Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Books Are Free

You know, patience is also free.
Books are free. If price is the most important factor in how and where you purchase your books and in how and what you advocate for in terms of the books industry, then you're in luck, because you never have to pay for a book if you don't want to. Legally. Ever. You could lead a full and very rich reading life without ever spending a single cent on a book. Ever. Without pirating. Without shoplifting. Without mooching off your friends who buy books. Because books are free.

They're free at your library. I read (an amount of) Thomas Piketty's smash bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century for free and all of the second book in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive for free. I was even able to order them and dozens more online, still for free. I'm lucky enough to live in Massachusetts, which has the Minuteman Library Network, which means I can order books online from any one of several dozen libraries around the state and pick the books up at the branch a five minute walk from my apartment. Even if you don't have that kind of resource available, if there's one thing I know about librarians, it's they want you to have that book and they will do just about anything to make sure you do.

Oh, this is one of the books I already paid for. With my taxes.
Books are also free, in digital formats, at Project Gutenberg, a massive (and growing) online collection of public domain books, including The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy A Gentleman, one of the greatest books ever written, Don Quixote, one of the greatest books ever written, Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the greatest books ever written, Ulysses, one of the greatest books ever written, pretty much every book by Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain, as well as fascinating oddities from the history of the written word including my favorite, 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. (Yes, it is as much fun as the title implies.) In short, there is more great literature on this one website than any person could ever read over the course of their life and it is all free.

Therefore, by the power vested in me by the fact that I'm already saying this, I decree all debates on the price and cost of books, in any context and with any goal in mind, null and void. Books are already free.

Isn't Amazon just trying to make the world better for readers by fighting for lower book prices? No, books are already free.

Aren't traditional publishers and indie bookstores just gouging readers with high prices? No, books are free.

Don't those multi-millionaire traditionally published authors laugh at us all the way to the bank? Maybe, but books are still free.

What about competition with things like Facebook and Candy Crush? Books are free.

But I want to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that everyone is talking about, The Goldfinch, and I don't want to wait for a copy from the library, and I don't want to pay more than $9.99 for it? Fuck you, that's not how the economy works.

If only there were a library...for my soul.
Books are free, unless you want a specific book, within a specific time frame, for some specific reason, and that is what we call “added value,” and in a capitalist economy “added value” means “higher cost.” And this is totally accepted in pretty much every other industry. Shorts are more expensive in May than in October because more people want shorts in May than they do in October. New video games are more expensive than year old un-used video games because people like to play the new video games right away and are willing to pay a premium for them. (And, of course, because the game producers are trying to make back their investment, but that's another point.) Dried beans at the grocery store are essentially free; seriously, they're like $.89 a pound and a pound of dried beans is like 10 meals, but, people (myself included) still buy canned beans because sometimes (OK, most of the time) we don't realize we want tacos until we want tacos and, bereft of time travel, can't soak the dried beans over night. You are perfectly capable of spending $15-20 on ingredients for a nice meal that you make at home, but also, totally willing to spend $30-60 (or more) for someone else to make those exact same ingredients into a nice meal at a restaurant. Bars add value to beer just by not being your house. I mean, normally when everybody wants something, it costs more. Can you imagine someone showing up at the box office for say, The Rolling Stones, and saying to the clerk, “Yeah, I heard this guy play Sympathy for the Devil on his guitar in the street and it was pretty good and that was free, so, shouldn't tickets to the show only cover the cost of production?” I mean, if you think a book is too expensive, for whatever reason, the most efficient, most effective, most meaningful way to express your disagreement with the price is to just not buy the book.

The only reason we discuss the price of books differently from the price of pretty much everything else in the economy is that the most powerful retailer in books isn't under any obligation to make money off them. Amazon's book prices are fairy tales. We believe them, not because they are truly based in an efficient business model or because they are champions for readers or any of the other reasons you might hear, but because we want to. It's amazing what we are willing to believe if it means we can save $5.

