Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for January, 2013

The More Things Change

In my AP classes in high school, my teachers would prep students for the essay questions we might come across on test day. Fortunately, the College Board had set particular categories for each exam (e.g., in my English Language course, we had to prepare for an ADQ essay–Agree/Disagree/Qualify on any given subject based on primary and secondary sources). In World History and European History, I distinctly remember the category of “Change Over Time.” Basically we had to write what changed in a certain area over a certain time period and what stayed the same. In European History, that was pretty easy: the middle class is always rising. In World History, many students felt like being clever and would say that the only constant was change. The answer, though smart aleck-y, was often correct, though that’s not what the College Board was looking for. (I vaguely remember writing an essay about the change of China’s independence and loss of self-determination in the nineteenth century.) Although my classmates and I often whined and complained about having to write another CoT essay, in truth, we are quite adept at looking back at events and finding patterns. Oh and don’t worry, folks, I fully plan on writing a rant against teaching essay writing to the test. The challenge of the AP CoT essay was fairly simple, but when we turn it inwards, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. Looking at ourselves poses a deeper set of issues than studying a series of facts for a standardized test.

The Only Constant Is…

I’m reminded of a quote by Nelson Mandela that I have on my Facebook page under “Favorite Quotations”: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” I chose that quote as one of my favorites because at the time I was feeling nostalgic, so I kept going back to old sites from my childhood. Indeed, my middle school baseball field remained unchanged, and the park where I first held hands with my first boyfriend had stayed the same. But in many ways these places were unrecognizable to me, because, of course, I had grown up and left behind the teenage girl who lived those moments. I was now viewing them from the lenses of a young woman, merely looking back on the reminisces of a 13-year-old girl.

I think I might have chosen creative nonfiction because I’m introspective and have an unfortunate tendency to navel gaze. I’m always looking inward, analyzing my thoughts and feelings, and I’m always looking back, picking apart the past for clues as to what went wrong (or right, as it were). But I think most people are fairly skilled at looking back and realizing how they’ve changed. We all chuckle a little at the follies of middle school or shake our heads at the dramatic events of high school. We can easily see how much we’ve changed from age 10 to 20 or age 30 to 40. But we are spectacularly bad at realizing how much we will change. I came across an article in the New York Times that gave some scientific insight to what I had already surmised might be true: Although right now I can tell how much I’ve changed in the past ten years, I will more than likely make an inaccurate prediction of how I will be in another ten years.

I think this article is another one of those instances where science attempts to give a logical explanation for something many people already assumed to be true. For example, the field of evolutionary psychology has provided scientific explanations for attractiveness in the case of the hour-glass figure in women and the square jaw, broad shoulders in men. I wouldn’t have thought much about the article except that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the process of reflecting. Partially this reflection comes from a desire to “sort myself out” before moving to New York, and partially this reflection merely comes from the time of year. New year, new beginnings, new life.

Reflections

One of my favorite paintings is The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de la Tour. To view a couple versions, click here and here. I’m not a Biblical scholar, and I abandoned my art history major long ago, so the reason I’m attracted to this painting has nothing to do with religious symbolism or la Tour’s skill with indirect lighting. It’s about the look on her face as she stares into the mirror, skull in her lap or on the table, dark and lustrous hair falling down her back. She is beautiful; she is pensive; she is contemplative. There are many versions of the Penitent Magdalene in artwork, much like the Pietà or the Madonna, but the versions that draw me in are the ones where Mary Magdalene stares not upwards at the heavens but downwards in the mirror, where she realizes that the answers to her salvation come not only from above, but from purging herself of the demons (figurative) within.

I connected this painting’s theme of reflection to one of my favorite poems, “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

I’m not going to go into a literary analysis of Plath’s poem. I did a project on it in the ninth grade, and that was enough for me in terms of academic study. The reason I’m going on and on about reflections is that I recently came across an article about New Year’s Resolutions for the publishing industry. I’ve often told people that publishing isn’t dying, merely going under a transformative process and a series of growing pains. The best way, in my opinion, for it to survive and flourish is to do some serious reflection. Jeremy Greenfield gives some succinct advice on some of the more pressing problems in publishing today: the cost of e-books, librarians versus publishers, intellectual property, etc.

