Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘publishing’

Reading is a Technology that is still Changing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

The E-Reader Wars

Okay, fine, that title is a little incendiary. But the wars behind e-readers are varied: libraries getting mad at publishers because publishers limit the number of e-rentals before the libraries have to pay again; price collusion on e-books leading the DoJ to sue five of the Big Six; self-published e-books taking on the traditional publishing industry. Yes, the battles are varied and many, but I want to go back to a topic I discussed a little while back: a new meaning of “ownership.” I read another article on another e-reader war about digital rights management (DRM). The Big Six publishers require that their e-books be sold with DRM protection so that readers cannot make copies of books, and because of DRM requirements, a book you buy for Kindle can only be read on other Kindle devices or apps (or Nook with Nooks and Nook apps, etc.) Many consumers hate DRM because if they decide to switch e-readers, there is no way for them to convert the file to read on another device. However, the issue goes further; non-DRM books can’t be read on Kindles (some can, but relatively few). So, if you have a Kindle, you’re pretty much stuck getting your e-content from Amazon. An “easy” way to circumvent this problem is to get a tablet with multiple e-reader apps, but a Kindle e-book has to stay in the Kindle app, and an iBook has to stay in the iBook library. 

Independent booksellers want to sell e-books without DRM so that no matter the customer’s e-reader/tablet, that customer will be able to buy whatever book he or she likes. Some imprints of major publishers are ceding to this trend and allowing non-DRM content to be sold. Hopefully other publishers will come around and let independent bookstores fight Amazon’s growing market share of e-readers and e-books. 

As a writer, I’m pretty torn about copyright law and piracy. On the one hand, I respect intellectual property and do not want my work stolen without my permission, but I feel that in some ways copyright law is outdated, overly strict, and stifling. When a music label sues a mom for using a song on a YouTube video, that label comes across as out of touch and stingy. I know; I know; the music industry is struggling right now, but the woman didn’t intend to break the law, just add a cute soundtrack to her video. And don’t get me wrong–I’m super against piracy. Unless a friend gave me the song/CD, I’ve bought every song on my iPod and every book on my Kindle. 

I’m just not sure that ruthlessly cracking down on every possibility of copyright infringement is really in the creator’s or the consumer’s best interest. I’m glad that the resources in the creative commons are growing, but we are a long way from recognizing that copyright laws might be getting in their own way. I’m going to go into more on this in my next post, so stay tuned. 

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.

Give Me the Streets of Manhattan

Well, I did another disappearing (and reappearing) act for a number of good reasons but not-so-good excuses–graduation, illness, travel. First and foremost, I neglected updating this blog while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. Yep, that’s right, I am now officially a graduate with a BA in Writing! Actually crossing the finish line was one of the most rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time. While trying to keep sane as the deadline for my 140-page thesis approached, I was busy going to Kansas for Thanksgiving, visiting NYC to celebrate my one-year anniversary with my man friend, and taking exams. Fortunately, I made it through the whole thing in one piece with a couple rather sparkling (if I do say so myself) commendations: Honors Laureate from the John V. Roach Honors College and summa cum laude (I hung in til the bitter end and kept up my 4.0 GPA). Unfortunately, all this hard work led to a severe lack of sleep, which weakened my immune system. The fever and congestion set in early in December, and now I’ve officially had bronchitis for two weeks, though I think possibly longer considering I started coughing three weeks ago. Needless to say, hacking up my lung every two minutes (I have some fabulous back pain from the intense coughing spasms) has prevented me from updating my blog after I walked across the stage. Now that I’m finally getting back with it, I’m writing this post under the influence of codeine cough syrup, which was a last resort from my doctor when he realized I’d been coughing pretty much non-stop in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. So, if this post sounds a little off, write it up to narcotics.

Now that I’ve got a pretty little diploma sitting on my shelf, I have to face the future: getting a job. If you or anyone you know is hiring in the NYC metro area, let me know! I am taking any leads I can find. Facing the new year and facing a new chapter in my life has a nice pathetic fallacy to it, because as 2012 comes to a close, so does the time in my life that I spent at TCU. I’ll miss Fort Worth, my job at the Writing Center, the campus, and most of all my friends, but like most somewhat well-adjusted adults, I realize change is necessary and vital to continuing to grow and flourish. I’m busy updating my website, putting finishing touching on my resume, and writing cover letters.

