Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Big Picture Economics of the $5 Admission Fee

The recent New York Times article about independent bookstores charging admission fees for their readings has generated a lot of really interesting and productive debate about the nature of bookselling in the 21st century, but I think there are some big picture economic aspects of the issue that a lot of commenters and debaters have missed.

Over the last few decades, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders, and big box stores like Walmart and Costco, have changed customer expectations about the price of a book. Through a variety of techniques these companies are able to sell books at a price heavily discounted from the retail price suggested by the publisher, and have done so for so long that customers now assume the discounted price reflects the true cost of the book. (I’ve even heard of people talking about an indie store “mark-up” as if the price wasn’t printed on the cover.) But this really isn’t the case. Those companies are able to sell books so cheaply because they’re size allows them to sell at a such a volume that they can afford a very low profit margin on each individual book sold (all of them), they sell other stuff with a higher profit margin and so can afford to make very little or even lose money on book sales (Amazon and the big boxes) and/or they use their size to bully publishers into better discounts, lost millions of dollars over a decade in order to secure market share, and spend millions preserving a sales tax advantage (I’m sure you can guess who that is.). The result is that customers, in general, expect a new hardcover book to cost $10-15 regardless of what is printed on the cover.

But books are expensive. There are reasons why publishers print $25.95 on hardcovers and sell them to stores based on that price. A partial list of those reasons; authors, editors, secretaries, publicists, janitors, printers, IT guys to make sure the network stays up, graphic designers, technicians to convert files into the various ebook formats, accountants, delivery truck drivers, copy editors, did I mention authors...well you get the point. Simply put, if every hardcover copy of Freedom by Jonathon Franzen purchased at $28 had been purchased at the $12.99 ebook price instead, its publisher would probably have gone out of business. Quality books, written by authors who make a decent living from their work, that have been edited by editors committed to producing the best work possible, brought to the attention of readers by publicists who want a world filled with great reads, with covers that reflect the artistic sensibility of the work (or really any artistic sensibility) cannot be made for $10-15 retail a piece.

This is a major problem for publishing and small independent bookstores are its canaries in the mine shaft. For a long time, publishers were still able to get their money, even while their product was being radically devalued in the minds of consumers, and as long as they were still making ends meet, they did not act. (Of course, many of them did not make ends meet, but that’s a different post.) Because indie stores don’t have the same kind of price flexibility as other retailers, they simply could not match the artificially low price point now demanded by consumers. People stopped buying from them, and many went out of business. Furthermore, I believe many publishers are responding to the deep discount model by raising their suggested retail price. When Amazon gets a better discount, the publishers lose money, and the easiest way to recoup that loss is to raise the retail price the discount is applied to. If you haven't bought a hardcover book in a few years, check one out. But probably do it sitting down. In the last few years, the cover price of books have been rising at close to a dollar year. (I would not be surprised to see new hardcover fiction with $30 on the cover in the next 3 or 4 years.) In a way, this acts as a kind of subsidy. Those customers who shop indie, pay the much higher cover price, allowing publishers (who get more per book from indies) to stay viable while giving Amazon advantageous discounts. (Not all publishers do this, of course.) Amazon's model does result in cheap books, but it is partially supported by other customers willing to pay much more for their books. If nothing is done to change the system, one has to wonder what will happen to publishers if no one ends up willing to spend $28 for a new hardcover book. (And that's not even considering if Amazon one day decides to ask for discounts based on the $10-15 price point they've established, but that's just fearful speculation at this point.)

Because indie bookstores’ primary product has been so radically de-vauled, some are trying to monetize other services they provide, such as charging for admission for readings. Since books are not monetarily valued enough to run a sustainable business selling just books, some bookstores are considering “selling” readings as well to make ends meet. I'm not sure why this should be treated any differently than, say, Amazon selling server space or other e-commerce services. The nature of Amazon's business created secondary services and nobody blinks an eye when they monetize those secondary services. I don't really see why Amazon should have ethical permission to monetize its servers but indie bookstores don't have permission to monetize their readings. (Of course, publishers pay for aspects of readings, but, well, many of them give Amazon better discounts so...) Both business models sell books and have developed techniques and systems for selling those books and if those techniques and systems also have value to customers there shouldn't be any reason why only one of the business models is allowed to monetize them.

