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July 15, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: Libraries, writers, “Turned Down For What?”, parody, masculinity, feminism, and more

* “How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books;” I am going to write a post about the new bookshelves.

* Median incomes for writers, which in Britain “last year was just £11,000.” Interestingly, almost everyone I know has overestimated the amount of money I’ve made from Asking Anna.

* “Turned Down for What?, explained, which even I thought obvious, perhaps thanks to all that literary training.

* “How will we know if the ACA is working?” Or: Questions that are rarely asked.

* “Platform Monopolies:”

The author of the NY Times piece tells the story of Vincent Zandri, an author of mystery and suspense novels, who has moved all of his publishing activities over to Amazon’s platform and is enjoying the benefits of doing that.

This could easily have been the story of the journalist who moves her writing from The Wall Street Journal to her own blog, or the story of the filmmaker who moves from the Hollywood studio system to Kickstarter and VHX. It could be the story of the band that leaves their record label and does direct deals with SoundCloud and Spotify. It could be the story of the yellow cab driver who moves his driving business to Uber or Sidecar.

The story of Vincent Zandri is the story of our times.

* Sam Altman on Net Neutrality.

* “How To Make A Hit Pop Song, Pt. 1,” or “You look sexy when you do that.” Amazingly accurate.

* “A critique of Ian Ironwood’s The Manosphere: A New Hope For Masculinity,” which also shows the positive potential of often-stupid Amazon reviews. It is missing direct quotes from the book, however.

* Related to the above, “Not Every Man Can Handle A Beautiful Woman;” as a reminder, linking does not imply agreement or endorsement. Also relevant: “Men are where women were 30 years ago,” which is true but not in the way the writer imagines.

July 12, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: Morality and majority edition

“The audience only has one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.”

—Christopher Beha, Arts & Entertainments, which is surprisingly taut and clever. The book is also a defense of privacy and an exploration of what the self might be.

One could write a surprisingly interesting comparison and contrast between Arts & Entertainments and F. H. Sandbach’s The Stoics.

A longer post will follow.

July 12, 2014 / Jake Seliger

“Some Hope” and “Bad News” — Edward St. Aubyn

Both Some Hope (the better or at least less gross novel, since it lacks the precise drug descriptions) and Bad News are novels about nothing, or self-destructiveness, or family, or themselves, or critiques of a lack of financial need that leads to a lack of financial discipline that leads to both snobbish and waste. But it is redeemed by humor, on almost every page, though of a nasty sort. There are clever descriptions everywhere:

‘It’s too bad your not being able to come,’ said David Windfall to his wife, slipping a couple of condoms into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket, just in case.

Is “come” a double entendre here, whether intentional or not? Maybe. Or consider this this, when a girl begs her father to read a story to her, and he eventually caves:

‘Of course I will. I’d be delighted,’ said Sonny with a little bow, as if he’d been asked to address an agricultural fair.

“An agricultural fair:” he is pompous, distant, and yet slightly pleased to oblige an inferior at the same time. As a father he will inspire therapy, an inability to form close relationship, cloying clinginess, or all three paradoxically at once. One can only hope that he will spend enough of “his” money—the scare quotes are warranted—to not perpetuate the next generation of vaguely aristocratic and worthless assholes of the sort that make one see why Europeans were more susceptible to the otherwise idiotic temptations of Marxism than Americans. The U.S. has plenty of rich, pointless heirs and heiresses, but few have been enshrined in ten or more generations of land-holding assholes.

Every work of fiction creates its own moral universe. That universe may be obscured and debatable, but it’s there. In Some Hope, the good guys recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). If they don’t recognize those aspects of themselves, they at least recognize the search for them. Patrick and Johnny may be the only good guys in the novel. The bad guys don’t recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). By this definition almost everyone in the novel is bad. Like Seinfeld, there is no hugging and no learning.

No one builds or makes anything except jokes (“[Bridget] ought to get on with the arrangements, which, in her case, meant worrying, since all the work had been delegated to somebody else”). There are only parties, art, aesthetics, and jockeying for status for its own sake, rather than based on some external measure of achievement. Social form without content is meaningless and spiritually deadening, a fun place to visit—which is why the Patrick Melrose novels work—but not a great place to live. The Patrick Melrose novels can be read as an argument against large hereditary transfers of wealth and against a basic or guaranteed annual income.

There are no social obligations aside from being witty and beautiful. “Witty” usually also means “self-aware,” as only Patrick and Johnny might be.

Their lives are works of art paid for by the industriousness of their ancestors, or by others in their society. Do most people who are doing or making interesting things have time to think, “The meaning of life was whatever meaning one could thrust down its reluctant throat”? That may be true; on the same page Patrick is thinking about Measure for Measure “while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel.” Is this a brilliant example of the profound and banal mixing, as they do in real life, or an example of the flight of ideas and intellectual incoherence?

At one point another rich dilettante named Kitty says:

So, you see, I know what I’m talking about. Children give off the most enormous sexual feeling; they set out to seduce their parents. It’s all in Freud, I’m told, although I haven’t read his books myself.

Some Hope is filled with people who have strong opinions despite or because of not having read the books themselves. Most haven’t cooked for themselves, cleaned for themselves, or other activities that might connect them with reality, and they don’t realize how much of life’s fabric they’re missing. Their regular complete missing the point—any point—makes them funny. Kitty in context is comedic, though out of it she may not show it. Almost everyone can, in the right context, be shown to be ridiculous, but the characters in the Patrick Melrose novels need even less removal than most.

