August 30, 2006
When New Yorker and illustrator Ernie ColÃ³n originally tried to read the 568-page 9/11 Report, he was forced to quit after about fifty pages. The Report, nominated for the National Book Award and widely praised for its unflinching criticism of the government’s failures, was nevertheless difficult to comprehend. “For a government report, it was well written–but still hard to follow,” ColÃ³n said, citing “a lot of things going on at the same time in different places.”
And so, a year later, when ColÃ³n read that a miniseries based on the 9/11 Report was under consideration, he contemplated making a graphic adaptation of the report’s findings. The 75-year-old illustrator, who has worked for Harvey, Marvel and DC Comics, decided to run the idea by his longtime friend and colleague, Sid Jacobson, who served as managing editor and editor-in-chief at Harvey Comics, and executive editor at Marvel Comics. Jacobson’s reaction was, in comic book terms, “Holy @#$%! What a great idea!”
Jacobson’s experience in reading the report was similar, and his difficulty led to further inspiration. “I had trouble following what was happening on the four (hijacked) flights,” he explained, “and it hit me: Wow! You could show this as a timeline. You could really, really explain it.” Adds ColÃ³n: “We’re in the business of clarification.”
The result is a timeline that spans the first 18 pages of the book, utilising a fold-out in the hardcover edition. Not only does it elucidate the events of September 11th, but, like the 9/11 Report, it focuses on the events leading up to it and the failure of governmental agencies to heed the warning signs. Jacobson, working as the author to ColÃ³n’s illustrations, took text almost exclusively from the commission’s report. Unlike the recent movies United 93 and World Trade Center, “it’s not a dramatization. It’s the story of an investigation,” Jacobson insists. “It’s graphic journalism.”
But many worry about whether or not the ‘graphic novel’–if not ‘comic book’–genre can support a topic as weighty as the 9/11 catastrophe. Tim Sumner, whose brother-in-law died in the World Trade Center, supports a new wave of “historical reference,” but has his doubts about the graphic adaptation. “While having not read the book,” he said, “it sounds pretty cheap.”
With concern for its appropriateness, no matter how much he supported the concept, publisher Thomas LeBien sent the book to the former officials of the 9/11 commision. The chair of the commission, New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, admitted that he was “very concerned” when he first heard about the project. “But when I looked at it, it was absolutely accurate.” He and vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton even agreed to write a foreward for the graphic.
And both ColÃ³n and Jacobson exercised extreme consideration over what they chose to depict. Some of the images envision the violence aboard the planes, but when the text that reads “as time grew short and desperate, civilians leaped from North Tower upper floors” is left unillustrated. “It would have personally offended me to draw that. I just couldn’t,” ColÃ³n stated. “We knew this was not just politically charged but emotionally charged. We didn’t want to do anything that would offend anyone who lost someone.”
But the stigma of comic books may remain, however considerate the renderings, however factual the prose. The authors deeply pondered the effect of employing classic comic book onomatopoeias such as “Blam!” for explosions and “R-RUMBLE” for the collapse of the South Tower, and ultimately decided to use them. “Our feeling was that it would look like a silent movie without it,” Jacobson explained. “You have captions, you have balloons with text, you have sound effects,” ColÃ³n added. “Doing without any of that would make it not readable.”
Readability is the aim of The 9/11 Report: The Graphic Adaptation, and it seems an admirable goal. From the advent of widespread printing to our contemporary relationship with television, film, and the internet, we are increasingly evolving into a society of visual learners. There’s nothing wrong with a proclivity towards the visual, as long as the facts are not simplified or obscured. Kirkus’s early review notes especially that the book does not fall prey to this trap, calling it “thoughtful â€” and by no means dumbed-down.”
And an education of a large portion of the population that the original report could not reach speaks for the potential for the book’s positive impact. The book arrives in time to mark the 5th anniversary of the original attacks, and now is the time for everyone to learn the truth about the government’s handling of the situation, not the time to bicker over the medium in which it is reported. “There are going to be a whole bunch of kids, teenagers and adults that will not read the report,” ColÃ³n summed up, pointing to his new book as an alternative. “The educational system at large has resisted them, I think, because of the term ‘comic book.’ I like to think of them as something that has more purpose.”
Read articles at USAToday and The WashingtonPost; visit a blog discussion at Cake or Death.
August 25, 2006
The release of This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, an anthology edited by Elizabeth Merrick, has stirred up a great brouhaha in the writing and publishing industries. The ruckus is not entirely illogical, as Merrick recieved inspiration through her dismay with the state of the writing and publishing industries. The book, she explains, is the fruit of “years of being appalled, as a young writer, at how little promotion serious women writers get:”
You need review space, and review space is still very biased toward men and bylines at our literary publications. Look at Harper’s or The New Yorker. It’s a very good week if there are 25 percent or 30 percent female bylines.
