Monthly Archives: May 2011

Wesley Yang – Paper Tigers

I was sent this enormously engaging link yesterday (it’s on the cover of NY magazine!), and the article really made me think and stuck with me even today.  I suppose on one level it’s because I have spent so much time thinking myself about the topics covered in the article–magnet schools and selective admissions, asian writers, “tiger moms”–but also because it’s well-written and thoughtful.

This article is about many things, but one thing it’s particularly about (to me) is the Yang’s struggle with Asian identity.  He, like me, looks Asian, but had an upbringing that didn’t include honorifics, or close familial ties. Culturally, he’s American. It’s difficult to say what he said, and although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to say it, he outdoes me on the first page of the article.  He settles on the word “twinkie,” which I don’t really care for.

And it is, from a writing perspective, a tad self-indulgent.  Of course, this is a big long magazine piece that needs to draw Big Conclusions, but his sopsilisitc excursions into racial speculation are often unwelcome. “If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. ” It also doesn’t work when he considers his own past: “The world brings low such people. It brought me low. I haven’t had health insurance in ten years. I didn’t earn more than $12,000 for eight consecutive years. I went three years in the prime of my adulthood without touching a woman. I did not produce a masterpiece.”

But little aspects like this can be taken care of in editing.  There’s still a lot in this article that resonates with readers like me.  I appreciated the throuroughly depressing part about Eddie Chang who bumped up against the “bamboo ceiling” in both the fields of screenwriting and law.  I also liked the part about the Stuyvesant kid who wants to be a writer and I understand where he’s coming from–where are the Asian male writers? Do second-generation kids want to wait a few more generations before they become artists and culture mavens?

At the very least, with this impressive feature, Yang has put himself into the category of Asian writers that I see as role models.  People I want to emulate.  And that, by itself, is the first step in correcting some of the issues on the cover of New York magazine.

I recently had an opportunity to ask a few questions of Mark Athitakis, writer of the excellent book blog Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes and National Books Critics Circle member.

We talked about Washington DC writers, why he writes on American Fiction Notes, and J. Franz’s take on DC dowdiness:

Who are your favorite DC fiction writers?  Who should I read?

