Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Gross Violation Of Terms?

If you're taking what amounts to free content on the web, selecting choice bits and publishing it as a series of e-books that could be dozens of volumes huge onto Amazon, using software apps, are you a legit publisher or just another spammer?

Not everybody thinks this is
great. Photo from here.

A bunch of people had his great idea to use bots to harvest comments from YouTube, compile them into e-books and publish these through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. This group is made up of artists, it seems, and it looks more like they're sending some sort of message rather than trying to profit from selling books at volume. The entire process is apparently fully automated.

While some may see some literary (and entertainment) potential in the content, others feel differently. Amazon removed "several hundred"(!) of their books from the Kindle Store and blocked their personal Amazon accounts.

Luc Gross, co-founder of Ghost Writers, went on The Huffington Post to explain the project and decry Amazon's censorship of their books. "This has become a common practice by Amazon, a defensive and helpless reaction to the unexpected consequences arising from the phenomenon of self publishing," he wrote.

This is kind of funny, in light of what many see as Amazon's overarching ambitions in the publishing sector. The online retail giant even has supporters among indie authors who say it is helping, not harming, their careers. Others may have another point of view.

In the case of Ghost Writers, Gross feels censored, and says that Amazon won't win this one. "The nature of the internet is such that it is not possible to ban anything, or to silence a voice. Out of their ban, new and even stronger Ghost Writing mechanisms will arise," he promised.

Now I'm getting the shivers.

Your ... 'collective' spams Amazon's Kindle store with bot-assembled e-books made out of free online content, a tactic you admit is similar to how other 'publishers' do it, but it's different in your case because it's 'art' and therefore should not be banned or silenced?

And did you also pledge to come up with newer and "stronger" ways to spam us with more of your bot-churned material?

...I guess this is the downside of Amazon's open online publishing policy. At some point in time, though, it will have to step in and do some weeding, because the explosion of not-very-good material will be bad for customer experience and harm the company in the long run. A completely free market is impossible when consumers have so little energy and expertise to sift through so much material.

No, I don't think these guys are all that concerned about money. But just because someone pulled in millions with retooled fan fiction, doesn't mean everything taken from the web works. It wasn't too long ago that we had problems with "blogs" that comprise bot-harvested snippets/posts and lots of banner ads.

Maybe there is art and creativity in these funny, grammatically broken comments that deserve a wider audience. "if you think it s[sic] junk or crap, you may think so," Gross responded to the several commenters who, not surprisingly, sided with Amazon.

Amazon is still a business entity, and it has to have certain rules to keep their business model viable (and its customers happy). So if Amazon thinks you're stuffing its digital bookshelves with crap, it has every right to take action.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

News: Crossing Borders, Self-Plagiarism and... Aslan Is A What?

Borders cross over employee's arrest
On Tuesday, the store manager of a Borders bookstore chain outlet in The Gardens, Mid Valley City, was charged in the Syariah High Court with selling copies of the recently banned book Allah, Liberty and Love. If convicted, she faces a RM3,000 (US$952) fine or a maximum of two years' jail or both.

As of posting, over 120 people were angered by the news (in Free Malaysia Today). Of course, Canadian news outlets have an interest in the case as well. And... oh look, we're in the New York Times!

But according to other news sources, the manager was charged on 23 May. That was the day officials from the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) raided the premises and seized copies of the book, which was only banned days later.

The COO of the group that owns Borders in Malaysia has issued a strongly titled statement on the affair, saying that the manager is not responsible for what goes on the shelves, and that the seized books were not banned at the time of JAWI's 'visit'. Borders claimed that they were not informed that the book was banned. More serious are allegations of high-handed behaviour by JAWI officials towards several Borders employees, including the manager in question.

Unsurprisingly, some have called this move "childish" or "Gestapo tactics". We've heard this story before: same plot, different books. That this pantomime is being repeated means nothing has been learnt at all. Can anyone confirm if that other book is officially banned?

Some debate whether the religious department was operating outside legal boundaries in the seizure of the books but, apparently, it was not. But one wonders what this would mean for the country's bookstores. Berjaya Books Sdn Bhd, which owns Borders in Malaysia, has since been allowed to challenge the raid and book seizure.

Here's a short history of book banning, which I first encountered on the ARTiculations blog, to read while we wait for the latest developments in the case.