One of the major themes in the internet conversation about this issue is one of business models. Many commenters argued that Amazon has simply developed a better business model and as a result are winning in the open competition of the free market. Simply put, they argue that Amazon has found a way to offer books at a cheaper price than independent bookstores and so independent bookstores have nothing to complain about. However, in the same way that the artificially cheap food of the contemporary American agriculture system hasn't solved all of our food and hunger problems, while creating some new problems on its own, the artificially cheap books of the Amazon book market hasn't solved all of our reading problems, while creating some new one's on it's own. There are actually a lot of similarities between how we buy food and books.

The government uses taxpayer funds to subsidize certain crops, particularly corn, allowing farmers to sell those crops far below the cost of what they would actually need to charge to sustain their businesses. The good news is that Americans spend a far smaller percentage of their income on food than just about anyone else in the world. (Of course, it's still American money paying for the food, just indirectly through taxes but...) The bad news is that the market responded to the subsidized prices by using high fructose corn syrup as its primary sweetener in processed food which has contributed to a number of nationwide health problems, while forcing smaller farmers out of business, and greatly reducing the diversity of food produced in this country. I think you can see where I'm going with this analogy. In the same way that cheap food does not necessarily make for a well-fed society, cheap books do not necessarily make for a well-read society.

But there's another level to the “just a better business model” argument. A few years ago Publishers Group West went bankrupt. PGW was a distributor for hundreds of small independent presses on the West Coast, meaning it handled getting the books to the market for publishers that were too small to do it efficiently on there own. When it went bankrupt, it nearly took all of those publishers down with it. But PGW actually didn't go bankrupt. PGW was doing fine. In fact, McSweeney's, one of PGW's “bigger” publishers had just released a major hardcover bestseller in Dave Egger's What is the What. It was actually the PGW parent company Advanced Marketing Services that had gone bankrupt. As with so much in our contemporary economy PGW had been consolidated into a larger company and when that larger company failed, even though PGW was doing fine, PGW failed too. The consolidation of the market created a greater vulnerability to failure; it wasn't enough for PGW to be successful; a massive structure, completely unrelated to books had to be successful as well.

It is not unreasonable to imagine Amazon eventually having 60-80% of the American book market, especially with so many consumers choosing price over all other considerations. What happens if it goes out of business? Maybe the personal electronics market changes, or there's a new technology that renders Amazon's server and e-commerce services obsolete, or maybe Congress changes its anti-trust laws in a way that forces Amazon to break its divisions up preventing it from profit sharing across markets, or maybe they get hacked with some super-virus and their database is destroyed. Or perhaps they invest a ton of money in a new device (like the tablet they're developing for example) and it is an utter failure. There are a lot of ways for a company like Amazon to fail, and only one of them has to do with books at all. In short, if Amazon ends up the only game in town (and in a lot of places it already is) what happens if it goes out of business? How much will books cost then?

I'm not saying there shouldn't be an Amazon. There are a lot of communities that just aren't big enough to support a bookstore. There is room for both nationwide online retailers and independent local retailers. But as we discuss the nature of the relationship and competition between the two, its important to keep the big picture in mind. Why should Amazon be allowed to diversify its money streams but not indie bookstores? Are authors better served by indie bookstores that promote the cultural value of the book and need to charge admission to readings to do so, or by Amazon and big box stores who treat books as just a category of units to be moved? What kind of book culture do we want and what kind of book culture are we willing to pay for? How much do cheap books really cost?

