How Not To Write Corporate Communication: An Object Lesson In Obfuscation

So Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman has heard the Twitter-patter on his window of the rain of Facebook subscribers deleting their accounts in droves following an exercise in crappy journalism that it appears that The Consumerist has been backpedaling on for most of the day since I pointed out that they had overblown their reading of the new Facebook Terms of Service. Zuckerman, realizing once again what a fragile and delicate flower his social networking orchid is, has boldly marched forward into the fray and declared with all due gravitas and solemnity what the TOS actually means for a Facebook user.

Except, well, he didn't.

Ed Champion vs. Billy Joel

At the risk of seeming like I link to Ed to much, I want to draw attention to this post in which Ed Champion gets an email from honest-to-God Billy Joel ("Fuck you," says Billy), responds to it, and then (in one of the most entertaining exchanges I've seen in a while) Joel himself shows up in the comments to engage in an enormous flame war.

Billy: "...your inability or your refusal to follow a simple lyric pattern is symptomatic of either a mental disorder or a hearing defect..."

Ed: "...Just be honest, Billy. You did it for the cash. The guy who wrote the sardonic anti-yuppie song “My Life” is gone. (Indeed, you’ve BECOME that yuppie.)..."

Billy: "...THIS IS MY LIFE. This is what I do and who I am, and your ignorant, self-righteous ’sellout’ attack is typical of a dilettante, an amateur, and an abject failure. It was never about “the cash”. You will never know the joy I have known, and you will never accomplish anything in your life until you learn humility the way I have : The hard way..."

Just for the Record


When I said "nice tits" is a compliment, I meant that LITERALLY it's a compliment. I also said that it's harassment. I never said, nor meant to imply, that anyone should feel justified in saying "nice tits" to a 12-year-old. Saying that I said that a 12-year-old should "take it as a compliment" seems a deliberate misrepresentation.

In other (not actually) news, feminists are touchy.

Report from the New York Independent Book Fair Day 2

Yesterday was day 2 of the New York Independent and Small Press Book Fair, much more sparsely attended than the first day, probably because of the snow. The first panel I attended was an agent talking about how to pitch agents, whose tone I found extremely condescending and when she said "Remember the golden rule: show don't tell" I realized I wasn't in 8th grade anymore and left the room. However, later I conferred with my friend Jon who was in attendance and he said "Did you hear the questions being asked at the end? Condescending might have been the right way to go with these people." The second panel that I attended was on self-publishing, which I think was about summed up by from Booksurge (one of only two panelists) who citing some frighting statistics about how 70% of all books published don't earn out their advance and then said "Self publishing is more about a passion about your book than about making money." Fair enough. Of course, you can make money self-publishing, and he cited some counter-examples, but that's not the expected result.

One thing I noticed on both days of the fair was that, judging by the questions being asked, a lot of would-be authors, especially older ones, find themselves increasingly bewildered by the Internet. I feel for these people; Lauren at the publicity panel yesterday talked about how the most effective form of publicity is done online, and that more and more of book coverage is going on online, and the self-publishing panelists talked about how self-publishing didn't really exist before the Internet (which is not strictly true, as James Joyce and Walt Whitman knew, but it's true that there has been an explosion in self-publishing because of the Internet and that the Internet is today the primary distribution method for self-published books). It must be very confusing to people who spent most of their lives without the Internet to try and cast their lot in a world (publishing) in which the Internet is increasingly important.

Then I saw an excellent reading by Aaron Petrovich, whose novel The Session I bought.

Lastly, there was the literary quiz smackdown between the New York Review of Books and A Public Space, which looked something like this:

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In which the much more wizened (read: older) New York Review of Books team won a narrow victory over the spritely A Public Space folks. (A Public Space, if you're wondering, is a pretty excellent literary magazine.) Present at the gathering were some bloggers, who looked something like this:

Flickr link to image
That's (left to right) Sarah Weinman, Ed Champion and Levi Asher, conferring on how they know the answers the contestants don't. The bloggers (myself included) spent most of the time heckling the contestants and at the end Ed officially challenged the winners to a bloggers vs. NYROB match-up. A good time was had by me.

Criticism vs. Reviewing

Back in April, I recommended people read Cynthia Ozick's article "Literary Entrails" in the April edition of Harper's Magazine. In that article Ozick differentiates between "literary critcism" and "reviewing" as two distinct activities. Ozick is not alone in making this distinction; The Reading Experience, for instance, recently pointed out the frequent conflation of the two, calling reviewing a "genre of arts journalism." He even accuses the National Book Critics Circle of "deliberately (dishonestly?) blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism." Yet he doesn't quite give a definition of criticism, or tell us how, exactly, to recognize the one from the other. On our own website I once called New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani a "major critic" and had one of our readers comment "Kakutani is not a major critic -- Kakutani is a major reviewer. There's a big difference." At the time I thought this was a good point, but then the more I thought about it the more confused I became.

Leaving Las Vegas

More to read: Edward Champion has guest blogger Erin O'Brian telling the fascinating true story of the author of Leaving Las Vegas, her brother John O'Brian, who took his own life shortly after selling the film rights to the book.

The Future of Book Reviews?

Critical Mass the blog of the National Book Critics Circle continues its campaign to save newspaper book reviews with coverage and participation in a protest over the elimination of the book review section in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A recent post from them, which I can't help but feel was aimed at least partially at us, says that bloggers and print reviews should all just get along, emphasizing that there are many great blogs out there, and not all reviewers are reactionary coots.

Meanwhile, the New York Times weighs in, writing:

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.