I should say first that I’m a relative newcomer to the DC area (I moved here in 2007), and I don’t claim to be an expert on the city’s literature. But I’ve enjoyed playing catch-up on the city’s writers since I arrived, and there are a few I admired before I showed up: Edward P. Jones, Ward Just, and George Pelecanos in particular. As it happens, Pelecanos edited a 2008 collection, DC Noir 2, that I think would be a fine primer on the city’s fiction for anybody who’s new to it: stories by Jones and Just are in there, as are pieces by Marita Golden, Elizabeth Hand, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. I think you need to live here a while to get past the notion that D.C. is very binary city—federal/civilian, black/white, etc—and DC Noir 2 undoes a lot of that conventional wisdom.
When writing your blog–it’s been around since January 2008–whatwas the first post that got major attention?
I don’t think any post of mine has received what I’d consider “major attention.” Tyler Cowen once linked to a post I wrote about Mormon literature, and that led to my busiest day ever on the blog; Andrew Sullivan linked to something I wrote complaining about lists, and that got some heat as well. But those are really anomalies. The attention my blog has gotten has been more aggregated
over time and less tied to specific posts.
What do you feel your responsibility to your reader is?
It’s no different for me than for any other writer: to be honest and to get the facts right. I’ve bungled facts in public enough in my career that I’m as mindful about it on the blog as I am anywhere else—more mindful, if anything, because I’m not being backstopped by an editor. I realize that there’s a feeling that readers will correct you in the comments, so there’s less of a need to sweat this stuff, but I’m as mortified about errors on my blog as anywhere else.
Who do you write for? What’s the image in your mind of your reader?
I suppose I write for somebody who’s a little like me: Aware of a fair bit of what’s going on in contemporary writing but who wants to know more (and is certainly aware of how much he/she doesn’t know); is college-educated but not particularly enchanted by or interested in literary theory; and is eager to read a variety of perspectives on books. (I assume most of my readers consume other literary blogs, so I’m mindful about not overlapping on their turf too much.) I don’t think people are coming to me for practical reasons, like receiving specific guidance on books to read—there are plenty of blogs that serve that particular niche.
I have no idea if the reader I imagine is anything like the reader I’m getting. I know from my traffic logs that a many people arrive from .edu domains. If I’m in a self-flattering mood, I tell myself that I attract a lot of bright academics in English departments; in my more cynical moments, I figure I’m providing emergency assistance to undergrads crashing their term papers. The truth is probably a mix of both.
I read your notes on Freedom.  What did you think of the Georgetown/Alexandria settings in Freedom?
He’s pretty down on the place, isn’t he? “The pedestrians in every neighborhood all seemed to have taken the same dowdiness pills,” he writes about D.C. So, busted: This isn’t a city full of fashion plates. But I don’t take his criticism too seriously, because D.C. serves a very utilitarian purpose in Freedom: It’s a drab neutral spot to place his discussions about overpopulation and the overcommercialization of art. (You’ll remember that there’s a scene in D.C.’s 9:30 Club where hipsters moo over Conor Oberst, but Franzen has said in an interview that he’s never set foot in the place.)
I don’t think urban areas are Franzen’s strong suit: I’ve never been to the University of Minnesota campus, but I’ve heard people who find his descriptions of the place in the novel lacking. But then, I wouldn’t expect him to celebrate (or even spend much time detailing) cities in the novel, because the place he loves best is the wilderness—the West Virginia forest threatened by mountaintop removal that will destroy those precious cerulean warblers, or the sanctuary that provides the setting for the novel’s closing grace note. The fewer people around the better, Franzen seems to be arguing, which is part of the reason whyFreedom left me with the same mildly disgruntled feeling I get after watching a Lars Von Trier movie: If you don’t like people all that much, why are you interested in telling stories about them?
What was your best ever writing experience?  (I asked this question of Junot Diaz during a talk in college and he said that he went to the New York Public Library main building and wrote for eight hours in the reading room on Christmas Eve.  For example.)
I don’t write fiction, so I don’t really have an experience like Junot Diaz’s to share. But I think I understand the feeling. In a lot of interviews, novelists describe writing as being some variation of a dream state or trance, where the real world slips away and they wholly exist in the imaginary world that they’re creating. (Such proclamations are usually followed by a discussion of the messy real-world business of revising that creation; I guess writing is the high and rewriting is the self-hating hangover.) As a journalist and blogger, I don’t get a dream state to call my own; I’m just sawing planks and hammering them together as best I can. For me, the pleasure I get as a writer usually comes before and after the writing itself. There’s a sort of mental tickle I feel when I’ve identified something I really want to write about, or (more precisely) when I’ve identified a way into something I really want to write about, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from having gotten the thing written as closely as possible to the way in which I’ve imagined it. In between is the writing, which is neither fun nor un-fun, just work—writing and rewriting, adding and pruning, etc, in an effort to hang on to that early sense of excitement and drive toward that final sense of accomplishment. A post I recently wrote on Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief would be a pretty good example of that process—I spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to work my way into that book, but I was happy to have identified what I wanted to say, and I’m happy to have said it.

When I was a child, perusing the children’s section at my local bookstore, I asked my father how many books there are in the world.  He looked at me, paused, considered, and replied I don’t know, I think that’s probably a question that can never be answered.  Well, that prediction was premature and incorrect.  The answer is 128,864,880.

Google Books estimates the number of books in the world.

There are a few caveats.  First, this number is not about the number of “works.”  My edition of Ulysses is different from an earlier edition of Ulysses, every version of a Shakespeare play would be counted differently, etc.  This makes it somewhat less interesting, although certainly a great ballpark figure.  I would guess that the vast majority of volumes are only printed once.  I’m interested in the number of novels, written in any language,  published in any fashion.  Still, that number seems small.  There’s also a possiblity that Google isn’t as good at counting books not written in English. Of course, I have no conception of what 100 million looks like.  But considering there are 7,000,000,000 people in the world, the number is a power of 10 less and not enough to give every person a book.  Here’s my question: can we expect the number of books produced to rise exponentially alongside population growth?

The Google blog post is fascinating.  There’s a lot of library science going into the Google Books project along with the legal and philosophical aspects.  Thier process, in a nutshell, is to combine all the existing ways of cataloging books–library of Congress numbers, ISBNs, WorldCat numbers–and use manpower, computer cycles and some interesting programming to remove the duplicates.  Their current models estimates the number we have here.  On one hand it’s discouraging to add a book to a reading list that’s 100 million and counting.  It’s time to start eating some books.

