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December 28, 2013

Salon’s ultimate book guide for 2013

ultimate_book_guide-620x412Got gift certificates to spend? James McBride, Elizabeth Gilbert, Junot Diaz and many more have suggestions

Michele Filgate

Salon reached out to a bunch of writers who had new books out this year to find out what their favorite book of the year was. We saw a lot of books by big-name writers: Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem and Elizabeth Gilbert, just to name a few. But 2013 was a good year for lesser-known writers, too. Here are some titles you should add to your to-be-read piles. Now you just have to find the time to read them.

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June 10, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s Ambitious New Novel Scares Male Critics

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When a woman—not a venerable male auteur—writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers get flummoxed.

By Laura MillerIn 1963, Esquire magazine’s July issue was about the American literary scene, and featured an essay by Norman Mailer. Titled “Some Children of the Goddess: Further Evaluations of the Talent in the Room,” the piece was a repeat of a survey of his “rivals” that appeared in “Advertisements for Myself.” Few American novelists have ever been more invested than Mailer in the mystique of the Great American Novel, and it’s no coincidence that his list of the authors likely to produce such a work (William Styron, James Jones, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow) consisted of exactly zero women.

The deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor. It is a book, in Mailer’s words, designed to “seize the temper of the time and turn it.” To attempt to write the Great American Novel is to surmise that you can speak on behalf of an entire, fractious nation. Plus, by all appearances, we’re talking about a game of King of the Mountain: Only one winner allowed, and the competition is bruising. The photograph accompanying Mailer’s piece showed him standing in a boxing ring, poised to deliver his punches.

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May 6, 2013

Stop Saying That Men Don’t Read Women

belovedIt holds woman writers back, and it’s just not true.

By Ester Bloom

It has become a truism that “men don’t read women.” The assertion is taken as self-evident by feminist publications like Salon (“while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate”) and shown anecdotally by blogs. It is also perpetuated by male bastions like Esquire, which recently released a list “of the greatest works of literature ever published” featuring one (1) book by a woman out of a total of 75. (Dudes like stuff that is “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another,” helpfully explains Esquire’s editor-in-chief, who introduced Fiction for Men e-books to widespread scorn last year.)

To be sure, the inequalities of the literary world are as plain as the nose on Jonathan Franzen’s face, and many writers and readers alike remain outraged about this unbalanced state of affairs. The Women In Literary Arts numbers for 2012 (compiled annually by VIDA) have barely budged from 2010 and 2011—men still dominate the major outlets as tastemakers, reviewers, and authors whose works are deemed worthy of review. The Nation recently published a cri de coeur by novelist Deborah Copaken Kagan lamenting “centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J. K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: It’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot.” And a recent Salon interview with Meg Wolitzer addressing these frustrations is titled “Men won’t read books about women.”

The truth is more complicated. Of course men read books about women and have for centuries—what are Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina if not classic books about women? Those canonical examples are merely a couple of the ones explicitly named for their central character. Nobody picking up those lauded works of fiction could claim to have been misled by the title to think they were reading about Hitler’s Germany, or fishing, or fishing in Hitler’s Germany, or whatever else men are solely supposed to want to read about.

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May 2, 2013

Do e-readers inhibit reading comprehension?

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 9:28 am

kindle_amazons_e_book_reader_is_hereResearch suggests that the devices can prevent readers from wholly absorbing longer texts

By Ferris Jabr

In a viral YouTube video from October 2011 a 1-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine — or so a title card would have us believe.

The girl’s father, Jean-Louis Constanza, presents “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” as naturalistic observation — a Jane Goodall among the chimps moment — that reveals a generational transition. “Technology codes our minds,” he writes in the video’s description. “Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives” — that is, for people who have been interacting with digital technologies from a very early age.

Perhaps his daughter really did expect the paper magazines to respond the same way an iPad would. Or maybe she had no expectations at all — maybe she just wanted to touch the magazines. Babies touch everything. Young children who have never seen a tablet like the iPad or an e-reader like the Kindle will still reach out and run their fingers across the pages of a paper book; they will jab at an illustration they like; heck, they will even taste the corner of a book. Today’s so-called digital natives still interact with a mix of paper magazines and books, as well as tablets, smartphones and e-readers; using one kind of technology does not preclude them from understanding another.

Nevertheless, the video brings into focus an important question: How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read?

