Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway shouldn't work. It's a book that's kind of like the meals you make after you've been shut in your house for a week or so, cobbled together from the “provisions” way back in the cupboard; you know the long grain rice you bought on a health kick, the Chinese five spice you got for that one recipe, the canned salmon that's always been there. You throw it all together in the pot, because you're tired and you've been watching anime on Hulu for a week, and maybe you've been drinking, OK, you've totally been drinking, but who can blame you, I mean, have you read the news lately, and somehow, staggering and chaotic, the result is fantastic.

Angelmaker is the story of Joe Spork, clockmaker and grandson of England's last great outlaw, who finds himself unwittingly turning on a machine built by a brilliant French scientist with the highest of ideals during WWII, that could destroy the world. Once you've reached the big transition in the story, you realize just how much of the beginning is exposition, set up, establishing of the conflict of the characters. Maybe two-thirds of the book is background and character development, which you don't often see in what could be described as an adventure story. And boy, does Joe spend a lot of time thinking about how he just wanted to keep his warehouse and fix clocks. To make matters worse, the first part is rather flashbacky, telling the story of British super-spy Edie Banister and her lifelong conflict, starting about WWII, with a villain with god-like aspirations named Shem Shem Tsien. And then when the pace of events pick up and things start happening all over the place, rather than weaving together a single narrative Harkaway just breaks up all the events and lays them out in short, sometimes single paragraph long, sections. I mean, Harkaway even uses The Fred Weasley (which to me, will always be The Boromir because it was written first, but well, such is pop culture.) This is not how novels work.

And yet...

And Joe Spork shouldn't work either. He's an old tired form of a character. When the story opens Joe Spork is a mild-mannered clockmaker, who played by the rules, and wanted a quiet life of working on clocks and mechanisms only hoping for a little bit of love and comfort from the world. Well, right then you know he is completely and totally fucked. So it's no surprise when he is tortured for five days by a shadowy arm of the government. You've met Joe Spork hundreds of times, in hundreds of different books. But... I'm not sure he's ever been this interesting.

And what do you call this thing anyway? It's like Nick Haraway shook a whole bunch of books and tropes and images from the back of his brain into a blender, hit the button, and walked away to make an Old Fashioned, or maybe check his email. There's a good bit of steam punk in here. Some late Philip K. Dick with the idea of identity replication and transmission through data recording. Plenty of Jules Verne. Some Dickens London underworld business. And the idea of the world being destroyed by the truth couldn't have happened without post-modernism. Parts of it read like what you'd expect from a penny dreadful; you know, Opium Khans, automatons, baby war elephants, and all that. Also, Ruskinites building trains and submarines. It's the kind of brain-stormy mash-up that happens after you and your friends have been mixing your cocktails a little to stiff and a little too tall for a little too long and you decide to finally get all those brilliant movie ideas down on paper. It shouldn't come together.


Despite all the different styles and elements of Angelmaker, the one book it reminded me most of was, say it with me now, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Why? What did you say? James Wormold sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. The only thing he wants to do with his life is support his daughter Milly. Selling vacuum cleaners isn't doing it, so he connects with MI6. Unfortunately, MI6 only pays him when he sends them information and he really doesn't have any. So, he gives them information. He even passes off a schematic for a vacuum cleaner as a schematic for some horrifying Soviet destruction machine. And then, well, things get interesting. It is absolutely preposterous. I mean, it assumes that the rocket and missile people back in England don't know enough about rockets and missiles to spot when a schematic would never make a rocket or missile anything. It's also brilliant and hilarious and perfectly captures the self-delusions that drove much of the Cold War. For satirizing the systems of power, Our Man in Havana is up there with The Man Who Was Thursday and Catch-22.

Angelmaker doesn't reach that level of social significance, but it is the best kind of entertainment. Harkaway trusts his readers to keep in all straight in their heads, he leaves in much of the science and a whole lot of the talking, he brandishes the outlandish (a submarine made of ice!) with glee, he injects new life into old forms, and he tells a ripping spyscifipicarvenromanture novel, that's about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on (assuming that's how you read).

