Monday, November 10, 2014


More coverage of Ed Park's departure from Amazon:
Bezos’s last line of defense against the ire of the literati had been Park, the lone survivor of Amazon’s initial push into publishing of the big-time, hardcover variety. Three other promising hires out of “legacy” publishing, including former Time Warner Book Group CEO Larry Kirshbaum, all preceded him out the revolving door. In the intervening five years, genre books have done well — sometimes very well — over at Amazon’s West Coast operation, while big fiction and nonfiction have floundered, partly due to the bookstore boycott. Genres sell briskly as e-books, while the literary mid-list is still largely hand-sold in physical bookstores, so the Amazon authors hurt most of all by the lit world’s hostility are those it might like the most. Out of the earshot of the hosts, one agent at the party told me that for his kind of work, “Amazon is the publisher of last resort.”
When I signed a contract with Amazon for my last novel (Ed was my editor, and he was the most amazing person to work with obviously - he really should have been credited as a full-on collaborator, the book changed so much for the better as I worked for him!), a friend in publishing asked me, "But won't it be strange not to see your book in bookstores?" I had to say that it would not be much different from my previous experience with traditional publishers! My YA books, though they were published by HarperTeen, were not ordered by B&N and other chains, and had truly abysmal sales (the first one didn't clear the limit for republication in paper, so the sequel was released as if in all appearances it was a standalone, hardly surprising that readers found that frustrating). If you are a small midlist book at a traditional publisher and don't catch the world's attention particularly, it is not as though your book really will be in stores in any systematic way.

In general, I am really moving away from novel-writing: in any line of work, you will need to spend a good bit of time publicizing your own stuff and being out on the road, and it is really bad enough having to do that for ONE writing career let alone two. Increasingly sure, and happy about it, that I am a scholar and nonfiction writer in my heart of hearts - that said, future projects will include more crossover work a-la-Geoff Dyer (it is easier for me to force convergence between roles as professor of eighteenth-century British literature and author of literary nonfiction than to shoehorn in the novel-writing thing)....

Changing your mind

This is fun: I got asked by the Chronicle of Higher Education to contribute my thoughts on what nonfiction book of the last thirty years genuinely changed my mind about something important. It is curiously hard to think of instances of this (I suppose the account of decision-making in the Kahnemann Thinking, Fast and Slow has changed my idea of how I should conduct a search?). I enjoyed writing this one.

Saw The Death of Klinghoffer on Saturday at the Met. It is amazing: somber, beautiful, MAJOR. Very glad I didn't miss it. Still chewing over thoughts in the wake. I was thinking and talking about documentary art last week already with Clotel, and having been to Israel this year probably intensified my experience too: the score is just absolutely staggering, though.

Back to teaching today. Really this is good: my fall break was rather wasted, I did valuable and important things I suppose (and continued to recover from lingering cold) but it is hard not to feel that I should have gotten a lot more work and exercise in somehow! Next four weeks will be extremely demanding and I am of course, impractically, consumed with ideas of all the books I want to be writing - more thoughts on that at some more leisurely moment....

Friday, November 07, 2014

"Hamster dreams of sushi"

The link did not come from B., but the post title did!

Reconceiving the Grand Tour

Interesting piece by John Hooper at More Intelligent Life on how digital humanities techniques can reveal new stories that emerge from old research.

"Infuriating; possibly illuminating"

Shades of my relationship with Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels!

"Now Casanova's memoirs"

On reimagining biography. Makes me want to read both the book described here and John Lahr's Tennessee Williams biography....

(Thinking quite a bit about annotation as I am - slightly to my regret, as it is causing much procrastination - drafting a proposal for funding to integrate some electronic annotation tools and digital close-reading tutorials into my introduction to the major course for next year....)

(Also thinking seriously about making 2015 the year of reading mostly nonfiction except for novels I am truly eager to read?)

Animal knotting

Can a snake tie itself into a knot it can't get out of? (Via GeekPress.)

"I want candy"

I want some of these!

"I don't read Albanian, alas"

At the WSJ, Eben Shapiro interviews David Bellos on the art of translation. Here was a bit I hugely enjoyed:
In the new Kadare book that you translate, was there any particular passage or word that was particularly challenging to translate?

“Twilight of the Eastern God” is set in Moscow in the late 1950s. In it, Kadare refers to a mildly avant-garde and therefore politically scandalous hendecasyllabic couplet that had written in Albanian. It’s not a fiction—Kadare’s poetry was published in Albania and translated into Russian while he was still a student in the Soviet Union. I translate Kadare from his French translations, as I don’t read Albanian, alas. However, by inexplicable serendipity the Russian translation of the couplet that Kadare gives in transliterated form in the French edition of the novel allowed me to invent two lines of English verse that are also hendecasyllabic! There was absolutely no point in doing it—English verse isn’t measured in syllables anyway, so readers aren’t going to notice. But if you want an example of the kind of crazy challenges that translators encounter and sometimes meet (more by luck than genius, I must add)—well, that one certainly sticks in my mind.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Wires of underground influence

Teaching Billy Budd next week, I'm excited:
About as much was really known to the Bellipotent's tars of the master-at-arms' career before entering the service as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky. The verdict of the sea quidnuncs has been cited only by way of showing what sort of moral impression the man made upon rude uncultivated natures whose conceptions of human wickedness were necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality--a thief among the swinging hammocks during a night watch, or the man-brokers and land-sharks of the seaports.