As that was happening, serious books by women were edged further off the front display tables by these knockoffs of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and then it just got harder and harder to find literary works by women. I wanted to make a way for the audience of readers who want more literary work to be able to find it. And so that’s how this anthology was born.
The anthology, which contains stories by writers such as Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Mary Gorden, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Francine Prose and Curtis Sittenfeld, is anything but anti-feminist, contrary the conclusions some might draw from the title. Instead, its aim is to focus on the issues that preoccupy those women who are trying to make serious contributions to the face of literature, whether they are “female” issues, “feminist” issues, or neither. Merrick advocates the ability for women to write about the female psyche without limiting it to the topics of finding Mr. Right and the right handbag to go with him.
“We don’t have just one story, we have many stories, and they’re not getting heard,” Merrick laments. “It’s essential that they be heard, because if we don’t hear them and we just hear that it’s all about marriage and designer shoes, then that diminishes us. It diminishes our imagination.” She’s tired of men cornering the market on ‘genius’ books, a problem she encountered when trying to find a publisher for her novel Girly, an epic exploring female sexuality and spirituality through seven different voices. She finally had to publish the book herself.
But there are a number of disagreements that have sprung up around the book’s publication. The first is, naturally, from authors and proponents of the chick lit genre itself, who feel that the anthology is persecuting one half of the female authorship body, creating factions precisely when it should be rallying the troops. Jennifer Weiner, author of Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, fumed, “We’ve got the country’s (self-proclaimed) best women writers turning up their noses at their fellow women authors’ more commercial efforts. The best chick-lit books deal with race and class, gender wars and workplace dynamics, not just shoes and shopping.”
And one could certainly argue that the publishing industry is kept alive through commercial best-sellers that entertain readers even if they don’t innovate literature. In retaliation, Lauren Baratz-Logsted is publishing an anthology titled This is Chick Lit. “The reason chick lit sells in such great abundance is that it provides readers with a reliable form of entertainment,” she said. “Is there something wrong with this?”
But from Merrick’s point of view, chick lit is taking up publishing resources and bookstore space that might otherwise be available to serious female writers. And it seems to me that a continued proliferation of chick lit, sometimes without regard to quality, combined with a male domination in the genre of serious literature, can intimidate aspiring female writers, conciously or unconsciously. In his article, Jeff Simon points out that “only a few of the stories in her declaration of commercial independence are formally challenging. Is that because she - the anthologist - is out of sympathy with that kind of story, or the best current female writers are?”
Merrick reveals that the bias is not her own: she is desperate to discover female authors tackling issues and style in controversial ways. “I would argue that those books are being written - and very possibly not published,” she states. “We all know what we do with the difficult Boy Books. These books win our awards. These are the books that generations of men are trying to (emulate) with their next generation of Boy Books. I think there are women writing these books but it’s happening as there is increasing pressue on women to write in a more realist mode.”
Visit a discussion of This is Not Chick Lit on Conversational Reading.
August 23, 2006
As long as we’re on the topic of the slow but inevitable digitisation of the known universe, let us take a moment to imagine the effect it has upon an author. Lionel Shriver, author of the 2005 Orange Prize Award-Winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, has a particular observation about the effect of the computerisation on the publishing industry. And no, it’s not the impact of composing on a laptop using the wireless in a coffee shop, or the future of book signings in a world of e-books.
Ms. Shriver (who changed her name from ‘Margaret Ann’ at the age of fifteen because she thought men had it easier in the world) would like to draw attention to deficiencies of computer graphics in creating cover art. She reminisces about her first couple of books, whose covers bore original art truly expressive of the stories contained inside. She goes on to explain the transformation of computer graphics:
Yet my latter covers have all capitulated to the computer. By the 1990s, designers were glued to their screens. If you scan Waterstone’s today, you will be hard pressed to find any covers employing original art. … For the most part, designers now just drag photos off the web, and play with backgrounds and fonts at the keyboard. That’s why a strange drabness, coldness, and sameness is plaguing the aesthetics of book publishing - and at a time when the pleasures of physical books, as opposed to electronic media, are vital to defend.
The neccessary relationship between the work of art inside and the work of art outside is maligned when one is the product of human being’s most visceral creative powers, and the other looks a bit, perhaps, airbrushed. Flaws and irregularities, Shriver contends, lend objects the mystery that we recognise as beauty.
