subban: I have never had a high opinion of Subban. He is unbelievably talented, but, in recent years, even in his, ugh, Norris winning year, I believe he has diluted his talent through diving, cheap shots, reckless hits, and whining to the official. As good a skater as he was, he never seemed to have his head enough in the game itself to truly be a great player. Shockingly, he cut out a lot (but not all) of those shenanigans in this series and was a force of fucking nature. The Canadiens would have lost four in a row if Subban hadn't played at the level he played. I mean, he looked ridiculous calling for the puck by jumping up and down on the ice, or rather, he would have looked ridiculous if he wasn't 100% right and 100% scored on the hockey equivalent of calling your shot. He still didn't deserve the Norris when he won it and he can still be a reckless, dangerous (ask Vanek about that), and cowardly player, but he showed some actual growth and actual maturity in this series and if he continues to mature this way, he will be an exciting player to watch.

On The Bruins Next Year: There's a reason why they won the President's Trophy and there is every reason to believe they will be an elite team next year. Of their core, only Chara is really aging out, and he had another Norris Finalist caliber season, and even if he loses another step Denis Siedenberg could easily become the Bruins' top shut down defenseman. Rask will still be Rask, Bergeron will still be Bergeron, and Kreijci will still be Kreijci, while we expect to see continued improvement from Krug, Bartkowski, Smith, and, pleasant surprise of the playoffs, Soderberg. And Cherelli proved he will make big moves (Sequin last year) if they make sense, and simpler, safer, prudent moves, (Meszaros at the trade deadline) if those are what's available. Logically, there is just no way to argue against the Bruins being Stanley Cup contenders again next year. Unfortunately, logic is one thing and luck is another.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Confessions of a Markup Artist: An Open Letter to Farhood Manjoo

Dear Farhad,

My name is Josh Cook and I am thirty-four years old (fucking hell, I'm 34? Shit. That's still “early-30s” right? It's not “mid-30s” until 35, right? Right?) and I am a markup artist. I work for Porter Square Books and, with a few exceptions (staff discounts for booksellers and baristas at Cafe Zing, discounts on the twenty best new releases of the month as nominated by indie bookstores around the country, non-profits, teachers buying books for their classroom, members of Grub Street, people who buy in bulk, and customers who want to buy a book that shows some shelf-wear or other damage. OH! And we also sell remainders, which end up being like, $5.99 or something.) I sell books for the cover price. I've seen your response when someone points out that the definition of “markup” doesn't mean “selling something at the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price or MSRP,” (you know the price that the item's manufacturers suggest...never mind.) so I won't spend too much time telling you that you simply refuse to understand what a “cover price,” actually is, or how to distinguish between “markup” and “more expensive for a shit ton of complicated and convoluted reasons some of which have to do with distinct business models and volumes of sales (both of which are legitimate reasons for price difference) and some of which have to do with being a monopoly and acting like it by dodging taxes as much as possible, treating your workers like ACTUAL cogs in ACTUAL machines, and extorting your vendors—what? No, Walmart, I wasn't talking to you, yeah, no, I mean, you fucks have built an empire on Eisenhower highways and foodstamps, but you're not at issue here—for preferential contracts,” nor do I particular want to rehash, yet again, that the most expensive part in the book production process (as it is in pretty much every production process that doesn't involve blood diamonds) is the people involved in the production including the writer, agent, several levels of editors, administrators, executives, IT technicians, and booksellers, all of which are present, with their damn mouths always needing damn feeding, whether the book is a hardcover or an e-book, because I know there really isn't a point; the idea of the “indie markup” and “overpriced ebooks” gives you and everyone who agrees with you conceptual permission to buy books for way less than they are worth and it is very very very very very hard to shake free of a belief that lets you do what you want to do, no matter how much nuance that belief willfully ignores in order to sustain itself. (Unless you think bookstores print the book covers themselves.) (Please, please, tell me you think bookstores print the covers themselves and thus have control over the prices on them.)

