Round Up


There's been a lot of talk about the Kindle device in the lit-blogosphere and outside of it. I have one major and one minor reaction to the Kindle. The major: it's too expensive. The minor: I'm tired of proprietary book formats with stupid DRM. I used to use my Palm Pilot to read books, which I would buy from the Palm store, books that were in the Palm-only proprietary format. However, I no longer have a Palm Pilot. But, okay you say, I can at least read Palm format books on my computer with Palm's software (unlike the Kindle format) and maybe I should just get another Palm Pilot anyway since they're only $150 at the cheapest which is a hell of a lot cheaper than the Kindle. But the Palm DRM requires me to use the credit card number of the card I bought the books with to unlock them to read. And I haven't had that credit card in years. So all those books I paid good money for are useless. Since then I've vowed to only pay for books I'll still be able to read in the future; otherwise, I might as well just go to the library and get books for free.

The Kindle's main advance seems to be the ability to download ebooks directly from the Internet; but I never minded so much transferring books from my computer to my Palm. That was easy. What I want is a cheap device (say $150 or less--the price of the lowest-priced iPod or Palm Pilot), I want books in DRM-free PDF format, and I want the books to be substantially cheaper than paper books because the company doesn't have to pay for printing. Give me that and I'll happily buy your device.

Also, it would help if you didn't make it look like crap. The Kindle thing is ugly as sin.

Round Up

Can Radiohead's experiment work for books too? I like any idea that involves selling directly to the public without middlemen, who, especially in the world of publishing, seem increasingly not to get it. ("It" being how to sell books.) Of course, these days writers have to do most of their own publicity anyway, which raises the question of what a publisher actually does for a writer that's so great, besides bestowing the imprimatur of "publication" and hopefully getting their books into Barnes and Noble. But, of course, Radiohead has the privilege of already being quite popular, and therefore have a "platform" (to use publishing parlance) of people to sell to. Can someone with nothing but sheer talent and ability sell a creative work on the Internet and be successful at it?

Similar questions are brought up in Michael Moorcock's fascinating analysis of how we got here, a run-down of the publishing business since 1960 (or so) which raises questions about how to get good books out to people in a world of generic best-sellers and huge, conglomerate bookstores. (via Warren Ellis)

On a completely different note, here's some French humor at the expense of Michel Houellebecq.

This is fucking weird. (also via Warren Ellis)

Curious about Creative Commons? Here's some information about how to use it.

This looks like a good book.

So does this, a collection by the excellent Jim Shepard which includes the story "Sans Farine" which I recommended when I read it in Harpers, and was since anthologized in The Year's Best Short Fiction.

And finally, Ed gives a thumbs down to the new book about book blogs.

Friday Round-Up

There's a fascinating article at The Arts Fuse about critic Edmund Wilson, which posits Wilson as the ideal blogger:

Yet during the past decade opinionated writing about literature has grown over the Internet, from online ’zines to the ever-expanding blogosphere, where criticism takes various forms, from the sedate to the sensational. And this transformation in the cultural conversation makes Wilson’s expansive approach to his conception of the critic look prophetic. From his tell-all journals to his headstrong urge to write, along with criticism, cultural reporting, revisionist history, and social commentary, no other no other American critic in the 20th-century looks as congenial to 21st-century blogging than Edmund Wilson. Like any worthwhile blogger, he is nothing if not intensely personal. Dabney reports Isaiah Berlin’s admiring belief that his friend Wilson brought “his whole self to every word he wrote.”

The two parts can be read independently, but the first part of the same article has a lot of interesting stuff about the contrast between Wilson's prudishness as a reviewer and the hairy sex life he documented in great detail in his journals.

Some excellent writing on Stanislaw Lem, "It's hard to imagine such contemporary authors as Paul Auster, Steve Erickson, and Haruki Murakami creating their art without Lem to point the way." Also, if you've never read Bruce Sterling's take on Lem, it helps put him in context.

n+1: still crappy. I know I should give this up already, but I can't help myself.

A really excellent short short by David B Dale. The short short is so ubiquitous these days(especially on the Internet) but rarely done well, so it's nice to see someone get it right. Go read, it won't take long.

GalleyCat reports on some griping within the publishing industry which then results in mixed bag of responses. "I can tell you that my occupation does not have a bright future and working in publishing is not for the sane... I love books, but I have to say most people in America do not." One response? "TAKE YOUR WHINING ASS HOME AND START LOOKING FOR A NEW JOB."