The Witch, The Wardrobe and ... The Giraffe?
'Butter comes from wheat' and other horrors: Food ignorance in the UK. Perhaps, even more horrific: One in 5 UK kids think Long John Silver is from Peter Pan and Aslan of the Chronicles of Narnia series is a giraffe.


Lion facepalm
Says it all, really. Not Aslan - but it could be. Photo from here.


Meanwhile, Tim Waterstone lets us in on what led him to found his bookstore chain. Wonder what he feels about the Aslan thing?


Can you steal from yourself?
Somebody at Slate thinks Jonah Lehrer plagiarised himself when he started spending more time peddling ideas instead of coming up with new ones.

Should writers be allowed to recycle their material? Some believe that, if the material has appeared elsewhere before, readers should be told of its origins should it be re-used.


Other news
  • "There are two things you don't throw out in France — bread and books." Physical books are doing fine in France (because of price fixing and banning of discounts). Not so in Saskatchewan, Canada, where thirty tonnes of books without takers is set to go up in smoke.
  • No siree, e-books are not easy to make at all. A few e-book myths are debunked.
  • The New Republic's book critic Ruth Franklin, among other things, bemoans the 'taming' of book reviews and calls for sharper commentary.
  • "Not everyone can read proof." The story of a millionaire copy editor is amazing, but not because of her money.
  • Alice Walker won't let a publisher print and sell the latest edition of The Color Purple in Israel, citing the state's "apartheid" policies. I don't think it'll accomplish much, like many symbolic gestures.
  • Are book self-publishers wasting time with promos? Depends.
  • Arabic children's book publisher on the challenges facing the industry in the Arab world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

More News: Road Trips, Sexy Classics, and Books In Peril

Perfect Gentleman tours America
Imran Ahmad, author of Unimagined (The Perfect Gentleman in the US), serialised his 50-city book tour of the US on HuffPo. Scheduled to end last weekend, this tour was apparently to cover more of the US that couldn't make the schedule of his previous American sojourn.

I don't know how he feels about this tour, now that it's over, but I'm glad he's going home. I think he must've been lonely; at times, he starts having conversations with himself, like this "inner battle", en route to Portland, Oregon on 26 May:

I MUST HAVE CARBS, MASTER, I NEED ENERGY, MASTER.

"No Energy-Body, there are ample energy reserves in the fat deposits in the abdominal region. Metabolize those. Do you understand? Metabolize fat!"

THERE IS DARK CHOCOLATE IN THE GROCERY BAG, MASTER, INFUSED WITH GINGER, MASTER.

"There is also beef jerky. Let's have some of that, Energy-Body."

Or it could be the no-carb diet he's on.

I know how he feels. I lose that battle most of the time.


Roadtrip gone wrong
Meanwhile, hitch-hiking writer Ray Dolin went looking for "kindness in America" and got shot, then saved by strangers. Just when you thought there was no kindness in America, turns out that Dolin allegedly shot himself in a desperate bid for publicity. If true, he might as well end his stint, as it's likely he won't be getting any kindness in the US anytime soon.

So, what's the latest on the other hitch-hiking author?


Talk about sexing things up
In the wake of a 'revived' classic, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is reportedly getting a "Fifty Shades" makeover. The Huffington Post chipped in with a list of other classics that could do with a little 'revival'.

Also, it seems UK publisher Orion Books paid six figures for a two-writer trilogy, probably set in more contemporary times. Book one, Eighty Days Yellow, is coming out next month, followed by Eighty Days Blue and Eighty Days Red.

Have things really come to this?

But don't worry about paper books disappearing. Prize-winning author Joan Brady thinks the e-book will be the vortex where lowbrow "pulp" such as "celebrity biographies, Mills & Boon and porn" will "disappear into", according to The Telegraph. Dead tree volumes, meanwhile, will remain as status symbols and conversation starters.

Try telling that to the next EL James-wannabes.