Just so you know how blinded by self-interest I am (in way that, obviously, you are not) around the issue of the cost of books, I should point out that I am a writer, wait, hold on—I should point out that I am a PROFESSIONAL writer who has been paid an amount of legal currency for a book that will be published. So, tell me again, why my thousands and thousands of hours of work are worth less than a really good sandwich (not knocking really good sandwiches) or an artisan cocktail (sure as hell not knocking artisan cocktails) or Imax tickets to the new Tom Cruise movie (fuck that guy), why there is something wrong when I ask for an economic system that at least has the potential to let me lead a materially comfortable life or believe that the output of one of the most important actions in human culture should be priced as if it is worth something?

The thing is, technically, I mean if we're using words and their definitions, if what indie bookstores sell books for is a “markup” then what Amazon does can't be a discount. And yet, all over the place they broadcast how much they “discount” off the cover price, as if the cover price were some kind of MEANINGFUL POINT OF REFERENCE. If Amazon's “low prices” were just “low prices,” they wouldn't be discounts, they would just be “low prices.” Listen if you have evaluated the evidence, done the research and understand the context, and decide to shop at Amazon that's fine. Sure, I don't think you should, but if you do, that doesn't mean I think you're a bad person or that I think you should be ashamed of your decision, it just means we disagree on this one particular issue, in the world of particular issues, that happens to affect my particular life in a world of particular lives. I'd just really like to use real words in our disagreement.

What I don't understand is, where are all these profits I'm making by selling marked up books? I mean we sell Capital in the Twenty-First Century for $40 plus applicable Massachusetts state sales tax, and we have been selling just buckets of them. (Yes, Cambridge, MA is a really, really, really, smart town.) I know the economics of scale ensure all this sweet sweet profit won't be enough for the store's owners to buy a private jet like Bezos or lavish us with exorbitant sales bonuses, but an automobile upgrade, surely, and maybe a really swanky end of the year party. I mean, last year the store sold over 5,000 copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane in hardcover for $25.99 as marked on the cover; that's gotta be a Lexus right, or at least an Audi. (OK, maybe it would have been a Lexus if we had taken advantage of the fact that the books were all signed by a fucking living legend and charged more for the “added value,” as nearly every other retail industry does, or started raising the price as supply dwindled applying THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF EXCHANGE BASED ECONOMIES, but I guess we were too full of truffle dusted caviar to think clearly.) How can we be marking books ups, selling thousands of them, and still making just a bit more than break even? Something about inefficiency maybe? Or it's not a fucking markup.

Oh, right, I'm confessing. I, Josh Cook, am a markup artist and I love every fucking second of it. I am mark up artist because I read galleys in my spare time so I know about the books you might ask me for. I am a markup artist because I learn about genres and books and authors that I personally don't give a shit about, because a lot of other people give a shit about them. I am a markup artist because my store remits the sale tax needed to keep schools and roads together. I am markup artist because you can duck out of the rain into my store, you can arrange to meet a first date at my store (can and SHOULD), hell, you can even drop your kid off at my store to read in our stacks for a couple hours. I am a markup artist because I love the interactions between books and people and people and people through books, whether its those I sell at the store or those I write at my desk. I mean, if I really wanted more money, which is what you imply by the whole “indie markup” phrase, I sure as fuck wouldn't work in a bookstore and write books, I'd be a banker. And you know what, if you also just wanted more money, you would blow off tech writing and also be a banker. And the thing is, the only reason why our society has readily available books at prices affordable to a wide range of members, is because, at virtually every level of the publishing process, someone decides to work with books instead of make more money.

