Books

You are what you read

Bookstore ad

Wonderful ad for a bookstore in Lithuania called Mint Vinetu. (Via Quipsologies.)

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Why are we attracted to crime stories?

Why do ordinary readers happily devour crime novels, the sort of stories I write, about violence — murder above all — and every conceivable sort of treachery? Why do housewives and business travelers and grandmothers — people who would not themselves steal a stick of gum — feel drawn to crime stories, fascinated by them?

John le Carré seems to have puzzled over the appeal of spy novels in a similar way. The other day I ran across this quote:

Most of us live in a condition of secrecy: secret desires, secret appetites, secret hatreds, and relationship with the institutions which is extremely intense and uncomfortable. These are, to me, a part of the ordinary human condition. So I don’t think I’m writing about abnormal things.… Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.

I think le Carré gets that exactly right. We are all spies. We all fake, one way or another, at times. Spies perfectly embody this aspect of human nature.

Are we all criminals, too? Is that why we rush to buy books by Lee Child or Richard Price or Michael Connelly? Is that why the news media cover crime stories with such obvious relish?

Maybe. When asked to explain the attraction of crime stories, I have always fallen back on the phrase “bad men do what good men dream,” which was coined by the psychologist Robert I. Simon (it is the title of Simon’s book). Simon writes,

The basic difference between what are socially considered to be bad and good people is not one of kind, but one of degree, and of the ability of the bad to translate dark impulses into dark actions. Bad men such as serial sexual killers have intense, compulsive, sadistic fantasies that few good men have, but we all have some measure of that hostility, aggression, and sadism. Anyone can become violent, even murderous, under certain circumstances. Our brains are wired for aggression, and can short-circuit into violence.

It is a powerful, frightening idea. But even if it is true — even if we are all criminals with secret dark instincts, however faintly we feel them, however well we master them — it still does not explain the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories. When we read crime novels, are we indulging this secret urge to violence, acting out fantasies? Are we good men (people) dreaming of doing bad things? Our favorite criminals — Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone — do have an undeniable glamor.

On the other hand, maybe we read crime stories to relieve the anxiety that we will become victims. Maybe the pleasure is in the experience of control over these demons. Most crime stories end with the villain’s defeat, after all. Justice tends to triumph in fiction more often than it does in real life. Surely that is no accident.

Or perhaps we enjoy crime stories for the same reason we go to horror movies and roller coasters: to feel the thrill of fear. To get the adrenaline rush of a dangerous situation without the risk of actual danger.

I suspect that the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories is murkier than le Carré’s theory about spy novels. We may indeed all be spies, but we are not all criminals — not just criminals, anyway. We are good and bad, cops and robbers, heroes and villains, at different times. As a crime novelist, that strikes me as good news. Novels thrive in the murk of human emotions.

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The end of the shy author?

What usually gets lost in the perpetual refrain about authors becoming their own marketers is that there’s no particular connection between writing talent and a gift for self-promotion.

— Laura Miller, “Writer, Sell Thyself”

In a world where authors are expected to self-promote — and someday, perhaps, self-publish — would Salinger or Harper Lee or Thomas Pynchon, reclusive introverts all, have found an audience? Are we about to lose the writer, however brilliant, whose only gift is writing? Read the article.

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New York, 1964

André Kertész – Untitled (woman sunbathing on roof reading), September 21, 1964

Untitled (woman sunbathing on roof reading), September 21, 1964
André Kertész

(via)

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Quote of the Day

I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings, but I cannot sympathise with anybody wanting to know me.

Vladimir Nabokov, who “despised the idea of the author as celebrity” (via)

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Jaws

Jaws, 1st ed.

Jaws, first edition, 1974. (via)

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Seth Godin: Ten Bestsellers

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 2.40.57 PM

This video is not new. It is Seth Godin’s presentation at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in February 2008. But I loved it at the time and still do. It is one of the few discussions of the digital publishing revolution that get me excited about the future rather than just scaring the hell out of me. Godin is a great speaker, self-promoter, and motivator, but there’s plenty of ideas here for ordinary mortals, too.

I recommended the video to a writer-friend today who is gearing up to promote his book, then I had trouble tracking it down on the web, mostly because I could not remember the name of it. So here it is, John: “10 Bestsellers: Using New Media, New Marketing, and New Thinking to Create 10 Bestselling Books.” Enjoy.

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Zelda

Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, 1924, age 23. Zelda died on this day in 1948. (via scribnerbooks)

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Margaret Atwood: Books are frozen voices

Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.

Margaret Atwood

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Great Moments in Publishing

The Girls in Publishing

Via

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Book Cover of the Day

Benjamin - Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Brilliant cover art for Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Designed by David Pearson for Penguin’s Great Ideas series, vol. 3 (2008). (Via Flickr.) Perfect.

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Why read?

I think the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don’t read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all reading is such a solitary, internalizing act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways… It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being.

John Connolly

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Shoes

This video made the rounds on the web a while ago, when Converse announced the latest reinterpretation of its sneakers by designer Ryusaku Hiruma, but I only discovered it the other day.

