Monday, February 24, 2014

James Patterson, Amtrak Residencies and the Short Distance between Here and Awesome

What is the difference between a sustainable small business and a failed small business? To put this more precisely, what is the dollar difference between a small business staying open and a small business closing? It will obviously depend on what kind of small business it is, but a for bookstore it's probably far less of a difference than you might suspect, maybe even as low as a few thousand dollars. Yep a few thousand dollars one way and a store stays open. Enough to bridge the gap when the rent is raised a bit, or keep a credit line from publishers open until the holiday season starts up or to make up for one month of bad sales created by some bad weather. Of course, just like everything else, there can be bad book stores and bad small businesses who have really and truly earned their failure, and as with everything else, changes in society will hurt those who refuse to change along with it, but, with book stores, too often the difference between open and closed is paltry.

Which is why I love James Patterson's grant program for independent bookstores.  It's not just that he's giving $1 million to bookstores, is the way he's doing it; in relatively small no-strings-attached grants. Grants that will help them retain (and perhaps energize) experienced staff, that will improve the store's infrastructure, that will compensate for unforeseen costs, and that will allow stores to better meet their social missions. Though Patterson says he's only giving these grants to “viable” stores, every one of these potential uses contributes to the long-term viability of the stores that receive them. Whether it's a modern computer system or strengthening a relationship with local schools, Patterson's grants are helping create the resources needed to bridge that small gap.

But I think there's even more to this. Porter Square Books is using our grant to provide books to students who can't afford them when an author visits their school, so along with supporting literacy, most of that grant is going to be cycled right back into publishing and right back into all of the logistics and systems that get a book from the publisher to the store. Malaprop's is replacing their carpet, which, along with helping create a nicer store, means they will be buying carpets and having them installed, and cycling that money back through their local economy. Same with the store that needs to repair its roof, same with the store that needs to buy and install a new computer system. And even when stores plan on giving their grants to their employees, I'm pretty sure that money isn't going to end up in an off-shore bank account; it's going to be spent, it's going to be taxed, it's going to be productive.

If there is an economics PhD candidate in need of a thesis, I think tracking the effect of Patterson's grants and the amount of economic activity they generate is a pretty good option. We have plenty of data that micro-loans can be extremely effective in developing economies, but if you just scale them up a bit, why wouldn't they also work in our economy? Whatever positive effect Patterson's grants will have, they will have it for a relatively paltry sum. To Patterson, a million ain't all that much, but to the right store (and the right community) a few thousand dollars is everything. (More on this later.)

Speaking of low-cost, high impact projects, over the course of a few days Amtrak has found itself poised to be the primary mode of transportation for American literary culture. It could, simply create a more organized structure for it's residency program, which, as someone who writes on The Downeaster, is still pretty fucking awesome, but it doesn't really have to stop there. How much would it actually cost Amtrak to underwrite travel for book tours? If there are empty seats on trains, and as we know from their lack of profitability, there are empty seats on trains, really, pretty much nothing. There will be some administrative costs of course, but until they are packing trains with paying customers, every unsold ticket is a chance to send a writer somewhere. Even if you counted those given away tickets as losses, at a reasonable scale, it would amount to maybe a few tens of thousands of dollars a year. Maybe.

But that tiny drop in the bucket of Amtrak sales could have a huge impact on American publishing, especially small publishing, and on American literary culture in general. Book tours are an important part of the modern literary conversation, but they are also expensive high-risk, low-reward endeavors for publishers, especially small publishers that are already on tight budgets. (Remember that whole thing about the difference between open and closed small businesses above.) The potential to generate sales on a book tour is often just not high enough to justify the expense. But if travel cost were removed? If authors for Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press or Coffee House or Soho Press or Graywolf or (Yes, I'm just going to say it, because, yes, I totally want Amtrak to underwrite my book tour) Melville House could ride Amtrak for free to events, we could create, support, and enlarge an extremely dynamic, extremely diverse, extremely awesome modern American literary culture, again, practically for free.