Other news
  • Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and green revolutionary. Could she have been among the first modern eco-warriors?
  • Thomas Pynchon changes his mind, agrees to e-publish his books.
  • 'Enhanced' kids' e-books do not enhance literacy, study suggests. So y'all can cut it out now.
  • Will Myanmar's new political dawn shine a light on its suppressed writings? Or will the recent ethnic clashes herald - at least - a partial return to the bad old days?
  • Auguste Escoffier (1849-1935): master chef, kitchen reformer, cuisine codifier ... and grifter?
  • Indonesian publisher reportedly burns copies of its own book following protests over the book's allegedly incendiary content. No, I don't think that's part of the annual haze-causing fires...
  • This article, apparently, has 70 words/phrases that are banned in China. And the Great Firewall is getting more sensitive. I mean, come on... "Teletubbies"?
  • "...we are all Spartacus." Kirk Douglas's simple, moving piece on being American and the human spirit.
  • Creationism enters textbooks in South Korea, the country reportedly offering to help ours reach developed nation status. Give us your tech, Korea, but not your ideology, thanks. We've needed help with our broadband infrastructure for a long time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

News: Self-Publishing, Book Criticism and Summer Reading

Last week, I re-installed Diablo II to compensate for my ineligibility to play the sequel: you have to log onto Blizzard's server to play, apparently, and my broadband Internet service needs improvement. For one, the line drops on occasion.

No, I haven't forgotten about the several pending book review assignments. Yet.


Self-publishing stories
Here are 25 things this guy thinks you need to know about self-publishing. He also has a guide to self-publishing that ... looks like it's being updated as time rolls by.

As in traditional publishing, there are various pitfalls in self-publishing, including reviewers who won't read your self-published book. But don't be discouraged; there are some successes, though not in the same league as that gussied-up piece of Twilight fan-fiction.

For Matt Forbeck though, one book a year is slacking. So he's writing 12. Not sure if he can do that next year. Not long after I tweeted my misgivings, Forbeck responded:




Let's wish him all the best! (I'm giving this tweet-quoting format a la Daily Kos a whirl - I love fiddling with CSS.)


"Show us what he does and how."
TNR book critic Ruth Franklin, among other things, bemoans the 'taming' of book reviews and calls for sharper commentary. The recipient of the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism sounds like she wants reviewers to go back to being the gatekeepers of standards, instead of helping to selling books.

"Not all books are worth reading; some are dull, some are poorly written, and others can actually have a pernicious effect on our culture," she said at the ceremony. "It’s the task of the critic to champion books that deserve to be championed, and to take a stand against those that have the power to harm. And anyone who doesn’t believe that books have the power to harm is not taking them seriously enough."


Season's flavours and picks
Haagen-Dazs is calling for contributions to what is promised to be the next "great summer read". Sounds like it will involve ice cream. For those who are stil figuring out what to read this summer (and can't wait for the Haagen-Dazs book), here's a (really long) flowchart to help you decide.

And hey, guys! Here are some books to pick (and avoid) for luck with girls, especially you hound-dogs at the beach or public park. Might be hard to do with e-readers, though.


Summer Hay fever and book exposé
Writing about sex: women do it better, according to Martin Amis, who spoke at the recently concluded Hay Festival. That's some validation for EL James, et al. Also at Hay, a new, more 'realistic' Bond novel was announced by William Boyd. It's expected in autumn 2013.

Across the Atlantic, we have a dispatch from the recently concluded BookExpo America, where musicians discussed the digital future of music and print.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unspoken

In my latest listicle, I neglected to mention the passing of sci-fi giant Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and historical fiction author Barry Unsworth (1930-2012).

Not much I could say, other than "RIP", which still sounds glib because, well, I'm not familiar with their works.

Someone I mentioned also passed away recently, but I didn't mark that, either. Until news of his condition broke, I had no idea this guy was big in the local indie music scene. And I only met his sister once.

Should I have said something anyway?

...When we're kids, we talk about growing pains. As adults, it is (or should be) ageing pains. Parts of me that didn't hurt or hurt easily are doing that now, perhaps more often than they should for my peace of mind.

But, maybe, I'm lucky I can still feel pain.

It'll be a stretch, but the next time a muscle cramp, migraine headache, stiff neck and the like comes on, I'll have to remind myself that maybe I'm not feeling pain.

Maybe I'm feeling lucky.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Love And Consequences

Looking at it, you wouldn't know that it has been heavily edited several times.

I'd wanted to put in more, but that would've given the piece a bias. So I had others look at it. They got rid of the oddly shaped, rough-edged parts.