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March 29, 2013

Books aren’t dead yet

stephen_king_kindle-620x412Self-publishing fans and the tech-obsessed keep getting it wrong: Big authors want to be in print — and bookstores

By Laura Miller

Without a doubt, book publishing is an industry in a state of flux, but even the nature of the flux is up for grabs. Take a recent example of the traditional tech-journalism take on the situation, an article by Evan Hughes for Wired magazine, titled “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future.” The facts in the story are indisputable, but the interpretation? Not so much.

The news peg is the success of a self-published series of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, “Wool,” by Hugh Howey. Available as e-books and print books from Amazon, the series became a hit, and Howey recently sold print-only rights to a New York publisher, Simon & Schuster. Print-only because Howey and his agent determined that they were making plenty of money selling the e-books on their own.

Wired characterizes this as a “huge concession” on the part of Simon & Schuster, and in one sense it is: The publisher won’t receive any e-book revenue, and it is in e-book format that “Wool” has seen its success so far. On the other hand, “Wool” is not only already very popular among the genre fans who made it an e-book bestseller, it’s also an object of curiosity for the many otherwise-uninterested people captivated by Howey’s rags-to-riches story in the Wall Street Journal. (By far the best-selling e-book by self-publishing exemplar John Locke is not one of his thrillers, but “How I Sold One Million E-Books.”)

Yes, it’s notable that Simon & Schuster shelled out a six-figure advance for this deal, but publishers have been known to offer similar advances for books that they only hope will find a large audience. “Wool” is that rare thing in book publishing, a known quantity, and a series on top of that, so there are multiple titles to sell.There is surely a sizable untapped market for print editions of “Wool” because e-books remain only 25 percent of the book market.

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March 27, 2013

Barbara Pym gets rediscovered — again

barbara_pym-620x412From Paula Fox to Richard Yates, literary rediscoveries are in vogue. The latest model is wry satirist Barbara Pym

By Laura Miller

It sometimes seems there are two schools of enjoyable fiction. In one, the fate of the world hangs in the balance: There’s running and shooting on the low-brow end of this spectrum, and scheming and intrigue higher up. In the other school, the stakes are low — in fact, that’s a key to its appeal. Making this latter sort of fiction work is infinitely more difficult, but the author who pulls it off, especially if he or she is funny, can command a fearsomely loyal readership. Barbara Pym is one of those authors.

Born a solicitor’s daughter in the West Midlands of England in 1913, educated at Oxford, serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II and working for much of the rest of her life at the International African Institute in London, Pym was a quintessential middle-class Englishwoman, much like her idol, Jane Austen. Like Austen, Pym wrote comedies of manners about the members of her own class, modeling the characters on people she knew. Her novels are populated by vicar’s wives, dotty unmarried sisters living in rural villages, holders of mid-level office jobs in sleepy London concerns and assorted anthropologists (based on the ones she met at the institute).

Pym had a modest success with the first six of these novels, publishing during the 1950s, but in the early ’60s, one publisher after another rejected “An Unsuitable Attachment.” She believed this was because her low-key style and unsensational subject matter had gone out of fashion. To a correspondent she conceded that her seventh book “might appear naïve and unsophisticated, though it isn’t really, to an unsympathetic publisher’s reader, hoping for that novel about negro homosexuals, young men in advertising, etc.” She was, probably and typically, right on the nose about that.

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March 18, 2013

The Curse of “You May Also Like”

Algorithms and “big data” are good at figuring out what we like—and that may kill creativity.

By Evgeny Morozov

Of all the startups that launched last year, Fuzz is certainly one of the most intriguing and the most overlooked. Describing itself as a “people-powered radio” that is completely “robot-free,” Fuzz bucks the trend toward ever greater reliance on algorithms in discovering new music. Fuzz celebrates the role played by human DJs—regular users who are invited to upload their own music to the site in order to create and share their own “radio stations.”

The idea—or, perhaps, hope—behind Fuzz is that human curators can still deliver something that algorithms cannot; it aspires to be the opposite of Pandora, in which the algorithms do all the heavy lifting. As its founder, Jeff Yasuda, told Bloomberg News last September, “there’s a big need for a curated type of experience and just getting back to the belief that the most compelling recommendations come from a human being.”

But while Fuzz’s launch attracted little attention, the growing role of algorithms in all stages of artistic production is becoming impossible to ignore. Most recently, this role was highlighted by Andrew Leonard, the technology critic for Salon, in an intriguing article about House of Cards,

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March 14, 2013

Do you truly own your e-books?

