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April 23, 2014

The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction

Chris BeckettWhy do so many readers still look down on the genre of Orwell and Atwood?

By Chris Beckett

When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.

“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”

“Science fiction,” I say.

Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”

In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”

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December 28, 2013

This Woman Read One Book From Every Country in the World: Here Are Her Favorites

Ann Morgan

Ann Morgan

A holiday reading guide

By Uri Friedman

In the fall of 2012, Ann Morgan was wrestling with a problem few of us can identify with. No matter how hard she tried, she simply could not find a book to read in English from the tiny African nation of Sao Tome and Principe. At a loss, she appealed for help on Facebook and Twitter, only to be deluged with offers from around the world to translate whatever work she chose from the Portuguese-speaking island. A small army of volunteers in Europe and the United States ultimately came to her rescue, translating chunks of Olinda Beja’s 140-page The Shepherd’s House into English.

The crowdsourcing experiment was just one memorable moment in Morgan’s quest to read one book from every country in the world in one year—a goal she accomplished just around this time last year, as New Year’s Day approached.

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June 4, 2013

Does Spelling Count?

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 10:45 am

By Jessica Lahey

In a perfect world, students might be judged by their ideas alone — not by whether they write “you’re” or “your.” But that isn’t the world we live in.

It happens every time. As I hand the test out to my middle school students, one of them will invariably look up, pencil at the ready, and ask, “Does spelling count?”

Let’s ignore the fact that my students should know better than to even ask this question in the first place. I’ve answered it more times than I care to remember, usually in the fall of the new school year, and it goes something like this:

Yes. Spelling counts. I have lots of witty quips loaded up in my quiver about why it counts, but my new favorite comes from homeschooling mom of four Jodi Jackson Stewart who tweeted me with her answer to this question: “Spelling counts here because spelling counts out there.”

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May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as guileless heterosexual—but in the novel, his sexuality's ambiguous, and he's linked to Gatsby & co. by their shared need for deception.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as guileless heterosexual—but in the novel, his sexuality’s ambiguous, and he’s linked to Gatsby & co. by their shared need for deception.

By Noah Berlatsky

“Come to lunch someday,” [Mr. McKee] suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is usually thought of as the story of… well, the great Jay Gatsby, poor boy made nouveau riche, and his efforts to win the aristocratic Daisy Buchanan away from her boorish aristocratic husband Tom. But the quote above is about Daisy’s cousin, the narrator Nick Carraway. In the passage, as you can see, Fitzgerald makes a flamboyant phallic pun (“Keep your hands off the lever” indeed), and then shows us McKee and Nick virtually in bed together. Many people skim over that scene—as I did more than once. But once it’s been pointed out, it’s difficult to see it as anything but post-coital.

Baz Luhrman’s recently film version of Gatsby makes a nod to this incident: Mr. McKee, a photographer, is very interested to learn that writer Nick is also an artist. But while McKee may still be gay, film-Nick (Toby Maguire) is adamantly not. In the book, Nick meets Mr. McKee at a party and goes home with him. In the film, he still goes to the party, but ends up canoodling and maybe probably having sex not with a man, but with a woman. Film Nick is first attracted to Gatsby’s parties by a glimpse of a lovely flapper flitting through the bushes. He seems visibly affected by the sensuality of Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress. In the book, he recognizes her appeal, but seems unmoved or even disgusted by it. In one telling passage while at the party, he notes that he “was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” In the next sentence, he says Myrtle pulls her chair over and “her warm breath poured over me.” A couple paragraphs later he’s sneering at her “artificial laughter.”

It’s not a shock that the film decided to erase the hints of gayness. Even in 2013, gay content is controversial, and gay characters can be hard for a lot of people to accept, in various senses. You could argue that it’s a cowardly choice, and I’d probably agree with you. But Hollywood is cowardly almost by definition. No surprises there.

What is surprising, perhaps, is how much eliminating Nick’s queerness matters. There are many, many things wrong with Luhrmann’s clumsy, ADD Gatsby. But the thing that is most wrong is Nick.

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March 13, 2013

Managed expectations in the post-employment economy

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 7:47 am
Some contributors have reported that for-profit news company The Atlantic has not been paying them [

Some contributors have reported that for-profit news company The Atlantic has not been paying them [

In a post-employment economy, many are working simply to earn the prospect of making money
By Sarah Kendzior

On March 4, Olga Khazan, the new editor of the Global section of the Atlantic, sent an email to Nate Thayer, a veteran journalist covering Asian political affairs. Khazan had seen an article Thayer had written about North Korea and liked it. She wanted to know if he could “repurpose” it for the Atlantic website.

“We unfortunately can’t pay you for it,” she wrote Thayer. “But we do reach 13 million readers a month.”

Thayer was appalled. He explained that he was a professional journalist “not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children”.

Khazan apologised and explained that the Atlantic was out of money. She told him the most they paid for an original story was $100, but they did not have $100 at the moment. All they could offer Thayer was “exposure” to benefit his “professional goals”. Thayer’s professional goal was to pay his bills. Outraged, he posted the exchange on his blog. It went viral within hours.

