Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoughts on poetry

Following the recent announcements regarding this year's Pulitzer winners, the Guardian wrote up a piece about the poetry winner, WS Merwin. It's an interesting article that's bound to make readers go out looking for some of Merwin's works. It certainly made me want to go out and learn more. But I found myself wondering: Merwin has received two Pulitzer prizes and I had not heard of him until now. I mentioned the newer forms of poetry a couple of weeks ago but I didn't really go into the "standard" poetry that's still around. You don't meet people on the street who introduce themselves as "professional poet". And those writers who do spend a lot of time on poetry often delve into other fields as well (quite understandably).

As National Poetry Month comes to a close, the lack of interest in poetry today becomes more and more apparent. My 9th grade poetry unit may have been my final, but my class was not exposed to a wide range of older and modern poetry. Instead, each student was told to find ten poems and put them on a colorful, artistic t-shirt. As projects go, not bad. But most students restricted their finds to the books the teacher left in the classroom, teen anthologies and mostly out-there poetry. In my own out-of-school searches, I stumbled upon Czesław Miłosz and discovered very special writing. But when I showed the poems to other students, they showed little interest, pointing out that the point of the project was ultimately just the artistic side. Reciting poetry required little delving into the real literary aspects of the poems. And I too quickly forgot the poetry unit, focusing more on the novels read during the year.

Ultimately, my own personal shame at not knowing Mr Merwin will carry on until I read some of his works. I've already admitted to being woefully uneducated in the ways of poetry, but I suspect if I had received more exposure to it, I might actually seek out poets, rather than randomly discover them (Miłosz, Sylvia Plath, Blake...). One of my favorite books is still an old poetry anthology from the early 20th century. Why I am not so connected to modern poetry continues to baffle and disappoint me.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"20 most annoying reviewer cliches" and publisher views

This is already old news (though ever relevant), but I wanted to let it sink in a bit before I tackled the issue. About a month and a half ago, Michelle Kerns the Book Examiner wrote up a list of the top most annoying reviewer cliches, explaining how the use of these words in a review trivialize the book and turn the review into little more than mindless babble:

1. Gripping; 2. Poignant; 3. Compelling; 4. Nuanced; 5. Lyrical; 6. Tour de force; 7. Readable; 8. Haunting; 9. Deceptively simple; 10. Rollicking; 11. Fully realized; 12. At once; 13. Timely; 14. " X meets X meets X"; 15. Page-turner; 16. Sweeping; 17. That said; 18. Riveting; 19. Unflinching; 20. Powerful

The problem with these words is that, when reviewers use them to death (as they have), book reviews cease to have any purpose or meaning.

Kerns raises excellent points and even goes into depth as to the misuses of many of these phrases (edited out). The truth is that these phrases are incredibly common and Kerns' vapid mock review later in the article displays a lot more than most people would like to see. Kerns' point that these terms are not simply limited to the internet world (though certainly abused by it) is not a nice one either. The idea that the New York Times Book Review might struggle so much to write a good review that they'd describe the novel as "sweeping" simply because of its length or "riveting" because it's a book that actually manages to keep the reader remotely interested is rather uncomfortable.

Kerns returns to the subject two weeks later (a month ago) with a new and improved idea for writing reviews. The interesting thing is that it works for Kerns, even if it might not suit most online reviewers. Certainly not official, professional publishers. But it's again interesting to see. Kerns has sworn off the pet peeve cliches, admitting that she has used them too but intends to steer clear from now on. Most reviewers, though, are frequent users and it is perhaps because of this fact that these phrases have become so meaningless. A word like "powerful" can mean so very much but saying it about a book now means it has a sad story that's a bit uncomfortable to read. Still, what is most interesting perhaps, is a comment on the second article, by "Inanna Arthen":

As publisher (I run By Light Unseen Media), I can tell you exactly what book reviews are for, from a marketing standpoint. The absolute TOP reason that people will decide to buy a new book is "recommendation from someone that they trust." This often means a friend, relative, or other person whose opinions can't be controlled. But book reviews serve as the next best thing. Readers have a perception that the reviewer is impartial, and if the reader enjoys the reviewer's style, he or she will generally trust that reviewer's judgment. That's why publishers are so anxious to get books reviewed.

There's also the pure exposure factor (it takes roughly seven repetitions before a new name sticks in a customer's mind as something to try). Also, many readers read reviews to find out enough about the book to determine that (a) it sounds like something they'd enjoy and (b) it doesn't sound like something they definitely don't want to waste time on.

It's a little secret of the book marketing world that a lot of high-volume reviewers simply parrot the press material that goes out with the review copy, and said material is usually written with that in mind.

Certainly clears things up, doesn't it? This kind of goes back again to the why we review issue and the issue of ARCs, raised and interestingly handled at Except this looks at the issue from a whole other angle. It is true - if a book is published as good, it'll probably be perceived as good. And when it isn't actually any good, reviewers say that they were "disappointed", having "expected so much more". Where did the expectations come from? And, indeed, why do all these reviews ultimately use the cliches? There's a lot here to ponder.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Challenged books in 2008

Who knew this still existed?
Some objections led to the removal of ["The Kite Runner"] from library shelves, while others saw it replaced with bowdlerised versions minus the offending scenes, according to the American Library Association, which compiles an annual list of the most challenged titles in the country.

The ALA recorded 513 challenges in 2008, up from 420 in 2007. The ALA defines a challenge as "a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school, requesting that materials be removed or restricted because of content or appropriateness". It estimates that as few as one in five challenges are actually reported. "We believe this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Caldwell-Stone. Seventy-four books were actually removed from shelves following challenges last year, the ALA said.

