Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cut and Paste Culture

If you’ve landed on this entry because of searching a particular phrase, you might want to move on and read this link instead, a thought-provoking article from 21 March New York Times, "Texts without Context" by Michiko Kakutani, as my comments, ironically, are perhaps part of the very problem. Also, ironical is that while this article is about the Internet, it was published in a major traditional newspaper, and itself incorporates the ideas of eight books on the general topic (and subtitle of the article): “The Internet Mashes Up Everything We Know About Culture.”

So, at the risk of being part of “the problem” here are some highlights from Kakutani’s article:

* intellectual property and plagiarism that have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons

* Web 2.0 is creating a “digital forest of mediocrity” and substituting ill-informed speculation for genuine expertise

* the Web have been accelerating certain trends already percolating through our culture — including the blurring of news and entertainment

* [we’ve become] a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.

* More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one.

* technology is also turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break.

* the Internet’s nurturing of niche cultures is contributing to what Cass Sunstein calls “cyberbalkanization.” Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier…for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”

This cut and paste mentality has migrated to mass media as well, with reality TV shows replacing shows that have to be written from scratch, perfect “water cooler” fodder, and retread movies and Broadway shows becoming more prevalent. We’ve become a mass culture addicted to gossip, voyeurism, and extremist or conspiratorial views, abetted by the Internet

Ironically, the plethora of views that can be found on the Internet can lead to a self-fulfilling confirmation bias, reinforcing preconceived views and gathering momentum to the point where some need to proselytize their views. The cut and paste approach requires no thought other than to send broadcast emails to friends, and friends’ friends ad nauseum attaching, the conspiracy or the impending Armageddon theory du jour.

I have asked friends not to forward me such stuff responding to their first missive with my standard letter along the following lines: “As much as I enjoy hearing from you, I don't want my email address used for any broadcast emails, no matter what the subject or the degree of importance. On the other hand, I welcome personal emails and you know I will always respond in kind. Thanks for your understanding.” Usually, that’s it. Most such “friends” normally do not write personal emails.

Nonetheless, we have gone from a society where information was controlled by the few to the explosive democratization of information, where anyone can produce what passes for such and anyone can consume it as one wants. Beware of prophets bearing informational gifts for the self-delusional.

Spammer at Work

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joe The Barber

My sister called to tell me she had some family news: Joe the Barber died.

This takes some explaining. Although I don’t remember it, family history is that Joe gave me my very first haircut. Not only that, he was the barber for my grandfather and father and gave my older son his very first haircut as well. That’s four generations of us.

His shop was almost directly across the street from PS 90 where I spent my grammar school years from kindergarten to 8th grade, the Jamaica Avenue elevator line rumbling overhead nearby. My Uncle Phil lived in the same house where my father grew up, directly across from the school and a leisurely stroll to Joe’s shop. Joe cut Uncle Phil's hair as well.

When I was old enough to take my Schwin to school, I’d park the bike in Uncle Phil’s garage. Every few weeks or so I’d show up at Joe’s for my regular haircut, a buzz cut by the time I was biking to school.

Joe had a couple of chairs in his shop, but he was the only barber and there would usually be a wait, so I was able to get my hands on a few adult magazines while I waited and he chatted with the customer in the chair.

I looked forward to my turn as he always treated me like a kindly uncle would, knowing everyone in our family, asking me about family news, how things were in school, talking about my Dad which gave me perspective on him I would not otherwise have seen. He’d also talk about my grandfather, who by then was deceased, so Joe the Barber was an endless source of family history and gossip and advice.

Joe was Italian and proud of it. He was also a handsome man, always smiling while working, frequently humming a song, often joking that he could become the next Perry Como!

When I was in high school, preparing to go off to college, his own son was going through a rebellious stage, racing his Impala around, getting into a little trouble and naturally Joe was concerned. Unknown to Joe, I was doing the same kind of adolescent stuff and it was my turn to comfort him, telling him not to worry.

Once I went off to college and got married, I had to find my own barber in Brooklyn, although when I visited my parents in the home where I grew up, I still managed to stop in for a quick haircut with Joe the Barber in the same shop he had been in for decades.

As usual, he talked about my family and in particular about my Aunt Lillian, who would later leave her husband, Uncle Lou. After Joe’s wife died, Joe the Barber married Aunt Lillian, but even my Aunt did not refer to him as our “Uncle” Joe, signing Xmas cards, “Aunt Lillian and Joe.” But, to me, the man who just died, nearing the age of 99, was my dear Uncle Joe, who was part of the family all my life.