This is usually the part in the review about “breaking all the rules” of writing, where the critic talks about how the creative writing professor would fail this manuscript or imagines all the things the conscientious editor would beg Harkaway to cut, blah, blah, blah, look at how I see through the conventions of “traditional” storytelling, and all that. I have to admit, that idea sounds true and it sounds good and it gives the critic a few very handy “concluding,” phrases, but the idea is really just setting a riding lawn mower on a field of scarecrows. The only “rule” there has ever been about writing is: “Make the reader think and/or feel,” and the other “rules” that appear to have developed aren't rules so much as they are best practices; shit that has worked before. And people have always written against and in response to those best practices, finding new ways to make readers feel and think. There is really only one lesson we can draw about storytelling from Angelmaker (or any other excellent book); Nick Harkaway is a damn good storyteller.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not Only Genius: Lessons from the Panama Canal

There's a reason why people buy David McCullough's books in bunches. Like all the best historians, he knows how to adjust the perspective of his work to move back and forth between the big, grand, abstract events that interest us and the mundane but tangible details that give those events meaning we can actually wrap our heads around. He also finds a nice balance between data and personality; the dates, numbers, documents, and figures, that are the substance of history and the characters that are the story of history.

A couple of weeks ago I had a hankering for a particular kind of book. Since my day job is satisfying such hankerings, it's pretty rare for me to struggle with one for any length of time. Usually I know what I want to read and have a stack of galleys that fit it. (New bookseller term “galleylag: reading the galley of a book after it's come out in paperback. Use it in a sentence today.) For reasons lost in the mysteries of consciousness, I wanted to read a big dense book of history that wasn't about war. You may or may not be surprised at how few books that really is. (Another book that would have worked, if I hadn't already read it would have been A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman). This hankering hung over me for a few days and its solution was met with an inordinate amount of relief. I would read Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough. Here's what I learned.

Just look at a world map. How could you not look at that tiny little sliver of land connecting the Americas and not imagine making just a little cut and joining the Atlantic and Pacific? Riding high off the completion of the Suez Canal Ferdinand de Lesseps did just that. De Lesspes might not have been the single most important person to the completion of Suez, but it certainly wouldn't have happened without him. De Lesseps wasn't an engineer or an architect. He was a diplomat, but his diplomatic skills played a very small part in the completion of the Suez Canal.

His genius was in promotion. De Lesseps, more than anyone else, convinced people, the French government, the French people, the Egyptian royalty that a canal could be built and would be built. He merely needed to show up at a stock holder's meeting or something and somehow everyone left believing not just that a sea level canal across the African isthmus was possible, but that it was only a matter of time. Money poured in. Morale stayed high. Personal conflicts were smoothed over in service to the greater goal. De Lesseps was able to convince everyone involved in the project that they were doing the great work of human progress, that nothing more important was happening anywhere on Earth, and that completion of the Suez Canal was a foregone conclusion.

In short, he was a genius at making people believe in him, and this skill is absolutely vital in accomplishing tasks believed impossible. But there are tasks that are actually impossible. And when faced with such tasks, genius like that of de Lesseps leads to utter disaster. Which is what happened when the French tried to build a seal-level canal in Panama.

If there were someone else leading the effort, really anyone besides de Lesseps, it is very likely that a lock canal would have been built in Nicaragua. But because de Lesseps believed in the sea level canal at Panama and because de Lesseps could convince everyone to believe in him, and through him, in the idea he represented, the French attempted an impossible canal, millions of French citizens lost billions of dollars, careers were destroyed, reputations tarnished, corruption flourished, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, the emblem of modern humanity, the hero of the French people, died in disgrace. For the important tasks in humanity, genius is not enough; it has to be the right kind of genius for the right kind of task. Otherwise at best some mediocre result is reached and at worst thousands of people die of malaria and yellow fever with nothing to show for their sacrifice.

If there is one major difference between the French and American efforts to build the Panama canal is that the Americans had enough foresight or luck, to have the right kind of genius working on the problem at the right time. The first was John Stevens, the chief engineer from 1905-1907. Stevens was the first executive to realize that the primary challenge of Panama was not engineering but infrastructure. In order to dig a canal, you needed to move the dirt out of the way and keep enough workers healthy to do the digging. So he authorized one of the greatest health and sanitation efforts maybe the world has ever seen and turned his vast experience in building railroads, to building, well, railroads for dirt and debris. He solved problems of transportation, efficiency, and disease. Everything else that happened after his tenure rested on the structures he created. Work, any kind of work, could happen because of his systems.

The next and final chief engineer was a military man named George Washington Goethals. He did two things that allowed the completion of the Panama Canal; the first was that he followed the path set by Stevens and continued to manage the digging systems as much as the digging itself, adding in a level of military efficiency and commitment, and second, and most important, he understood that a task of this scale needed an entire society to complete it. Among other things a canal newspaper was founded under his watch and he set aside several hours every Sunday to hear and redress the grievances of anybody involved in the canal. He incentivized marriage. A director of women's clubs was hired. Essentially, he created a community whose identity was based in the completion of the canal and so each and every employee (or at least all the white American employees) was personally and completely invested in the project. And so when tragedy did strike, whether it was a landslide that undid months of effort or an accidental explosion that killed dozens of men, moral was unshaken. No matter what the condition, everyone got up for work the next day and gave it their all.