Resolutions

I haven’t yet written about how antiquated and ridiculous copyright laws are (I fully intend to once I’ve done some more research), but I have gotten a bit into new meanings of ownership in the digital era. This whole issue of ownership with digital media has become a problem between librarians and publishers. Unlike print books, where you pay a one-time flat fee for the book and loan it out as much as possible after that, e-books are problematic to publishers, who haven’t taken a fancy to digital borrowing. I suppose the objection is that multiple people can borrow a digital copy at once, although this solution is easily remedied with appropriate software and a simple user interface that only allows one person at a time to check out an e-book. Publishers, to offset this potential loss, want libraries to pay fees after a certain number of loans in order to continue to loan it out via e-books. Libraries are, understandably, a bit annoyed, especially as their budgets shrink and their patrons disappear. Greenfield argues that librarians should focus on bigger fish for the time being. He recommends letting the publishers come around in their own time while librarians move their focus on more worthwhile issues. (He doesn’t name which issues, so whatever.)

I could comment on his other recommendations to publishers, agents, and writers, but the only other thing I wanted to fully discuss is his recommendation to readers about complaints concerning the prices of e-books. Many people do not understand why a digital file should cost $14.99, and Greenfield explains the value of a book, no matter the format. However, I tend to favor a more practical approach in defending the cost of an e-book. In a course I took last semester, a classmate complained of the cost of e-textbooks. I’d recently read an article about how some universities are pairing with publishers to cut the costs, so I explained to my fellow classmate that the cost of producing a book is much more than printing costs. The cost of the ink and binding and paper is only one aspect of publishing: paying the sales team, acquisitions team, editors, copyeditors, typesetters, and overhead costs; royalties to the author; marketing, including advanced reader copies and travel expenses for book signings and appearances; the list goes on. Plus, converting a book into a digital file has its own set of inherent costs.

The long road of traditional publishing is an expensive one; it’s no wonder many writers are turning to self-publishing. The costs of hiring a freelance copyeditor, a freelance book artist, and some fees are minimal compared to keeping (almost) all of your own profits. As the new year begins to unfold, it’s time for everyone in publishing (from writers to readers to agents to editors) to look in the mirror and reflect on both the goals of our individual parts and the sum of the whole. After all, change is the only constant, and only with collective group effort will we manage to remain successful.

A Tiny Corner of the World

One of the unintended benefits of unemployment following graduation is that I have an abundant amount of free time and no alarm set for the morning. Apart from applying to jobs left, right, and center, I’m also trying to publicize this blog more and update it more frequently. I’ve now linked my accounts to my Facebook and to my Twitter (follow me! @rachelkspurrier). Consequently, I’m trolling for subject matter. I’m looking a little closer at my PW Daily e-mails than I used to, unlike in college when I would check my e-mail on my way to class, skim through the updates, and forget all about the headlines once the professor began talking. Fortunately, learning more about the publishing industry is only a good thing when you’re trying to break into the business, but I usually look more at the Roundup Section with articles from across the Internet (by the way, the PW Daily e-mail is delightfully free, so you can sign up and get the latest industry news without paying the high subscription price).

I found an article about a writer’s New Year’s resolution to read fewer books, and before I dive in on my thoughts, I’d like to inclue a brief excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. An excellent crossover book that is semi-autobiographical, Alexie’s book provides some nice little truth bombs throughout the text. The following is one, where the main character is talking to his new friend Gordy at his new high school:

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

“Look at all these books,” he said.

“There aren’t that many.” It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

“There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here,” Gordy said. “I know that because I counted them.”

“Okay, now you’re officially a freak,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a small library. It’s a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.”

“What’s your point?”

“The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.”

Wow. That was a huge idea. 

