Monthly Archives: June 2010

Guest Post on Pimp My Novel

My very first guest post is up today at Pimp My Novel. It’s a slightly tweaked post from this blog, but will hopefully generate some cool comments over there. Eric at Pimp My Novel is running guest posts all week, so check those out too.

If you’re visiting this blog from there, welcome!


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Amanda McKittrick Ros: Can writing be so bad that it’s good?

We often hear how self publishing and ebooks will overwhelm defenseless readers with a sea of slush. Those who say this may not know of Amanda McKittrick Ros. She self published long before it was fashionable, well, technically her husband financed the publication of her first novel. Irene Iddesleigh was introduced to the world in 1897 as a tenth anniversary present. It has ever since been a source of inspiration for all the wrong reasons.

An Amanda Ros society sprung up in Oxford in 1907, where dinner party guests had much fun mocking the book. Mark Twain called it “one of the greatest unin­tentionally humorous novels of all time.” Aldous Huxley wrote an essay about the novel’s bizarre style in 1928. And shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the novel in their literary group, the Inklings. The task was to see who could read aloud the longest without breaking into “helpless laughter.” Apparently beer was also involved.

Ros demonstrates a penchant for overwriting. As has often been quoted, in her prose, eyes become “globes of glare,” legs are referenced as “bony supports,” pants are a “southern necessary,” and sweat is rendered as “globules of liquid lava.” As her title shows, alliteration was one of her favorite devices. From Irene Iddesleigh:

The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing.

Dialogue fares no better:

“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”

But what’s most interesting about Ros is not her writing itself, it’s the continued interest in her for more than a century. Ros was the subject of a 1964 biography, aptly titled O Rare Amanda! Her third novel, Helen Huddleston, which she left incomplete was published posthumously in 1969. In 1988, her work was collected in an Amanda Ros reader, Thine in Storm and Calm. In 2001 she was featured in Nick Page’s In Search of the World’s Worst Writers. She was the subject of a fresh “read aloud” contest at the Celebrate Literary Belfast festival in 2006. Demand for her books, which are all sadly out of print, is strong. Prices range from $200 to $500. It seems only a matter of time before some enlightened publisher introduces her in ebook form. How many writers of more talent have published celebrated tomes since, yet today are forgotten?

I reviewed Fannie Hurst in an earlier post. She was at one time the highest paid writer in America, but today is nearly out of print. Her writing is similarly amazing for all the wrong reasons. That post on Hurst is one of the most trafficked pages on this blog. People seem to love bad writing, or perhaps just bad art in all its forms. What else explains the attention paid to those unknowing contestants at the beginning of each season of American Idol?

And what happens when vanity and notoriety collide? Is it better to be forgotten or laughed at and remembered? If Ros were alive–she died in 1939–she could take solace in the fact that she has brought much joy to the literary world. She’s also frequently reported as saying: “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years.” Amanda McKittrick Ros may well be right.

Further reading on Ros: Amanda McKittrick Ros and the Inklings, Wikipedia: Amanda McKittrick Ros

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eReader Price Wars, First Round

The long anticipated ereader price wars began this week. Apple has cornered the market for the multi-purpose device and can demand a premium for the iPad, but how the dedicated-ereader market plays out will come down in no small part to price.

Barnes & Noble started things off by dropping the price of the Nook to $199, and introducing a Wi-Fi only version (the regular version also has 3G) for $149. It’s a big plus that the Nook supports the non-proprietary ePub and Adobe DRM (plus the old standby PDF) formats. It’s also the only of these three ereaders with a color screen. Barnes & Noble needed to get cheaper than Amazon to remain in this game. Selling a device for $110 less than their previous cheapest offering is a steep move in the right direction.

Amazon responded the next day by dropping the price of the Kindle to $189. I’m surprised it took them this long following the iPad release, and even at the new price I’m still not a fan because of the proprietary Amazon ebook format. Any books bought from the Kindle Store can only ever be read on an Amazon device. Of course, there are ways you can get around this restriction, but they’re of questionable legality, and more importantly far too much of a hassle just to take your books with you when you move.

Borders also entered the fray by offering a $20 Borders gift card with the purchase of the Kobo ereader which is still priced at $149. This device also supports ePub, Adobe DRM, and PDF formats, though it can’t connect via Wi Fi or 3G. You need to plug it into a computer or sync it with a smartphone to load more books on it. I like that this device isn’t so married to a particular store, and in theory it should work seamlessly with both the Kobo and Borders ebook stores. Kobo also does the best job of offering a side-by-side comparison, though they haven’t yet updated the prices on this page or added the new Wi-Fi only Nook.