Imagine if the Wall Street and big bank bailout had followed these principles instead. Imagine if all of those billions of dollars were distributed in relatively small, no-strings-attached grants to small businesses, non-profits, and art and culture organizations. Imagine if say, 10% of all small businesses in America were able to modernize their inventory systems. Imagine if another 10% were able to convert their properties to green and renewable energy. Imagine if another say 10% were able to give their overworked and underpaid employees a raise and a bonus. At this point, I'm not arguing that we should have let the banks and firms fail, but the more see from them, the more profitable they are and the longer our shitty economy persists in its shittiness, the more inclined I am to believe that, even if the principle behind the bail out wasn't 100% incorrect, it's execution couldn't have been worse.

But there is still time and there is still money. What is both maddening and heartening about James Patterson's grants to bookstores and the Amtrak residency and all the potential that has is how short the distance between here and awesome really is. How much would it actually cost to make sure every community with a certain minimum population has a local bookstore? How much would it actually cost to fill in the food deserts in our inner cities? How much would it actually cost to create a system where most writers don't need day jobs to pay the rent? How much would it actually cost to put a roof over every American's head?

And when you factor in the economic growth that would come from all of those spending efforts, when you put it in the context of corporate profits, the Wall Street bailout, and the military budget, and when you think beyond economics to wonder about the communities that would result from those projects, all it would cost is the willingness to do it. But for some reason, that willingness is the most expensive item on the planet.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some Books Are Impossible to Review

My goal in reviewing a book is to give readers the information they need to decide whether or not they want to read the book, which means I describe the dominant characteristics of the book, while assessing its execution with my, subjective obviously, opinion of quality. Sometimes that also involves placing the book in its historic or literary context, sometimes that means offering some interpretations of the work, and sometimes that means describing more general aspects of literature. My hope, is that I have written enough decision making resources into the review that a reader can decide they really want to read a book I have described as a book I don't think anyone should read. As much as I think Kakutani generally has regressive taste in books, I always know exactly what my relationship to a book she's reviewed is likely to be. (And thus ends the portion of my writing life where I say nice things about Michiko Kakutani.)

But not all books have the same “reviewability.” Here are three categories of books that are damn near impossible to review.

Abominations of the Written Word

No matter how bad a book is, it is still an act of human creation and, thus, still deserves to be treated with a level of respect. But how do you communicate that respect while also describing a reading experience where you wanted to pull out your eyes with sauce sodden sporks and roll them back and forth between your hands while sitting on the floor waiting for the searing pain in your brain to leech out your newly opened face hatches? As a reviewer, you have to be honest when you don't like a book, because that allows you to be honest when you like a book, and as a writer, you have to use the most compelling language you can come up with, but you are also a human being discussing something very important to another human being.

Part of solving this problem is to give those books the same attention you give to books you like, which is why you almost never seen a bad review on my blog. If reading a book makes me want to peel the first few layers of skin off my fingertips with a vegetable peeler and cartwheel dots of blood down the middle of the street, I'm going to stop reading it. And if I stop reading it, I won't be able to write with that respect. If I've committed to a reviewing a book for someone else, I'll pick up my eyes, get through, and do my best to be truthful and respectful at the time. I've had editors decide that I did not strike that right balance and chose not to run those reviews, which is what an editor is supposed to do. The reviews have also been run without additional comment. Sure, at the end of writing those reviews, there is a sense of having scaled a mountain that was also kicking you in the junk while you climbed, but there is also a sense of wishing to have spent your time not getting kicked in the junk.

Towering Achievements of Literature

But, in many ways, books I absolutely love are just as difficult to review. Just as it is hard to respect while hating, it is hard to love without gushing. There is a point where the language kind of tips, and you risk readers shifting from “This sounds great” to “Nothing could be this good.” There is a kind of praise that sounds inherently disingenuous or, perhaps, even, delusional. You can gush about a book to your friends and because they know you, they can calibrate that gushing to their own tastes, but the person on the other side of the internet won't have the luxury of that calibration. There is always the chance that the readers don't see a seasoned professional offering a prudent but positive opinion on a work of literature, but a crazy guy air drying his crazy pants on the crazy internet.