Here is The New Yorker on Aubyn. Here is Tyler Cowen, and note his genre description (“Derelict” fiction?). Most reviews and interviews focus on his life’s relationship to his fiction, which I find an uninteresting and unedifying set of concerns, yet I appear to be almost alone in that regard.

July 11, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: Look at the text, unintended consequences, rap and poetry, sexting hysteria, LeBron James (?)

* “The writer’s first job is to describe. No matter what you’re writing, you’re a reporter first.” Also: “look at the text.” Very few people do that last sentence, ever, and the problem is especially pernicious on the Internet.

* The law of unintended consequences.

* “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap.” I would generalize “rap” to “music.” This essay is also compatible with the vision in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

* “Saying goodbye to God: Haredim apostates: When young ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel choose to break with their faith, they must learn how to function in an alien world.”

* “Why movie theaters should be more like rock concerts,” which may be my favorite Vox piece so far; overall it seems like TheAtlantic.com in that the average quality is low but the occasional gem makes it worth a place in the RSS feed. At some point I’m going to write an extended post about the role of concerts as ecstatic dance. This link can be read as related to the one immediately above.

* “Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity.”

* Unsurprisingly, “Authors Can’t Make Ends Meet,” which is a simple issue of supply and demand, regardless of what other factors may be at play.

* Seattle begins boring its next light rail tunnel.

* Normally I don’t find sports articles of any interest or value but will make an exception for “Just Undo It: The LeBron James Profile That Nike Killed.” Have I just been successfully marketed to?

July 5, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Briefly Noted: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the meaning of the thriller

Francophone Hit, American Letdown” inspired me to read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, but “Francophone Hit” describes the book’s sentence-by-sentence weaknesses well:

The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.”

Let me add to that list: towards the beginning of the book, Marcus’s first novel is an incredible sales success; he says that “Even the harshest critics on the East Coast all agreed: young Marcus Goldman was destined to become one of our great writers.” I don’t think I’ve read any critic, ever, who announces that a writer is “destined” to become great, because no one is destined to do anything. The vagueness of “East Coast” critics—who are these people, exactly?—is symptomatic of a vagueness infecting the entire novel, as if the narrator has learned to speak through advertising platitudes and brand names: “New Writer! More Popular and Absorbent Than the Competition!” There are occasional bursts of cleverness (“I bought a new laptop, in the hope that it would come pre-loaded with good ideas”), but they are rare. More often we find that “I treated myself to a five-star hotel in Miami.” Which hotel? What makes a “five-star” hotel? Little of the novel rings true to life, and it also doesn’t ring true to an alternate reality constructed from artifice in the fashion of someone like Carlos Ruiz Zafón. For writers, both Marcus and Harry Quebert seem incredibly uninterested in the work of other writers.

There are shades of Gillian Flynn but the comparison does not flatter Dicker; anyone tempted to read Harry Quebert should start with Gone Girl and work backwards through Flynn first.

What made Harry Quebert popular in Europe? I don’t know, though the mystery of why some works become popular and others don’t continues to fascinate me. It isn’t the literary quality of a book: bestseller lists are filled, seemingly indiscriminately, with a mixture of books so horribly written that they’re unreadable to me, along with some books so good that I recommend them to everyone. Being poorly written, or at least not well written, isn’t a barrier.

The real answer to “Who killed Lola Kellergan?” is “Who cares?” Most thrillers are not thrilling and most mysteries are not mysterious; they’re simply boringly written, as if the authors have not read thousands of other books before and lack the will, interest, or ability to try something new and/or beautiful. Literary fiction, whatever its characteristic generic flaws, generally tries to do something linguistically different, and few readers or critics of lit fic consider a specific example successful unless it does something fresh with the language.

The books that do something different—like Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I’m not a person who sniffs at fiction because of the tags marketers choose. Every book is begun with the greatest hope. Few fulfill it. Dicker shows promise and may eventually write something great, but it will probably come at the expense of an obsession with greatness as a concept.

July 5, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: Self-aggrandizement edition

“‘What rules the world is ideas,’ Kristol once wrote, ‘because ideas define the way reality is perceived.'”

—Quoted in “Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?” This is sort of true, but, alternately, idea producers and disseminators may want this to be true because it flatters them and raises their own status.

Kristol’s view is plausible but I remain unconvinced.

June 30, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: IPOs and life, feminism and its discontents, The Harry Quebert Affair, Murder, and More

* “The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why” is about much more than its headline implies, and there are too many good excerpts to pick one. Highly recommended.

* “Feminism and Its Discontents;” see also my earlier post on the subject.

* “Francophone Hit, American Letdown:” on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I’m curious enough to get a copy.

* “A SWAT team blew a hole in my 2-year-old son:” “Every morning, I have to face the reality that my son is fighting for his life. It’s not clear whether he’ll live or die. All of this to find a small amount of drugs?” Call this part of the unmeasured cost of drug prohibition.

* “The American Dream is Every Man’s Nightmare” (maybe).

* “Intelligent life is just getting started,” from biologist Nathan Taylor.

* Announcements of the novel’s death from 1902 to the present.

* “How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West.”

* “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma: There is much less competition in the public sector than the private sector, and that has made all the difference.” The part about low labor mobility is especially striking.

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