Here we are with my Aunt Ruth, Uncle Joe, and Aunt Lillian more than twenty years ago.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Irving Writes about Writing

In the corner of my home office is a “must read” shelf of novels and short stories, some are ones I want to reread, but most are either new titles or ones I just did not get to during my working career. While many of these I already owned, or buy used from Amazon’s affiliated vendors, I allow myself the luxury of acquiring new clothbound editions written by my favorite writers. Two such recent purchases were Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass and John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River.

When I finished my last book, given to me by my wife for Xmas, a wonderful, informative compendium, Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre; The Composers and Lyricists by Herbert Keyser, I debated about my next book, eyeing that new Tyler and Irving title, among the others I had squirreled away for the “right moment.” Impulsively I picked up the John Irving novel. Not sure exactly why, as I really ENJOY reading Anne Tyler, even if she writes about the same flaky characters in their Baltimore environs. Sometimes I feel like I am one of them, an accidental tourist on the journey of life.

Enjoyment would not be my motivation for reading Irving; rather, I would call it a COMPULSION and perhaps that is why Twisted River, once in my hands, became the choice du jour. Irving’s characters are not ones I easily identify with so I follow them somewhat dislodged from the comfort zone I am normally within Tyler’s or Richard Russo’s worlds.

And, indeed, Twisted River has a panoply of larger than life characters and Amazonian or Rubenesque women, the latter including Injun Jane, Six-Pack Pam, Carmella Del Popolo, and Lady Sky just to name a few of the colorful names. And then there are the men, who are often generically referred to as, “the cook” or “cookie” (Dominick), “the writer” (Daniel), “the riverman” or “the river driver” or the “logger” or the “woodsman from Coos County” (Ketchum), and the “constable” or the “crazy cowboy” or the “crazy cop” (Carl). In typical Irving fashion, there are scores and scores of supporting and minor characters.

Irving makes me feel as if I am entering a nightmare; so from the opening pages of Twisted River there is that sense of foreboding. His writing makes me stop here and there to figure out relationships, or potential relationships, as if I’m moving through molasses at times, but he is such a superior storyteller that you are drawn in and the story itself takes over.

He paints a portrait of three generations over the last fifty years and in a number of places, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Boston, Toronto, a twisted river of American life, Irving painting one part of the picture, jumping to another part of the canvas, temporally and geographically, circling and backfilling, bringing the story back to the beginning at the very end. It is an odyssey for the characters and for the reader. As Irving and I were born in the same year, the historical background of the novel is the one we’ve both lived at the same moment of our lives. The political history of “an empire in decline” is an omnipresent part of the novel’s subliminal setting, the arrogance of power from the folly of Vietnam to the Iraqi invasion.

Many of the usual Irving themes or symbolism are here: the bears, wrestling, New England, hands (or lack of), tattoos, accidents and fate. But, of all his novels, this may be the most illuminating about Irving himself and the craft of his writing. He even describes his Cider House Rules as another work of fiction in this novel called East of Bangor.

The main character in Twisted River is Daniel Baciagalupo a.k.a. Danny Angel, his pen name for most of the novel. Danny is Irving’s voice about writing, revealing his own tricks of the trade such as the following:

Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer. All those moments when you know you should speak, but you can’t think of what to say – as a writer, you can never give enough attention to those moments.

All writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this – even at twelve

One day, the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events – these are what move a story forward….(He was too young to know that, in any novel, with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.)

Childhood, and how it forms you – moreover, how your childhood is relived in your life as an adult – that was his subject (or his obsession), the writer Danny Angel daydreamed….

I particularly appreciated Irving’s attention to Danny’s experience at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Some of my favorite writers have taught or have been taught there, luminaries such as John Cheever, Philip Roth, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and, of course, John Irving.

One of Danny’s teachers there is Kurt Vonnegut* a kind man and a good teacher. Describing Vonnegut’s criticism of Danny’s punctuation problem gives Irving the opportunity to reveal the major influences on his (both Danny’s and Irving’s) work: Mr. Vonnegut didn’t like all the semicolons. “People will probably figure out that you went to college – you don’t have to try to prove it to them.” [B]ut semicolons came from those old-fashioned nineteenth-century novels that had made Daniel Baciagalupo want to be a writer in the first place….Danny would be at Exeter before he actually read those books, but he’d paid special attention to those authors there – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville…And English novelist Thomas Hardy naturally appealed to [him], who – even at twenty-five – had seen his share of what looked like fate to him. Danny (and Irving), says of his former teacher: Danny like[d] Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and he liked the man, too. Danny was lucky with teachers he had for his writing….