My name is Josh Cook. This is the end of my confession and open letter to Farhad Manjoo, who is probably an OK guy with the exception of this one inexplicable persistent mistake. I am a writer, a bookseller at an independent bookstore, and therefore, a motherfucking badass markup artist.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Total Absence of Surprise: On Amazon & Hachette


How do you transfer market share to profit? The most direct way is to charge higher prices for whatever you sell in the regions where you dominate the market. But what if the way you gained that market share was not through the highest quality products and services at fair market prices, but by underselling all of your competition? What if your whole rasison d'etre is low prices? What if your entire public persona is based on the idea of “putting the customer first?”

For it's entire life, Amazon's business model has focused entirely around infinite growth of market share. Relentlessly, obsessively, ruthlessly, using low prices to gain retail market share, first in the book world (because the ISBN metadata of books is perfect for online databases) and then, in every aspect of the retail, and now, media world it can. It has been able to sustain itself on razor thin profit margins through the extra sales generated by blatant but technically legal tax avoidance, low pay and poor treatment of its warehouse workers, and Wall Street confidence in its ability to some day, some how, any-day-now-even-though-we've-been-waiting-for-fifteen-years, start turning a profit. (A compliant Department of Justice and a disturbingly sympathetic federal judge helped too.)

If money were infinite, there would be no poor people.
But now, the tax loophole that was a basic building block of Amazon's business model, is being closed, state by state, with the likelihood of federal tax fairness increasing by the year. In the UK, awareness is being raised and pressure is being put on Amazon over how much tax they DON'T pay, by technically basing their European division in Luxembourg. And people have noticed how awful Amazon treats its workers, including the workers suing Amazon over the lost break time in America, and organizing the hell out of shit in Germany. And Wall Street is finally starting to notice that Amazon isn't making any money. Not enough to do anything meaningful yet, but the Stock Market has the emotional stability of a 13-year-old, so the risk is always there that one day Amazon will wake up no longer allowed to sit with the cool kids.

Wait. That's what "communism" means?

No matter how efficient your business is, there is an overhead floor. There is a cost to doing business and even Amazon must pay it to keep doing business. So if they can't raise their prices how do they meet that floor? The same way Walmart does, by pressuring its vendors for more advantageous contracts. Hachette just happens to be, for whatever reason, the latest vendor to feel Amazon's pressure. To anyone following Amazon's progress to “Walmart of the Internet” this should not be a surprise. To anyone with a basic understanding of retail economics, this should not be a surprise. Really, anyone who takes a second to think about Amazon's discounts, shouldn't be surprised either. If there is anything surprising at all about this most recent conflict its that the public hasn't heard about more of them. This is the natural consequence of a business model based entirely on market share with unsustainably low prices. The result is like milfoil in a pond; Amazon is sucking the money publishing needs to survive out of publishing.

Sorry, today is my day off from crippling cynicism.
But that money goes to the consumer right? And if it's good for the customer, it's good for the economy, right? You'll spend the money you save through cheap books on Amazon, elsewhere, right? When Amazon pays its vendors less, everyone downstream makes less. (Have you heard about the shrinking author advance?) When Amazon pays its employees less, every economy impacted by those employees has less wealth. Though you personally might economically benefit from Amazon's low prices in the short term, and might reinvest those savings in other aspects of your local economy, that money came from somewhere. At best, Amazon's (and Walmart's) cheap prices are a zero sum gain for the economy, but more realistically, they starve states and municipalities of tax dollars, pull money out of the economy into Bezos' space alien death laser compound, and deprive a primary, fundamental, vital mechanism of human expression the resources needed to publicize and distribute that human expression.