Amazon and publisher restrictions control your access, but a bookstore lawsuit could change that

locked_kindle-620x412By Laura Miller

To the casual observer, the e-book revolution has produced two bumper crops: smutty trilogies à la “Fifty Shades of Grey” and lawsuits. First there were the authors (as represented by the Authors Guild), who sued Google Books for digitizing their work without permission. Then the Department of Justice sued five publishers and Apple for adopting a policy known as the agency model. Finally, a trio of independent booksellers filed a class-action suit last week against the six largest book publishers and Amazon, accusing them of collaborating to create a monopoly on e-book sales and shutting small retailers out of the market.

The booksellers — Fiction Addiction of Greenville, S.C., Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., and Posman Books of New York City — are demanding the right to sell what they term “open-source and DRM-free” e-books, files that can be read on a Kindle or any other e-reading device. The publishers are accused of entering into “confidential agreements” with Amazon making this impossible.

The dispute and the situation that fostered it are confusing, and it can be difficult to suss out how either one affects readers. To put it simply: The Big Six publishers require that all their copyrighted e-books be sold with DRM (digital rights management) protection. DRM is coding designed to prevent the people who buy an e-book from making copies of it. A Kindle will only support DRM-protected books that are in a format that Amazon owns and that only Amazon can sell.


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March 10, 2013

Good sex in literature: why is it so hard to find?

Julian Barnes claims that British novelists feel obligated to write love scenes and so make a hash of it, replacing euphemisms with cliches. So what is so tricky about literary sex?

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981).

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981).

By Stuart Jeffries

Who wrote this? “He lifted her on to his hips and staggered around with her mouth locked to his, and then they were humping fiercely through their clothes, between piles of other clothes, and then one of those pauses descended, an uneasy recollection of how universal the ascending steps to sex were; how impersonal, or pre-personal. He pulled away abruptly, toward the unmade single bed, and knocked over a pile of books and documents relating to overpopulation.”

Here’s a clue: they came second in’s 2011 Good Sex awards. Guessed yet? Here’s how the scene ended. “He began to cry into Lalitha’s hair, and she comforted him, brushed his tears away, and they made love again more tiredly and painfully, until he did finally come, without fanfare, in her hand.” The answer? Jonathan Franzen, in Freedom.

If Franzen does write well about sex, he does so in part because he allows in humour (that overpopulation gag; and the idea that a really good orgasm might be saluted by a horn section) without letting it overwhelm the scene or destroy its pathos. He also recognises the personality-transcending nature of sex – at least if, and I don’t want to be prescriptive, you’re doing it right. And it is this very universality or impersonality of sex that creates a problem for those novelists who write about it: in a steamy paragraph of universalisable fatuity, you risk destroying the characters you have spent the preceding pages creating.

Julian Barnes, writing in this week’s Radio Times, identifies a specifically British problem about sex in literature.

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March 5, 2013

Sorry, the short story boom is bogus

Clockwise from top left, Junot Díaz, Amber Dermont, Nathan Englander, George Saunders

Clockwise from top left, Junot Díaz, Amber Dermont, Nathan Englander, George Saunders

The New York Times touts the Internet’s role in reviving interest in short fiction. Too bad it’s not true

By Laura Miller

The short story, like the western, is periodically said to be on the brink of a comeback. The most recent example of this boosterism: an article by the New York Times’ new(ish) publishing reporter, Leslie Kaufman, titled “Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories,” in which “a proliferation of digital options” is said to offer short fiction “not only new creative opportunities but exposure and revenue as well.”

This would be good news — if there were any reason at all to think it was true. Kaufman’s only evidence for this imaginary renaissance is the success of George Saunders’ story collection, “The Tenth of December,” published earlier this year and currently hovering in the middle ranks of several prominent best-seller lists. Saunders’ longtime fans (I count myself among them) have reason to celebrate this, but it really has nothing to do with “digital options.” Saunders has built a devoted following over the past 17 years, hadn’t published a book in a good while and — most important of all — was heralded in the headline of a long, radiant profile in the New York Times Magazine as producing “the best book you’ll read this year.” All of that could have happened 10, 20 or 30 years ago and produced the same result.

Kaufman goes on to marvel at the “unusually rich crop of short-story collections” published (or about to be published) this year. Some, “tellingly,” are even written by “best-selling novelists”! This is all the more astonishing to her since “publishers and authors tend to be wary of short-story collections because of the risk of being critically overlooked and, worse, lower sales.”

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