But who knows what would have happened if Americans had employed another de Lesseps. (In a way, we did, in Theodore Roosevelt, but he wasn't in charge of the actual building, so much as he was the force that ensured building would happen.) The work could have continued for decades and still ended in failure. Of course, John Stevens had been in charge at Suez, there probably would have been a railroad instead of a canal. Genius has its limitations and the wrong genius can sometimes be more disastrous than incompetence. Which leads to a strange, almost paradoxical conclusion. Perhaps the most vital genius in any great project, is the genius of knowing which genius to put in charge of what aspect at what time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Something New in Lit Crit

Something new might be happening in literary criticism, something interesting. It started for me with House of Ulysses by Julian Rios (see my fullreview of the book on The Millions here.) As I say in my review, a ton of books have been written about Ulysses, many of which organized around providing entry into the difficult book for otherwise reluctant readers, but Rios' book isn't a guide or a work of criticism, rather it's a novel set in a book club. A summary of each episode is provided and then six different speakers expound on the book. Not to go all Jonah Lehrer on you, but as I say in the review, it's some of the best criticism I've read of Ulysses, but it has to carry a different interpretive weight for readers than other criticism, because it is not in the voice of the “critic,” but in the characters.

Next came two books by Andrei Codrescu, The Poetry Lesson (which I review here) and Whatever Gets You Through the Night (which I discuss along withThe Poetry Lesson and The Post-Human Dada Guide here). The Poetry Lesson, essentially, is a novelization of the first day in a poetry workshop, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night is an amalgamation of fiction, criticism, anthropology, sociology, cultural theory, and mythologizing inspired by Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights. As in House of Ulysses, the acts of fiction and interpretation are amalgamated into something else.

Then there's Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, in which Adam Bertocci re-writes The Big Lebowski as if it were by Shakespeare. Annotated and illustrated as editions of Shakespeare tend to be, Bertocci's story of Walter, Donald, and The Knave, while being freaking hilarious, reveals some of the primal currents in storytelling; ways of ordering events and characters that have succeeded since Shakespeare and continue to succeed today. Furthermore, as Bertocci points out, this kind of adaptation itself is very Shakespearean. The Bard “reinterpreted” all kinds of pre-existing material. As Bertocci has done here, Shakespeare took different genres, history and poetry primarily, and converted them into the genre of drama. (One of our age's creative tragedies is how copyright has been used to prevent the kind of creative interplay between old and new that lead to, say, Hamlet and Ulysses. What would be written if, say, Don DeLillo could write a Micky Mouse novel or Warren Ellis could imagine a super-hero caper featuring cartoon figures from advertising? How cool would a novel featuring a contemporary teenage character trying to figure out the world through The Catcher in Rye be? But, alas, there's no way Salinger would let it happen.) Also, because it is attempting to BE Shakespeare it is fundamentally ABOUT Shakespeare and because it is attempting to BE The Big Lebowski it is fundamentally ABOUT The Big Lebowski. (I might add the same goes for my other blog project, TheMuppets Take Ulysses, in which my partner and I imagine a Muppet movie version of Ulysses, but that would be shameless self-promotion.)

Finally, we have The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault, which is published by McSweeney's (which tells you something) and is billed as “An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems.” What does that look like? Here's how Legault “translates” 465, the poem that starts with “I heard a fly buzz when I died;” “In some ways, the Battle of Antietam shares a beauty similar to that of autumn. They both involve death spreading over an increasingly red landscape.” “Because I could not stop for Death,” becomes “I asked this guy to marry me, and it scared him off.” And here's how Legault “translates” number 1, perhaps Dickinson's longest poem; “Everything has to love something.”

The bookstore currently has this book in our humor section, because it's McSweeney's, because of the premise, because it is clever (215: “Jesus has a lot of explaining to do.”), and funny (463: “That person is asleep. Oh, actually that person is starting to decompose.”) and morbid (1100: “Last night was kind of boring, except that my friend died and we played dress-up with her dead body.”) but, maybe Dickinson is more clever and more funny than we've given her credit for. Sure, we knew she was death-obsessed, but maybe her relationship with death was more akin to that of a drinking buddy, than that of some persistent brooding specter. Because her style is so original, so enigmatic, so idiosyncratic, it seems obvious that critics should engage her work with as much originality, enigmaticy (pronounced to rhyme with “intimacy”) and idiosyncrasy as they can manage. As Legault writes in the “Translator's Note,” “Emily Dickinson is both the father of American poetry and the most infamous lesbian vampire of the nineteenth century.”