But apart from filling up the folder titled “Professional Development” on my computer, I’m back to writing again. This writing is actually, well, fun, very much unlike what I was doing towards the end of this past semester. The writing I completed for my thesis (four essay comprised of 20-50 pages each) was done at breakneck speed towards the end, and once I turned it in at the very last minute (technically four minutes past the deadline), I thought I’d never want to write again. I’ve actually told the boyfriend to forcibly hold me down and say, “REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU HATED FINISHING YOUR THESIS?” if I ever say, “You know, maybe I should go get an MFA in Creative Writing.” The reasons for me slowly coming to hate CNF were pretty basic–I’d been working on the damn project for three years and I was tired of looking at it. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I was just trying to eke out the final draft in time to graduate. I wasn’t reading for fun; I wasn’t writing for fun; and most of my time seemed devoted to managing a low level of panic.

The low level of panic abated little by little once I was done, and because of graduation and Christmas, I received an iPad mini (if this were a tech blog, I’d explain my reasoning, but it’s not, so I’m not explicating my thinking process) and some Amazon gift cards. I have my reservations about Amazon, but I’ve already committed to the Kindle format, so I keep with it. I got some new books and sat down with my cozy little iPad by the fire to read. And you know what? I got inspired. Reading In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe actually got my brain gears turning again and churning out the writing without deadlines and without fear of workshop or critique. I wrote seven pages in an hour and have been taking notes in my notebook ever since as the mood strikes me. I won’t have too much time to devote to writing now that I’ve got to hunker down to job stuff, but the relief is overwhelming to know that my honors thesis did not fully turn me away from writing, that I still have a passion for what I love doing most. I have several ideas for essays so far, mostly about things that happened at TCU, because I want to write about my time there before I emotionally close the door on that part of my life. The one I have worked on so far finds loose inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” from which I stole the title line for this blog. I’ll briefly recopy it here:

1
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching
content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the
Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can
walk undisturb’d,
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own ears 
only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O Nature your primal
sanities!
These demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and
rack’d by the war-strife,)
These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart,
While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city,
Day upon day and year upon year O city, walking your streets,
Where you hold me enchain’d a certain time refusing to give me up,
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich’d of soul, you give me forever 
faces;
(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing my cries,
see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.)
2
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets–give me these phantoms incessant and
endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes–give me women–give me comrades and
lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day–let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows–give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching–give me the sound of
the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments–some starting away, flush’d
and reckless,
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks, young, yet very
old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
Give me the shores and wharves heavy-fringed with black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the
torchlight procession!
The dense brigade bound for the war, with high piled military wagons
following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,
Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even
the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

The essay is basically about how I have come to love NYC after having either mistrusted or hated the city most of my life. Here’s a little snippet, now that my brain finally seems to be shutting down from the cough syrup:

“Well, that’s the place to go if you want to be a writer.”

This response, or some variation thereof, is one I often heard when people asked me what my plans were for graduation and I told them somewhat sheepishly that I was going to move to New York City. Like asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up or asking a high-schooler where she will go to college, asking a college graduate what she will do after graduation was the constant question I heard whenever I announced I had just graduated. I was enormously proud of this accomplishment, and with good reason—I had graduated in three and a half with a 4.0 GPA from a private university, which I attended on a full-tuition scholarship, so I kind of enjoyed telling people that I was finally done. I had ample opportunity to brag, because being in your late adolescence means that whenever you meet someone, they will ask you where you go/went to college and what you will do/are doing.

Part of this repetitive, “Oh, yeah, New York is the place for writing” was from people who did know the publishing world or were familiar with the number of famous writers who live(d) in the Big Apple. Because we had already established that I graduated with a BA in writing, my fellow conversationalist would assume I was going there to play the part of the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, idealistic young woman bent on fulfilling her dreams (this is not why, but I let them think that because it sounds so much more romantic than the real reason). With a knowing nod, we moved on to other topics, so I did not have to explain that many of my writing idols (Eula Biss, David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, etc.) had all lived in New York at one point or another, and that their experiences in the city had shaped their writing.