What distinguishes this challenge from writing about weeping pustules of “language” is that I want to write about these books, I want to celebrate them, I want to make other people read them. It is a beautiful enthusiasm but sometimes it means what is supposed to be a review becomes publicity.

Twice, recently, I've started to review a book only to get to the other side of a first draft and realize there would be no way I could mangle my personal reading experience into a review and wrote essays instead. One of them was this essay on Karl Ove Knaussgaard's absolutely brilliant but at times Revelations-level infuriating My Struggle Volume 2: Man in Love, and the other an essay on White Girls by Hinton Als, which I've been teasing on twitter and will hopefully be here in the not-to-distant future. But that only works when I have the luxury to not turn in a review. When I've committed to a review I try my best to be overt as to who I am as a reader so readers understand how such a powerful connection was made and to, at least, mention aspects of the book other readers might have a different reaction to.


Judging harshly. Very harshly, indeed.
Is there a more horrible and yet more expressive word in our modern lexicon? (I'm sure there's someone cranking out a self-help book about removing “meh” from your life.) There's nothing wrong with the book, per se, I mean, it's fine, it's just, well...there isn't a lot you can say about a book that is “meh.” So, maybe you summarize the plot or the themes, maybe suggest some other works this one might resemble, and then, well, you tell the world the book is “meh.”

In some ways this is analogous to the respect problem of the books that set my spleen on fire with their incendiary awful. Does a 300 word review really demonstrate respect for an act of human creation? Does it show that I have done my due diligence as a reviewer? Does it do anything for the reader of the review? I mean, ultimately, the review should make the reader look away from it, to the book, but the review is still read and the act of reading it still should have value. I feel the review prose at the other end of a meh book tends, itself, to be meh.

What Is a Book Review?

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and perhaps even destructive aspect of our current literary culture is our lack of distinction between a book review and what gets appended to books by casual readers at Amazon and Goodreads. I'm not disparaging those casual reviews, at all, as they do serve their purpose and a reader who knows how to utilize them can actually get quite a lot of useful information from them. But they are different from what we have traditionally called “book reviews.”

Book reviews are not just an expression of taste or opinion, but they do both, and book reviews are not just an assessment of quality, though they do that as well; book reviews are a cultural conversation between writers and readers, a cultural conversation that has the ability to extend itself beyond the book in question to examine other aspects of being a human being. They are a vital part of the give and take that is created by a book being written, and they extend that give and take beyond the individual reader with the individual book, to the entire world of readers.

The short opinions and ratings systems of Amazon and Goodreads are a kind of conversation about books, and, though I, personally, don't get a lot of value or information from that kind of conversation, I'm not upset that other readers do. But those comments do not do what book reviews do. They don't help us become better readers. They don't give us insight into the potential meaning of a book. They don't connect that book to the history and future of books. They don't make us think about the world around us. And they certainly don't slow down our judgment machines showing us the time, complexity, and thought that should go into forming an opinion.

Apologies for getting a little ranty here at the end, but we should have more book reviews and they should be in the mainstream media. The literary internet is amazing and powerful, and passionate, thoughtful, and intelligent readers have done much to fill the void in our culture when newspapers and other mainstream media dropped books coverage. (Quick aside: People read newspapers, readers want to know about books, so obviously, the first thing you cut from your newspaper is your books coverage, because obviously if they're reading a newspaper they don't have any interest in reading about things to read.) But the literary internet cannot replace the casual, tangential, part-of-the-habitat interaction with literature that happens in newspapers and magazines, where people reading for the sports scores are at least shown that books count in our culture.

So even though some books are impossible to review (phew, brought it back around) we still need more book reviews in more places for more people. Unless of course, we don't want to run the risk of having a more thoughtful culture.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mark Watney is Your New Hero

Mark Watney, from The Martian by Andy Weir, is your new hero. I mean that in two different ways. First, he's funny, charming, goofy, intelligent and resilient. He is in an impossible situation, trapped alone on Mars, and he approaches this impossibility with good humor and ingenuity. Right from his first entry in his log, you want Mark Watney to survive if for no other reason than each day he survives, means he writes another log for you to read. He is someone to root for, someone to look up to, and, perhaps most importantly, someone you absolutely want on your zombie apocalypse team.