Fashion clod that I am, I had never heard of Hiruma or his Converse shoes. For the uninitiated: Ryusaku “Sak” Hiruma is a Japanese designer who has been studying traditional shoemaking techniques in Florence for almost a decade. Over the last few years, Sak has applied old-world craft to produce chic, luxurious handmade versions of Converse’s classic Jack Purcell, Chuck Taylor, and One Star models. The latest Sak/Converse shoe, a design based on an old basketball shoe called the Star Tech, features fine leather and hand-stitching throughout. Only 64 pairs will be made, in natural shades of tan, off-white and black leather. Retailing for $600, they will be available only in New York, Boston, and Costa Mesa. (Costa Mesa?) If you’re into shoe porn, details are here and here.

I loved this video. I found it oddly touching and romantic, not just for Sak’s dedication to craft and tradition but for personal reasons. My own family was in the shoe business for several generations. Growing up, I assumed I would be too. There were no writers or artists of any kind in my family or anywhere else in my world. Even now I think I might have been very happy making shoes.

Maybe that is why I have a nagging sense that, as a writer, I don’t really “make” anything. A book is an ethereal creation, a non-object. It exists as a chain of words, separate and apart from the paper-and-ink thing we call by that name. Book publishing is only now transitioning to digital, permanently alienating the idea of a “book” from a physical object, but writing made the leap decades ago. In my own daily working life, paper plays no part. Over the two years or so it takes me to produce a novel, I never print out a hard-copy manuscript. And when I am done, I simply email a digital file to my editor. There is no object to hold, really, until I receive bound copies from the publisher, long after the writing is done. Even then, the physical books do not feel like my creation. Only the words do.

Contrast that with the intensely physical world of traditional shoemaking in this video. The materials are so lush and sensuous. Even the tools have a gorgeous patina. That the shoemaker’s artistry is lavished on such a low, practical object — when you step in shit, it is not your hat that is ruined — only makes the concrete physicality of the whole thing that much more real and authentic. Only 64 pairs of these shoes will be made, and Hiruma will touch every one with his own hands. And, poignantly, every one one of those shoes will wear out.

Novels, of course, are theoretically immortal precisely because they are insubstantial. My books can be reprinted and rescreened into infinity, and each copy is no less my creation than any other. Maybe that is what makes the shoemaker’s art so poignant to a writer: he cannot give you his creation without surrendering it himself.

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A kiss in the dark

A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.

Stephen King

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No such thing as a bad review

A study uses negative book reviews to test the old saw that “all publicity is good publicity.” The result: for the most part, it is better to be trashed by the Times than ignored by it.

A crucial factor, they concluded, is how familiar a brand or product or other entity was before the negative publicity. Crunching data that cross-matched book sales against critics’ appraisals in The New York Times Book Review, they found that negative reviews of a new book by an “established” author hurt sales. “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect,” increasing sales by 45 percent over their expected sales trajectory, they write. Evidently this boils down to increased awareness: the mere act of introducing something to a broader public — even by saying that it stinks — increases the chances that more members of that public will want it anyway.

Follow-up studies pointed out that as time passes, we may not remember the context in which we heard of something (a pan); we just know it’s familiar.

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George Orwell Writes a Novel

Via. (Click image to view full size.)

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What are books good for?

So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it. Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others.… [T]he two cultures of the contemporary world are the culture of data and the culture of narrative. Narrative is rarely collective. It isn’t infinitely expandable. Narrative has a shape and a temporality, and it ends, just as our lives do. Books tell stories. Scholarly books tell scholarly stories.

— William Germano

Read the whole essay here. I’m not sure there’s really anything new in it, but it is an interesting consideration of what the word “book” means in the digital era and a good case for the continuing relevance of the codex — you know, the kind of book made out of paper, ink and glue. (via ALD)

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The contract with the reader

“A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with — who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog — to read my books.”

Barbara Kingsolver

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What makes Emma Bovary so interesting?

Sometimes in reading at random, weird patterns emerge. The last couple of days I ran across these two quotes, both trashing sacred-cow novelists. In the first, from The Paris Review in 1963, Katherine Anne Porter explains why she detests F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Not only didn’t I like [Fitzgerald’s] writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about, and I still think so. It seems to me that your human beings have to have some kind of meaning. I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives.

The next is from B.R. Myers’ acid review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in The Atlantic:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? … Granted, nonentities are people too, and a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But … whatever is wrong with these people [i.e. the characters in Freedom] does not matter.

I won’t get into the mean-spiritedness of these reviews, except to say that they capture why I could never be a book critic. (I do post book reviews on this blog, but never negative ones. If I can’t recommend a book, I simply don’t mention it.) And I’m not especially interested in the merits of these opinions, either, though Porter’s dismissal of Fitzgerald seems asinine to me. (I haven’t read Freedom.)

But they do raise an interesting question: what makes an insipid character worth writing and reading about? Obviously it is not as simple as “dull characters, dull book,” as Myers’ example of Madame Bovary makes clear. (My choice would have been Mrs. Dalloway). Is it only the skill of the novelist that grants significance to minor lives? Or do the shallow protagonists of successful books share common characteristics — are they shallow in some distinctive, dramatically advantageous way? If it had been Flaubert rather than Franzen writing about ordinary folks in Minnesota, would it have made a difference to readers like B.R. Myers, who evidently feels the whole project was doomed from the start merely by Franzen’s choice of subject?

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The High-Low Problem

The problem [Pauline] Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem — the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.

The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious — as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the ‘deeper’ significance of the product.

— Louis Menand, “Finding It at the Movies,” New York Review of Books, 3/23/95

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