The other group who gave this response came from people who viewed the big city as the only place for anything cultured, erudite, or urbane. This subset of people were my family and friends and acquaintances, who, like me not too long ago, knew little to nothing about New York City and both revered and feared it like some exotic foreign country, totally unfamiliar and strange, full of exciting and dangerous things. I did have to explain that five of the Big Six publishers were located in New York and that many other fields claimed their respective capitals in NYC. As cheesy as it sounded, I would proffer, “Well, it’s one of the literary and cultural capitals of the world,” and their already wide eyes would grow wider at the idea of going to such a wonderful and terrifying place.

I do not wish to sound like I am insulting anyone who views New York City in this way; indeed, I still do in many ways, mostly because I understand that truly being familiar with a place takes years, and even in my hometown I often find myself a mere visitor in the world of upper-middle class white suburbia. In some ways I am still like my friends and family who both revere and fear New York as some sort of mythical Oz where you either reach all your goals or end up in a back alley with your wallet stolen and your throat slit. We view the city this way because of lack of exposure and the aura of mystery that has grown around the Great White Way.

I grew up knowing phrases like “the Great White Way” because I was relatively “cultured,” you could say. My parents took my brother and me to plays, musicals, art exhibitions, museums, symphonies; we all played musical instruments; our house was drowning in books, tables trying to come up for air underneath waves of newspapers and open books clinging to the life vest of a bookmark. I knew the things that cultured, intellectual people are supposed to know, both from exposure and my perfectionist streak that led me to learn history and art and literature in school. I took ballet lessons for almost a decade and played the flute. I read the classics and studied for tests. I grew up in the DFW metroplex, so I went to a big city on a regular basis. I knew more about this kind of life than say, my uncle’s wife, who grew up in Nebraska and didn’t see an escalator until she was nineteen. In short, I knew what city folks know.

But I was also hopelessly Midwestern. My family was fortunate and affluent enough that we got to take regular family vacations, but we almost always travelled west—Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii—and almost rarely east of the Mississippi—Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and rural Kentucky were about as far east as we went. I went to Florida once to visit a friend but without family. My parents distrusted people on the East Coast—my grandmother raised my mother to not like Yankees, and this grandmother was the only grandparent of mine not to live and die in Kansas. There wasn’t much choice but to fit into the Midwestern stereotype: hardworking but not too ambitious, polite but not effusive, kind but not warm, honest but not abrupt, and pragmatic but not blunt.

These values were further instilled by a practical, Methodist worldview, so when I first visited New York City at age fifteen, I, like most of my Texas peers, viewed the big city as a place full of pushy, rude, aggressive North Easterners who neither had manners nor patience. I was also scared—perhaps the New York City of the 1970s and 80s had been popularized so much in movies and TV shows that the rest of the country was unaware that the City had sorted out some of those issues, thank you very much. So when I got off the plane at LaGuardia, I was there for a weekend-long trip with the rest of my high school band. Two hundred of us did sightseeing in one amorphous blob that clogged already full sidewalks and unfortunately undermined our own ability to enjoy the city. During that brief visit, I saw Midtown East, Times Square, Battery Park, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the New York Philharmonic. I hated it. The masses of people were forceful and abrasive; the flashing lights of Times Square and the constant barrage of shouting and honking were overstimulating; and the street peddlers and panhandlers were a bit overwhelming for a sheltered tiny white girl. The only part of Manhattan I actually liked was Central Park, and we only spent a brief hour there before boarding the buses again.

When my parents suggested we go back and see some Broadway shows to celebrate my sixteenth birthday the next year, I politely said thanks but no thanks—I’d had enough of New York for a lifetime. I got my doses of New York through seeing my high school’s production of West Side Story, watching 30 Rock and Thoroughly Modern Millie, flipping through women’s interest magazines, and reading my favorite essayists like the aforementioned Sedaris and Crosley. New York was still a faraway place of fairy tales, which offered both the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, like a forbidden forest. And more intriguing still, all these books and movies and shows had these references that I couldn’t catch, like little jokes that only the insiders got, things like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock saying, “I would go, but I haven’t been above 72nd Street in over a decade” and then pausing to take a drink of scotch for comedic effect or Sloane Crosley complaining about the conundrum of choosing between a taxi or a subway late at night or David Sedaris talking about how much he hates Midtown during the holidays. I chalked my failure to know a sign of my being a good, down-to-earth Midwesterner and not one of those snobby, East Coast types. I excused my knowledge about art and architecture and literature by being a) grossly illiterate in the world of fashion and b) a girl who could saddle and ride a horse, milk a cow or a goat, break ice on the pond for the cows in winter, and feed the chickens. Not getting the punch line for a joke about Astoria or Park Slope wasn’t a defect, necessarily, just indicative that I wasn’t one of those impatient, rude New Yorkers with their gaudy accents. I’d keep my splendid silent sun and corn-fields and quiet places by the woods—you could keep the streets of Manhattan for all I cared.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! See you in 2013!