Stunned as I was by what this girl did, I also wondered whether certain parties would use this case to highlight the 'dangers of Facebook' and push on with more efforts to combat 'online filth' and curb Internet abuse. This, in light of Facebook mulling whether it should let kids in - and why this could be a very bad idea.

What I also left out was that, for the 2009-10 period, Hispanic students made up the largest percentage (48.6%) of the total number of students, more than half of which were considered economically disadvantaged. One could, with some more reading, see that unwanted pregnancies and births and STD transmissions would occur more frequently within this group.

I'm no education or health expert. Nor do I have my own children. But I'm still frustrated and angry that, when it comes to the safety and sexual health of the young, we seemed to have either taken the hardline approach or dropped the ball entirely. So what if today's youngsters have access to more information? Smarter doesn't necessarily mean wiser.

But with issues, you often don't know what to keep and what to leave out - and when to stop.

Guess that's why I write mostly about books these days. At least a book has a beginning and an end. Issues can go on forever.



Love and consequences

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 11 June 2012

"We're in love. I don't think what I did was wrong. How can it be when it is something personal between the two of us?" So said a 12- or 13-year-old girl who had slept with her 16-year-old Facebook boyfriend. Both families found out, and they made the news.

"She later confessed to the relationship ... but we decided to let it go," said the girl's brother. "They are still young and we did not want them to get into trouble with the law." The girl's family reportedly went to the press "to create awareness on what is happening to our youths these days."

I'm hoping at least one person was misquoted here.

Sex with a minor is statutory rape, a crime. If the family wanted no trouble, going to the press may not be a good idea. The girl's excuse that who she's in love with is a "personal thing" and that it's not "wrong" is an archetypal "liberal" defence conservatives love to tear to bits.


School of hard knocks
For those with a tendency to police morality, sexuality is low-hanging fruit: the youth's loose morals are caused by Hollywood, the Internet, etc. It is never our fault; there's a demon for everything. We're just doing what our good books are teaching us, like what they're doing in the US with what some call the "war on women".

The US state of Texas, which has among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, persistently pushes abstinence-only sex education programmes in schools while seemingly ignoring other aspects of sex ed such as contraception. This only makes sense if, according to Amanda Marcotte, the idea is to let teens deal with the consequences of premarital sex.

"At a certain point, you have to stop assuming it's an accident when you see politicians who, when given the choice between improving sexual health outcomes and punishing girls for sex, always choose the latter," she writes in Slate's XXFactor blog. The 2009-2010 student enrolment figures for Texas says there are over 1.2 million teenage high school students. Let's not forget about the teens who are not in school.

High teen pregnancy rates means a lot of young moms, and there are concerns about the state's "ability to rear, educate, and prepare all the little Texans" for their role in society.

Speaking of which...


Be fruitful and... overpopulate?
There were about 60 million Filipinos in 1990. That number went up about 50% in the last two decades or so. And it looks like its government is hard-pressed to accommodate the new arrivals - on top of its economic woes, corruption and sectarian tensions. Still, the topic of contraception is virtually taboo in the Philippines, where its bishops feel almost as if it's worse than murder. An attempt to introduce state-sponsored birth control measures last year was shot down.

"It's not the business of government to be promoting contraceptive devices," said Bishop Teodoro Bacani, according to the BBC. "It's like the government saying it will pass a law which will fund the promotion of pork-eating among the Muslims. Can you imagine what an uproar there would be among the Muslim population?"

Not all Filipinos agree with the good bishop. "I used to believe in the Church's teachings about having lots of children," said Clarita, a mother of ten kids, in the same BBC report. "But now I really think we should have family planning."

While it may not be their intent to punish rampant sexual behaviour, the Filipino clergy's intransigence on birth control sounds selfish, especially when the burden of the country's growing population is being borne by a state that still has no solutions to its all too earthly problems.


It's more than personal
Does the girl know what love is? I'm not sure, especially when adults can't figure it out, either. However, it takes more than a necklace or a hymen to seal a relationship, and 'taking it further' implies shared responsibilities in the future, as well as consequences should the relationship fail.

Sadly, of all the ways to convey this to our children, we seem to be taking the bully pulpit route: "Sex is bad, so don't do it." If that fails, blame the Internet, Lady Gaga and LGBT advocates, and blame the girl (while the boy slinks away unpunished), especially if she is pregnant or dumps the baby.