There is a twisted-bright side to these economics though. As I mentioned early, Amazon and the big box stores, are able to sell books close to or at a loss because they are able to sell other stuff. In fact, many of them use books as a loss-leader; meaning they sell books at a loss to get people into their stores to buy other stuff. For a decade, that was Amazon's primary technique. The supermarket next to my bookstore did just that with the last Harry Potter, selling it at a substantial loss to get people inside to buy bananas or whatever. Which means that books are a draw. Though bananas might not get somebody through the door, books will. And that means books are valuable. They are important to people. People will seek books out first, and then do some other shopping once they're in the store. The challenge is to convince people that they actually lose when paying those artificially lowered prices for books, and that, in the long run, everyone is better off if we actually pay for what books are worth.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of Noir

In Robert Coover's new novel Noir, the protagonist is a private dick named Philip M. Noir, hired by Widow, whose secretary is named Blanche, sultry lounge singer lover is named Flame, buddy on the force is named Snark, straight-laced cop antagonist Blue, living in a city run by Mr. Big. The names of the characters tell you most of what you need to know about Noir; it is a parody of detective fiction. But Robert Coover isn't an author hacking out a playful nose-tweaking of one of America's most successful genres of fiction; he's considered one of America's great post-modern (I hate that term more and more) fiction writers. Even though I think Coover is ultimately playing pick-up basketball in this work, his literary vision is sharp enough and his narrative imagination is broad enough, to produce an engaging and entertaining novel, that readers of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction will undoubtedly appreciate.

The first thing Coover does is write the novel in second person, so “you” are Philip M. Noir. To his credit, Coover doesn't do anything too clever with the technique, but it's use gets at the wish fulfillment at the heart of noir's popularity. If only temporarily, we all want to be that devil-may-care detective taking punishment and dealing it out in the name of dames and justice. Furthermore, Noir's ability to take and survive physical punishment hints at another shade of noir's wish fulfillment; immortality. There is a part of us that wants to live forever and that is expressed by characters who survive otherwise fatal situations.

Experts in noir will recognize scenes and scenarios that have been played out hundreds of times in novels, stories, movies, and TV shows. In some ways, Noir is a catalog of cliches and formulas, and in presenting so many of the tropes of noir, Coover shows just how formulaic the genre actually is. Even the greatest works are, to some extent, collages of forms. But Coover doesn't seem to pass judgment; even while presenting those formulas Noir doesn't seem to have an opinion about whether or not these formulas are positive or negative. In the process of his parody, Coover has almost created a user's guide to noir, with all of its major components collected into a compact story. Furthermore, real noir connoisseurs, a group that would not include me, will probably spot dozens of references, contributing to the catalog nature of the work.

But Noir is more than just a pastiche of noir. The narrative exists in a city where time and space are dark and fluid. Alleys lead to more alleys that lead to more alleys that lead to different parts of the city each time; alleys whose guardian is Mad Meg; an insane half-specter who lunges out of the dark spaces to stab unsuspecting victims. Docks, diners, malt shops, speakeasys, morgues; the space coils around itself. At one point, Noir (Philip, the character, not the novel or the genre) wanders through a smugglers' tunnel that brings him from Flame's nightclub, through a strange room filled with mannequins, and a one cell prison, to the docks and finally back into the world. The dark shifting geography reminded me of the sci-fi neo-noir movie Dark City and kept Noir from being just a checklist of cliches and formulas.

For all of the complexity of the book, at it's core Noir might be one long set up to one short punchline. There are points in the novel when it could be critiqued for delivering its lines with too much of a straight face; how serious could a work be when the villain is named “Mr. Big;” but once you get to the end, you learn the book is all wink. This is a risky way to structure a book and a lot of readers will be infuriated when they get to the end. But I still find myself chuckling about it weeks later, and, to me, that is proof of a successful joke.