There is more I could say (and have said and others have said) about the price books, including, for example, how relatively cheap they are when you account for inflation, a cheapness born by authors, interns, and booksellers but, really, it all boils down to the same issue. If all you want is to read great books you never have to spend a single penny. Not one ever. So every “general argument about the cost of books,” really isn't a “general argument” so much as it is a flimsy costume thrown over a very specific act of haggling over a specific book desired for a specific reason within a specific time frame. So, if you think $30 (or whatever) is too much to pay for The Goldfinch, don't buy it for $30 and if no one buys it for $30, the price will naturally decline, either through the introduction of cheaper formats like trade paperback or mass market paperback, through temporary promotions and sales as frequently happens in ebooks, or, (perish the thought) when the book gets remaindered. If, for whatever reason, The Goldfinch is worth $30 (or whatever) to you, don't act like this is some egregious assault on the American reader by some unscrupulous corporation. It's just a few people in a capitalist economy trying to make money on something everyone wants, or, pretty much the exact definition of capitalism.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Green Girl Describes Post-Modernism

Anyone who says they can define post-modern is either lying directly to your face, playing a really intricate prank, or doesn't actually understand post-modernism. I mean, Frederic Jameson says he can't define post-modernism. I mean, the inherent limitations of all abilities to define is one of post-modernism's ideas. At best, we can accumulate traits, characteristics, works, books, paintings, and theories that have attempted to describe or been identified as post-modernism into an incomplete and incoherent concept that gives us at least some kind of handle on things.

And for the last fifty years or so, despite the utter uselessness of the term itself, despite the incomprehensibility of its explanations, (Baudrilliard on the Centre Pompidou, the work of Andy Warhol, and, maybe 4'33” by John Cage by  are probably the best) despite its inherent aloofness from human experience, we have lived in (and are potentially moving out of) a post-modern society. Seems like the kind of thing you would want to at least get “some kind of handle on.” Short of reading tons of difficult theory, visiting a range of key buildings and museums, and tackling some of the most difficult works of fiction short of (and perhaps even including) Finnegans Wake available in English, and thus, devoting your life to an endeavor that, by definition you will fail, reading Green Girl by Kate Zambreno could give you that handle.

In her story of Ruth, an American scraping through existence in London, failing at nearly everything she attempts, Zambreno has managed to depict nearly every major aspect of post-modern literature. Which are:

Episodic Without a Traditional Plot Arc
Told in little chunks that are collected into chapter-like arrangements, Green Girl is the story of Ruth just kinda doing stuff. Working. Hanging out with her friend. Having and wrecking relationships. Coping with, you know, life. Doing, you know, drugs. And then, you know, an ending. It's told chronologically for the most part, so there's that, but even then, there are plenty of sections that could have gone anywhere in the story, that have so little indicative phenomena that they could have happened any time or even out of time.

Agentless, Alienated, Powerless, Drifting Protagonist Dappled with Paranoia
Ruth just kind of does stuff. She doesn't know what she wants, except for that time she knew she wanted that dress, and that time she knew she didn't want to have a threesome, and then, yeah. She can't maintain a relationship. She doesn't seem to have any connection to the only character in the book that could be called her friend, she's got almost no sense of the outside world, she doesn't seem to have any dreams except one time she vaguely seemed to think maybe being a celebrity might be nice, and in the end, you know, there's a last page.

Meta-fictive
There is a first person narrator that pops up occasionally to talk about Ruth in a direct almost maternal way. I don't think I could prove that first person voice is Kate Zambreno, but I think it is.

Centered Around Consumerism
Ruth works for Horrids a department store in London, selling a celebrity perfume called “Desire.” Eventually she quits, drifts around a bit, and ends up trying another job at a store in a mall. Ruth talks and thinks a lot about wanting and buying stuff, but without any real awareness of what it means to want a little black dress. She consumes drugs. She consumes media. She even consumes other art. Even when she has no money, Ruth seems to be more of a consumer than a person.

Samples other Art
Ruth herself lives an essentially artless existence, but Zambreno has included a lot of art from other sources into the book. Nearly every chapter comes with an epigraph from literature, film, and theory. I've heard it said (yes, perhaps in my own head) that the DJ is one of the emblematic artists of post-modernism and that “sampling” the intentional arrangement of previous works into something “new” is an emblematic post-modern art form. The use of constant and disperse epigraphs allows Zambreno to tap into this DJ art form, without, like David Shields, creating a work completely composed of overt “samples.”

No Conclusion, Just an Ending
And then, you know, she thinks about how nice the certainty of going to a church would be and also how nice it would be to sit in a church “And scream. And scream. And scream.” And that's it. Unlike nearly every previous era and culture, post-modernism is comfortable leaving pretty much everything hanging.