Unless something changes, Hachette will not be the last publisher stressed by Amazon. Even if Hachette “wins” this particular conflict, Amazon will just pressure some other publisher when that contract comes up. How would something change? Ideally, Amazon would start acting like it is a member of society, but I don't see that happening any time soon. Even less likely, is the use of existing federal anti-trust regulation to stop Amazon's predatory pricing. So, again, it comes down to readers thinking in the slightly-longer-than-short-term and shopping elsewhere, at least some of the time. Now seems like a pretty good opportunity to start. If Amazon is telling you there is a three-week wait time on a popular book, go to IndieBound and buy it from an independent bookstore. You'll get the book faster, you'll buy it from a company that acts like its a member of human society, and you'll help support the publishing industry as a whole. Of course, the whole success of this strategy is based on readers thinking through the consequences of their actions more than one step removed. Readers are still people, and if our attitude towards human driven climate change is any indication, even just one step removed is apparently too much to ask.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Red or Dead and the Impossibility of Sports Fiction

No. There is no debate.
The greatest baseball scene I've ever read in fiction is the opening scene in Underworld. The greatest sports movie ever made (and this is not a debatable fact) is Slapshot. Besides a level of class-consciousness rarely seen in American pop culture, the two works of fiction share one major quality; there isn't much actual baseball in Underworld nor much actual hockey in Slapshot. What baseball there is in Underworld is all factual, narrating the legendary home run Bobby Thomson hit off Ralph Branca to win the pennant for the Dodgers. What hockey there is in Slapshot is all completely and utterly ridiculous; the championship is won when a player strips off his equipment while a brawl is happening (No, I won't specify which of those two things is the truly ridiculous act in hockey). In both cases, and pretty much all other successful sports fiction, the actual sport acts as more an element of the environment driving and organizing the action and the narrative suffers whenever the creator is obligated to actually show game play. Unless, as in Slapshot, the storyteller adds something purposefully unrealistic, the action drags, and whatever we're reading or watching feels forced.

Offsides. OFFSIDES!
This is weird because sports tend to be entertaining. Really entertaining. Almost universally entertaining. Why is real hockey, which I love to watch, so entertaining and meaningful that I will sculpt my social media days in order to somehow not learn the results of the game I've recorded, but depicted hockey, like say The Flying V from Mighty Ducks totally uncompelling? (Before I get myself into too much trouble, the first Mighty Ducks movie is actually a very good hockey movie, even if the hockey action itself, at least in my opinion, too often leaves charming behind to induce some good old fashioned eye-rolling. Interestingly, it too has a level of class consciousness you don't see often enough in depictions of our very classist society. Someone get me Zizek on the phone.)

In a way the gap is obvious. In an actual Bruins game the action is not pre-determined, whereas in a hockey movie, the action is. But why does this relatively simple gap leads to such a difference in emotional content? First, every single action in sport is a locus of potential excitement, in that every pass could be THE pass that results in a goal, every hit could be THE hit that changes the emotional tenor of the crowd, every save could be THE save that gives the team a chance to come back, and so every pass, every hit, every save, and every other thing that happens in a hockey game contains, at the very least, a shade of the emotional content of THE THING! In theory, sports fiction should have the same freedom to associate significance to all of its action, but because the story's significance often is only partly related to the results of the depicted sports action, fictitious sports actions can only access a shade of a portion of the significance of the story.

Secondly, a hockey movie does not have time to show an entire hockey game or season and so must essentially put together a plot-driving highlight reel. Unfortunately, highlight reels are anthologies of distinct moments presented with minimum context for us to appreciate athletic acts in and of themselves, whereas movies try to recreate the flow of action real games have without all that stuff that happens in between highlight reel moments. This gives a jarring sense of artificiality to whatever action is depicted. Finally, when you remove a hockey game from a focus on the athleticism of the action, and you remove the action from a meaningful result, or, when the sport you're watching doesn't connect directly to personal meaning, it's a lot of boring stuff that happens over and over again. That guy passes to that guy. That guy shoots. Those four guys are “digging for the puck.” In order to depict sport in fiction, traditionally creators have tried to avoid, mostly in unsuccessful ways, the relentless, repetition of actual sport. The repetition that is the very essence of sports. Which, as above, reinforces the fictitious nature of what you're watching or reading, and breaks your willing suspension of disbelief.