Of course, not everyone is so hot on the idea of blogging as the future, though others think print reviewers have it coming.

In deference to the NBCC I would like to say a few things on the subject of print reviewing versus online reviewing. It has been pointed out that the readership of lit blogs is different than the readership of newspapers. There is truth to this. Lit blogs and online magazines like this one tend to attract a certain kind of techno-savvy bibliophile, the kind of person who both wants to know about every hot new writer and is clued-in enough to be able to find the blogs that will tell her. The vast majority of book readers out there aren't this person, and there are still a lot of people who will just idly flip through the book pages of the New York Times or the Village Voice (or their online versions) just to see if there's anything interesting to keep an eye out for. These people don't want to check their RSS feeds every day to see what Ed is saying, not because Ed isn't interesting but because that's not how they want to spend their time. The vast majority of readers aren't hard-core bibliophiles, nor should they be. In fact, it is very important that we have a book world in which ordinary people will pick up novels in the same way that they'd go to see a movie or sit down to watch a television show. And this is the real reason we need book reviews, because (especially in the near-total absence of publicity) book reviews are how ordinary people find out about most books. And these book reviews can't just be on blogs that are primarily read by bibliophiles, because ordinary people won't read them.

This isn't to say that print is the only answer. Sites like do an excellent job of aggregating reviews of the latest books and, just as importantly, putting them right next to movie and video game reviews as a natural part of the cultural world. (And not suspiciously missing as they are on, say, Technorati and Digg.) It's for this reason that I've often flirted with the idea of expanding Wet Asphalt to include coverage of film and television. Because, as bibliophiles, what we need to be doing is not just talking to other bibliophiles, but reaching out to the rest of the world. And that effort to reach out is also why book review sections in newspapers are so important. Because there are so many people in our culture today who seem to think books, and more-so fiction, and even more-so poetry, are all culturally irrelevant. And that's what this is really about, and what I think most people are missing. What we're witnessing is a shift between prose books as part of a larger cultural conversation to prose books as a niche market beloved by a small number of enthusiasts and ignored by everyone else. (Perplexingly enough, this is practically the opposite of what's happening right now with comics, graphic novels and manga.) This shift is a very bad thing for those of us who care about books, and our every effort needs to be in the direction of shifting things back.

And this is why I support the NBCC's efforts to save book review sections in newspapers, and why you should too.

Round the Web on Friday

Probably the biggest single conversation starter in the Lit Blogosphere right now is the NBCC's blog Critial Mass's campaign to "save book reviewing" in the wake of a number of newspapers getting rid of or shortening drastically their book review sections. Right on, of course, to saving book review sections, but unfortunately what this has resulted in is a lot of NBCC members complaining about technology, which makes them sound like crotchety old people who just don't understand kids these days. And it's not just the Internet that bothers them but, um, television. You kids these days get away from that thing, it'll melt your brain! The TV causes all our problems! I'm old! ARRRR!

Chasing Ray has a a nice round-up and Ed Champion always knows the right things to poke fun at. But then, Ed's been tops on my list ever since he linked to our n+1 article along with a picture of that magazine's editors in such a way as to suggest "Look at these guys. Don't they just LOOK like a bunch of assholes?" Yes, Ed, yes they do.

Also, an article in the New York Review of Books about books about the novel reminds us what criticism looks like. Excellent.

Silliman on Conjunctions

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that when Ron Silliman posts about the new issue of Conjunctions (calling Conjunctions the best literary review in America), his comments fill with backlash about how journals are too long, too obsequent to big names, and that there are simply too many of them. In a follow-up post, Silliman writes, "I found myself sympathizing also with the commentators who bemoaned the difficulty of 'keeping up' with journals in an era of shit distribution, increasing reliance on web publishing & still way too many print magazines." (Let's also point out that they're too expensive.) Silliman then proceeds with a very interesting review of the poetry in the Conjunctions issue in question, including a piece of poetry within a short story by Jonathan Lethem.

Criticism on the Web

One conversation going on right now in the Blogosphere is the function of book reviews on the Internet, as per this round-up by Critical Mass. Lev Grossman, critic for Time Magazine, seems to dislike "amateur" book reviews, though he's not explicitly talking about the web, but rather, about non-book-critics writing book reviews in print. Anyway the thread was picked up by blogizens, like Chekov's Mistress, who defends a certain type of "non-critical" book review.

Frankly, I'm not well read enough to be a critic and am quite content not to be (and who, like Art Winslow, can fill reams of notebooks on a book for a review). What's more, I only write about books that I like because - here's a professional differentiation - I don't have time, short of getting paid for it, to finish a book I don't like - and a likeworthy book is not the same as a review-worthy book.

I, however, am more likely to agree with The Reading Experience, who writes:

if I am going to review the book myself (on this blog or elsewhere), I am also interested in fostering a critical discussion of sorts by putting my own analysis/interpretation in the context created by the already existing commentary on the book. ... it seems to me that book reviews, periodical essays, and weblog posts might aspire to more than just the conventional thumbs up/thumbs down, read it/don't read it sort of review and attempt to fill up the critical vacuum left by the withdrawal of academic criticism from the practice of what seems to most people to be actual literary criticism.

"Critical vacuum" being the operative word; Reading Experience is arguing that blogging can compensate for a perceived lack in academic criticism. I would argue that the lack is in the rigor of reviewing practiced by most of today's mainstream reviewers, and further the marginalizing of serious reviewing in organs like the New York Times Book Review. That's the great thing about the web: you can make it into whatever you want. And what I want is intelligent criticism and literary discussion. Anybody else?