Finding Solace in Books

I’ll be a little bit confessional here, and I’ll try not to get too self-pitying or melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid. Socially awkward and a bit of a know-it-all, I didn’t really understand my peers, and they didn’t really understand me. Add in anxiety problems, insomnia, and severe depression, and you get a kid who has a really hard time fitting in. I got called ugly, weird, and a whole host of other words about nerdy, geeky kids who don’t really know how to relate or connect to kids of the same age. It didn’t help either that I was still growing into my features, and my growth spurts left me gawky and clumsy. I got along better with adults than I did with most of my classmates and struggled to make friends. I was often pretty lonely and found solace in books. I read the Harry Potter series incessantly and used the books as an escape and calming influence for my anxiety. Without sounding too pathetic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my friends when I felt friendless and alone. When I had episodes of anxiety or insomnia, I would read those books until I calmed down and/or began to finally feel tired. Today, I have small tattoos of the three stars that appear in the upper corners of each page on my shoulder blades as a reminder of how far I’ve come since those elementary school days.

In middle school, I got introduced to cyberbullying, and some of my classmates used instant messaging as a platform to tell me that I dressed badly, I needed to fix my eyebrows, and that I was weird with my obsession with reading, history, and school. I’d get online and half an hour later end up crying in my bedroom because of something some girl said to me. Fortunately, I got older, found a group of friends with whom I fit in pretty well, got some self-confidence, and left the days of being bullied behind me. Sometimes the memories still sting a little, but I lead a relatively happy, productive, normal, and successful life these days, and those memories feel distant and foreign.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Two girls I knew played tricks online: girl A would get girl B to talk badly about girl C online. Girl A would then copy and paste the conversation of what girl B said about girl C, and then girl A would send the conversation to girl C so she could see what girl B said about her. Insane? Yes. And with the advent of myspace and facebook, bullying online is public and 24/7. A family friend of mine who is in high school found out the unfortunate consequences of Facebook bullying. She broke up with her boyfriend over the phone before her mom drove her home from an after school activity. The ex-boyfriend posted a status immediately afterward about their breakup, unfairly accusing her of being mean and heartless. During the drive home, a bunch of friends started posting on the status, saying mean and rude things about my friend, and when she did get online an hour later, she was greeted with over a dozen comments about what a horrible, mean person she was.

Bullying is in the public spotlight now more than ever before after the Columbine shootings and teen suicides as a result of bullying. Various state legislatures have tried to pass legislation against bullying with mixed results, and the battle to fight bullying and its negative effects is raging on. Publishers have joined in the effort with books targeted to help both bullies and the bullied cope. 35% of teens turn to books to cope with bullying. This article (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54458-a-call-to-action-bullying-and-books.html) outlines some of the actions publishers have taken to combat bullying.

As Shannon Maughan explains, many books and resources are available:

There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. 

Check out the article to find examples of publishers like Random House and DK launching campaigns and publishing books to help fight bullying and its negative effects.

I want to highlight here how books serve as a resource for comfort and for education. Bullying has become a national epidemic with 13 million students bullied each year. Books are an escape as well as a tool. My parents, ever supportive and loving, bought books about how to help me to fit in and manage the bullying, and the books I read provided a much-needed escape and outlet for the panic attacks and depression. Books gave our family a way to handle the situation and move forward. Without books, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some of the things that happened. I also was fortunate enough to discover the transformative power of the written word. In the fourth grade, at least when I was fourth grade, students had to learn how to write a two-page paper for the annual standardized. After I turned in my first practice paper, my teacher called me up to her desk, set down my paper, and smiled at me. She told me I had a gift, a special ability, something I should nurture and foster. She showed my papers to other teachers, pointing out my sensory detail and vocabulary. I began to write as an outlet for the difficult emotions I was experiencing, and writing gave me a chance to express everything that was in my head that I couldn’t get out otherwise. The transformative power of the written word had changed me.

