Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Hatchets - Not Just For Firewood

The nominees for Hatchet Job of the Year 2013 are in.

Not everyone is happy, though. Here's a much-quoted excerpt of Mark O'Connell's critique of the Award at Slate: "The problem with the Hatchet Job of the Year Award isn’t just that it publicizes and rewards mediocre and shallow criticism by the kind of people who’ll shoot a baboon point-blank in the tits for their own amusement. It’s that it actively promotes such criticism, going out of its way to ensure that more of it gets written."

If O'Connell's rant is based solely on this year's shortlist, I don't think it's fair. The Award, founded by The Omnivore, is three years old - hardly enough time to build a body of "provocative or challenging or insightful" criticism "that makes an argument about and around a book" and "stands alone on its own essayistic merits".

And critics - whatever level of literacy - don't need much encouragement to write a hack job. The hatchet-job avalanche O'Connell dreads is happening - has he seen what's on Goodreads and Amazon? I believe that buried under the avalanche of throwaway one-liners are some real creatively cut gems.

What The Omnivore's encouraging is more thoughtful criticism of what's written out there. Nothing beats a skilful, witty takedown of a stack of written words performed with a surgeon's precision, as long as the positives in it are pointed out. Yelping about what's bad about Fifty Shades is too easy.

So this year's shortlist isn't as outstanding as, say, the one for the previous year. But if EL James's trilogy and its ilk deserve its place in the sun, so do the sharp words of their critics telling us why we should read something else - all in the vain hope that the reading public will wise up and writers will get better.

At least "the scathing takedown rip" that Buzzfeed's books editor Isaac Fitzgerald says is rife in "so many old media-type places" has more thought put into it than the stuff that packs the 'review threads' on some book-related social-media platforms. These days, takedowns appear to be more effective than praise in helping to popularise books.

But as more and more books are being churned out, it'll be tougher to separate the chaff from the wheat, and the book reviewer with too much on his plate will have to cut back on the scalpel-work. Other ways of reviewing books which the general public can better digest, like this "dialogic" marginalia on Dan Brown's Inferno, which USA Today says is the best-selling book of 2013, will slip into the mainstream.

By then, I expect that these hatchet jobs will get shorter, sharper and harsher as the volume of books overwhelm the dwindling number of reviewers because, well, who wants to take a scalpel to a 500-page monstrosity in the future when it's easier and much more fun to use an axe?

When that day comes, The Omnivore might need more than just one year's worth of potted shrimp to convince critics to think deeper before taking axes to bad books.

Monday, 27 January 2014

News: CSI: Metafilter, U-Turn On Mein Kampf U-Turn, And Coffee

So this book got published:

Stronger than an ice-shaken triple-shot espresso

I'm pitching this because I like how it's blurbed. Having proofread some of the stories inside, I can pretty much concur.

The publisher has a habit of stopping reprints of its titles after a certain period, so go get it now.

Other things that happened include:

  • Ask Metafilter and ye shall receive (help to solve a 20-year-old mystery): Some "cancer-addled ramblings" may actually be prayers.
  • Are stories better than science in helping us approach life's complexities?
  • Do these figures show the decline of the American book lover? Has anyone compiled similar figures for Malaysia?
  • Was a blind spot responsible for Grantland's inadvertent outing of a transgendered person that ended with a suicide?
  • Can you make kids love books? Short answer: No. "...if a parent wants a child to read, then they should not push a book on the child. Let the child discover the book for herself." After all, isn't the adventure and thrill of discovering something great a huge part of why we open books?
  • Fifty Shades publisher Vintage Books to release a book on Edward Snowden. Sounds like it's gonna be good.
  • Bavaria makes U-turn (away from another U-Turn) on an academically annotated edition of Mein Kampf, a best-selling e-book.
  • "Outstanding schools" in the UK are reportedly having trouble recruiting headteachers and senior staff from applicants who can't spell and have bad grammar. Time to recall all the expat English teachers in China, Korea, etc?
  • Seems little has changed in South America since the first South American Handbook was first published in 1924. For one, Chilean youths "still stare at ladies" and "make audible remarks on [the ladies'] appearance" because this "is not rude according to the Chilean canons, but rather correct conduct."
  • Look, the "DNA" of a successful book. Funny how men don't seem to cop to reading books under the "Adult" category.
  • Wall Street Journal Asia talked to maybe three or four people and decides that Malaysia's coffee scene is heating up. Really now?