Came across an interesting article in Prospect Magazine.  In it, Geoff Dyer explains his reasons why he doesn’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing.  It’s not that he’s read it, of course, he hasn’t even read Infinite Jest (which, he concedes, is like evaluating Joyce without reading Ulysses) but the fact that he has difficulty reading it because of a “literary allergy.”

These styles are inextricably bound up with the tics, mannerisms, compulsions and quirks they display between points and games. Now, as a writer DFW is all tics, quirks and obsessive compulsions. These are not decorative additions to his game, his style, they’re absolutely integral to it. Federer’s style is about maximum economy and grace of action. Between games he just sits there. Barely even sweats. DFW, by contrast, is forever picking his shorts out of his arse like Nadal, bouncing the balls as many times as Djokovic, tugging his cap forwards and backwards like Roddick, or twitching like Lleyton Hewitt. He is the least Federer-like writer imaginable.

I disagree with him, of course.  I find Wallace’s writing dense, but likable, as if he was a super-cool-professor-who’s-also-a-friend.  Plus, for those of us who grew up thinking hypertext was text, his frequent use of footnotes is natural and helps with our short attention spans.  But let’s examine his main point for a minute–is it possible to have a “literary allergy?”  What constitutes a literary allergy?  I’ve read lots of things for class that I don’t care for, but does that mean that I have a literary allergy to 15th century morality plays?  Do you have to make a repeated but failing attempt to read the same author?  In that case, I’ve been trying to crack Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners for ages. (But at least unlike Dyer w/r/t DFW, I read Ulysses) Do you need a physical reaction to the writing itself?  Is it good enough if you just feel sick and throw up a little, or do you have to break out in hives?  I think it’s like pollen, for two weeks in the spring there’s no way I can read Barthe, but the season will pass.

Or we can all agree that the concept of “literary allergy” is a foolish one.  There’s so much art, writing, music, etc in the world that it’s a foregone conclusion that there’s something that you’ll miss, whether it’s for reasons of style –a literary allergy–or for reasons of ignorance.

We’re still addressing The Problem here at #textpatois.  I’ve got two links that show where we’re at tonight.

Freakonomics: The author loses out in e-book sales.

According to this interesting post at the Freakonomics glob, it s authors make less money per e-book sale and publishers make more.  They’re using numbers from the Author’s Guild Bullietin, and according to current royalty configurations, the publishers may not be doing swimmingly, but the authors are certainly drowning.  The clip on the Freakonomics website uses three bestsellers to make their point (David Baldacci, yuck!) Stephen Dubner takes the rational economist’s view that many authors can derive unity not simply from not simply from the money but from other aspects of writing.  That point should certainly be addressed, and is a possible explanation for why there is so much unpaid freelance writing/interning.  But perhaps this is a problem the guild should address–if these are standard contract terms, they suck.

Publishers Weekly: E-books poised to overtake mass market paperbacks.

There’s a lot to unpack in this short industry bulletin.  First, the data is flawed–only 85 publishing houses are included in the Association of American Publishers numbers, and those houses don’t include many prolific university presses.  Second, if you read closely, it says that only 16 companies reported numbers for e-book sales.  I don’t know if that means that only those presses are currently selling e-books or whether those presses are proud of their e-book numbers and others aren’t.  The most interesting part of the article says that e-book revenue was higher than adult hardcover or paperback mass market individually.  It’s safe to say that the other 59 presses that didn’t report e-book numbers were selling a lot of adult hardcovers, so we can safely say that e-books aren’t going to pass them soon.  But  the 16 presses that reported e-book numbers also sell the vast majority of mass-market paperbacks, so we can predict a date where the two lines will cross.

Essentially, this is the problem in a nutshell from the numbers game–e-books are selling more, and authors are getting paid less per e-book.  How can find a healthy equilibrium?

If we’re talking about overused and misused cliches, and there’s a top ten list, somewhere after “literally” and “I could care less,” there’s a spot taken by “stop the presses.”  It’s seen in movies, but the last time it happened at the New York Times was over 20 years ago.  Since everyone has a story and personal emotional attachment to the reason for Obama’s speech last night, I’ve heard several different takes on the coverage last night.  The Onion has a simple graphic-and-headline article, which is somewhat restrained compared to their (masterpiece) 9/11 article.  There was a funny/sad typo on Fox News last night.