She takes care to point out that she’s “not one to complain about the advent of the computer overall, which has made writing so much more convenient.” She’s simply frustrated because the last thirteen covers for her new book that her publisher has suggested have not worked, and no one appears to be heeding her requests for original art. That’s why, she explains, “at my wit’s end this last weekend, I…hauled out my coloured pencils. I drew my own damn book cover - luminous, one-of-a-kind, and…not quite perfect. We’ll see if my publisher bites. Call me a Luddite if you will - at least I tried.”
Read her full article in the Guardian, entitled ‘Now that pixels have replaced pencils the art of drawing has vanished. I’m so exasperated I’m designing my own book cover’ here, or read interviews and a biography at HarperCollins.
In 2004, Google announced that it would begin digitizing books, scanning their content into an online library. Jane Friedman, the president and chief executive of HarperCollins, the world’s third-largest English-language trade book publisher, had two responses: first, sue them; second, join them.
Friedman’s additional position as the chairwoman of the Association of American Publishers prompted her act as the representative for the five leading publishers in a court battle with Google last year. Much like the arguments against programs such as Napster in the past, the publishing companies accused Google of violating copyright laws.
But, as Google persisted with its project, Friedman decided to scan HarperCollins’ extensive book directory into its own digitial files. “I was very concerned about Google actually physically owning our digitial copies, so we said, ‘Why doesn’t HarperCollins take this lead?’” she explained. “It’s up to us to recognise where we will be friends with them and where we will sue them.”
Friedman’s decision to digitize files dating back to the 1920s—by next year, she hopes to have 20,000 books available in digital form—indicates the importance of the backlist in publishing revenues. Publishers actually make a large percentage of their income on older books, because the most expensive elements of the publishing process have already been paid for, making reproduction costs the sole expense. And the internet, Friedman points out, facilitates the second-hand book trade as well as the housing the specter of libraries of free digitised books, both things that srip publishers of their means of staying afloat.
Because another problem with the backlist is storage: physical books take up a great deal of physical space. Bookstores have a finite capacity, and are likely to bump older books when the newest bestseller comes along. In order to compete, publishers will need to set up their own online storefronts and prepare for digital distribution. It’s an extremely costly process—Friedman quoted a seven-digit price tag for HarperCollins’ effort—but the storage space is free and the consumer can find the product in an instant, increasingly a requirement for a product’s success.
Other companies have begun to turn their eyes towards the future of digital books as well. Though e-books still represent a fairly small portion of the market, textbook companies like Pearson, offering learning materials in textbook form, have triumphed over their competitors. The American Association of University Press met in June to discuss the possibilities and drawbacks. “The mission must be getting more material to scholars faster,” said Stephen Rhind-Tutt, president of Alexander Street Press.
Most notably, Macmillan announced last year that it would begin digitising its books in a similar manner to HarperCollins. Richard Charkin, C.E.O. of Macmillan, expounded that “services such as Google Print have shown what can be done for books and we are keen to build on this by offering a range of services to our publishers, from basic search and display to marketing and e-commerce.” Jane Friedman agrees: “My intention is that everything gets integrated; the digital world becomes part of the fabric of the traditional publishing world.”
August 22, 2006
“Unless you are a household name, have appeared on a reality TV show or â€” and this is the important one â€” have an agent â€” then you have virtually no chance of attracting a publisher,” reads a letter from John Hancock, literary agent. If you are a seriously aspiring writer, you likely hold a more than passing acquaintance with this situation, but Mr. Hancock is thoroughly prepared to alleviate your distress—provided that you pay a Â£97 “reading fee.”
Apparently, agents charging upfront fees have been cropping up in the United Kingdom like dandelions (they may look like flowers, but they are fundamentally weeds). These agents will justify the expenses in a plethora of ways: Hancock’s letter explains that the fee “is a way of weeding out those who are not wholly committed. Frankly, if you are not prepared to invest Â£97 in your work then we have no prospect of a long term relationship.” Meanwhile, Darin Jewell of the Inspira Literary Agency claims that the Â£350 upfront fee covers photocopying and postage to the fifteen different publishers, but simple mathematics and common sense suggest that Â£23.30 is more than adequate for those tasks.
Indeed, common sense and simple mathematics can be your greatest allies in trying to sort out the honest agents from the partial, if not total, scams. Agents traditionally earn their money by receiving a percentage of what you are paid, thus giving them the incentive to work hard on your behalf. There is little point in having an agent who does not care about promoting your work, or who is not invested in its merit and artistic contributions.