Post-modernism is in a strange cultural place right now. We are starting to make our way to the other side of it, even if very few people have any idea what is on the other side. And it is old enough for new generations of artists and writers to look back on it in disdain. When writers and critics look at post-modern irony now, they only see it's weaknesses and drawbacks. We always need to move forward, but I don't agree that post-modernism has somehow “failed.” It's part of the same persistent human project of building a better world and sometimes you've got to go to strange and dark places to do so. And irony can be a very powerful tool in a world that tells you thousands of times over the course of your life that Bud Lite “Tastes Great.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What We Learn from California's Colbert Bump

No algorithm is capable of out selling an influential human being.

More like TusCAN'T milk.
I suppose I could just leave it at that, but the implications of that, actually pretty goddamn obvious, truth have a lot to say about the nature and state of bookselling and some of the ways online only retail in general and Amazon in particular weaken the books industry even when they aren't actively trying to tear it to shreds in order to sell Tuscan milk.

As a bookseller, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to sell books, and as a marketing manager for a bookstore with an active social media presence I also think a lot about how media sell books. There is a ton of fluidity and plenty of idiosyncrasy in the world of getting books to readers, but over the years, I've only seen one consistent, proven, technique for creating significant book sales; an influential person tells other people to buy a specific book in a specific place. That formula actually has a lot of different permutations and hashing them out tells us a lot about how people buy books, where, and why.

In terms of California, the influential person was Stephen Colbert (with an assist from Sherman Alexie), the specific book was California, and the specific place was Powell's. California debuted (Hi, Stephen. You know, my publisher was in conflict with Amazon before it was cool and I have a debut novel coming out in March, if you wanted to, you know, transfer your sticking it to the Bezos from The Colbert Report to late night.) on the bestseller list because Colbert influences millions of people, but also because the structure of the influence was easy to enact. Everyone who wanted to act on their respect for Colbert had a simple, direct, and satisfying action to take. A couple clicks and they had participated in a communal action they could specifically identify. It's important to think about this in contrast to another way Colbert might have entered the Amazon vs Hachette fray. What kind of sales would we have seen if Colbert had asked his viewers to support their local independent bookstore? My guess: none or damn close to none.

If I don't buy this, Oprah will never be my friend.
Sure, there would have been a great link on colbertnation.com. Perhaps they would have somehow incorporated the Indiebound store finder. It could have been a weekly campaign with Colbert consistently highlighting the benefits of shopping local in general and at local bookstores specifically. Hell, he could have devoted a month to supporting bookstores and I don't think you would have seen the same total number of books sold at indie stores through his efforts match the number of sales of California at Powell's alone. There is a ton of behavioral psychology surrounding all of these issues, but it all comes down to two simple fact: the more steps it takes to buy a book the fewer books will be bought and if people don't know what book they want a website will not be able to sell them a book at all.

With The Colbert Bump, readers were told what book they wanted (by both Colbert and Sherman Alexie) and were given a two step process (click link on colbertnation.com and buy book) to buy it and the result is a debut novel (by a former bookseller, so another argument is made for the follow up MFA vs NYC vs ABA essay collection) lands on the New York Times bestseller list.

But this mechanism works in other permutations as well. Porter Square Books was able to sell over 5,000 copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane because an influential person, in this case the author himself Neil Gaiman, told everyone to buy a specific book, which just happened to be his own, at a specific place, portersquarebooks.com. It also scales down quite nicely. The Song of Achilles has been out in hardcover for over two years and we still sell a copies of the hardcover every few months online, because a specific influential person, in this case the Orange Prize winning author Madeline Miller, tells everyone to buy a specific book, autographed copies of The Song of Achilles, at a specific place, again, portersquarebooks.com. And, of course, this can scale down even further. On every shift at the store, an influential person, me being influential because I am a bookseller at Porter Square Books, tells someone, whoever has asked for help, to buy a specific book, whatever book I recommend, from a specific place, the cash register right over there.

Tuscan milk makes my ennui angry
Sure the nature of “influential” is fluid. Sometimes the influential person is a celebrity like Oprah, or a big name author like Gaiman, but the “influential” person could also be, “that cute guy I see on the train every morning who always looks really into whatever he's reading and he was reading this book called Everything Matters! that looked kind a cool,” or your friend who's a high school English teacher or the bookseller at your favorite store, or The New York Times Book Review or Bookslut or The Millions or largehearted boy or Smart Bitches, or whatever. Regardless of who the influential person is the effective process is this same: this book out of all the shmillions of books in the world is the one I think you want and this specific place out of all the shmillions of specific places is the place to get it and if we happen to be online here is a direct link to that book at the specific place so you just have to click “Add to Cart.”