But Watney is your new hero in another way. He represents a new category of hero; perhaps the first truly 21st century hero in entertainment and could represent another major step away from the chosen one bullshit that has so dominated so much our entertainment reading. I don't think author Andy Weir set out to revolutionize entertainment storytelling with The Martian. (I'm in a fight with him about one very conventional plot decision.) I think he had an idea for an exciting story and he developed a fantastic voice to tell it, but this particular story, of survival on Mars, with this particular voice, a slightly nerdier, more botanist-y Chris Hadfield-y, might be the first step to a less bullshit ridden and vastly more relevant hero.

The Chosen One, in whatever form that character takes (though, if we're looking at its pattern historically, usually a white dude, though sometimes shorter than average, with hairy feet), is bullshit. The world does not have a chosen one, it never has had a chosen one, and it never will have a chosen one; it will continue to have people, with varying abilities, in situations they can either survive or not. Said people will make decisions and they will be good decisions, bad decisions, or decisions whose goodness or badness is difficult to isolate. But just because The Chosen One isn't realistic doesn't mean it's bullshit in terms of entertainment. Realistic depictions of the world really isn't entertainment's job. The Chosen one is bullshit because it is also a dangerous belief structure responsible, in its various forms, for immeasurable past and present destruction.

Seeing the world through the chosen one narrative calcifies past actions and simplifies past decisions by removing them from their historical context, while ignoring the mistakes and flaws of those who have come to be understood as “chosen ones.” For example “The Founding Fathers” are revered by a certain section of political belief in pretty much the exact same way religious figures are revered. Obviously, this reverence downplays the substantial philosophical differences between the people grouped under that title, as well as their mistakes, racism, sexism, and (thank you Howard Zinn), appalling classism, but I think a specific example from the “removal from historical context” thing, in which the Chosen One perspective has won the debate, will best illustrate the utter bullshit of the Chosen One.

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Looked from the perspective that these words were written by real people solving a problem with the resources at hand it's pretty clear what was intended. The writers had just won a war, in large part, because the white men in their society all owned guns and they wanted to ensure that resource was available should future generations find themselves in the same problem. I'm looking at it and I see nothing about “self-defense,” “home defense,” or “recreation.” All I see, is the preservation of a particular solution to a particular problem. See, there's that “well regulated militia” part right there. But actions of the chosen one are timeless, they are forever, they are relevant no matter what. So from a “Chosen One” perspective, the whole “well regulated militia” thing is not the point; the point is that the Chosen Ones said we could have guns, so not only do we get to have guns, the having of guns is a fundamental expression of our connection to The Chosen Ones.

But the other thing Chosen One's do that might be even more destructive is they allow an abdication of responsibility. The Chosen One, let's everyone else off the hook. Sure, the Chosen One has a sidekick or two, and sure, in the storyline, at least if it's a modern storyline, there's probably an average joe or two who ends up playing a major role, but that particular sidekick and that particular average joe are just shades of the Chosen One. Everybody else can do whatever the fuck they want. Or, to tread on some slightly risky ground, “Don't worry, Jesus will get it in editing.” It's one thing to be self-interested or self-centered, or even selfish, but it is another thing entirely to live in a belief system where someone else, whether its a real person, a mythological person, or that strange mix of the two, is the only one responsible, and you can be whatever at no cost to anyone but yourself. This, of course, doesn't have to be a Make Loki Fix It cosmology. It can also be a Science Will Fix It cosmology or The Market Will Fix It cosmology or anything that gives you permission to drive to the store, turn up the heat, or take a bag. 

Andy Weir is not the first author to entertain the shit out of me while eschewing The Chosen One trope, but his character Watney takes another, perhaps equally important, step forward, in terms of the composition of our heroes; a step that draws from a fellow you may have heard of by the name of Asimov.