I’m so glad that publishers are making a concerted effort to educate, inform, and help both bullies and the bullied. Knowledge is power, as clichéd as that saying is, and the more students, educators, and parents know about bullying and how to cope/handle, the better they will manage the consequences of bullying. Hopefully anyone affected by bullying will find comfort and safety in the written word.

The Demon in the File

I worked as an acquisitions editor for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts (www.1147.tcu.edu), so I had the privilege of reading all the submissions and recommending the picks that would appear in the journal that semester. As a creative writer, I had a pretty okay knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, an ability I used later as an acquisitions assistant at TCU Press (www.prs.tcu.edu). One semester, I read a short story fiction piece about a selkie–a seal that lives in human form. I liked the story, as did my fellow editors, and was curious about what a selkie was and its place in mythology, so I did some googling and found a Wikipedia page about selkies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selkie). The plot line of the short story I was considering was almost identical to that of the movie The Secret of Ronan Inish. Although the plot points weren’t exactly the same, the two were close enough that I knew the writer had stolen the story line from this movie. I informed the editor-in-chief, and we did not select the piece for the journal, as we almost had.

The specter of plagiarism had reared its ugly head. The editor-in-chief and I had half a mind to send an e-mail to the writer warning him or her (I can’t remember the writer’s gender) about the dangers of plagiarism and how had we had reported this piece to the university authorities, he or she would have been promptly placed on academic probation at the very least and at the most expelled. I am not sure if the writer was consciously plagiarizing, accidentally blurring the line between intellectual property and “creativity,” or really had no idea that what he or she was doing was definitely unethicial and possibly illegal. The faculty advisor for the journal had never encountered such an issue, and he was flabbergasted than anyone would so brazenly plagiarize another’s work and submit it to a journal.

I work at the Center for Writing at TCU, and I often work with students who are shocked to find out that they are violating all kinds of rules in their papers when they do not properly cite their sources or even paraphrase. I am not sure where this ignorance comes from, as works cited pages and MLA format are standard fare for high school English research papers, but I occasionally have to put the fear of God (or at least the law/student handbook) into these students to get them to realize that plagiarism is a big big deal. Professional writers do it, sure–but they get severely penalized for it. I had a friend at SMU who wrote papers for other people for a fee; the practice disgusted me, but not my university, not my problem. I find myself saying over and over, “You have to cite your sources; the issue is non-negotiable, unless your professor already knows all your sources from course readings and has no reason for works cited.” I give the spiel about ethos, credibility, and a paper trail for other readers who might be interested in the research, but I emphasize the whole, “this could get you expelled or a whole lot worse” bit. Their eyes widen a little, and they listen a little more intently when I tell them how to cite their sources depending on the style guide.

I bring up the issue because today I read an article that concerned a totally different topic but discussed plagiarism in the publishing industry and the subsequent recalls that result from a publisher realizing, “Oh my dear Lord, we just sent out 50,000 copies of a book that is plagiarized” (full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-to-make-a-book-disappear/262469/). Anyway, Maria Konnikova cites several instances of publishers having to recall books because of plagiarism:

“1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay’s I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after “an absolutely scathing indictment” of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn’t cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason)….More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the “first instance of mass book-burning in the 21stcentury.” In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people’s work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.”

I know I’m incorrectly block quoting here and thus becoming a hypocrite (WordPress is kind of limiting when it comes to formatting), but plagiarism is not a thing of the past–it is a ghost that haunts every writer, every publisher, every student, even if they don’t realize it’s there. I don’t know if we need to have an awareness campaign out there or just plain better education at the high school and collegiate level, but people need to realize it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue.

My next post will probably concern the opposition’s argument about new media, the strangling effects of copyright law on creativity, and the electronic marketplace’s changing of the scene of intellectual property. I agree to some extent, but as a writer myself, if I found someone plagiarizing my work, I would sue that person for all he or she was worth until they paid through the nose for violating my intellectual property, even if that idea/term is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, a post for another day.