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September 8, 2012

The Cruel Paradox of Self-Publishing

By Peter Osnos

Digital and print-on-demand technology has made self-publishing much easier. But for every self-published work that gains traction, the overwhelming majority of books don’t.

Earlier this summer, Penguin Group, long a distinguished major publisher of books, paid $116 million to acquire Author Solutions Inc. A leading provider of self-publishing services, Author Solutions said that since it was formed in 2007, “it has enabled 150,000 authors to publish, market and distribute more than 190,000 books in print and electronic formats.” The transaction is a significant breakthrough in what has become a vital factor in the publishing landscape of the digital age. For the first time, an established publisher, the second largest in the world, with about 40 imprints in the United States, is delivering its reputation and management resources to support the vast number of people who want to write a book that, for a variety of reasons, does not make it to a traditional list. By adding Author Solutions, with revenues last year said to be about $100 million, to such pedigreed Penguin names as Viking, Penguin Classics, Putnam, and Dutton, the concept of self-publishing has moved away from what was always known as “vanity publishing.” While these authors are still mainly paying to see their works turned into finished print or e-books, they are no longer consigned just to the margins of the marketplace.

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August 14, 2012

What Grown-Ups Can Learn From Kids’ Books


By Maria Konnikova

An adult reflects on the valuable lessons of The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie-the-Pooh.

My copy of Le Petit Prince looks like it has been through a natural disaster. Or two. The dust jacket is torn at every edge. What’s not torn is frayed. A piece of scotch tape holds together the é and r of Exupéry. The white background can’t really be called white anymore. And inside, little pencil markings lurk throughout the text (I would memorize passages when I was young), alongside evidence of attempted erasure—but you know how those old-school Number Two pencils are; all the erasers seem to do is leave things a little grayer than before. The book, in other words, has been well loved.

That’s not surprising. Most favorite children’s books are. But there’s one thing about mine that’s different: With the exception of those pesky eraser marks, the damage wasn’t sustained in childhood. Those are adult wounds.

The Little Prince is not alone to suffer that horrible fate: the designation of “children’s book” where it’s anything but, where it is actually far more worthy of an adult designation than many a so-called “adult” work. Leaving such books to childhood is a mistake of the worst kind. Fail to re-read them from a more mature standpoint and you’re almost guaranteed to miss what they’re all about.

To a child, The Little Prince is the story of a boy who falls from the sky, meets lots of funny people on his travels, and then returns to his star. But take a closer look and you find as clear a commentary on everything that’s wrong with modern life—and what can be done to fix it—as you would in the most biting social satire.

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July 25, 2012

Three Ways Publishers Can Avoid Extinction

By Stephen S. Power

In his blogpost The Incredible Resilience of Publishing Fantasy, author Michael Levin responds to a piece in the Atlantic by former Random House editor Peter Osnos.

Osnos makes the case that books will survive, while Levin makes the point Osnos avoids saying: trade publishers might not, having “lost the two things that made their business model work: the hammerlocks on distribution and marketing that the Internet has utterly destroyed.”

Levin’s correct, but I also agree with Osnos that trade publishers are resilient and adaptive. They haven’t stuck “their heads in the sand,” as Levin puts it, “and hope[d] that the whole Internet thing will go away.” They want to adapt, they’re flush with ideas for doing so, and they’ve tried to exploit the rapidly changing book market. Problem is, they’re hindered by legacy business practices. Their experiments are like patches to failing software or new programs that don’t work well with their ancient OS.

Instead, publishers need a new OS. Here are three core features that would make it work:

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July 18, 2012

Book Cover Clones: Why Do So Many Recent Novels Look Alike?

  By Ashley Fetters

There’s a new fad in book jackets—and it might have something to do with e-readers.

When Little, Brown released the cover art for J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming novel The Casual Vacancy earlier this month, with a snow-white, hand-lettered title draped lazily across a red jacket, it was hard to deny that the Mario J. Pulice design looked a little… familiar.

There was something recognizable about those looping, seemingly handmade cursive letters. Was it déjà vu, or had we seen this cover someplace else before?

Maybe not this very cover, but several notably similar ones. Handscript-titled book covers with simple handmade illustrations have been used lately all over the upper echelons of fiction: Last year, Chad Harbach’s divisive baseball bildungsroman The Art of Fielding had its title curlicued across the front, like the franchise name on an old-style home-team jersey; meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot introduced itself to the world in a disarmingly dressed-down fashion, its name hurriedly jotted down over a comic-book graphic of a wedding band. Similarly, John Green’s 2011 book The Fault In Our Stars, Mark Haddon’s new release The Red House, Maggie Shipstead’s June debut Seating Arrangements, and Giorgio Faletti’s forthcoming Italian-import sensation A Pimp’s Notes all feature hand-scrawled titles that largely dominate their covers, accompanied by only minimal artwork.

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March 8, 2012

Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known Book of Nudes

By Maria Popova

What happened when the beloved children’s author tried to write for adults

One hundred eight years ago today, the world welcomed Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss—legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf—that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

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