I'd say I'd agree that merit-based publishing is a myth, but this article is far too self-aggrandizing for sympathy:

What has been interesting about the reception, now that The Child has been published, is that I have not received a single bad review. In fact, most of the reviews are ecstatic, the kind of appreciation that makes one blush. But not a single mainstream magazine or newspaper has reviewed the novel. Only the gay press and gay people writing for alternative media like the LA Weekly have acknowledged the existence of the book, and they have done so rhapsodically.

It's quite strange to live as two such different people at the same time every day. On one hand, I am someone who is creating literature that is needed, wanted, praised, and often adored by people whose representation is usually stopped by the kinds of obstacles I managed to overcome through sheer will. On the other hand, I don't exist.

I'm super awesome and I don't get the respect I deserve because THE MAN is keeping me down! WAAAH!

This is frustrating, because I know that my books have a great deal to offer that is just as valuable, or more so, than work that can access the machinery of support. I just have to hope that this horrible moment is a cyclical one, and with the forthcoming change of administration, there will also be an emotional/psychological change on the part of the gatekeepers of the culture, who will open the doors just a little bit wider, so that we can at least get back to where we were 15 years ago. And finally move forward from there.

Yeah, I really hope that the Republicans lose the White House so that your gay book will get a spread in Newsweek. Because that's why this election is important. That's what it's all about.

On a completely different note, a little late for Halloween, but here's a whole lot of stories by HP Lovecraft. Not enough for you? Here's a a motherlode of other free online writing. Don't say I never did nothing for ya.

Fiction Magazines of the Future

Daniel Green recently responded to Ed Champion's musings on what fiction magazines should be like. He writes:

...its hard to argue that with the proliferation of literary magazines, now abetted by the constant appearance of new literary journals online, that there isn't enough short fiction published in this country. Indeed, most of what is published in the existing journals goes largely unread.

True enough, certainly. But,

Publishing magazines "exclusively devoted to fiction" that "the public will buy," as futile as this enterprise would surely turn out to be, could only mean to dumb down the current tenor of literary magazines, to publish more conventional, more "accessible" fiction. I can't see what purpose this would serve. Such fiction would not be "better" for its readers than Desperate Housewives. It would identify fiction as just another entertainment option, a way to pass some time while easing up on the electricity bill. You are not better off reading a bland and undemanding short story than you are watching a bland and undemanding tv show. If just weaning a few people away from visual entertainment back to print is the goal, forget it. Not enough people will convert to make the effort worthwhile.

This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what Ed was trying to say, and moreover it continues the assumption that for something to be accessible to general public it must be dumb or bland, a notion that I've objected to many times. We know that there's intelligent, interesting work that is widely loved; why point to Desperate Housewives when you can point to Lost or Deadwood? Just because something's entertaining doesn't at all mean it's bland and undemanding, and the notion that for something to be of high quality it must somehow not entertain is crazy. However, Green then writes,

What is needed is not more short story publications "exclusively devoted to fiction" that appeal more widely but fewer publications devoted exclusively to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) and more that appeal to the discerning audience for serious fiction that actually exists. What is needed is for editors of literary magazines, both established and up-and-coming, to not just publish fiction shorn of all context and mixed together in an otherwise indigestible stew but to indicate, both through editorial commentary and consistent editorial choices, what they think is important about the fiction they publish. Why have they selected it? What larger vision of the possibilities of short fiction does the selection illustrate? In my opinion, the "miscellany" approach practiced by most literary magazines--by which the "best fiction available" is printed, with little or no indication of what makes it the "best"--makes all too many of them useless; I can only make my way through a few of them, trying to find the "best" in a scattershot fashion, before I put them aside and conclude it just isn't worth my time (and sometimes money) to prospect for fiction in this way.

Which is absolutely right on, and the idea of publishing fiction, criticism and commentary with a very particular context and aesthetic was the guiding idea for this site. It makes me wonder, should we be talking more about what we publish and why we publish it? We've been fortunate enough to publish some pretty great stuff, and maybe we should do more to tell you why, what criteria exactly we're using to judge it.

In fact, one of the things I like about sf magazines and anthologies over literary ones is that they tend to have more of the editor and the author talking about their work, a few paragraphs before or after to help draw you in or give you context. It's also something I like about One Story's interviews with their own authors that give you some background. My fear is that people are seeing the fiction and poetry on this site and ignoring it, even if they like reading the commentary. And, let me tell you, most of the time on this site, the fiction and poetry is where it's at. This is partially because the commentary is mostly written by me, and the fiction and poetry is written by other people, and so I have some critical and editorial distance.

How to Save Fiction Magazines

Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:

i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.

These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.

Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?

He adds later:

But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.

Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in

I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.


If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.

Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?

Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.

Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...

Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.

Friday Round-Up

Actual honest-to-God content coming next week, but for now:

The Art-vs-Entertainment debate has riled up the comic book world too. Do art comics also suffer from the tyranny of realism?

Is Ayn Rand the most influential writer of the 20th century? That might explain everything. Also, Maud Newton's summary of The Fountainhead in that link neglects to include the tidbit that the lead character rapes the lead female, who loves every minute of it and becomes his girl.

Neil Gaimen on fairy tales for adults (via Bookslut)

What's wrong with short stories? Should we go back to the hoary days of radio drama?

The Future Issue of Forbes magazine has some interesting fiction, including work by Cory Doctorow and Warren Ellis.

Black Garterbelt responds to the "quirk" in contemporary fiction issue

Has short fiction died because of a "triumph of competence"?

Reviewing Robert Hass on criticism

I can has TS Eliot? What if the Wasteland was written by LOLCaters...

Scott Esposito on everybody's favorite critic

And finally, Nabokov on character in fiction


Friday Round-Up

James Wood, I think, is in his element talking about Philip Roth

Ed Champion muses about NIN and Radiohead going label-less. I wonder if the publisher-free model will be adopted by any big-name authors. What if Stephen King decided he didn't need a publisher anymore? In this day and age, does he need a publisher anymore?

One Story has a Save the Short Story project.

Realism in fiction without "psychological realism"

Samual R. Delany on writing:

Delany talks about the fact of being constantly being assailed by doubts as the fundamental engine of good writing, the only chance at excellence -- "you must write to project yourself, again and again, through the annealing moment which provides the negentropic organization which makes a few texts privileged tools of perception" -- and as being, if you respond to them immediately, energizing.

Whatever that means.

Tristram Shandy rules

Are we drowning in quirk? Is it all Brooklyn's fault?

The role of the book in Chinese Communist propaganda posters. "To Read Too Many Books is Harmful" --Mao Zedong

For the last time, the novel is not dead

And finally, what everyone is talking about: an honest-to-God Science Fiction writer has won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

Some Notes and Corrections on the Short Story

In looking again at the article I wrote on the nature of the short story, I realize perhaps I was a little too hard on the NBCC piece I was criticising. I think I was just so taken aback by the very narrow definition of "art" and the glib manner of dismissing old short stories as "not art" that it was difficult for me to be fair.

The thing is, film and television did change the short story. Yes, Joyce's Dubliners was part of a continuum of naturalism that reached back well into the 19th century and represented what short fiction would become, but its dominance was not an inevitability simply because modernism and realism were the new fashions. Indeed, while those things have dominated literary fiction in novels, they did not dominate novels completely, as any glance at the New York Times best-seller list, replete with its Stephen Kings and Harry Potters will tell you. Nor did it even dominate short-stories completely (only mostly), since work has continued to be done in the genre ghettos and published in places like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Asimov's Science Fiction.

When the short story was created in the nineteenth century, it was the right form at the right time. Literacy had expanded to unprecedented proportions in the West, and industrialism had created the means for many more publications to exist than before. In other words, there was a public who would desire written stories, and there was an environment that could produce lots of magazines and newspapers happy to give it to them. The short story exploded, coming to the height of its popularity around the turn of the 20th century when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells walked the Earth. The short story was something people could read over coffee in the morning, or with a beer after they got off work and wound down, a quick hit of story, here and then gone.

As film became popular, it's true the the popularity of the short story began to fall off, and when television came around the short stories' narrative hold on the public was thoroughly broken. They no longer needed short fiction to get quick doses of entertainment. Once a lucrative career, short fiction became more and more difficult to make a living at, and the kind of people who really wanted to make a living entertaining people with stories started writing television and movies, which quickly became very lucrative indeed. The only people left to write short fiction were the people who really loved the form, or sought to use it as a stepping stone to success writing novels. Without the audience, publications stopped publishing short fiction, except for a few hold-outs like the New Yorker, Harpers or Playboy and some few genre magazines whose pay rates are ludicrously low. The form was really kept alive by literary journals and universities, exactly the kind of places which preferred Joycean Modernism, and that is the real reason why Joycean Modernism came to be the dominant style in short fiction.

Which is to say that the essay at the NBCC on the history of the short story isn't wrong, exactly, it's merely wrong-headed. And I think that with the rise of the Internet, with people reading off of screens all the time anyway, perhaps it's possible that the short story could make a quiet comeback. The trick would be to have short stories compelling enough to tear people away from Wikipedia or MySpace. Maybe they could read them over coffee in the morning, or a beer after work...