The article also discusses how some memoirs have gotten the shaft for not being memoir enough. There has always been a fine, fine line between what is creative non-fiction and what is fabrication. I’ll readily admit that I have manipulated certain parts of my past to better fit a story line, to be more entertaining, to allow me to skip over giving background information and just keep moving along. But creative nonfiction writers have to be wary that at some point, putting too much fiction in the work moves it from memoir to a novel. A Million Little Pieces is famous for this controversy when Oprah took James Frey down a notch when he appeared on her talk show.

It’s not a news flash that not everything that appears in a memoir in completely, one hundred percent true. For one thing, memoirs are subjective, not objective. If you want reality and truth, go for an autobiography that’s more about relaying truth (a debatable idea in our post-modern world) than about entertaining. For another, memoirs are based on memory, and psychologists have proved that our memories are faulty and suggestible. Every time we call up a memory, our brain slightly modifies it and stores it away in the new, revised form. This problem has led many judges to start disallowing eyewitnesses from testifying in court–we just can’t trust their memories to be accurate. For another, memoir makes no attempt to avoid bias. After all, it’s about a story, usually a piece of a person’s life (for example, if I were to write a memoir, it would not go from childhood to now–I’d focus on a specific aspect).

I’m not defending memoirists who fabricate an entire life that never happened or include so much sensationalism that they abandoned the basic outline of the past a long time ago. But let’s cut some memoirists a break–they’re not claiming to give the whole and absolute truth, nothing but. Memoir is an incredibly difficult genre to write well. It’s not hard to write out your life story, but it’s damn hard to make it well written and effective. Many professional writers don’t even attempt it, and I would argue that it’s the most difficult genre to write well. I think the whole reality vs. fabrication is a little more shades of gray than the plagiarism issue. After all, a memoir is a recollection, and a memoirist is a writer first–we concern ourselves with tweaking the truth for a better piece of writing.

I’m not a memoirist; I’m an essayist. However, I do include personal writing in my works, and I’ll be damned if someone cries wolf because I changed a scene to include me cutting tomatoes rather than just sitting at the table during the conversation to add drama. But I’ll also be damned for taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s my own. We should all know better.

The Title Tidal Wave

I am an odd mixture of idealist and cynic. I tend to think the best of people and believe them at face value (read: gullible) except for politicians, corporate executives, and celebrity gossipers. So imagine my surprise and horror at reading “Social Media Scamsters” by Laura Miller (full article can be found here: http://www.salon.com/2012/08/09/social_media_scamsters/). Apparently–and this never occurred to me for some inexplicable reason, authors will hire companies to write fake reviews: “In addition to services that will churn out fake five-star Amazon ‘reader’ reviews for a fee, an author can hire a company to produce his Twitter feed, faking a relationship with his fans (if he has any to begin with) in a medium that once promised a form of direct contact.” I was disillusioned. Why? Because I trust reader reviews and use them as a way to find new books to read. As Laura Miller’s friends agreed together, “‘You always have to read the reader reviews first, before you buy anything…'” Unfortunately, this was my approach, too. I would see a title in a magazine or a bookstore and then look it up online to see what other readers were saying. I don’t necessarily go to traditional reviewers from newspapers, because I’m at the whim of the personal opinions of the reviewer. I went for breadth rather than depth, quantity rather than quality, for my reviews. Browse through the reviews, see what they say, buy or not buy. A fairly simple process. Now I’m not so sure who I can trust.

Part of the problem is that I struggle enough as is just narrowing down the huge flood of books that come out every week. Yes, we always have obvious frontrunners appearing at the big display when we walk into the bookstore (but is based on the actual quality of the book or the size of the marketing budget?), and the New York Times bestseller list can give us a few suggestions. But the sheer volume of publication is staggering–not only do we have the titles from the dozens (if not hundreds) of publishers pouring out on every subject in every style, we also face the river rapids of self-published works. I don’t even know where to turn anymore or where to begin. I walk into a bookstore and feel almost paralyzed by the options. And online retailers are no longer very helpful. Unless you know the exact title and author of the book you’re searching for, online booksellers are fairly useless. For one thing, Amazon sells much more than books, so their welcome page is cluttered with ads for other items based on the cookies that your computer has accumulated. And believe you me, these cookies can be wildly inaccurate. I recently looked up what Google guessed about my interests, gender, and personality based on what I had browsed on the Internet, and apparently I’m a 65-year-old woman who enjoys hip-hop and the urban music scene.