I immediately thought of this little snippet while reading Michael Bourne’s article, because his New Year’s Resolution is to read fewer books. He writes that he has read 776 books in the past twelve years, at an average of 60 books per year. I’m not a math genius, so I hadn’t really put the pieces together like that. In the past twelve years, I’ve probably read at least ten books a year, give or take (I’ve read fewer in the past few years, a byproduct of working and going to school). That’s only 120 books out of the hundreds of thousands of titles that have come out in the past decade. I’ve already written about the sheer vastness of the writing world, but I’d never really realized how minuscule the number of books I’ve read compares to the number of books published. Apart from being humbling, that realization both motivates me and exhausts me. Of course reading that article made me think of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and experience, but mostly the realization of how little I’ve read is daunting. Yes, I want to read more and more often, but if my goal is to read everything, then I’ll never catch up. Covering the whole scope of everything written each year on top of everything that’s ever been published would be impossible, of course. And I have no intention of trying. Obviously not every book on the shelves is suited to my tastes or interests, and a good number of them get picked off the pile simply for literary quality or lack thereof (Danielle Steele, anyone?)

But I’ve still got to make the effort to read more. My little corner of the world of DFW has exposed me to literature, culture, the arts, but books are a whole other avenue for world exploration. Mr. Bourne has many more titles under his belt and much more literary experience (not to mention life experience), so I think he’s earned the right to pressure himself a little less on reading a book a week. He mentioned he’s the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, so he probably could use a break. But as for me, I’m young, unmarried, childless, unencumbered by a strict schedule or responsibilities. I should be reading more, but I’m not. I guess I’m doing better than the average American; according to a Washington Post article, 25% of Americans did not read one book in 2006. Yet, as a writer and a lover of literature, I should probably be putting in a little more initiative to read more often. Perhaps the fact that I just found out the full series of The West Wing is now on Netflix instant watch is preventing me from putting more of my energy into book reading. Yes, instant watch is one of my greatest downfalls: for Lent last year, I chose to cut out instant watch. I saved a ridiculous amount of time, but I quickly returned to my bad habit after Easter.

Just like Lent is a time for reevaluating life choices, New Year’s is another opportunity to reflect and resolve to do better. My New Year’s resolutions are fairly basic: be kinder to everyone, smile more often, exercise more frequently, be more organized, get a job, etc. Standard stuff, really. But I should add on the list to read more books. Until I’ve reached Bourne’s 776 count, I’m still a literary novice and a writing rube. I will note, however, that Bourne admits himself that his need to make lists of all the books he’d read was a tad bit obsessive. I assume that he, like me, has a type-A personality, so I’ll try to avoid the pitfalls of my perfectionism and just go with the flow on which books I read. And I need to set a realistic goal. When I was trying to finish up my thesis, I made the decision to write three pages a day, which was a lot less terrifying than writing ten a day for three days. I finished with more ease and less stress, and I think this whole book goal should be the same. Instead of viewing it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to hunker down with a good book with a mug of hot chocolate and get immersed in new knowledge and new worlds.

Why Should I Care?

We’ve all seen them, a side effect of the current demand for memoirs. We see them in bookstores, at airports, online. They’re ubiquitous–the celebrity memoir. I can’t look down my nose at all celebrity memoirs, because I own a couple and have really enjoyed them. I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and laughed in an unladylike manner on a flight to LaGuardia. I recently received Miranda Hart’s Is It Just Me? for Christmas (for those of you who aren’t big fans of BBC sitcoms, Miranda Hart is a British comedienne famous for her wildly popular show Miranda), and I’m loving the quirky British humor. So no, I’m not immune to the allure of the celebrity memoir, but Miranda Hart and Tina Fey are truly talented actors with basic writing abilities, unlike some of the other ghostwritten memoirs currently clogging bookshelves.