21st century problems are not vanquishable. For the most part, they are not evil that needs to be destroyed at all costs. They are the day-to-day scientific, technological, behavioral problems of maintaining a just society without destroying the planet in the process. Our defining conflicts are frustratingly un-narrative. What kind of villain, really, is a lobbyist for coal, oil, and Wall Street? And the hero who combats them? Our next hero will not stop Hitler, but solve our CO2 problem. Weir writes a character solving exactly those kinds of problems in a totally interesting way. Sure, Watney is on Mars, so the volume of his challenge is changed, but it's still all about capturing carbon dioxide, maintaining arable land, and staying a human fucking being when the only media you've got to occupy yourself is utter drivel. (OK, so maybe it is exactly like surviving on Earth.)

The closest characters I've read to Watney are from Asimov's Foundation Series. (Which was absolutely formative in my reading life, which is really why I'm mad at Weir for that celebration of recklessness he jammed into things, but I'm only mad because he reset the bar higher.) The heroes of this story; the psychohistorians and Salvor Hardin are all problem solvers whether on a grand scale, like navigating the collapse of a galactic civilization and coping with a “Chosen One” style dude fucking shit up or on a smaller scale of making sure no one blows up your tiny little outpost. Like Weir with Watney and all but one of the characters at NASA, Asimov made the methodical interesting. Or, rather, Weir and Asimov both acknowledged that, in service to important goals, the methodical is inherently interesting. And we should write more fiction about it.

Overall, The Martian is not a groundbreaking work of literature. The prose is solid but not beautiful. The voices of the different characters, especially those for whom English is a foreign language, are not precise. And Weir (Or perhaps an editor. Feels kinda like someone afraid the book was “too science-y” might suggest adding.) throws in a totally unnecessary trope of reward for recklessness, but if you know anything about the course of written expression (Thank you Steven Moore for this and this) you know that not every literary breakthrough happens in a groundbreaking work of literature. (And frankly, a lot of groundbreaking literature has some pretty appalling flaws, hello there repugnant misogyny in The Maltese Falcon.) Lots of first whatevers happened in books that are now known only for their first whatever. Writing evolves just like everything else and we should be grateful for every act of evolution no matter what else surrounds it. The late Lou Reed asked, “We can't be Shakespeare and we can't be Joyce so what the fuck is left?” and the answer is we can do our best with whatever is in our brains and, sure, it might not be Shakespeare or Joyce, but it might be the next step in our understanding of the hero.

Weir has finally pointed the glamor in the right direction. Sure, the grizzled loner with the chainsaw gets a lot of air time in the zombie apocalypse movie, but the real hero in that story is not the one who wields the chainsaw, but the one who figures out how to keep it going after you run out of gas, (sunflower oil is my best guess, at least in this gardening zone, with some kind of ethanol) it's the one who designs your home defenses, and the one who feeds you, and, if there is going to be any member of your party who ends up statue-worthy, it'll be the one who figures out how to brew the beer. At some point, entertainment fiction will begin showing the world what it has always needed to learn; that we need Hermione Granger a lot more than Harry Potter. Weir has pushed us towards that with Mark Watney and we should reward him for his evolution. (And by “reward” I mean, buy the shit out of his book. Here for example.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Three Questions for the New England Patriots

With the Super Bowl over and some pretty definitive evidence that even if the Patriots had managed to beat the Broncos, they wouldn't have had a shot against the Seahawks, I think we're ready to look forward to next season.

Given how successful the Patriots were this season with so many catastrophic injuries, there are good reasons to be optimistic about next year. I mean, they got to the AFC championship game with a team just a few notches above their practice squad. Even getting just a portion of the talent they lost to injury this year, back for next year would make them, yet again, favorites to win the AFC East and make it to the finals. But injuries weren't their only challenge and as Brady and company look to win their fourth ring, I think there are three questions they need to answer first.