Another problem with these recommendations is that they’re based on subject matter, not style. And Amazon also gives recommendations based just on what you’ve searched, not what you’ve actually bought. For example, I looked up a bunch of Western philosophy books for market research for a book I’m content editing, and now I have a bunch of recommendations for philosophy and metaphysics. Rather than giving me similar titles based on style, syntax, or author, I end up with a list that isn’t tailored to my taste, just my interests. Amazon lacks the sophisticated tools of recommendations in other media: Pandora, the online music radio, has devised a music “genome” so that the music it generates for you is based on over 2,000 focus traits such as syncopation, key, harmonies, etc. Amazon doesn’t provide suggestions based on the underlying features and architecture of the writing, just the superficial traits and characteristics.

Now I can’t even trust reviews. Stephen Leather, a British author, admitted, “‘As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.'” Of course, you can sift through the many reviews from Publishers Weekly an mainstream newspapers, and a simple search of the book title plus “review” can yield some helpful search results.

I was talking to my boyfriend about this problem I have in finding new stuff to read. I feel so overwhelmed by the vast number of titles appearing weekly that I don’t know where to begin. As he has a BFA in film, I asked him why it seems so much easier to find movies you might like over books you might like. First, I mentioned that there’s no one reliable site for books like Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Yes, you can read the NY Times review, but again, that’s only one reviewer. Rotten Tomatoes is the consensus of hundreds or thousands of reviews. Yes, of course, some people could generate false reviews, but the number of people reviewing a movie far outweighs the number of people appearing on forums and reviewing books. You get a better picture of the quality of the movie because you have more input that might drown out the false reviews.

Second, the number of movies that are readily available to the public is much fewer than books. Yes, hundreds of movies come out a year, but the ones that appear in most movie theaters are limited. There’s a smaller selection, whereas books come out in the dozens from large publishers all yelling into the foray, creating white noise where reviews and recommendations once lived. This leads me to my third point that finding a possible movie to watch takes less time than checking out a book. Serious book browsers have to take the time to open the book, read the inside flap, then the first few pages to see if they like the subject and style. This process can take anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes. By contrast, movies come out in clips and trailers that usually last no longer than 2.5 minutes and require less brain activity to process. Also, these trailers are ubiquitous: on YouTube, on TV, in movie theaters. Books don’t receive the same level of advertising.

There are of course some similarities between the two media. Books are often sold based on author, just as movies are advertised based on director and/or the actors featured in the film. Yet, there are relatively few authors who have attained this household-name celebrity status–the first few that come off the top of my head are Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and so on. And these authors primarily write fiction. Try to think of three tremendously popular nonfiction writers. Can’t think of any? Me neither. Instead, books come out in mass quantities by lesser-known or new authors just trying to get a shout into the din.

When I walk into a bookstore or library, I’m at a loss. I don’t know which way to turn. I can trust the recommendation of a friend, check out what books are recommended by the staff, look at the featured titles on the display tables. But how am I going to know which book I will truly enjoy? At this point, I’ve decided that the best method is one of the oldest methods: guess and check. Pick a book up, read a few pages, then make a best estimate based on what I’ve read so far. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what I have. I’m currently hoping for an invitation from the new site Riffle (more info at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52628-could-riffle-be-the-pinterest-of-book-discovery-.html) which seeks to whittle down the amount of people writing reviews for a more streamlined recommendation system. However, the site only admits users on invitation, so for now I’m out of luck.

No matter what method I use, I’m still an avid reader. I’ll never read everything. After all, there’s only so much you can consume. But perhaps it’s the journey of finding great books that makes the trip so worthwhile. You read good books, okay books, mediocre books, bad books until you find one that truly touches your heart and engages your mind. It gets a special place on your bookshelf and/or in your memory, because you have to read a few bad books to appreciate a truly spectacular one.

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