Furthermore, the “translations” have their own kind of profundity, something directly connected to Dickinson but still distinct. 432: “I cannot write people back to life. As hard as I might try. And I do. Furiously. Like a wizard. Or a grammarian.” 1189: “It was kind of rude of God to pretend to be a human, just so he could show us up at our own game.” 1609: “If you don't like Earth, you probably won't like Heaven.”

In a way, these books remind me a of Borges' writings on fictional books, in their strange inextricable combination of criticism and fiction. Something about this captures the critical act a lot better than traditional criticism does, because it reveals how important imagination is to interpretation. In short, to interpret a work is to imagine that you wrote it. To understand a work of fiction, you have to participate in the creation of its fiction. These works simply reveal a hidden process that all critics go through, and frankly, I love it. I can't say whether this will turn into some kind of movement in criticism or whether this will in anyway help push literature and interpreting literature back to the forefront of cultural consciousness, or whether this trend will lead to a new Ulysses, but I like it and I want to see more of it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Fabricated Conflicts in Books: Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I admit it; sometimes I read the comments sections in articles and blog posts on publishing and books. I know it's not good for me, but, you know, I want to know what people think. In a lot of ways, my job as a bookseller is all about what people think. The result is that stuff builds up in my brain and I've got to get it out or, you know, aneurism. So, in the interest of aneurism prevention I'm going to write a couple of posts about what I see as fabricated conflicts in books, phenomena presented in the media as conflicts, that, well aren't. Or at least don't have to be. Part one, Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing.

Why It's Not a Conflict
First of all, I'm not sure there is such a thing as “Traditional Publishing.” Random House, a publishing company with hundreds of imprints, thousands of titles, and is itself a division of a large German media corporation, will have a very different business model from Two Dollar Radio, a small family operation that focuses on innovative literary fiction, which will have a very different business model from Melville House, which publishes lost classics, international mysteries, and experimental fiction, which will be different from a non-profit publisher like Feminist Press, or a radical collectively owned publisher like AK Press, or a publisher like Tupelo Press or Alice James Press that uses contests to finance and select their titles. Really, the only thing that unites all those different publishers is the fact that they can say “no,” to a manuscript. Given the diversity of the industry, the differences in goals, in financial resources, in business models, I don't think all of them are going to all be threatened by a single entity. Sure, some publishers who can say “no” will be negatively effected by changes in the market caused by the rise of self-publishing but others won't.

Publishing and self-publishing have pretty much always co-existed with various degrees of influence on each other. Authors, like Walt Whitman for example, have always published their own works. Others, like Marcel Proust, have funded their own publication. Whether it's radical innovators who can't find an initial market or people self-publishing family histories, self-publishing has always existed along side “traditional” publishing.

The only thing that's changed is the ease with which authors can make their works public. With digital technology authors can publish their books essentially for free. The result is a massive amount of cheap, self-published ebooks. At first glance, that looks like a dramatic change in books, one that threatens the sustainability of publishing, but this is not the first time readers have had inexpensive reading options.

From the turn of the century to the late 50s, pulp fiction flourished along side “traditional” publishing. Cheaply written and cheaply produced, with a price point that matched, pulp fiction was the $.99 ebook of its day. Adding a $.99 ebook to your shopping cart now is exactly like adding a $.10 pulp novel to the top of your shopping cart then. The presence of cheap, other content didn't jeopardize publishing because, even though both were reading materials, they didn't compete for the same type of attention. If you're looking for a really good book, a pulp novel was not an adequate substitute, nor will a really good book sate an appetite for pulp fiction. Which is not to say really good books were not written as pulp or self-published, but that the initial purchase impulse is different.

In short, “traditional” publishing and self-publishing have always co-existed and, even with the cheap and free self-published content now available, there's no reason why the two can't continue to co-exist. So where does this idea of a winner-take-all, battle-to-the-death, Highlander-there-can-be-only-one conflict come from? Well in ascending order:

Media Love Conflict
Let's face it, you will never see this headline anywhere; “Amicable Competition Amongst Content Producers Results in Diverse Market.” Whenever possible, media will present relationships as conflict. And it's not hard to see why; whether it's publishing or politics, conflict is interesting. Debate is more interesting than discussion, argument is more entertaining than debate, and death-feuds are more exciting than argument. Media compete for our attention and since conflict is more likely to draw our attention than non-conflict, whenever possible, media will frame an issue as conflict.