It was no gossip, however, but fact that though, as before hinted, Claggart upon his entrance into the navy was, as a novice, assigned to the least honorable section of a man-of-war's crew, embracing the drudgery, he did not long remain there. The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, an ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a singular occasion; all this, capped by a certain austere patriotism, abruptly advanced him to the position of master-at-arms.

Of this maritime chief of police the ship's corporals, so called, were the immediate subordinates, and compliant ones; and this, as is to be noted in some business departments ashore, almost to a degree inconsistent with entire moral volition. His place put various converging wires of underground influence under the chief's control, capable when astutely worked through his understrappers of operating to the mysterious discomfort, if nothing worse, of any of the sea commonalty.

Saturday, November 01, 2014


It is unseemly that a minor cold can make me so grumpy - think of everyone battling genuinely major ailments of one kind or another! - but it is essentially two weeks now with no exercise, and despite everything else in life being pretty much OK, my mood has suffered as a result. Made a plea on Facebook and have lined up some good light reading suggestions for the rest of the weekend (I don't teach this week, due to the fall election holiday - I need to get my act together to do some of my own proper work, but in the meantime I'm slightly at sea without the need to do Monday and Tuesday's course readings over the weekend). Hoping to spend the evening so completely immersed in a fictional world that I stop paying attention to my own glumness!

Have had a rather good run of entertainment in the world as opposed to the mind over the last week or so, though the Britten is quiet in a way that made me feel AWFUL about periodic inability to suppress coughing (in fact it reminded me that I heard the War Requiem a number of years ago at Carnegie Hall with an even worse cold - conservation of character over time!).

First, courtesy of my friend T. who got us comps, the inspiring Storm Large at the Public Theater. Genuinely magical performance: I think everyone in the room was transported and uplifted! Lots of good samples at Youtube and I am going to order up some of the back catalog (bought the new album after the show, though my iPod touch is now so ancient that it won't update with iTunes). She's been singing with our friend Thomas Lauderdale and band Pink Martini recently, which was why it caught my attention; it was an absolutely wonderful show, enough so that I download and read her autobiography the next day. I suppose if you're only going to get one, an album is a more obvious choice than the book, but I hugely enjoyed it: definitely recommended (here's the Amazon link).

On Thursday, the extraordinary Britten parable Curlew River, part of the Lincoln Center White Light festival and performed, appropriately, in the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Here's a review that conveys the feel of the performance. I had never heard Ian Bostridge in person: it is a beautiful work, and I could not imagine a better performance than his in the part of the Madwoman. The moment at the end when the child's voice comes through is genuinely unearthly. Drinks afterwards with Nadia and Nico, which was also fun; Nadia is recovering from pneumonia, we are all working a bit too hard in ways that tax the immune system.

And last night, at the Bushwick Starr, the excellent Ghost Quartet. Here's the NYT review. It took me a little longer to be won over - the performers are superb, but only a couple songs in the first forty minutes stood out for me, and there is always that risk of whimsy - the story also could still use a little focusing - but I really loved the last part, when the lights go out and the story really ramps up in intensity and appeal. The show is sold out through its final performance on Nov. 8, but if you get there by 7:15 or so, they can probably fit you in.

I will definitely download the cast album: the two standout songs in the first stretch are "Any Kind of Dead Person" and "Four Friends" (during which shots of whisky are poured for the audience - very welcome, on my part, and temporarily quieted my lung ailment!)

Miscellaneous light reading (too lazy to paste in links):

I did finish the Richard Morgan "Land Fit for Heroes" trilogy (decent writing, but way too much fighting and the three main characters are all too similar to each other).

Felix Francis, Dick Francis's Damage: actually this one is much better, I had really written the collaborative ones off as dreadful but this reads more like an actual Dick Francis novel as of ten years ago - i.e. still something like a child's cartoon of peak-era Francis, but much more readable!

Tricia Sullivan, Shadowboxer (very appealing, though I thought it would have been edited differently for a larger publisher - some pacing issues - but she's a great writer and I am eager for the next installment).

Patrick Rothfuss, The Slow Regard of Silent Things: an immersive read, I like his writing a lot, but could not shake uncharacteristic politically correct impulse to disapprove of laudatory representation of anorexic OCD heroine!

Then, happily, William Gibson's new novel, The Peripheral: there was one funny moment when I had a sudden pang for the more sincere, less self-conscious pleasures of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, but really this is very good, I can't imagine anyone who likes reading novels at all not enjoying this. (Gibson shares with the late lamented Iain Banks the ability to write female protagonists that actually feel to me like they could be myself!)

Then Paulo Bacigalupi's The Doubt Factory, a good recommendation from Brent (and an interesting example of how a novel might attempt to approximate argument) though I wasn't sure I bought the ending.

Friday, October 31, 2014


At the LRB, Colin Burrow reviews a new book about the history of philology. Of interest to me in a general sense as well, for obvious reasons, but I particularly enjoyed this bit at the end:
This layer of general interest in knowing about humanity – call it culture – can all sometimes go wrong when academic specialisms waltz into the room. My mother, who was the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (and whose eightieth birthday recently prompted what must be the ultimate public recognition in the form of a Google doodle: the techies in California clearly like reading fantasy), once said at a dinner with a group of American academics that she loved The Faerie Queene. ‘Oh, are you a Spenserian?’ came the eager reply. When my mother said, no, she just liked reading Spenser and liked his fantastical imagination, the light went out in her dining companions’ eyes. Yes, academic disciplines are a wet sock to the imagination, but not everything we do is contained within their soggy outlines.

"Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!"

Nicholas Dames on the literary history of the chapter.