Could it be that youngsters aren't listening because we've stopped talking to them? What happened to plans for sex ed classes in our schools? Is that still on, or was the ball dropped due to complaints from concerned parents or teachers' fears?

We sure as hell need to start talking to them, like the adults we are, like the adults they will become.

And if they screw up anyway, throw the book at them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

News: Just Love, BookExpo and Nooking Books

Vatican says "No" to Just Love
The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, the Dark Materials trilogy, and now, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret Farley, a nun and theologian. What's remarkable other than the book's topic, is that few knew it existed at all - until the Vatican raised hell over it.

The totally hip Ron Charles couldn't resist: "The Catholic Church delivered the nun’s treatise on Christian sexual ethics from the wilderness of obscurity into the promised land of fame. For any book publicist, such denunciation is an answer to a prayer. On Amazon’s Web site, 'Just Love' immediately ascended from No. 142,982 to No. 16."


Some BookExpo stuff
At BookExpo America, publishers lock horns over digital rights management. At a talk organised by Macmillan, sci-fi authors Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and John Scalzi discussed the decision of sci-fi imprint Tor's decision to sell DRM-free books. Meanwhile, sneaking into the event are Chinese book publishers: NI HAO WE R IN BOOK-X-PO AMERICA, LOOKING AT UR MARKETZ.


Nookd!
Barnes & Noble, predictably, against the (allegedly) Amazon-aiding e-book lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice, as well as the proposed settlement by the DoJ with regards to the alleged e-book price fixing by Apple and several major publishers. With news that digital copies of War and Peace in B&N e-readers were reportedly Nookd by sweeping Find and Replace function, maybe they should focus more on their own neck of the woods. Are we witnessing the birth of a new meme?


Other news

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

When Labels Don't Stick

I was writing something else and this is what emerged. Originally meant for one of my end-of-week listicles, it just kept stretching and stretching... until I ran out of steam.



When labels don't stick

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 June 2012

Some time ago, Stephen Colbert's "Maurice Sendak-inspired" I Am a Pole (And So Can You) reached the top of the New York Times' list of best-selling "Advice, How-to, Miscellaneous" books. It also made Publisher's Weekly's list of best non-fiction.

Colbert is tickled. "A pole can't give you advice, it's pure fantasy," he cracked.

Yes, advice from a comedian on reaching new heights in life and work while staying on the straight and narrow? Tall order for a satirical book about a cartoon pole that's searching for a purpose in life - and bears a striking resemblance to the author. But maybe it'll rise to the occasion - who knows?


If the pigeonhole fits
Classification of titles has been a headache for anyone who deals with books and maybe movies and music. Particularly books, because every tome that's published has to have its cataloguing-in-publication (CiP) data registered with the respective countries' national libraries. Even this system isn't perfect, either.

Bookstores categorise books differently, too. At one bookstore's "Children's" section, some tween romance and Twilight-esque YA titles appear to be lumped together with picture books and Geronimo Stilton.

And what happens when it turns out that part or all of a non-fiction title was fabricated or plagiarised by the author? Should Greg Mortenson's books be shifted to the "Fiction" shelves or a new "Embellished Non-Fiction" corner?

Is it that hard to add a "Tween" or "Young Adult" category into the database? It could be, given the complexity in defining the database structure and all the possible attributes a book can have. But, Stephen Colbert... isn't it obvious that Pole belongs in the "Humour" section, or is there something I'm missing?


Not quite birds of a feather
With thousands of books published each year, bookstores, publishers and literary agents are hard-pressed to make their clients' books stand out of the sea of print, and we're not even adding e-books into the equation yet. So it makes sense for booksellers to take aim at specific demographics - a cheaper, more effective way of marketing. Hence, the need for genres.

Author Karen B Nelson suggests that readers who go for specific genres rely on this kind of pigeonholing to help them choose their reads, based on their needs and expectations. She also quotes English professor Dr Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University, Wisconsin as saying that "as writers have become more and more interested in crossing boundaries and mixing genres, publishers and booksellers seem to have grown more and more determined to use genres as marketing devices."

But then, she asks, "...what about crossover books – the ones that could just as easily be classified in two distinct genres? Or those that shatter the whole idea of what a genre is supposed to be?"