More casual fans of mystery and detective fiction might be put off by the unconventional presentation of the conventions, and if they're not already invested in the genre, they're unlikely to work through Coover's challenges. Noir will probably most appeal to readers like me who generally read heavy literature and find a lot of entertainment and enjoyment in the noir and hard-boiled detective genres. Coover hits a middle ground, where the novel can be enjoyed whether you really think about it, or not. And noir aficionados will also find a lot to enjoy as, Coover plays with the form as only a writer with Coover's imagination can.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 2011 Boston Bruins Post-Season

Here is a series by series breakdown of the 2011 Boston Bruins post-season.

Montreal: Depth vs. Speed

As I said before the post-season began (and as many other people also argued) Montreal's team speed presented a major challenge to the Bruins. Even though the Bruins comfortably won their division, they had a losing record against Montreal. Early in the series it looked like that speed was in fact going to kill. But the Bruins won all three of the overtime games played, including game 7 and that difference allowed them to get past the speedy Habs. Ultimately, the Bruins dominance in OT came down to team depth. The Bruins could roll 6 defensemen and 3-4 forward lines, while PK Subban was on the ice pretty much non-stop and the Habs only really played 2-3 forward lines. So when it came time to put an extra 20 minutes on the clock, the Bruins had a lot more energy left than the Habs and that evened out the speed. In the end, the Habs just didn't have enough players to beat the Bruins in a 7 game series.

Looking Forward for Montreal: In some ways, I really want to like Montreal. When not whining and diving P. K. Subban is one of the most exciting players to watch. Subban is probably the best three-zone defenseman in the league after Dustin Byfuglien. I also think Carey Price is a great goalie. And when the defensive core comes back from injury, the Habs should be an early favorite to contend for the Northeast division or even the Eastern Conference. But the Montreal fans seem to boo Carey Price more than Boston fans, even when he helps a depleted team to a 7 game series against a much better opponent. Subban occasionally embarrasses himself invalidating all the nice things I want to say about him. And speaking of embarrassing themselves, Montreal's reaction to Chara's hit on Pacioretti was perhaps the most ridiculous arrangement of human emotions I've seen recently. Let's hope no one got hurt while the emergency phone lines were tied up. Then again, in the same way that Red Sox vs. Yankees is good for baseball, a vibrant Bruins vs. Canadiens is good for hockey, so maybe there is a good side to this antagonism.

Philadelphia: 54 Saves

Even though they finished higher than the Bruins in the standings, I was glad to face Philadelphia rather than Buffalo in the second round. Much like Montreal, Buffalo gave the Bruins problems all season with their good team speed, and, in the playoffs especially, I would rather the Bruins face Boucher than Ryan Miller. (Really anybody other than Ryan Miller.) Philly essentially spotted the Bruins the first game with a sluggish, totally uninspired performance. Very few teams get through an entire playoff run without a bad game or two and the Bruins were just lucky to get one of Philly's bad games.

But the Flyers came to play in Game 2 and dominated every Bruin except one: Tim Thomas. The Flyers hit harder, skated faster, passed better and won every aspect of the game except the one that counted. Thomas plays anything less than a miraculous game, the series is tied 1-1, and the entire nature of the playoffs could have changed. The Flyers never recovered. They played the next two games like a team that didn't think it could win, and, as a result, it didn't.

Looking Forward for Philadelphia: You can't win a Stanley Cup without quality goal tending. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of the Vezina Trophy finalists were in the Finals. A team doesn't need the best goalie in the league to win, but a team does need consistent quality play from the goalie. So even though Philly should make the playoffs next year, or even win the division again, Boucher hasn't shown himself to be good enough to lead his team to the cup.

Tampa Bay: The Save and the Perfect Hockey Game

I wish this series was the Stanley Cup Finals. The teams played hard, with respect for each other and the game. You know there is something good going for a team when their young superstar goal scorer shrugs off a slap-shot to the face. With the way Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis and the rest of the team played, it's not hard to see why the St. Petersburg Times Forum is constantly packed. I'm not a fan of southern expansion teams in the NHL, but I became a fan of these Tampa Bay Lighting.