What is interesting about this process is that, as far as I can tell, retail websites don't seem to have any influence at all. All of the store's staff picks are listed on our website and I always share the picks on social media. They're also all tagged by genre and by bookseller. And yet, though staff picks are very successful in the store, our influence as booksellers, even when named, doesn't seem to transfer to online sales. Staff picks don't sell any better than any other books on our website. In some ways it's obvious why this is; people generally don't go to websites to find a book, they go to websites to buy the book they want.

Online retail is great at capturing sales, but rubbish at creating sales. Perhaps no entity knows this better than Amazon. That's why they have affiliate sales, why the include customer reviews, and why they publish a bestseller list. All of these are attempts to leverage influence for their own sales. But, unlike many physical bookstores, Amazon, for the most part, doesn't have any influence of its own. It doesn't have a staff of influencers able to convert a “maybe I want a book” to “I'm going to buy this book,” or change “I want a copy of The Goldfinch,” to “I want a copy of “The Goldfinch and I just learned from that guy that the new Elizabeth Gilbert, out in paperback, has actually been getting great reviews so I'll buy that too.” So the result of fewer bookstores is going to be fewer overall book sales. The good news here: the number of bookstores is growing again.

So I like to find practical things to do from these explorations and what stands out to me, as the biggest lesson for books from California's Colbert bump, is that the book industry needs more influencers. I'd be interested to see a chart that tracks declining book sales with declining book coverage in newspapers and other local media. Many readers will put in the effort to find a book to read, but many won't. If there isn't someone telling them to buy a specific book, they won't buy any book at all. I mean, I still get customers who show up with CAPSULE REVIEWS CUT OUT OF MAGAZINES to buy the reviewed book. What is the actionable lesson from California's Colbert bump (and from the years with and without an Oprah's book club)? Publishers large and small should establish a non-profit trust or fund that supports book coverage in newspapers, magazines, and local media. They pay in some amount (take it out of your marketing budget) and that money subsidizes, or downright pays for, book coverage. In order for this to work, the fund would have to have no control over the content of the coverage, and thus, it would be impossible for any one publisher to track a solid ROI on the project, but I believe it would increase book sales overall, while strengthening our literary culture and that is good for everyone, bookstores (including Amazon), publishers (including Amazon), writers, readers, and citizens.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Josh and Rissa's Wedding and Hoopla Part 1: The Ceremony: You know, the “Wedding” part of “Wedding and Hoopla.”

This is what they call a "formal picture."
On Sunday June 22nd, 2014 at the Codman Estate in Lincoln, MA, Riss and I celebrated our relationship with friends and family. Unfortunately not everyone could make it, so I've recreated, as best as possible the course of the day here. We'll get all the sappy stuff out in this first post and all the hoopla in the next.

Our friend Alyson (who earned a Master's from the Divinity School at Harvard, making her, technically a “Master of Divinity,”) was our officiant. Our friends Drew and Shannon were the readers. Not pictured, the frog in the reflecting pool who croaked with an almost unnerving sense of timing and the absolutely perfect breeze.

Alyson's Remarks
Mastering Divinity like He-Man Mastered the Universe
A very, serious occasion
This is how you "Afternoon Beverage."
We live in an interesting time for marriages. We live in a time where the definition and purpose of marriage is hotly debated and rapidly changing – we can turn on C-SPAN and see politicians debating the very essence of marriage, which they are coming to realize is not derived from the gender of its participants, but their commitment to one another.

Ceremonies are changing too. We’ve learned that weddings can be as meaningful in a beautiful grove, surrounded by nature and sanctioned by community, as they can be in a church, sanctioned by God.

But one type of marriage has been left out of this debate. There is still one take on marriage that people don’t know quite what to do with, and I want to stand up for it today – I want to stand up for the overdue marriage.

I first met Josh and Rissa ten years ago, and at that time they had been dating for four years. So, by some people’s standards, that means they should have gotten married two years before I met them, a decade ago. That is a long time. That is enough time for the question to shift from “Why aren’t you getting married?” to, “What’s the point, at this point?”

But what a beautiful thing to stand here today and celebrate a history of fourteen years of finely aged love and commitment. My favorite book, Middlemarch, is full of ill-fated marriages. But there is one moment where Dr. Lydgate, stuck in a marriage with a vain and immature woman he chose too quickly, realizes what marriage could be. Eliot writes, “He was beginning now to imagine how two creatures who loved each other, and had a stock of thoughts in common, might laugh over their shabby furniture, and their calculations about how far they could afford butter and eggs.”