Nelson recognises that crossovers are "a marketing department's nightmare, and every librarian's headache." The need for pigeonholing also affects authors. Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, had some trouble defining it. She'd tried calling it "noir", which is usually associated with hard-boiled detectives, but what she was trying to do was literary fiction, with the usual trappings of noir.

"I think of noir as fiction infused with a certain sense of style," Mandel writes, "a certain darkness, an understanding of the essential unfairness and indifference of the world — this mysterious place we find ourselves in wherein terrible things happen to good people for no discernible reason — and an understanding that it's necessary to go on and continue to be honourable regardless." But does noir always have to be crime fiction?

And does sci-fi always have to entertain? Many tend to think so. But with productions such as Avatar, one can't be sure. Critics have pointed out how the film is but another 'noble savage vs civilised brute' trope. Some found the film entertaining but may chafe at the alleged morals spliced between the frames. And I believe that there's even a lesson in E.T. somewhere.

Writing in the Guardian, sci-fi writer Damien Walter argues that writers of what he calls "fantastika" with a more critical understanding of their genre create better, (maybe) multilayered stories than those who, I might hazard, merely pull things out of their hats.

One should note that Colbert and fellow funnyman and fake news commentator Jon Stewart are supposed to be entertaining, but because they peel open each news clip and point out the funny, misleading or outright lying bits in the process, they appear more credible than the news agencies themselves. Even the New York Times once pondered putting Stewart in the same league as the likes of Walter Cronkite.

So perhaps Mandel's interpretations and musings over noir may help her come up with something better, a sort of "literary noir". Which may not be a bad thing. Writing is, among other things, an art, and the tendency to stick to well-defined borders would make for a boring and sterile pool of literature.

In the end, what probably matters most to the reader is whether he'll enjoy the book, as Nelson suggests. And maybe the price tag.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Digested Peaches Gives Author Heartburn

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris is digested in the Guardian. The resident 'reads digester', John Crace, apparently finds the book a bit too French. Could that piece have upset Ms Harris?

The Guardian's Digested Read, as I understand it, 'reviews' a book by (mostly) condensing the entire book into a 700-word parody of it using the author's writing style, plot and all.

Nor is Harris the first to complain. There was Jilly Cooper who, Crace said, complained to the Daily Telegraph about his treatment of her book, Wicked.

The Guardian's Digested Read, as I understand it, 'reviews' a book by condensing the whole book into a 700-word parody written in the book's style, which can be quite ...revealing.

"The primary goal is to entertain," Crace said in this look-back at ten years of Digested Reads, "something the book itself has often failed to do – but it's also intended as a (semi-) serious critique, for much of the fun is derived from clunky plot devices that don't work, pretentious stylistic tics, risible dialogue and an absence of big ideas."

Not an easy feat, according to Crace. "I read every word of every book I digest, scribbling notes on the pages as I go along. I can't afford not to because if I get something wrong, I'm stuffed."

Though the Digested Read has its brickbats, the response is largely positive. "I'm continually delighted – and astonished – by the number of writers who are more generous about my work than I am about theirs and get in touch to say how much they enjoy the column," he said. "Especially when it's someone else's books." ...Aha.

I suppose, as a writer, you'd be damn chuffed if a reader cared enough to "read every word", scribble notes, and "digest" your book in a way that really sums it up. If one can afford to be magnanimous, the effort behind a piece of criticism should be appreciated, even if it has an edge - or a hundred.

I can't see myself doing what he does, which is why I only - and will probably do nothing but - 'review' books.

Though Crace feels that "digesting" books for the Guardian may be a satirist's dream job, he acknowledges that for some people, it can be cruel. "Satire often is cruel, especially when it's accurate." Another thing to appreciate in an age of faltering credibility in the media.

No, I don't feel that the "digested" Peaches will affect the reading experience terribly. The archives will only be of interest to the curious who only want to know what a book is about without having to read it. It's a select list - names one thinks are more likely to survive Crace's digestive juices.

If you can't find the URL in the sidebar, go here and lose yourself in the Digested Reads archives for a while ... podcasts? I didn't notice.

You might as well join me. I don't think I'll be writing much for the next few days and I think you won't even bother dropping by until you're done.