    Elsewhere, like in France, the coffee is bad. Maybe Artisan Roast KL can swoop in and help out.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

News: "Overrated" American Literature, Found In Translation, And Books

American literature is "massively overrated" and "our reading habit has totally been transformed by the mainstream", says Jhumpa Lahiri at the Jaipur literature festival, according to dna India. SHOCK GASP WHEEZE ... Especially when The Guardian says that Guo Xiaolu said those words. So, who really said what?

The point of the discussion was about a "global novel", and the writers on the panel, which include Guo, Lahiri and Jonathan Franzen, were talking about whether the tsunami of US literature has washed the stuff from other countries out of our reading consciousness. Franzen didn't seem fazed by what Guo (or Lahiri) said, FYI.

A couple of FIXI-related tweets:

FIXI Verso, a new branch of Amir Muhammad's mainly pulp imprint that publishes translations of English novels, has released BM editions of Stephen King's Joyland and Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fans soon asked for more, but:

Well, anyhoo...

  • Meet Shirin Segran, author of a 450-page science-fiction adventure novel and founder of a youth NGO, profiled in The Star. Meanwhile, South China Morning Post speaks with Hong Kong-born stockbroker-turned-author Julian Lees. And Lee Su Kim airs some laundry, from kebaya tales to sarong secrets.
  • A new Pew study reveals that print is holding its own in the face of growing acceptance of e-books.
  • Seems US schools are having trouble getting students to read because of the focus on an exam syllabus.
  • Rizzoli, a bookstore on New York's Fifth Avenue that boasts a clientèle which includes Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Queen of Thailand, Elton John and controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, may have to close.
  • Why was a book on Air India pulled off the shelves?
  • Machines aren't good enough to spot potential best-sellers - but they will be.
  • Malaysian publishing house seeking Stuff to publish. FEED ME.
  • This year, let's try and stop making these linguistic mistakes. And, by the way, are you using "myself" correctly?
  • Is this a kangaroo on a 16th century Portuguese manuscript? And if it is, can it alter a chapter in Australian history?

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

News: Hellebore, Mein Kampf, And A Hundred Words For Snow

A New Zealand toxicologist thinks Alexander the Great may have died from drinking wine spiked with a toxic herb, most likely "Veratrum album, a poisonous plant from the lily family also known as white or false hellebore."

Won't be the last time somebody comes up with a theory about how The Great Alex died. And the last time I encountered the word was in this takedown of an idea for an urban-fantasy novel. Strange, how different stuff we read eventually link up.

Dani Shapiro 'apologises' to a reader for not writing what said reader wanted.

"We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier."

Instead of moaning about how US and/or the West has fallen behind the rest of the world, folks like Thomas Friedman and Niall Ferguson should just accept the dawn of a multipolar world and figure out how t engage it, says an author:

The relative economic decline of the United States is not about gridlock in Washington, stupidity or venality on Wall Street, the lack of can-do spirit among the young, or even the death of “the Greatest Generation.” It is about the rest of the world finally getting its act together. That’s not to say that America is doing everything right, of course; much of the rest of this book is about what the country could do better to engage with a new world of opportunity. But it is important to recognize that policies to “regain US dominance” are destined to fail—and are likely to be counterproductive.

From an excerpt of The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Good for the West by Charles Kenny, of course.

"...the sky is falling because a thing has changed books are dead now for sure you guys...." Um, no, Peter Damien says. Also, why the development of books lies with the reading public, not book critics: "It is their rampant enthusiasm for books -- their opinions and their time and effort sifting through the books and finding plenty for everybody in the community to read -- which is sustaining and expanding the book world, which is making it a crowded and noisy and excited tavern and not [a] lonely, pretentious beach...."

OK, what else?

Monday, 6 January 2014

News: Books, Buses, And Hidden Snark

Is the corporatisation of book publishing threatening the industry? Seems that way, according to the late Andre Schiffrin, an indie publisher, who was not keen on the profit-driven model for book publishing.

"Whereas before, the average annual profit for a publishing house stood around 3 to 4 percent, now every imprint in a publishing house had to turn 10 to 15 percent profit per year or face closure. This pressure to meet targets, Schiffrin believed, "profoundly altered the output of the major publishing houses.'"