Clare Alexander, president of the Association of Author’s Agents, insists that “no member of the association would charge a reading fee.” “It is very easy for people to set themselves up as an agent and charge a fee without doing much in return,” Alexander continues. “Authors should check an agent’s name on our website before signing up.” Kate Pool, deputy general secretary of the Society of Authors, echoes her reccommendation: “Our advice is always that mainstream agents do not charge upfront fees.” Don’t be swindled; an agent who charges an upfront fee has little interest in you, and an agent with little interest in you is of no use at all.
You can read the full article in the Times here; you can visit the Association of Author’s Agents’ website here.
In anticipation of England doing well in the World Cup, white-and-red flags fluttered ubiquitously, fans made arrangements for watching the games with mathematical precision, and a number of footballers signed gigantic book deals, topped by the record-breaking Â£5 million for a five-book account of Wayne Rooney’s life.
But the first volume of this five-part saga has sold a rather modest 13,700 copies. Whether the cause is England’s similarly middling performance in the World Cup, or the fact that, apparently, the book’s most revealing insight is that Mr. Rooney’s house “has six bedrooms and a big kitchen, which is very modern and greyish,” is unknown. But it’s clear that when Roddy Bloomfield, sports book editor at Hodder and Stoughton, said, “I’m not buying any footballers’ books now,” he was not the only one.
So what fills the void? Bloomfield has that figured out, too: “You need characters and real stories to sell sports books,” he said, “and this is what cricketers provide.” The smart publisher brought out Andrew “Freddy” Flintoff’s autobiography last fall, after his success in the Ashes earned him the title “Man of the Series” by Australian coach John Buchanan. This all-rounder player, who has also won the inaugural Compton-Miller Medal, the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for the ICC player of the year award, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2005, and the Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World in 2006, now has the additional distinction of having sold over 250,000 copies of his autobiography in hardback alone.
And Flintoff is hardly a solitary case. Bloomfield has also served as publisher to Michael Vaughan, captain of the English cricket team, and Ritchie Benaud, long-time commentator of the sport, whose memoirs have both sold roughly 100,000 copies. Next week, another publisher, Ebury, will unveil its latest efforts in the genre with the story of the self-confident Kevin Pietersen, an England and Hampshire cricketer born in South Africa.
Most recently, publishers have been clamoring over the rights to Monty Panesar’s biography. His surprising emergence as the hero of England’s win against Pakistan this summer has brought this left-arm spinner to the attention of the public. As the first Sikh to represent England, and, in fact, any country outside of India, on a cricket team, Monty has a fresh story to tell. His grandparents are still residing in India, where he made his Test debut a mere six months ago. Since then, he has become distinctive for his excellent bowling, excellent work ethic and less-than-excellent ability in the field, but even more so for his personality, and his reputation for wearing his patka (a smaller version of the Sikh turban) on the pitch. His book deal, expected to be wrapped up within the week, is projected to bring Panesar about Â£250,000.
August 21, 2006
Alison, a 46-year-old ex-model whose face is now “broken, with age and pain coming through the cracks,” trudges through San Rafael, California. She is sick with hepatitis, a condition exacerbated by the codeine she takes to dull the pain in an arm incapacitated by a car accident and a failed surgery. She describes her current as the “gray present,” through which “the bright past” sears, unrelentingly pulling her back. As the novel continues, less and less of the “present” Alison is seen, eclipsed by the occasionally garish shine of her history.
As a teenager, Alison ran away from home, residing in the marijuana haze of 1970s San Francisco before success in a modeling contest swept her off to Paris. She chronicles the model’s world there, parties stocked with a cornucopia of drugs and an equal profusion of almost ludicrously beautiful people. When her affair with the married head of her modeling agency ends, she flees the Parisian world of a “rich, dreamy mud of sound” for New York city. But her addiction to the world of beauty, beauty like an aristocratic title that one possesses or does not, calls her back into Manhattan’s modeling world, where she celebrates considerable success in the 1980s.
Only then does the ‘Veronica’ of the title arrive. A plain, unstylish, and overweight woman, Veronica initially only attracts Alison’s distaste when the two meet temping for an advertising agency. But like the tension of Gaitskill’s previous novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, this book is truly about the fast friendship that develops between these two unlikely candidates. More than anything else, Alison returns to her memories of Veronica, as the older woman battled with her contraction of HIV from her emotionally-distant bisexual husband.
Veronica is the mouthpiece for the gritty truths that characterise Gaitskill as an author, and as we realize that Alison’s friendship with Veronica is the only happy part of her predominantly tempestuous life, another contradiction is drawn. At once poetic and fierce, the gorgeous language does not flinch away from the putrid, the caustic, and the bitterness of truth; her metaphors engage a kind of lethal precision of the word. Like the sheathing of a one-gorgeous model in the sickly frame of an aging woman, Gaitskill continually draws upon the intimacy of opposites, of beauty and ugliness, even in her own prose.