The books may change from year to year but sadly, each year books are challenged and banned. It's interesting to view lists of banned/challenged books. And a little disappointing. That a children's' book like "The Lorax" would be challenged because it puts the foresting industry in a bad light is fairly sad. So is the fact that a small powerful book titled "Of Mice and Men" should be banned time and time again. Why? "Vulgar language", "violence", and "obscenities". There are many lists of challenged books, some more detailed than others. And even though it isn't banned books week quite yet, there's something troubling to the fact that people are still trying to remove books from public shelves.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amazon's disappearing act - Update

Amazon has responded to complaining customers with an official statement:
This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles - in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.
This is good enough for some. Mark Probst, an author whose book was deranked and quickly spread the story, wrote on his blog following this released statement:
So it's over. Amazon admits they goofed, and I, for one, shall give them the benefit of the doubt and say I do not believe that there was any malicious intent. Case closed.
Others are less quick to forget (half the posts). Still, Probst makes a good point. As I mentioned earlier, it makes no sense that Amazon would actively support a policy that alienates so many customers. This is still a weird story, important if only as proof that Amazon (the huge online everything store) is less in control than it was back in the good old days of book-selling (interesting takes by the Seattle Pi here and here).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon's disappearing act

I'm still not sure what to make of this, but so far, here are the details: appears to have removed many GLBT oriented books from their bestseller lists and removing their rankings. The e-mail sent to the self-published author who first noticed his missing ranking reads:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
Meanwhile, someone I know did send their own letter of complaint and received an automated message saying:
Thanks for contacting us. We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed.
There's something off on both sides of the story. On the one hand, it seems incredibly unlikely that would, after so many years, decide now to alienate a large reading community. And more bizarre is what has actually been done. It basically comes down to this: search for the popular "Running With Scissors" (hat tip Read Street), you sift through a number of unrelated titles (movie included) before finally reaching the book. Weirder still is the fact that "Running With Scissors" has retained its ranking, even while other GLBT oriented books have not. "Heather Has Two Mommies" strangely has no rating. And neither book is in any way officially tagged as "adult".

There's no ultimate conclusion from quick searches through Amazon's database. The LA Times' blog lists books that despite a much more "adult" approach, remain ranked even as many books are simply disappearing from the database. While this appears increasingly suspicious on Amazon's part, it seems strange that a website that sells Playboy books would suddenly decide that all GLBT oriented books (or books with a central GLBT character) are too "adult" to appear on bestseller lists. A list of the books with missing rankings can be found here.

Meanwhile, some suggest that perhaps this is all indeed a glitch that came as a result of numerous complaints and was automatically set by a group of people declaring all gay related books to "adult". It is, as of yet, entirely unclear as to what is going on. Amazon will obviously have to explain the situation better than the two-lined automated e-mails being sent around. In the meantime, angry customers refuse to use Amazon's services and will continue bombarding Amazon's help-center with e-mails, hoping that soon this bizarre mess will be rectified.

Monday, April 6, 2009

He behind the scenes

I was reading the article about James Patterson the other day over at the Guardian. I started it feeling a bit annoyed and ended it feeling very odd. Even angry, maybe. See for yourself:
[Patterson] is the world's bestselling author: JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together don't match the sales of his books. He's had over 35 New York Times bestsellers, he has been the most borrowed author in British libraries for the past two years, and he is due to publish so many tomes in so many genres in the next few months he doesn't even know the exact number.

How does he do it? Well, ever since 1996, when he published a novel called Miracle on the 17th Green with a golfing buddy, he has done it by finding collaborators to help him fill in the blanks. He comes up with the plot, they write the sentences, he reviews draft after draft. To hear Patterson tell it, he simply has too many ideas to write them all up himself, so he enlists an army of co-writers. He resists the word "factory", of course, or "formula".

No surprise that he resists the words "factory" and "formula". Those put a bad face on the issue, don't they? I read these paragraphs at first without paying much attention but suddenly my brain caught up with my eyes and hit the brakes. Because something here smells very rotten. The article goes on to (accurately) describe this as brilliant marketing - placing Patterson's name in huge letters on the cover while in tiny letters acknowledging those who wrote those pesky, irrelevant "sentences".

So the question is what's more important - the story or the writing? If books were simply ideas and thoughts we formulated throughout the day, almost everybody would be an amazingly successful author. And yet what makes books (literature) so important and special is that the idea isn't enough. A book is composed of the central idea (yes), but also the characters, the writing style, the overall mood. Patterson, for all his "overseeing the drafts", only provides one ingredient to these books. The article, however, goes on to say:

Anyone who thinks Patterson is not truly behind these books because he "only" writes the plots has clearly not read them very closely. They are more or less all plot, and you can barrel through them in three-page gulps. If Patterson is not overly concerned with individual sentences, it's fair to say that whoever actually is in charge of them doesn't care much either. They are not designed to be lingered over.

It's a weak defence. All I can think of is that if these books are so plot-driven and are only based on Patterson's quick ideas, he might as well just tell them to me in small Twitter feeds (please don't). This may be a great marketing/publicity scheme, but from a literary sense, there's something troubling to it. No, nobody really thinks of paperback Patterson as grand literature, but his methods seem fairly dishonest and slippery.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

This doesn't explain much

Problem - Stress. Solution - Read:
Reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent, according to the
University of Sussex research...

Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the
heart rate and ease tension in the muscles [the study] found. In fact it got
subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.
Well. Does this mean when I'm too stressed to read, the very last thing I should be doing is not reading in order to not be more stressed? Still, six minutes? I somehow don't see teachers and professors looking too kindly on students pulling out textbooks: "But it lowers my stress levels!" Still, the results only get stranger: drinking coffee and playing video games can also relieve stress. By 54% and 21% respectively. I'm starting to wonder what books these test subjects were reading that made them so comparatively stressed out...