Do any of the rookie wide receivers have the talent to contribute to a Super Bowl win next year?
It is pretty clear that the learning curve for a new wide receiver for the Patriots is a little steeper than the average. Given how much of their success depends on Brady's decisions after the play has been called and after it has started, a new wide receiver has a ton to absorb before he can really contribute. But even if they all do get fully and completely on the same page with Brady next year, do they or does any one of them have the talent, whether as a deep threat or in terms of yards after the catch, to influence the structure of opposing defenses? If the Patriots think the answer to this question is “No,” then that determines their top off-season priority: get an impact wide receiver any way they can. Over the years this Patriots team has had a ton of success by staying out of the off-season auctions, and finding talent either undrafted, deep in the draft, or picking up mid-risk high-reward free agents, but I just don't think they have the luxury this time around. More on this later, but I think the window for another championship is beginning to close. However, if they do believe one or all of their rookies this year will blossom next year, then they find themselves (again) with a lot of flexibility this off-season. They'll be able to take their time, look for hidden gems in the draft, or try another veteran free agent who might have one more season left in the tank.

How much should we rely on Gronkowksi?
The Patriots are still a good team, even without Gronk, but it was clear their offense, as it is constructed now, just doesn't have the depth to win a championship without him. The problem is, for whatever reason (and I'm not going to speculate about how his off-field behavior might contribute) Gronk can't seem to stay healthy enough to help the team to a Super Bowl. Furthermore, he now finds himself uniquely vulnerable for career ending injuries. What happens if that forearm breaks again? What happens if that knee takes another hit? And then there's the regular wear and tear a huge body accumulates while being battered by other huge bodies. Gronk could come back completely healthy and, in the existing offensive system, put up record breaking numbers, or, he could not. I don't think the Patriots should answer this question with personnel (though they probably will look for another tight end who can catch) but, if they want an offense that is not as limited by his absence, they might have to answer this question with strategy. Essentially, they should build the “No Gronk” plays into the system, diversifying it slightly so that, should they not have him, it is harder for their opponents to take advantage of that absence.

In some ways, this question is a lot harder than it appears. You might be thinking, “Of course you diversify your offense, why wouldn't you?” and I think there is some truth to that. But changing an NFL offense isn't that easy, if for no other reason than the team would have to first answer the question, “Change it to what?” And given the challenges they had incorporating rookie receivers this year, do they really want to throw a whole new set of plays and wrinkles at them? In terms of return on investment, there is a chance it is actually better for the Patriots to continue with their current system and hope Gronk stays healthy.

When should we start planning for the post-Brady Patriots?
Assuming he stays healthy, which is a pretty perilous assumption, I think it's reasonable to expect Brady to play well for another, maybe three years. But two, three, or five years from now, Tom Brady will retire and the Patriots will have to start someone else at quarterback. Unfortunately, unless Ryan Malette is the next Steve Young, the Patriots are going to face a ton of difficult decisions in the lead up to that transition. Unfortunately, one of those decisions might be sell off our valuable players, collect draft picks, live with failure for a few years, and rebuild the team from scratch for whatever character of competition the NFL then has.

They could, of course, decide to make those decisions after Mallet has proved his abilities one way or the other, and given all the other decisions that would be required of a “post-Brady” plan, it'd be hard to argue against that idea. As with the Gronk question, in terms of cost/benefit, there is a lot to be said for just waiting this one out. You know, especially since New England area sports fans are so forgiving. They totally won't turn their back on the Patriots if, after over a decade of unparallelled excellence they have to slog through five or six crappy seasons, right? Right?

For the last eight or so years, I've had a somewhat distant relationship with professional football. I've worked on Sundays and so, have only watched the Monday night, Thursday night, and occasional Sunday night prime time games. Even once I got a DVR, football was never quite important enough to me, to go through the trouble of recording (and then fast forwarding as much I as watch) the games and watching them later. But, my schedule changed and now, assuming I get around to buying those wireless headphones for the TV, I'll be able to watch pretty much every game next season. Which makes me wonder how my relationship to the sport will change. Of the four majors, football is my third favorite to watch (after hockey and baseball and before basketball, and I still much prefer rugby, and, in the right setting curling) and I've reached a satisfying relationship with it. The few games I got to watch had an “eventness” to them that I don't know if they'll have next year.

Will watching more games deepen the relationship? Will I gain a better understanding of football systems? Will I get bored? And how much do I care about concussions in the NFL? I will now be expression an opinion that I did not have the opportunity to express before. And there's that whole non-profit not paying taxes thing.

Also, since I've got you, Shawn Thornton's goal was the best goal.