The mountain of unread paper books by my bed means that I have no fear in delaying this decision, yet again. My hunch is that by this year’s holiday one of these devices will come with enough gift cards to essentially make it free. All three will undoubtedly soon follow the Kobo and Borders model of not dropping the price, but piling on the perks. Why buy one when I can wait and hope someone else gets one for me?

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6 Rules for Writing Book Reviews

A couple of author blogs that I follow have had some great recent posts on the role of the book reviewer. First, Mark Charan Newton weighed in with a discussion on the value of hype. And then Sam Sykes on reviewing authors on their own merits rather than through comparisons with other authors. One thing that doesn’t seem to be open for debate is that the reviewer has been yanked out of the ivory tower. No longer is the club limited to those with access to a publishing outlet. Today, anyone with an internet connection can join, and start posting reviews far and wide.

I love this egalitarian approach. It makes for an interesting precursor to what we’re likely to see happen with the book itself over the next 10 years. But as is so often lamented on this topic, quality will vary greatly. We’ll need these egalitarian reviews to help us figure out what to read as the number of books published in the English language soars past the 1-million-per-year mark. As someone who used to review books for The Seattle Times, I’ve likely thought a bit more about the subject of the book review than most.

Here’s my two cents on the essential elements of a book review:

1) It all starts with book selection. Reviewing a book puts it above the other books published by both traditional presses and independent authors. This is why I harbor such angst for Kirkus Discoveries. They’ve abdicated one of the most important roles of the book reviewer: choosing what gets reviewed. They’ve prostituted this out to anyone willing to cough up $500. There’s also the slew of review factories willing to write reviews and post them on Amazon for a fee. In some ways I find them less reprehensible though. They’re at least up front about the prostitution part of their work.

2) Read the book. Yes, the whole dang thing. It’s amazing how many reviewers–even those of the professional ilk–don’t do this. I feel that I have two options if I’m not liking a book that I intend to review. One, finish it and write the review. Two, throw it across the room and review something else.

3) Convey an impression of what the experience of reading the book is like. This is the most important aspect of the book review. People read reviews to decide if this book is worth their money, and more importantly, their time. The reading experience is intensely personal. No two readers walk away from even the same book with the same understanding of it. The most valuable thing a reviewer can do is not christen a book as good or bad–thumbs up or thumbs down–but let readers know what a book is like.

4) Review the book that’s there. The desire to review the book that the reviewer wishes was there, instead of the one that actually was written, can be huge. It doesn’t do either the author or the reader any favors. The review should demonstrate that it understands what the author set out to do, and then comment on how well this was achieved. If it’s a thriller, review it as such with plot and pacing paramount. If it’s a literary novel, look at language and style and theme. If the book is overly hyped, ignore it. If you’ve heard the author is Charles Dickens reincarnated, ignore that too. Just read the dang book and write about what’s there.

5) No spoilers. Again, this should go without saying. While a bit of summary is good, anything more than what’s revealed in the official publisher blurb is too much.

6) Understand that every review reviews the reviewer as much as what’s reviewed. A book review says as much about the person writing it, often more, than it does about the book itself. This to a large extent is why I stopped writing reviews for The Seattle Times. As I got into my own writing and came to understand how much work it is to write a novel, I came to question if I had any right to say anything at all about what someone else had written.

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Thoughts on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of those books that seems to pop up everywhere. It’s at the front of all the major bookstores, is mentioned with envy at every writer’s conference, and was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article on the rise of the dystopian kid lit novel. The Hunger Games had caught my attention, but it didn’t make it onto my list until I saw my 12-year-old niece reading it. She was even nice enough to buy me a copy of it last Christmas, though I’ve only just now snatched it from the shelf.

Once I dug in, it didn’t take long to understand why the book gets such rave reviews from all corners. This is not a book that’s read, so much as swallowed by the spoonful. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in a future society in the North American Rockies, following some unspecified cataclysmic event. A rich capital city is surrounded by 12 provinces, all overrun with varying degrees of impoverishment. Each year, to keep the provinces in line, there is a lottery that selects two children from each province to become contenders in the namesake Hunger Games. It’s a critique of our reality-TV-drenched society, only in this world the games are a fight to death… between kids. Last one alive wins. Katniss, of course, ends up as a contender for her coal-mining province, the poorest of the poor.