Enter David Peace and Red or Dead, Peace's massive monument to legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Rather than avoiding the ultimately repetitive nature of sports, he embraces it, structuring the prose style around the realistic movement of sport. And Peace doesn't hide his style choice. He tells the reader explicitly what to expect. The first three words Peace writes, in a preface-like passage titled “The Argument III” are “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” And that's what Peace does. Whether depicting a soccer match or Bill Shankly setting the table for breakfast, phrases repeat, progress, and accumulate. Just like actual soccer matches and just like actually setting the breakfast table. Just like going to work. Just like drinking coffee. Just like genetic reproduction. Just like meditation. Just like washing dishes. Just like working out at the gym. Just like writing a novel, or a poem, or a short story, or an essay, or a blog post. The same thing, with occasional and slight variation, over and over and over and over again.

The term that came to my mind to describe Peace's style is “passionate box score.” It is hard to describe what an accomplishment that is. Seriously, I'm sitting here struggling to finish this paragraph. If you know what soccer looks like it's easy to imagine the course of a game through Peace's prose, but that isn't even the point I'm trying to make. And by using the same prose style for both the greatest matches in Liverpool history and cleaning the stove (the Shanklys (“Shanklies?”) must have had the cleanest stove in the goddamn world) turns life itself into a passionate box score. (Which, in a way, places Red or Dead firmly in the modernist tradition.) Somehow, the passionate box score recognizes that life is just one damn thing after another while at the same time celebrating that all these damn things keep happening on the pitch and in life.

What separates all those damn things happening on the pitch and all those damn things happening in life is the damn things happening on the pitch have a tangible result. Since Liverpool had to win or lose or draw, we know, at the end of the game, that each damn pass, each damn shot, each damn save, and each damn tackle was part of the win, the loss, or the draw. And each win, loss, or draw is part of a League Championship or not part of a League Championship, part of a European Cup or not, part of an FA Cup or not, part of relegation or not, part of disappointment or not. But what is drying the plates part of? Peace's Shankly describes his playing philosophy as “total football.” Peace might be describing through his Shankly, “total life.”

Peace's Bill Shankly is a hero. A hero for our time and a hero for all time. Shankly's heroics are as simple and applicable as can be and they apply to everything from sports, to work, to making dinner, to hanging out with your friends, to politics and leadership. How was Bill Shankly a hero? He thought of other people first and he tried his fucking best and he never fucking quit and when he failed he failed having never fucking quit, having tried his fucking best, and in service to other people first. Just imagine for a second if our national character was defined not by the “self-made man” or the “rugged individualist” (both of which, total fictions) but “everybody trying their fucking best and never fucking quitting while making the world a better place for everyone else.” You know what, maybe don't imagine that, I don't have enough bourbon insurance for the emotional effects of such a thought experiment.

I wish there were some way to read with sections of my consciousness turned off. I know what soccer looks like. Sports, in general, are meaningful to me. And so I was prepared and sympathetic, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of emotional investment, for Peace's project. But I'm not at all sure what kind of buy-in someone who isn't connected to sports will give Red or Dead, especially since the style is so overt and relentless. I hope said sportless compatriot would be able to absorb Peace's passion and see the style as a poetic form, a restraint designed to also free, but I honestly can't be sure. I was willing to read this guy put on the same suit the exact same way a bunch of times because I understood what it feels like to watch the same shit happen over and over on a soccer pitch, but how does that pocket square look to someone who believes that shit on the pitch is boring?

But, all works of fiction erect barriers of experience between themselves and their potential readers. Every difference between the action, events, and characters depicted in a work of fiction, is a barrier that must be surmounted by the imagination of the reader. Of course, it's the author's responsibility to give the reader the necessary substance of the imagination, especially in works of fiction that, unlike science fiction or fantasy, don't have culturally accepted imaginative expectations, but it is also the reader's responsibility to try. Or maybe to think about this in a terms that could be reduced to an acronym on a bracelet: What would Bill Shankly do? He would try his fucking best, he would not fucking quit, and he would read to become a better person for everyone else he shares the world with.