Read a review from the San Francisco Chronicle.
August 19, 2006
My father in law informed me that my married name could produce these two anagrams: Hearty Salmon. Nasty Armhole. I cannot tell you how much I love that.”
This is the first entry in Amy Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. The title is not metaphoric in any sense; this non-fiction memoir of Rosenthal’s life actually takes the form of an encyclopedia, alphabetically ordering both emotional events and the minutiae of everyday living. Rosenthal got the idea in part from her fascination with the fragmentary style of The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, in which a court lady in tenth century Japan records anecdotes, descriptions, character sketches, and lists of things that she liked or disliked. And so Rosenthal set about the task of creating a similar record for a twenty-first century regular American woman.
And Rosenthal stresses the ‘ordinary’ nature of her life; her Forward ends with the proclamation, “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” A happily-married 39-year-old mother of three then proceeds to amuse, enchant and move the reader in a series of entries that range from an entry on ‘Identity,’ which includes two pictures drawn by police sketch artists according to descriptions of the author by first her father and then her husband, to an entry on ‘Dying,’ which concludes, “And we can’t forget malpractice. My sister-in-law died at the age of thirty-two during childbirth because the doctors and nurses missed the red-flagged allergic to anesthesia warning on her medical chart. People don’t die anymore in childbirth, everyone knows that, but yet they do; sweet, stunning, silk-scarf-wearing, multilingual Hilary did. People are just dying everywhere, all the time, every which way. What can the rest of us do but hold on for dear life.”
Whether you are laughing aloud, nodding in recognition, or plunged in thought, the book is fun to read. At first, perhaps, it’s frustrating that there is no story, no arc, but soon this haphazard if alphabetical arrangement becomes part of the book’s charm; after all, the arrangement of life itself is random and will rarely comply with a narrative.
Visit the book’s website here; read a review, an excerpt, or see a video of Amy at USAToday.
August 17, 2006
Not an economist? No matter. This book, whose full title is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is written in clean, understandable prose accessible to those with previous knowledge of economics and without. Furthermore, co-authors Levitt and Dubner focus on the statistics of everyday life, not the more intangible world of interest rates. An original profile of Levitt’s new slant on his field, written by Dubner in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine, is sprinkled throughout the book, separating the chapters and serving as a rough organization for Levitt’s myriad topics.
Because Levitt does put statistical data into use to create correlations and causality in surprising situations, sometimes humorous, sometimes disquieting. He has no worldview to expound, no ideology–except, perhaps, that numbers can tell us far more than we think. He shows that fluctuating test scores may point to teachers cheating in order to get credit for their students’ higher grades, weighing it with cheating indicated in tournament records of sumo wrestlers. His chapter “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” examines precisely how much of a role the nurture of a child has in its potential success, with headings such as “Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?” and “Eight things that make a child do better in school and eight that don’t.” Perhaps most controversially he links a drop in the crime rate to the legalization of abortion two decades prior. But whether you agree with his conclusions or you don’t, the facts he brings up and the connections he draws are sure to make you think about the world around you.
Read a review in the Wall Street Journal here; read one in the Intuitive Life Business Blog here.
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The Dead Hour is Denise Mena’s follow-up to 2005’s Field of Blood featuring struggling Scottish Daily News reporter Patricia “Paddy” Meehan who, three years after cracking the case of a little boy’s murder to become a full-fledged reporter, is now stuck covering the night shift crime beat. The word is depressing and going nowhere: drunken brawls, knife fights, and domestic violence. So when Paddy investigates a domestic violence dispute in the affluent suburbs, she is ready to dismiss it just as the cops interviewing the distressed couple seem to.
However, when Paddy catches a glimpse of an elegant, blonde woman suffering from a head wound, she is prompted to ask a few questions, only to have her handsome companion shove a fifty pound note at her not to report the story, and Paddy is poor enough where fifty pounds makes a difference. She agrees to not report it, only to sorely regret her decision the next morning reveals the woman to have been Vhari Burnett, a decidedly unmarried human rights lawyer, now found viciously murdered in her own home. It is here that Paddy realizes she had been bribed by Vhari’s murderer.
Things only become increasingly complicated as Vhari’s friend commits suicide, leaving an apologetic note that leads the police to believe that he had killed his friend, and then himself out of guilt. Now Paddy is faced with the decision to either track down Vhari’s real killer and admit to her own part in the crime - and possibly end her career - or to keep quiet about the affair and let her own guilt consume her.