Ketchum (the woodsman) is an idealized alter ego of Irving, perhaps the man he sees himself as being outside the world of writing, while Danny’s father (the cook), a kindly man, protective of his son, is the idealized father who Irving never met. Irving loves these characters, and the stories of all three men are so tightly interwoven we mourn their aging in the novel as if they are one.

The reoccurring themes of Irving’s novels, the vulnerability of childhood, and the inevitable loss of innocence, Irving’s pessimistic distrust of human nature are evident here as well:

Danny Angel’s novels had much to do with what the writer feared might happen. The novels often indulged the nightmarish – namely, what every parent fears most: losing a child. There was always something or someone in a Danny Angel novel that was ominously threatening to children, or to a child. Young people were in peril – in part, because they were young!”

But what was political about [his] other five books? Dysfunctional families; damaging sexual experience; various losses of innocence, all leading to regret. These stories were small, domestic tragedies – none of them condemnations of society or government. In Danny Angel’s novels, the villain – if there was one – was more often human nature than the United States.

It is well known that Irving works from the end of a story to the beginning and so does Danny: As always, he began at the end of the story. He’d not only written what he believed was the last sentence, but Danny had a fairly evolved idea of the trajectory of the new novel.…That was just the way he’d always worked: He plotted a story from back to front; hence he conceived of the first chapter last. By the time Danny got to the first sentence – meaning to that actual moment when he wrote the first sentence down – often a couple of years or more had passed, but by then he knew the whole story. From that first sentence, the book flowed forward – or, in Danny’s case, back to where he’d begun.

And so it is with Twisted River, a work that is a mirror within a mirror as it is Danny Baciagalupo who becomes its author in the end, Irving bringing together all the themes and characters in a coda so powerful that I found myself emotionally choked as I concluded the novel, especially relating to one of Irving’s culminating thoughts: Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly – as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth – the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives. It left me bewildered as to how I could have been so unprepared for such a reaction, other than being in awe of Irving’s gifts and the knowledge that we are all bobbing along on a twisted river, a circle of life.

* In my working days we had published The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, subtitled An Authorized Compendium as it had the full cooperation of the great writer himself. I had asked Vonnegut whether he might inscribe a copy to my son who was in high school at the time and already an admirer of Vonnegut’s writings. I was both deeply moved and amused by his inscription:


Monday, March 1, 2010

Bill Gross Redux

As I’ve noted in some prior blog entries, Bill Gross, the world’s preeminent bond manager from PIMCO, also happens to be an excellent writer. I read his monthly comments as much for their style and wit, as I do for their content. His piece this month Don't Care, although primarily about the sovereign debt crisis, seques into the topic using the experience we’ve all had, the vapidity of cocktail conversation, the inherent disinterest of people in other people, coming to the conclusion that “the careful discrimination between sovereign credits is becoming more than casual cocktail conversation. A deficiency of global aggregate demand and the potential impotency of policymakers to close the gap are evolving into a life or death outcome for the weakest sovereigns, with consequences for credit and asset markets worldwide.”

But I am not going to discuss sovereign debt here (perhaps the most serious one ultimately being our own) but, instead, the experience he so eloquently and hilariously describes as the blather of the social gathering. He even incorporates a graph entitled the “Cocktail Party Empathy Chart,” the X-axis being “Seconds Into The Conversation” and the Y-axis being “How Much I Really Care About What You Are Saying.” As one might imagine, there is a diagonally dropping line from ten to zero in about ninety seconds.

Although Gross covers the five topics such conversations normally wander off to, I’ll use his general observation as my own seque into a very recent experience relating to my last entry , in which I said I was happy to see the preview performance of American Buffalo as it gave me an opportunity to form my own opinion of the production. Since then, three professionally written reviews have appeared, one in the Palm Beach Post which was positive but, I thought, could have been more enthusiastic and two unconditionally excellent reviews, one in The New Times, Broward/Palm Beach and the other from Skip Sheffield’s blog.

We were at a social gathering recently and someone asked whether anyone had seen this new production of American Buffalo so I began to glowingly describe the production and was interrupted by the comment that the Palm Beach Post didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic. Exactly my point I began to say, and before I could expand upon that it was pretty clear to me this person was more interested in talking about something else relating to one of those five “unbearable minute-and-a-half” topics, not really wanting a thoughtful reply. On Bill Gross’ X/Y graph, I hardly lasted the 90 seconds!