Monday, June 04, 2012

News: Madeline Miller's Song, Book Prizes And Reviews

"Purple prose" gets the last Orange1
Madeline Miller's debut, The Song of Achilles, drowns out seasoned voices to take the 2012 Orange prize for fiction. And here's Miller on why the classics deserve their revival.

Turns out the recipient of what would no longer be known as the Orange prize is a "breastplate-ripping romp" that "often reads like homoerotic slash fiction".

Somehow this 'revived classic' reminds me of the mouth-to-mouth Stephenie Meyer - among others - gave to vampire fiction. But maybe it's, you know ... a good book. Keep and open mind, keep and open mind...

1 Idea from Ms Margaret Howie at the Bookslut blog.


The "B" word
ZI Publications will challenge the seizure and ban of the Malay translation of Allah, Love and Liberty by Irshad Manji (can't they keep the L-word out of this?), as well as the arrest of its director. It seems they may file several lawsuits against the authorities.

On a kind-of-related note, here's Salman Rushdie - of all people - talking about censorship. At least it's a topic he should be familiar with.

More recently, at the 2012 Telegraph Hay Festival, he talked about security and what is arguably his most controversial book. He also had this to say: "It's the people who love books that make them last, not the people who attack them."


Seeds of change?
Here's a review of Michelle Obama's American Grown, a book about a garden, eating healthy and raising healthy kids.

When the FLOTUS planted a garden in the White House compound, an agricultural lobby group reportedly wrote a letter to her reminding her of how Big Ag feeds America, etc. But perhaps, back then, they were not as worried about Americans turning to organic home gardens instead of commercially grown crops as the fact that the White House chef is Sam Kass.

And The Daily Beast thinks the "Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim" crowd won't be pleased that there's a recipe in the book for "braised pork shoulder".


Other news

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Colour Games

What's this with Keeping certain characters 'in closets' - until they're more acceptable? And racist book covers?


Whitewashed! It seems the lead in Justine Larbalestier's Liar is a
person of colour, but it seems not everybody thinks that's okay....


I remember all that online bawling over the coloured character in The Hunger Games - and the urge to take a rolled-up newspaper to some crybaby heads. Infantile, for sure, but is it because of the readers' inherent biases or the market's?

A young adult writer dug around and came up with some stats, which show that, in 2011, "...90% of [YA novel] covers featured a white character, 10% featured a character of ambiguous ethnicity, 1.4% featured a Latino/Latina character, 1.4% an Asian character, and 1.2% a black character."

Also, female characters appear over-represented in YA books, at 79%. A fair number of these models are either in fancy dress, have part of or all of their heads missing, or - maybe - both. Characters with disabilities? "Zero."

Do note that in some charts the total exceeds 100% "because many covers feature multiple characters," goes the fine print.

So it does look as though writers, book designers and publishers are going for the more recognisable Twilight-ish mould, and change doesn't appear to be coming to the genre quickly enough. And the reactions to Rue's appearance in The Hunger Games film doesn't inspire hope that ethnic diversity in literature will catch on faster.


Cover of Ursula K Le Guin's Powers: the whitewashed Spanish
edition (at left) next to the final (English) edition


But even in heterogeneous societies, writers tend to plumb shallower depths for material: times, places and cultures from home. This is more so for many first-time authors writing stuff about themselves and their cultures and upbringing. This approach saves time, less for research and more for writing, talking book covers and spamming Facebook with work-in-progress updates.

Also: In places where race and religion are hot-button topics, a writer can get flak for 'misrepresenting' another ethnic or religious group even if the necessary homework was done and verified, because the writer is not an 'authority'. Who wants that kind of stress?

So the writer falls back on the old and familiar, forsaking the chance to explore topics and spheres of thought outside his box, either out of expediency (or laziness) or genuine concerns over his career, reputation or even his life.

One can argue that readers today are more sophisticated, mature enough to accept literature that mirrors real life, one that's becoming more ethnically diverse. That depends on the writer and whether he's writing for a certain audience. Whatever ambitions a writer has for his work, publishers care most for the bottom line (and not having to deal with the censors). The resulting compromise may not be to everyone's liking - that's something audiences will have to swallow.

Besides: When I need a dose of reality, the last thing I'd turn to is a YA novel. And the current reality of YA novels is dispiriting enough.