The Lena Dunham Effect

I wasn’t planning on writing a post about the popularity of the celebrity memoir (from here on out, I’m calling it the CM because I’m tired of typing that out over and over), but I came across this article on my PW Daily e-mail about Lena Dunham being upset over Gawker publishing and mocking her book proposal, which was purchased by Random House for upwards of $3.5 million dollars. Although I didn’t have a chance to read the whole proposal because Gawker had taken down most of the proposal apart from choice excerpts by the time I read it, I did skim through the comments section and found the usual mixture of admiration and anger. Quick disclaimer: I have no feelings one way or the other about Lena Dunham. I saw her on The Colbert Report, but I’ve never watched her show, so I have no idea if she really is the voice of my generation. From what snippets I read completely out of context, I was unimpressed with her writing, but I have no room to judge considering that I don’t have my own TV show on HBO. If I were workshopping those snippets, I’d pretty much tell her that it’s been done, and her writing sounds more like what I wrote during my angsty phase at eighteen than anything I’d expect from a mature, experienced writer. The book is intended to be advice for girls, but her upbringing was so vastly different from my own–my parents are definitely not NYC artists and I didn’t go to a tiny liberal arts school–that I don’t think I’d glean anything useful or relevant. I’m getting off topic, my apologies. I suppose people will assume, “Haters gonna hate” and that I’m jealous. I’m really not. I have no desire to be famous; mostly I just want to be able to pay my bills with a little left over for savings and shoes.

The Surprising Bristol Palin Pull

The visceral reaction from many readers on the comments section got me wondering not about our fascination with celebrity (yawn) but instead about why Bristol Palin actually got a memoir as did Justin Bieber. Bristol Palin is famous because of her mother, and Justin Bieber is a talentless tween heartthrob, but hey, they sold. And that’s what I wanted to tell those enraged commenters: Lena Dunham got her millions from Random House because the publisher expects good sales from such a well-known figure. I’ve already written about how the marketability of an author is one of the biggest factors in the acquisitions process, and I have to reiterate that lesson here. Although a writer might be the next Ernest Hemingway, unless a publisher anticipates strong sales because of that writer’s brand recognition, that writer will have a hard time getting a deal. He or she must demonstrably prove that this book is different from/better than other books in the same market and that he or she already has a strong media presence. I want to ask these books, “Why should I care what you have to say?” But I already know the answer. Perhaps I don’t care personally, but we as a society care about what celebrities have to say. The proof is easy to find: celebrity gossip blogs and magazines, blockbuster movies, etc.

All About the Money 

So yes, I understand cognitively Lena Dunham’s deal, even if I’m not a fan of her show. I get why celebrities get book deals while other writers are left to desiccate quietly in a desert of lameness. But what bothers me more is the fact that we as an audience and a public are willing to buy these books. The writing often isn’t engaging or well done; the subject matter is often self-indulgent and navel-gazing; and the intellectual rigor of reading such books is minimal. It’s the literary equivalent of eating candy or watching Say Yes to the Dress. My grandmother’s house used to have this vintage 1970s wallpaper (original) that had all sorts of old-school jokes written on it. One that comes to mind is, “Western civilization? It’s a good idea.” I’d like to say that the biggest symbols of our cultural demise are reality TV, beauty as self-esteem, and Congress’ complete inability to act, but really I think one of the greatest signs of our cultural downfall is the lack of great writing in the marketplace. Yes, there are still some literary giants out there, but the real moneymakers are books like the 50 Shades of Grey series (ew) and Twilight (do not even get me started).

So yes, I’d very much like to smack down any publisher who gives an exorbitant amount of money to an author for a CM deal, but they’re just giving the public what we want: an easy read with a recognizable name. We read what we know and can depend on. We like the familiar–a well-known name, an established author, a familiar topic. I’ll be honest, I’d rather spend an afternoon curled up with a book by Tim Gunn than wading through The Sound and the Fury, so perhaps I have no room to argue with the state of pop books. The dichotomy and discussion of high brow/low brow literature is an old one, and in truth, I’m more interested in how long this publishing trend will last.

I’m fairly certain I’ve already discussed the popularity of the CM, but here I’m wanting to address that it’s not about the writing; it’s not about the book. It’s about what appeals to the lowest common denominator, what will yield the biggest profit. None of us can argue with the bottom line.

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