But why should this be a surprise? We don’t even listen to each other on the bigger issues. Look at the recent hyped meeting on healthcare between the President and leaders of Congress, each party pushing its own agenda, preening for their constituents in the all-day televised meeting. Hey, it makes no difference whether we will bankrupt the nation, as long as I look good! Who cares what the other has to say?

But I digress. Thanks, Bill Gross, for reminding us that we need to listen to each other, although I guess he might agree it all seems pretty hopeless.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

American Buffalo Soars at Dramaworks

One of the benefits of having a preview subscription to the performances at Dramaworks is the ability to see this uniquely focused regional theatre’s productions before reviews appear. Dramaworks dares to produce mostly classics such as the recent Ibsen's A Doll's House, Frayn’s Copenhagen, O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, and one of my favorites, Ionesco's The Chairs, simply serving up the very best in theatre, in a highly professional manner. One has to thank William Hayes, Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director, for his vision and his ability to consistently achieve Dramawork’s mission of being “a professional not-for-profit theatre company that engages and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual.”

And, indeed, American Buffalo is provocative, a nearly two hour run time going by with such pacing and great acting that the evening seemed to be compressed into mere minutes. David Mamet’s play is presented as he probably intended, with a perfect set design of a 70’s junk shop, the microcosmic universe where three small-time crooks, inherent losers, but ones with the needs of everyman for respect, friendship, even love, bungle their way through a botched job of stealing a coin collection from a “mark.” It is darkly humorous throughout.

Mamet’s staccato dialogue, although stark and profane, is pure poetry. It has a cadence that carries along the characters’ interaction and the plot. This is how people talk, and Donny, Teach, and Bobby become vividly real. An amusing sidebar is the fourth character in the play, Fletch, who we, the audience never see, but we join the characters in the play, questioning what kind of guy he might be, first thinking he’s the “brains” and then thinking he is nothing but a card shark and cheat, but then learning he was assaulted and is in a hospital with a broken jaw (ironic as he can’t speak in the play anyhow). It’s an interesting conceit that Mamet employs to bring us, the audience, further into the heart of the play.

And on a smaller scale the play is emblematic of today’s Madoffian barbaric business world, and the collapse of moral values. A constant refrain of the play is “hey, we’re talk’n business here.”

All in all, this is great theatre and if any review is less than excellent, I will be surprised.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

eBook War of Words

A follow up to Publishers in the Crosshairs, hopefully a more carefully considered one. The eBook wars are far more complicated than imagined. I quoted Mike Shatzkin from the Financial Times piece, but since then I’ve had enough sense to venture into his blog, specifically his expert report, The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan, which in turn led me to Tobias Buckell’s Why my books are no longer for sale via Amazon and Charlie Stross’ Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider's guide to the fight. These lengthy pieces, with their fascinating threads of responses, are must reading, something I might have done in the first place.

I should have known that publishers would find ways to make things hopelessly complex. Any industry that can base its selling strategy on first publishing a high-priced edition, overprinting the same in the hope a lower unit cost will justify a lower list price, and then take back the majority of what has been printed as returns, trying then to resell them on the bargain books table for pennies on the dollar, while, at the same time, issuing a lower-priced paper back edition, has to be suspect to begin with. The eBook wars have become enmeshed in legacy marketing practices such as “agency plans” and inconsistent methods of compensating authors on the sale of such editions (percentage based on “list price” or the net selling price, and/or whether the “agency” discount figure into the same). Then, digital rights management further complicates the issue.

When things become hopelessly complex, simplify. One option is to go to a “net pricing” scheme for eBook editions sold to the retail marketplace through intermediaries and then let the marketplace work; perhaps that price being similar to the eventual paperback list price. Of course, marketing structures and royalty arrangements would have to be engineered with that approach in mind, so there is no short-term silver bullet, and it does not "prevent" Amazon from pricing at less than it is paying the publisher. One has to wonder whether such a publishing practice is even legal or Amazon’s pricing is sustainable. But, I defer to the blogs mentioned above on this subject, following them with great interest, as the eBook wars no doubt escalate. As a society, we can only hope that a negotiated peace does not come at a price too steep for the publishing industry.

The Ancient Library of Celsus

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Publishers in the Crosshairs

Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the periphery of the industry for a while, the salad days of my publishing career behind me, but being a firm believer that information, especially vetted information, has value, publishers seem to be having a chicken-little moment at this stage of technology evolution. I can’t help but hark back to the 1960’s when publishers and libraries were fearing that Ultrafiche, a microfiche that holds up to 1,000 pages per 4x6" sheet of film, would make the printed book redundant. So fast-forward to the brave new world of the 21st century.