Issue Evangelists
There are writers, bloggers, and commenters who do believe this is a fight to the death and have chosen a side. Though I'd like to say, in the interest of journalistic fairness, there are an equal number of evangelists on both sides of this fabricated divide, I really haven't seen a traditional publishing Konrath. If you read the comments, the skew is even more dramatic. You'll have the occasional person hazarding a suggestion that professional editing is worth something, but you've generally got to weed through a lot of publishing-is-dead comments. And even then, the traditional publishing defenders rarely show up with pitchforks and battle cries. As with media's obsession with conflict, it's not hard to see why there would be so many self-publishing evangelists.

They're writers and writers are narcissists. To be a writer, first you've got to believe others want to hear all that noise in your head. Then you've got to keep believing it while editors, agents, publishers, friends, and family tell you they don't. Arrogance is the phytoplankton of publishing. So it's not hard to see the progress to evangelism. The noise in my head is awesome, traditional publishers rejected the noise in my head, they are obsolete dinosaurs who are going to die and go extinct and die. You have to think at least a version of that just to keep going. But just because some writers who have chosen to self-publish have also chosen to fill comment fields with declarations of the death of other publishing doesn't make it so.

You probably saw this coming. How is Amazon the biggest contributor to this fabricated conflict? Amazon creates scarcity in the ecosystem. Over the last two decades or so, Amazon's business model has lead to there being much, much less money in the publishing economy than before. They've done so in two ways.

First, their predatory pricing put a lot of bookstores out of business, and Amazon does not create sales the way physical stores do. One might be inclined to argue that Amazon's low prices increased the volume of sales, but they didn't. Over the last twenty years or so, book sales have been declining. There are a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that Amazon simply cannot create sales the way a bookseller can. Much like some of the other points I've made, I think it's easy to see why book sales decline when book stores close. Though Amazon is great at selling books readers already want, it is terrible at selling books that readers don't know they want.

I don't care how sophisticated, objective, or data-driven Amazon's “also bought” algorithm is, I am way better at creating book sales than it is. I can recommend a book I've never read, to a person I've never met, based on the band on their t-shirt and a 10-second conversation, and I can be right. (Hold Steady, kinda up for something dark, Nightmare Alley.) In short, algorithms don't understand body language. You can't tell Amazon where you had lunch, what your favorite Saturday morning cartoon was, or why you really like tennis and get a book recommendation (though I'm sure it would like to know all of those things). To put this another way, I can gather way more information about a person in a few minute conversation than Amazon can ever gather in a life-time of purchases, and I can make intuitive and emotional connections between people and books that Amazon can't make. So because of Amazon, there are fewer people like me making those connections, fewer book sales, and thus, less money in the publishing ecosystem.

To make matters worse, because of its dominance in the market, Amazon also demands increasingly better discounts from publishers. Whether through perfectly legitimate discounts based on buying non-returnable and good old fashioned bulk purchasing or the well-documented but somehow not documented enough for the DOJ to care about, bullying of publishers into more advantageous discount structures, Amazon now pays less per book to publishers than they did ten years ago, and much less than most other bookstores. This means that publishers now get less per book for every Amazon sale. For producing the same product, bearing roughly the same overhead and roughly the same initial financial risk, publishers now make less money per sale than they used to.

The cumulative result is that, shockingly, books aren't making as much money as they used to. To an economy, money is food, and just like in nature, when food is scarce animals fight over it. So you have situations like the one from awhile ago, where a “traditional” publisher canceled a novel contract because the author self-published a few titles from her backlist. Though the contract isn't public, once you're thinking in terms of scarcity, the publisher's decision makes a fair amount of sense. They were going to invest money in this book and did not want to compete for the scarce resource of money with the author's other books. Pretty simple.

Conclusion or Jesus, He's Finally Done Talking
Great books will slip through the cracks of “traditional” publishing and only reach the reading public after being self-published by the author, as they always have. “Traditional” publishers will nurture and guide authors to long and successful writing careers, as they always have. The only question about publishing and the relationship between self-publishing and “traditional publishing” is whether forces (Amazon, the DOJ) eventually force so much money out of the market the whole ecosystem collapses. The conflict, then, is not between self-publishing and traditional publishing, but between those who value books and those who value market share.