That sounds like Josh and Rissa to me.

Of course, the danger of marrying late is that the blood may have cooled – is there any passion left? But here again, I would argue that an early marriage poses a greater danger. Margaret Fuller wrote about a newlywed couple she knew whose joy in coupledom seems to have deflated at the onset of matrimony. She wondered: “Is it that whatever seems complete sinks into the finite?” For many hopeful couples, once the frontier of marriage is reached, all new horizons seem to fade.


Ambiance. There was also ambiance.
This will not happen to Josh and Rissa. They have never let life bore them, and they are not getting married because they are bored. One thing I admire about Josh and Rissa is that they have incredible integrity about following their ludicrous dreams. They both stubbornly pursue the lifestyles they want to live – and these are not easy lifestyles. These are lifestyles that require patience, persistence, and a tolerance for shabby furniture. These traits are admirable in an individual, but even more so in a couple who each support one another in these pursuits. I have no fear that a ring on their fingers will sink their lives into the “finite” – the common stock of thoughts they share will continue to make their living room one of the most interesting salons in Somerville.

And this is why I want to stick up for the overdue marriage. It is because of the steadiness and wisdom they have built over fourteen years, that life can continue to be a beautiful risk.

Today Josh and Rissa can say simultaneously “We made it,” and “we have so much longer to enjoy it.” It is an occasion worthy of our most sacred ceremony.

Readings
Drew's 873rd wedding reading.

Drew:
from Walt Whitman's “Song of the Open Road”

I do not offer the old smooth prizes,
But offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is called riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve.
However sweet the laid-up stores,
However convenient the dwellings,
You shall not remain there.
However sheltered the port,
And however calm the waters,
You shall not anchor there.
However welcome the hospitality that welcomes you
You are permitted to receive it but a little while
Afoot and lighthearted, take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before you,
The long brown path before you,
leading wherever you choose.
Say only to one another:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law:
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Jeannette Freakin' Winterson. (Well, Shannon reading Winterson.)
Shannon
from Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson
"What marries me to you? Is it a piece of paper? Then I am not married to you. Is it Church approval? Then I am not married to you. Is it the fact of a roof, the fact of a bed, the fact of two keys in one lock? Then I am not married to you. Is it the Eye of the Law? Then I am not married to you.

If it is the daily pleasure in your face. If it is the quickening of my spirits at your face, if it is your face I seek when I seek no other, if it is the love of you that is consent, if it is consent to be of the same mind, then let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

And love? The brazier where I burn. Extravagant, profuse, excessive, beyond bounds. Out of our risk comes our safety, not the small sad life that will cling to anything because it has nothing. You are not a raft. I am not a sailor. You are not weak. I am more than a strong arm. I want to love you well, not to lose you in children and objects. I want to love you well, but to love you well I shall have to be in love with more than love. I shall have to find in myself the emotional extravagance that fits me to stay in one place."

Alyson: For their vows, Rissa and Josh have adapted a passage from Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

 
Josh: Whenever I start thinking of my love, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to remote points of the universe.

Adapted Nabokov
Rissa: Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable things as the behavior of nebulae, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the distance into distance, the interpenetrations of space and the small act of our smiles together.

Josh: When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake.

Rissa: I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as someone in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of her position by making sure she is dreaming.

Josh:Both dreaming and waking people have long tried to see the time and space of our enduring universe in metaphors of the smallest objects we can hold, like a grain of rice, a dust of stone, or a speck of sand.

Rissa: I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as someone in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of her position by making sure she is dreaming.

It bears repeating: Adapted Nabokov

Josh: After today, instead of looking in old metaphors and tiny things, I vow to see the time and space of our enduring universe in Rissa.

Alyson: Tom Robbins says this about love, in his novel Still Life with Woodpecker.

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”

Josh, take this ring from Beverly, and put it on Rissa’s left hand. Do you promise to aid and abet the ultimate outlaw and to love Rissa with no strings attached and for free?

Josh: Yes.

Rissa, take this ring from Beth and put it on Josh’s left hand. Do you promise to aid and abet the ultimate outlaw and to love Josh with no strings attached and for free?

Rissa: Yes.


Alyson: “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce Joshua Douglas Cook and Carissa Michelena Leal, married. You may now kiss each other.”

Classy
Classier
Artisanal Sock Level Classy
Classiest
The Cavalry.






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.