No doubt today’s technology is a form of creative destruction that Ultrafiche was not. But the operative word here is creative and publishers bring something valuable to the table, gathering and authenticating information at the higher end of the information pyramid and editing, designing, promoting and distributing trade books at the lower end. I’ve always thought of publishing as an information pyramid, the top of which is “must have information” – mostly scientific and professional – and at the bottom, the kind of publishing which is mostly the mass market stuff competing with movies, magazines, and other leisure-time activities. In the information pyramid there are various categories in between, such as educational publishing, serious trade publishing, etc. The higher in the pyramid, the less price sensitive and visa versa. To a great extent, this applies to electronic distribution as well.

Monday’s Financial Times presented an interesting analysis of the publishing industry’s present predicament, eye opening because it made clear that Amazon, to build market share and ward off the rapid encroachment of Apple and Google, was selling their $9.99 eBooks at a loss. Macmillan’s move to delay eBook editions of new titles by six months was to “force” Amazon to charge more, which Amazon capitulated on, not because of one publisher’s demands but because the announcement of Apple’s iPad threw down the gauntlet of real competition for the Kindle. I thought competition was supposed to drive down prices. Otherwise, the whole matter suggests a form of price fixing.

While publishers might find a $9.99 electronic book unsustainable (if that is their own list price) as, after all, the vast majority of the costs are those incurred in creating the first copy (paper, printing, and binding being a minor part of the expense in publishing), Amazon’s selling at that price is another matter. How long can Amazon sustain pricing that is less than publishers’ charge Amazon, particularly as Apple and Google enter the competitive fray? Aren’t publishers playing a dangerous collusion game “forcing” resellers to charge a particular price? Publishers need to set their list prices for printed and electronic editions, establish a sensible discount schedule to resellers (both price and discount dependent on where the book/information stands in the information pyramid), and then let the marketplace work. Their control of copyright allows them to have this power. It’s not a matter of “negotiating” prices with resellers, but, instead, ensuring they (publishers) don’t fall into the same trap as the music industry, taking safeguards with distributors to guard against unlicensed replication of eBook editions.

According to Mike Shatzkin (quoted in the FT article), “Legacy publishers still want bookstores to last as long as possible. Their business model is built on their expertise in navigating that industry.” No doubt that is true; even though that legacy system is fraught with its own economic problems such as allowing “returns” of unsold copies for up to a year, an archaic business practice that bookstores and publishers seem to be addicted to. However, be it legacy publishing, electronic, or forms yet to be discovered, it is the publishing industry’s need to adapt, not to retard progress. Otherwise, “their failure to recognize that their industry’s economics is of no concern to the marketplace [will be] another nail in their coffin.”

Perhaps the trade book publishing industry needs to be led out of the woods by more innovative independent publishers, with important, influential authors seeking those venues, deserting the present publishing oligarchy that imagines it can control how the resellers should price their publications. Instead, control the timeliness, presentation, and relevance and accuracy of content, bringing together the author and the reader, in any form the marketplace needs.

Of course it is a more complicated matter, within an even larger picture if you take into account the desirable survival of the independent bookstore, the strategic deployment of on-demand publishing by publishers, and how authors, particularly the best-selling authors, look at the eBook – is it a subsidiary right of which they require a larger piece of the action, such as they receive from the sale of movie rights, or even hold the right to themselves to negotiate their own deals with Amazon, Apple, etc.?

Independent bookstores could be compensated for eBook downloads in their own Wifi hotspots – provided publishers and electronic distributors cooperate and agree to give up a little of the pie, as sellers do to Google for eyeballs that lead to sales. It is in the best interests of the industry to ensure the independents’ survival and they can have a role.

Publishers could more often deploy on-demand printing, especially for the so-called mid-trade edition, or do shorter edition runs and then opt for on demand subsequent editions if warranted. This strategy would reduce part of the publisher’s risk.

Authors have to realize that having a multiplicity of publishers and distributors is in their best long-term interests. Reserving eBook rights for themselves to negotiate with electronic distributors will have an impact on publishers’ ability to produce and promote printed editions. Are we, as a society, better off without legacy publishing in any form?

One of my friends and mentors, the late Len Shatzkin (Mike Shatzkin’s father) said it best in his book In Cold Type; Overcoming the Book Crisis (published in 1982 – the industry has always been in crisis!): “Any misfortune for book publishing is a misfortune for all Americans. Books are too important to our lives; we cannot be indifferent, or even casual, about what happens to the industry that produces them.”