But my favorite story from last night was the fact that the New York Times literally yelled “stop the presses!

In an age where we learned to turn on the TV through Facebook statuses, I find it richly rewarding that the New York Times understood that the late-breaking speech and development was Important Enough to get right on the printed page.  To be fair, I don’t think they used a large enough headline.   The Times threw away the already-printed papers that had the old front page, and started a new run at 11:55.  I imagine a balding but tough newsman running through a pristine roboticized plant yelling “stop the presses!” at computers.

This relates to The Problem that I outlined before.  The post is here.

I was particularly struck by an editorial written by Monica Klein in this week’s Oberlin Review.  

Rather, my neck-stabbing anger emerged as I read these news organizations’ daily headlines: “Budget Wrongfully Dismisses Unemployment Benefits;” “Congress Refuses Public Sector Wage Increase;” “Middle Class Screwed By Reaganomics:” each populist-fury-inspired headline of outrage had been written, copy-edited and posted online by an unpaid intern.

Last summer, my friend and I worked at Time Out New York and The Huffington Post. Each day, we went into two of New York City’s most liberal news organizations, and for these three months of summer, five days a week, we both worked as unpaid interns.
It goes back to the problem outlined–our words are relatively worthless per word.  Of course, there are superstar journalists making extravagant comfortable livings, but for the most part, writers struggle with getting paid, especially for those just starting out.  It can be argued that this is not a new development–there were writers and dreamers before I was born–but for those currently confronting the economic model for word production, it is a scary prospect.

From an economic prospect, the issue is the the fact that writing labor is valued at something very close to zero.  There are two reasons: the supply is excessive, leading to a depression in prices, or the demand isn’t there.  We’ve in the past addressed the fact that people are possibly reading less and reading for free, but let’s examine the excessive supply component.   C0uld it be that schools like Oberlin, employing the very writing workshops that Klein mentions in the first paragraph, could be producing more writers than the market needs?  Are unpaid internships–and to a lesser extent, unpaid freelance writing–simply a symptom of market forces?

If this is true, and there is an excessive supply of writers, what is the macro-societal solution?  The clear solution is to produce more readers, or at least more demand for the written word.  What’s the way to do that?  Education, perhaps, or decrease prices for written material.  But that terrifies me that it will simply produce more writers as well as readers; a gaggle of novelists writing for no audience but other novelists.

One of my favorite institutions in the world is Google.  Sure, thier terrifyingly complete data collection does leave doubts in my mind, and I do believe that they’re working with both the NSA and the CIA, but I couldn’t live without the services they offer me.  They’re the institution that’s most dramatically hurling us towards “Everything-That-Ever-Was-Available-Forever,” a phrase coined by Patton Oswald that describes the day you can fire up your e-reader/laptop/tablet and, for a nominal fee, download any combination of words, images and sounds that ever was created.  A large part of that is making texts from other languages available, because only a fraction of everything worth reading is written in English, and a slightly larger fraction is ever translated into English.  For the most part, most texts aren’t going to be worth the time, effort and cost to translate into other languages.  But if it was possible to provide a translation that’s free and significantly better than current translating services, then it would be possible to provide this service automatically in the ETEWAF world.

Enter Google.  Using the power of large data sets and the internet, their Google translate is already the industry leader and eons beyond what I used when writing 250 words in Spanish II.  Thier academic team is approaching the most difficult aspect of translation: poetry.  Because every word and line break in poetry is carefully considered, there arise significant issues even in a direct, literal translation.  Do you preserve the form or meaning?   Is it even possible to translate the form? This specific word has a connotation which is significantly different from its denotation.  Which do you use?

Google Machine Translation

What Google seems to have done here is (and take with salt; IAmNotAComputerScientist) is use a system which kills branches on the tree before they can take down the house.  A Google translation starts with a large computer (fittingly) which, like Deep Blue, searches out all the possible translations for any one given word.  In their technical paper, they describe the way that they take a given translated word and cut it out because it wouldn’t work with the meter, saving CPU cycles that would’ve been wasted if that one word had continued to be treated as a possibility.  It seems like it still needs work, but it’s certainly fascinating.  Ultimately, I don’t feel as if it’s a threat to translators at all; it’s just bringing us closer to ETEWAF.

Google Academic Paper on Machine Translation of Poetry