If Tim Thomas gets a statue outside the Garden, he posed for it in Game 5, and it would be oddly parallel to Orr's. The Bruins were holding on to a 1-goal lead, the Lightning were storming the net, and suddenly Steve Downie had the puck on his stick 2-feet from a wide open goal. Thomas dove across the net and, in a season where he made jaw-dropping save after mind-blowing save, made the greatest save of his career, getting his stick on the shot. In a lot of ways, the Bruins got to the finals on that save.

Game 7 might have been the best hockey game I have ever seen. Every other moment or so I found myself muttering some permutation of “Good play.” The game absolutely flew by, the way a really good party flies by. There were simply no mistakes. In playoff games and especially in game sevens, referees usually call fewer penalties, but their reluctance to make a call was not the reason no penalties were called in the game; there were no penalties called because there were no penalties committed. And the lone goal wasn't some lucky bounce. Roloson didn't give up a soft one, Tampa Bay didn't make a bad change, a defenseman didn't blow his assignment; it was just the one moment when the great offensive play was greater than the great defensive play. The handshakes at the end. Thomas and St. Louis meeting at center. Thomas's joyous interview at the end. Only the cup was missing from one of hockey's great moments.

Looking forward for Tampa Bay: Much like Philly, the biggest question for the Lightning will be in goal. Roloson had a good run but it was clear near the end that he was running out of gas. But with Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos, there's no reason to expect a Tampa Bay-less playoffs next year.

Vancouver: Get the Duck Boats Ready

So I've heard that if you can't say something nice about somebody, you shouldn't say anything at all, so I have something nice to say about Vancouver. Just later. Unfortunately, one of the legacies of this Stanley Cup Finals will be the on-ice and on-microphone conduct of the Canucks.

It started with Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron and getting away with it, only to be followed by Maxim Lapierre taunting Bergeron the next game, after the league decided not to suspend Burrows. There's always a bit of gamesmanship in hockey, and had Lapierre stuck his fingers in say, Brad Marchand's face, it would have been one thing. But Patrice Bergeron is one of the classiest most professional players in the game. The Bruins eventually responded in kind in terms of taunting, so I don't suppose they end up completely on the high ground, but if I remember the playground correctly, despite what the teachers might say, it does matter who started it.

Then there was Aaron Rome's hit on Nathan Horton, a YouTube Video of which I will not post here, because it turns my stomach to watch. The easiest way to characterize the hit, might be through Alain Vigneault's statement—in that the hit was the opposite of what Vigneault said it was. Obviously, the coach of the Canucks isn't going to insult his own player, but the blame the victim assertion that Horton was “watching his pass” is both unprofessional and, well, factually incorrect. Right after he passed the puck Horton did glance up, and in seeing no one in front of him, put his stick on the ice, started to drive to the net, and looked back at Lucic who had the puck. Horton looked up, Rome was just too far away for him to maybe even see him, let alone expect a hit to come from him. Vigneault also called the hit “a little late.” In the NHL, a hit is late if it occurs a half-second after the player has passed or shot the puck. Rome's hit on Horton occurred almost a full-second after Horton passed the puck. “Almost twice as” is quite a bit different from “a little.” And even without that, it was still directed at the head, which is the kind of hit, I'm told the NHL is trying to eliminate. The Bruins responded with an 8-1 demolition of the Canucks.

And the Canucks started diving. It seemed like every goal mouth scuffle featured a Canuck throwing his head back as if he'd courageously taken a slapshot to the face or curling over like he'd been cut nape to par. Burrows's antics with Lucic on the faceoff.. Sedin's bending and flopping around Chara. The referees, however, were having none of it, and by game 5 or 6, the Bruins could pretty much do whatever they wanted to Canucks in these scuffles.

I don't think I need anything to add about Luongo's comments. They're going to follow him for the rest of his life.

And you'd think in Game 7, on their home ice, and with the hockey world beginning to doubt them, the Canucks would focus on playing the game, and many of them did. But twice, Canucks took blindside runs at Bruins defensemen, Higgins on Chara (and you really have to mean it to elbow Chara in the head) and Hanson on Ference. After all the work both teams put in to get where they got. It was just sad to see. (Can you imagine the tone I would have taken about this if the Bruins had lost?)