On a slightly related note, there's a study out there that says good fiction "enhances connectivity" in the brain. Until this study is debunked, we now have a compelling reason for the proper screening of manuscripts and publication of good books.

But not everybody agrees that great lit can change your life radically for the better. Nor should it.

"Reading Faulkner doesn’t make me a better person, nor does it teach me much, aside from the realization that Faulkner was a marvelous storyteller," writes Malcolm Jones in The Daily Beast. He adds that "The mid-century novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's women aren't much like my mother and my aunts, but when I read The Makioka Sisters, my family, or at least that sisterly dynamic, snapped into focus like never before. I don't think the pleasure I take from such awakenings will get me into heaven, but it’s enough for me."

All right, moving along:

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2013: The Year That Was In Words

I'm not generally big on year-end reflections but, given what happened to me last year, I can't help but think back on how ... eventful 2013 has been.

Apart from my steps into the kitchen, I managed to attend a couple of great events.

I didn't expect a whole lot from the inaugural Cooler Lumpur Festival, where I'd hoped to learn more about, among other things, Malay publishing. I probably have enough material from that event for three short pieces or a really long one - if I can get over the information indigestion. Yes, still.

Sadly, pigeonholing seems to still be the order of the day where Malay writers were concerned. The parents of Gina Yap, one of the writers of the Fixi imprint, even refused to attend the launch of her first Malay novel.

Discussing the 'changing face' of the Malay writer (from left): Uthaya
Shankar SB, moderator Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Singaporean playwright
Alfian Sa'at, and Fixi author Gina Yap

But in the overflowing rows of seats in all the events I attended at Cooler Lumpur 2013, I saw a lot of energy and hope and the occasional Kodak moment. If you could just see how close Alfian Sa'at came to tears as Pak Samad recited Balada Hilang Peta (Ballad of the Lost Map) on stage....

Indeed, the future lies with the young. Would it be fine to say that I expect great things from them?

I'm probably not alone in this. Chuah Guat Eng said something about "street Malay" being the language of the young and how they are using that to do their own thing, as well as Fixi's role in that.

Chuah Guat Eng (foreground) in the discussion on "A National
Literature" (with UK writer Suzanne Joinson, Alfian Sa'at, and
National Laureate A Samad Said), live-streamed for the Edinburgh
World Writers Conference

And I'm also looking forward to the next Cooler Lumpur Festival, which is scheduled to take place within the fasting month.

When I wrote this response to some "fed-up Penangite's" grouses over the 2012 George Town Literary Festival, adding that I might parachute into it at some point in the future, I never imagined that I'd do it so soon, i.e. one year later.

Things just fell into place that year. I felt compelled to balik kampung then and, hey, might as well be a tourist in my hometown while I'm at it.

So much has changed.

Western-style cafés that look more at home in Publika or Damansara Uptown are now jostling with decades-old kopitiams for customers. Old pre-war shophouses now house cafés, restaurants, art galleries and backpackers' inns. In the city, the skyline has grown higher.

My priorities then meant that I couldn't attend every single event duing GTLF2013, but I managed to catch the Q&A with Datuk Lat as his session drew to a close. I think he was talking about paper.

Datuk Lat (right) fielding questions as his session wraps up; the
session was moderated by the other guy, Huzir Sulaiman

"You'd think that, oh, there's some good quality drawing paper, I think I'll buy some and then you go home with your good paper and you'll start drawing ... that will never happen."

So it's not just writers who draw a blank when confronted with white space.

Whatever can be said about the George Town Literary Festival, I'm glad that there is one. But I'd reconsider getting Huzir Sulaiman and Shamini Flint back for GTLF2014 - those funny, witty, chatty people kept stealing the show.

"...well, I thought it was pretty funny."

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

"Too much of a good thing" pretty much sums up the Big Bad Wolf book sale as well. I managed to find a route that took me to the venue, but it was all too much for me. I didn't feel like picking up anything from the mountains of fiction titles.

Still, I ended up with several non-fiction titles, including a cookbook on curry, which I've yet to (and may never satisfactorily) master.

But I'm not sure if I want to go to next year's.

Then again, since production of new books picked up at work towards the end of 2013 I couldn't look at another printed page when I'm home.