People-like-us Syndrome

I left my bicycle in the London Library’s bike-shed yesterday. The shed has a lock that can be opened only by library members, and so I didn’t bother to chain the bike to one of the stands. I usually do, but it was a Sunday, the library was closed and I figured the odds were that few if any other members would be opening and closing the door, potentially letting strangers in. During the week, I chain the bike when I leave it there, but I don’t bother to double-chain the basket, which detaches, the way I do when I leave it on the street.

Notice that I was only worried about strangers. I noticed that too, when I thought about locking/not-locking it. It never occurred to me that a library member would steal my bike. I mean, they’re London Library members. They’re people like me!

I make those kind of unconscious decisions all the time, and I’m sure we all do. It’s OK to leave my scarf on a seat, because only university members come here; it’s not OK to leave my book there, ‘anyone’ might come across it. There are in-groups and out-groups in my head. And for some reason, my in-groups (library members, shoppers at one specific — but not any other — farmers’ market, neighbours) have no dishonest people in them, no liars, thieves, cheats.

All the more shocking, therefore, when I read this morning that at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, publishers were losing up to 75 per cent of their stock to, well, looters — 75 per cent can’t really be called petty pilfering, can it? My assumption, automatically, is that some ‘they’ group — outsiders — came in and perpetrated the thefts. Because I can’t get my head around the fact that book people would steal. They wouldn’t, would they? Even though I know there are statistically as many liars, cheats, thieves among my professional cohort as anyone else’s professional cohort.

I know it, but I don’t believe it.

Ikea dooms the book

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to recognize that when Ikea says no one wants books anymore, no one, perhaps, wants books anymore. Word is just out that Ikea has redesigned its famous ‘Billy’ bookshelves. Why is this interesting? Well, because it uses the word ‘book’ together with ‘shelves’, but it doesn’t really mean it. Apparently, the new Billy (excuse the first-name terms: we’re very informal in Sweden) is deeper, the same height but – brace yourselves – the shelves are closer together, so that standard paperbacks no longer fit.

Yup, that’s it: Ikea thinks (knows?) that people don’t actually put books on their bookshelves. So what do we rename these things? [Book]shelves? Place-to-put-my-stuff-shelves? Tchotchke-holders? Whatever, they sure as hell ain’t bookshelves.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Not even, sadly, in literate Stockholm.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Is this a womb I see before me?

There’s nothing I like more than a good online quiz first thing in the morning, so I have to thank V. S. Naipaul (not, I admit, words I ever thought to string together in a sentence) for his Look at Me, Mummy, Look, Look! publicity rant, in which he stated that he knew (just knew) within a paragraph whether a piece of prose had been written by a man or a woman. The Guardian has done us the kind good service of setting up a quiz, to see if this is indeed the case. (Of course, VSN has the obvious response – if it turns out that most readers don’t know the difference, it’s because we’re not as smart as he is; if we do, case proven. See? Well, you would if you were a man. And as smart as VSN.)

I don’t see, but that’s because we women are little fluffy things, only concerned with the trivial and the domestic and sentimenta—  Oh, wait, is that a kitten I see? Awwww… Oh, sorry, got distracted. And then there’s my ribbon-drawer to tidy up, and then – oh, when I ask, am I going to have time to do such big macho things as sit and write?

Certainly it would have been better if Jane Austen had stuck to her tatting. Her novels, after all, are just sentimental, says the sage of Chromosomal Prose. And as for his ex-editor, who was so good as a ‘taster’ (oh kill me now, please) and editor, when she became a writer, ‘lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh’. Tosh, I tell you, tosh! Although just a teeny-tiny insy-wincy bit of me wonders if his views might just possibly be influenced by the fact that in her first book this very same editor described the feelings of joy and lightness she experienced when VSN took his masculine-prose self off to another publisher, and she realized she wouldn’t have to pretend to like him, or even listen to his woes any more.

Nah, I’m sure he’s above such things.

Oh deary deary me. Well, he’s a sad, bitter, lonely old man. Feel sorry for him. I do. It’s the kind of girlie sentimentality I’m programmed for.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

Bad writing against the law?

Turkish publisher Irfan Sanci is facing jail for publishing William Borroughs. He has already been prosecuted for publishing Guillaume Appollinaire (no, truly). Now he is being prosecuted because the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ has condemned Burroughs’ The Soft Machine as a book that ‘lacks narrative unity’, being ‘written in an arbitrary fashion devoid of cohesion.’