For the Bruins, the Stanley Cup Finals were about playing their game no matter what shenanigans the other team pulled. Solid team defense. Thomas making saves when that defense broke down. Shut down penalty killing (the Bruins ended up with more shorthanded goals (2) than the Canucks had power-play goals (1)). Toughness. Team depth. (How about that fourth-line in Game 7) Opportunistic goal scoring. It was about treating Mark Recchi to the perfect retirement, making sure Nathan Horton's and not Aaron Rome's name was on the Cup, and rewarding one of the greatest goalie seasons with a sip from the cup.

Looking forward for Vancouver: Vancouver has a lot of questions to answer, a lot of character questions. Even their fans, who might disagree with my interpretations of certain actions, will wonder where were the Sedin twins went, what happened to the power-play, and will Luongo recover from a very shaky performance? The only real character demonstrated in a Canucks jersey was done by the fans in the Rogers Arena who stayed through, stood during, and cheered for the awards ceremony. I'm not sure the Garden faithful would have done that if Game 6 had turned out differently. The Canucks have a very talented team, but in some ways, they embarrassed themselves in the finals.

Looking forward Boston: In the salary cap era, dynasties may be a thing of the past. But the Bruins core talent is young and under contract. Patrice Bergeron, (who I contend might be the most complete hockey player in the game right now) for example is only 27. And whenever Tim Thomas finally calls it quits, Tuukka Rask has already shown himself ready to be an everyday starter in the NHL. The Bruins will have some decisions to make in the off-season, but whatever happens, next year's team won't look that much different than the one that hoisted this year's cup. In some ways they could even be better; if Kampfer continues to develop he will contribute far more to the team than Kaberle did, for example. Repeating is no longer realistic, but if any team is poised to do it, it's this Boston Bruins team. Welcome to a new golden age.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Athletes Give Such Terrible Interviews

I try not to force too many televised sporting events on my partner, but sometimes she can't come up with something better to do when I have a game on. And sometimes the events in the game are so exciting, so compelling, so violent, even she gets mildly interested. (“Oh man! What do they do when there's blood on the ice?” “Let it freeze and just scrape it up.” “That's it?  Lame.”) And then someone goes and sticks a microphone in an athlete's face and starts asking questions. Then it's all, “We just want to play a good game, give it our all,” and “You know, it's all about playing smart, playing good defense,” and even sometimes you'll hear, “You know, it all comes down to who wants it more,” and other eye-tweaking banalities. And then whatever entertainment the event might have been building for my partner completely dissolves. All she can think about is the scene from Bedazzled, where Brendan Fraser is playing a less than intelligent basketball superstar. The character ends up churning through about half of the major sport cliches.

But why do athletes give such bad interviews? The easiest answer is that athletes aren't public speakers. They don't spend their time developing elocution. The time and effort it takes to become a professional athlete and maintain a career doesn't leave much for an extraneous skill. They're not paid to talk; they're paid to play so they spend their time getting better at that. Of course, that's part of it, but I think there's something else going on.

The language of sport is one of the most conservative in the world. There might be more taboos in sport language than just about any other contemporary language. Between strategy, psychology, and decorum, there is so much athletes can't say, that hackneyed cliches and banal platitudes are pretty much the only things left they can say.

Imagine you're a basketball player, and you, your coach, and your teammates have found an effective strategy for defending your opponent's superstar. Maybe you've figured out that a double-team works best if the second player comes from the left or maybe sliding under a screen is really effective or whatever. Halftime comes along and a correspondent says to you, “Derrick Rose only shot 17% from the floor in the first half. How were you able to keep him in check?” Obviously you're not going to tell the world, “He doesn't shoot well if the double-team comes from his left, so we double him from the left,” because that would be stupid. You don't tell your opponents how you're beating them, because they'll change their strategy so that doesn't work anymore. So instead of compromising your team's strategy by actually answering the question “How are you having success?” you say something like, “You know defense wins championships, and we really focus on defense, and defense is all about effort so, it's about knowing your assignments and working hard.”