Collins does a superb job of launching the plot from the first page, but offers much more than just relentless story. The reader quickly develops deep empathy for these characters. While Collins never does stop throwing rocks–sometimes quite literally–at her beloved Katniss, the book also has highly reflective moments for her. These come crashing to an end, long before they get boring, with some new disaster that Katniss must claw her way out from under.

One of the most striking things about this book is how it deals with death, which is featured rather prominently and sometimes almost gruesomely for a kid’s book. Collins hasn’t created a moving novel on mortality like Tuck Everlasting, or one that reflects on humanity’s weaknesses like The Lord of the Flies, but she does pluck at something more profound than just the heartstrings. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike, just slightly older kids. It’s not a good candidate for bedtime reading for truly little ones. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released late last year, and we’ll probably all hear a great deal–perhaps too much–about the third book in the series, Mockingjay, when it’s released this August.

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A Caboodle of Fancy Words from The New York Times

I love how The New York Times embraces the web with their online version of the paper. Apparently, they have a function on their site where if you double-click on any word, a little question mark pops up. Click on this and you get a definition of the word from American Heritage dictionary. They’ve recently compiled the top 50 terms that were looked up, along with some interesting tidbits on how many articles and op-ed pieces the word appeared in, and how many times the word is looked up per use. They’re own interpretation of the results are on their blog.

All around, it’s fascinating stuff, more than just a good excuse to expand the vocabulary. As their blog post points out, a good number of the words are foreign, and the word with the most lookups per use–baldenfreude–was made up. Does this mean that the AHD will be forced to add this word if folks keep using it? Or does it just show that made up words need to do a good job of letting readers know their invetisimos?

Looking through the list is a reflection of the times. Profligacy and profligate made the top five. I had to look it up too, but yup sounds like bankers to me. Overhaul is the most used unknown word with 605 references, no big surprise there, except maybe that it’s on the list. We must all know what it means by now. Austerity places fourth, definitely one of those words not heard much a year ago, but encountered on just about a daily basis now. But what about obduracy? Is that some remnant from the Bush era? Ubiquitous comes in second for most used unknown word, with 168 references. Does that mean that the word itself is now ubiquitous? Soporific, one of my favorite arcane words, was only used twice. My hunch is it was probably in reference to a book by one of them literary types.

Here’s a wordle of the whole caboodle:

Wordle of Fancy Words from "The New York Times"

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The New Yorker 20 under 40

"The New Yorker"The New Yorker came out with their list of 20 writers under 40 worth watching. Writers who they feel are the “defining voices” of a generation. Apparently they compile such lists a little less than once a decade. The last one from 1999 included Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen amongst others, which apparently means that the editors at The New Yorker feel somewhat vindicated with the process.

At first I was surprised that I had not heard of a single writer on this new list. Then I was surprised that I was surprised. Part of the reason for creating the list is to highlight new and emerging writers. And more to the point, I pretty much ignore the literary world. Once words like “hauntingly beautiful” or “nuanced” or “brooding” are used to describe a book, I run the other way. Once it becomes a writer’s job to define a whole dang generation, I hide. I fear plotless vignettes created purely for the sake of the language itself. I shudder at the complete disregard for story.

How things have changed. There was a time when I felt it my duty as a writer to be published in The New Yorker. This was right before I would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, by the age of 40, which pretty much makes every writer on this new list a slacker by my old standards. I even went so far as to write to get guidelines from The New Yorker, claiming that I felt it my duty to be rejected by them on my path to writerhood. They sent my self-addressed stamped envelope back eight months later with a tiny note on New Yorker stationary, that basically said “we have no guidelines as such.” Apparently, the sort of story they buy is too esoteric to be described, even by the editors who buy them.

I never did send them anything. By the time I got the note back I had already absconded into the bowels of genre fiction. From there, I jumped into writing kid lit, which is wonderfully refreshing. It has no concept of genre. You tell kids that a book is “nuanced” or that it will “define their generation,” and they look for another book. But even so, perhaps I should nudge my reader toe back into the literary, expand my horizons a bit. At the very least I could try one of the names above from the old list, which is presumably now the geezer list. Any recommendations?

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