These seem to me to be literary judgements, and I’m not at all clear from the AP report what makes the Board qualified to pronounce. Even if it were qualified, it’s the linkage it is making that is surprising. Apparently, according to the Board, the book being written in this incoherent style makes Burroughs’ depiction of ‘coarse, sleazy, vulgar and weak aspects of humans’ create ‘an attitude that allows the justification of criminal activities in the readers’ minds’.

That’s giving what it has already announced by fiat to be bad writing a hell of a lot of power. Might it possibly be the case, therefore, that the writing isn’t bad at all? Or is the Board suggesting that only bad writing has this power, and therefore must be outlawed?

It is no joke for Irfan Sanci, but one is led by this to ask, when is the Turkish government going to outlaw woolly thinking? Because it would appear to me from their statement that the members of the ‘Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications’ would all be in jail if that were the case.

The Literary-Agent Hyphothesis

A great blog (here) by ‘The Contented Librarian’ (and a great blog-name!), listing 40 literary terms ‘you should know’. I’m not quite sure who the ‘you’ is, since the list seems to veer from the latinate rhetorical terms I was expecting from the title (meiosis) to what seem to me to be everyday common-or-garden speech for people who read (bowdlerize).

But of course a list, any list, is fun, and one where you can score yourself is even better. I didn’t know four, which I think is pretty good. The one I like best, however, is a new one on me: ‘the literary-agent hypothesis’. Contrary to my immediate Paranoid Author Response, this does not indicate that my agent is planning to sack me, or that all the literary agents in London are in a room, and they Are Laughing At Us, but is instead a lit. crit. concept that the author is only the agent for the characters, who are in fact writing the novel, or, as I feel certain the people who discuss this theory say, the ‘text’.

‘Purple prose’, I would have thought, didn’t need a definition. It’s like porn, and everyone knows it when they see it. (In my own case, it is easily identified by the fact that my eyeballs roll so far back in my head that I can see my tonsils whenever I stumble across some.) But perhaps the Contented Librarian’s definition is better: ‘Any text referring to eyes as “orbs” without any sort of irony is automatically guilty of this linguistic sometimes-offense. No matter what. No exceptions. Also, every romance novel ever written. Even if a long-lost manuscript attributed to Bukowski ever materialized and proved a romance novel, it would still be made of purple prose.’

Works for me.

Not a reader, just book-ish

Hmm, so publishers finally catch up with Foyle’s, do they? A million years ago, when I was a slip of a gel — well, in the 1980s, maybe even the 1990s — Foyle’s bookshop used to shelve its books, not by subject, nor by genre, nor even by colour of jacket, but by publisher. Yup, if you wanted to buy a copy of Ulysses, or Agatha Christie, or The Galloping Gourmet (or was that a television programme? It was a long time ago), you had to know who published it. Which was, of course, absurd.

Foyle’s did it because it was easy for the staff. Not, of course, the staff dealing with bewildered or irate customers. But the staff shelving, and the staff ordering, copies. The publisher’s sales-rep came in, they pointed him or her to the ‘Penguin’ shelves, s/he looked at what was needed, and put in an order. All hotsty-totsy, apart from those poor saps who actually wanted to buy books. (Which they did somewhere else. So Foyle’s almost disintegrated. But that’s another story.)

For possibly as much as a decade, publishers have been acting like Christina Foyle: they have set up websites to promote ‘their’ books, and ‘their’ authors. (By the way, can I tell publishers how not-enchanted authors are to be referred to by this possessive?) But readers don’t think, ‘Hmm, I’d like to buy a Macmillan title now. Gee, I wonder what they’re offering? I know, I’ll go to their website and see!’

I don’t even know why I had to type that last sentence out, it is so obvious. But not to publishers, apparently. Anyway, they have just as apparently Seen the Light.  Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Penguin are setting up bookish.com, which will be run, they claim, independently, to present a one-stop shop for all books by all publishers.

Well, I look forward. Who knows? But I’ve got to say, the website’s name stinks. Bookish, wow, what a come-on. How incredibly whole-hearted of the industry. It’s like the old Jonathan Miller joke. He was asked if he was a Jew. ‘Not a Jew,’ he demurred, ‘more Jewish. Not,’ he added confidingly, ‘not the whole hog, you know.’

Book-ish. A few pages short of a whole index?

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