There is a lot of psychology involved in sports. I don't think anyone has a clear sense of exactly how emotions, intellect, and instinct interact to affect an athlete's performance, but it is clear that what we think affects how we play. When the stakes are as high as they are in professional sports, you don't want to do anything that could potentially compromise your team's chances of winning.  So you don't want to say anything that could distract a teammate by making him/her mad at you.  So if an interviewer asks a quarterback why his team struggled on offense during a game, he's not going to say, "The left side of my line was like swiss cheese," even if it was.  If your left tackle is thinking about how much of a jerk you are, he's not thinking about reading the defense.   And there's the “bulletin-board quote." A “bulletin-board quote,” is anything an athlete or coach might say that his/her opponents would print out and put up on the bulletin-board in the locker room to use as motivation. Anything that might be considered an insult or express overconfidence or disrespect of any kind could potentially be a “bulletin-board quote.” So when a corespondent asks an athlete, “How are you preparing for you game against Team X,” that athlete can't say, “Well, Team X isn't very good, so we're not really doing anything special.” Instead they say, “You know we're just having some good practices, making sure everyone knows their responsibilities, really working hard as a team, and you know, just making sure we're ready for the game.”

Furthermore, a combination of decorum, culture, and sometimes even team policy, will put even more restrictions on what athletes can say. You can't say, “The referees were terrible today and their awful calls pretty much ruined our chance to win.” At most you'll get something like, “The calls didn't all go our way, but you have to play through that, it's just part of the game.” Nor can you say that you lost because of a stroke of bad luck, or you think your opponents were cheating, or that one of your teammates isn't working hard enough.

And this is before any personal superstitions are taken into account. So on top of everything else, some players and coaches will have statements they avoid because they think saying them will bring some form of bad luck.  And there are also tons of athletes for whom English is a foreign language, but microphones still get shoved in their faces too.

So when asked an interview question, an athlete can't give away any team strategies, nor does s/he want to risk providing motivation for an opponent, nor does s/he want to compromise internal relations by saying something bad about a teammate, and it's considered bad form to complain about officials and bad luck. There really isn't much left of the English language, once all of that has been removed. I suppose if they were asked about world politics, movies, contemporary avant garde literature, the slow food movement, or pretty much anything else besides the most important part of their lives, some of them might actually turn out to be intelligent well spoken individuals. Maybe.

Which makes the real question not, why do athletes give such bad interviews, but why do media continue to interview them. Athletes have been telling journalists there is no I in team forever and journalists keep asking them “'What was the key to your win tonight?” as if one of them is going to say, “Oh, that's easy, John Smoltz was tipping his pitches.” And they still ask, “Can you put into words what you're feeling right now,” even though the athletes always say “No,” and then prove themselves right. There is some kind of compulsion that drives the way we cover sports. Perhaps these interviews persist because there is no punishment for them. Very few of the people watching the event on TV are going to stop watching because of a stupid athlete interview. Nor are people going to stop reading reports of sporting events because they include a few cliched quotes. And if there's not negative consequences, there really isn't a way to prevent them.

Well, this isn't really a victimless crime. Because every time I start to convince my partner there is some intellectual legitimacy to sport someone suggests they need to give it 110%. Her cackles at my expense ring in my ears for hours afterward.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review of There Is No Year by Blake Bulter

So what is Blake Butler's There Is No Year? The cover says it's a novel and as far as that term goes, I would have to agree. But it doesn't have what many would consider a plot. There are events but one event doesn't necessarily follow from another, and in terms of what happens there are only barely the beginning, middle, and end of basic storytelling. Nor are there really characters. There is Mother, Father and Son, and these entities are loci for events, thoughts, and emotions, but what surrounds them is so abstract and the traits of these entities so fluid, that we don't connect with them they way we connect with entities we consider characters. In some ways, it might be most productive to think about There Is No Year in terms of modern epic poetry as opposed to in terms of prose fiction. Whatever label the reader might use to get an initial grasp on the work, There Is No Year is brilliant.

The easiest comparison with a recent work is with Mark Z. Danielewski's masterpiece House of Leaves and, whether intended or not, the influence is positive and strong. Along with the use of text layout to contribute to the experience of reading (Not that House of Leaves has a monopoly on that narrative technique) the houses in the book, are fluid entities; trickster architecture, bending, warping, misleading, changing, not so much as entity possessed by a demon, but as the demon itself. Like House of Leaves, the relationship between the people and the space is radically different in There Is No Year, than it is in most other fiction. But our relationship with space has changed, and this isn't just another “The Internet Changed Everything” point. The internet is a part of it, but so is radio, TV, phones, cell phones, cars, trains, and airplanes. To “live in Boston” means something very different now than it did 100-200 years ago. We relate to the space that surrounds us differently than we used to and we are just now beginning to intellectually and emotionally explore that new relationship in literature.

Though a fluid relationship to space may be the most overtly interesting theme in the book, the lack of a traditional plot allows Butler to explore a wide range of themes and ideas, from death, to literature, to the body, movies, language, and family. At its best, the different chapters and passages of There Is No Year flow into one another like individual poems in a collection. One might not continue the events of that which directly preceded it, but intellectual explorations are sustained and intensified regardless of what is technically happening in the story.

A few moments highlight the quality of There Is No Year. The chapter called “The Son's Book” first hints at the quality of the novel. The footnoted list of the dead in a long chapter called “In a Daze the Son Remembers the Black Package He'd Up Till Now Ignored or Forgotten or Somehow Just Not Seen,” explores our fascination with the celebrity dead, while playing with the notion of encapsulating character in the moment of death. On page 277 Butler breaks up a bracketed phrase to brilliant effect toying with the conventional physics of reading. Finally, in a chapter called “Inside,” Butler uses punctuation marks, mostly commas, to represent dust in the light, footnoting the marks to en-language the dust, without disturbing its visual presence.

But the greatest storytelling success of There Is No Year is the emotional import he is able to imbue his un-characters with. Most of the time there is an emotional distance between readers and fictional entities like Father, Mother, and Son. As in Lydia Davis' work, rather than being characters, figures like that are usually vehicles for exploring human thought and behavior. It is just hard for us to feel something for characters without names. And yet, there is a tenderness to There Is No Year. We are concerned for Father, Mother, and Son when they are in painful situations. Even if the events aren't conducive to communicating a particular emotion, we feel as though we should feel something about them. And in a story that uses so few traditional narrative techniques, this is a storytelling triumph.

Perhaps the other work There Is No Year most closely resembles is the Cool Memories series by Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories collects notes, phrases, images, and ideas from different parts of Baudrillard's life, presenting, in some sense, the detritus of his intellectual efforts. There are passages in Cool Memories that are as brilliant and beautiful as anything else Baudrillard wrote. In a strange way, the very disconnectedness of the passages allows for an accumulative yet fluid global writing experience. And though There Is No Year is more overtly cohesive than Cool Memories, it still manages to create those accumulative, fluid themes. In a sense, There Is No Year is more about the thoughts and emotions of the reader than anything that actually “happens” to the characters in the book.

Innovative or experimental literature (or something) is in a strange place. The names of the past two great avant gardes, modernism and post-modernism, have trapped contemporary practitioners of radical fiction in a nameless, movementless, nebula of action. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard for critics (at least me anyway) to talk about global patterns in literature. Something is happening in literature but what do we call it? What kind of literature is House of Leaves, The Way Through Doors, I Hotel, The Complete Works of Marvin K Mooney, and There Is No Year? A review of one work doesn't provide space for even scratching the surface of the question, but if There Is No Year is part something bigger in fiction, that something is exciting.