Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Who is buried in Derrida's tomb?

Michael Bérubé has given me realistic flashbacks along with chills and attendant paranoia. How, you ask? By writing an excellent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education about re-taking the GRE in English Literature. We both went to graduate school at the University of Virginia (different years -- I didn't know him), and we both struggled through what I personally thought was a ridiculous exam. I never knew that others felt the same, except for one good hint... after I was in I met one of the committee members who had accepted my application. I asked her what she thought of the subject test (where I struggled), and she said "Oh, we've known for years that it's flawed... I personally didn't count it although I can't speak for my colleagues."

Here's the funniest quote, although it's rather insider-y unless you have taken this particular test: The three questions that asked you to identify which city was being described in which poem — those were bad questions too, suitable more for Jeopardy! than for an exam in English literature. Alas, I got many bad questions right, sometimes through sheer dumb luck. Among the ones I missed, I couldn't remember what the "euphuistic" style is, and I couldn't remember which war novelist — Stephen Crane, Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway, or Norman Mailer — had not seen combat.

It was precisely the latter sort of questions that infuriated me. They had nothing to do with the study of anything, and I'm thankful that the admissions committee at Virginia agreed. My criticism of standardized testing is well-documented -- I wrote about it in my second book -- so this piece was most welcome.

Scary, though.

How an academic author earns global publicity, click by click

Bob Thompson of The Washington Post has an interesting longer piece about American-gone-to-New Zealand academic author Denis Dutton, best known at least in this office for Arts and Letters Daily, a site I have enjoyed since its launch in 1998, moreso in its early years. Thompson explores why Dutton has been so successful flacking his new book The Art Instinct. My only surprise is that there is any surprise -- Dutton was early onto the internet with a useful site, providing content when there wasn't much, and he must have worked extraordinarily hard. Coming up with a great idea for a website is easy. Making it successful and keeping it that way year after year is extraordinarily difficult.

Author after author comes to me with the same pitiful lament about the publisher's publicist who won't do enough to push the book. (It's the most vintage whine in publishing.) Please, authors, know that there is only one person who woke up this morning passionately in love with your book, and that is you. You are the publicist. If the book is to succeed, it is your job. Yes, publishers try their best, but they have hundreds of books to sell. At any given time you usually have only one.

So does this mean you should run out and found a website like Arts and Letters Daily? Maybe, but I certainly couldn't pull that off. It could mean more simply that you might have wonderful fun being creative about what you do have to offer the world, and how through that gift the world might also learn about your splendid books.


If you visit ALDaily now and wonder what all the fuss was about, it used to be better. It's okay now, but lots of sites aggregate good content and it has competition. But back in the day it was fresh and different.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Words Without Borders

A friend of mine loves the work of novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. When I first met her years ago and asked "Who?", and she rightfully looked at me with shock. How could I not know? Well, now I do know, and I also understand better just how little of the world's literature is available in the United States in translation. Even when it is, it takes something like the Nobel Prize to give its sales an uptick. There are some exceptions, but few. Blame our literary isolation on the phenomenon of geography, xenophobia, or what you will, but as a nation we're just not as aware of world literature as we could be.

That's part of why I was so pleased to learn of the online magazine "Words Without Borders," a site that publishes its own original translations, plus book reviews and other information about international literature. In its publishing rationale, the journal notes: Few literatures have truly prospered in isolation from the world. English-speaking culture in general and American culture in particular has long benefited from cross-pollination with other worlds and languages. Thus it is an especially dangerous imbalance when, today, 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. (Bold emphasis added)

My friend Katie King pointed the organization out to me two years ago, but it really caught my consciousness when I met its founder and president, editor Alane Salierno Mason, at W. W. Norton a few weeks ago.

I follow them, so they follow me

Okay, this is scary. About a year ago my digital strategist friend in London, Katie King, tried to get me onto Twitter. That's kind of like trying to get your 81-year-old granny to read, but I dutifully signed up for an account and then ignored it. This year, in a burst of confidence, I started Tweeting (it sounds like an adolescent rooster chick learning to crow). Soon, however, I rather liked it, and I found that many publishers are on Twitter, so I looked some up and started following them.

Now they're following me! Here's what the e-mail said:

Hi, Carole Sargent (Booklab).
Little, Brown and Co (littlebrown) is now following your updates on Twitter

Rut-roh! Isn't that a bit like reading The New York Times, and then realizing that the Times is reading you? Or as Byron Katie would put it, you're not just breathing, but you are being breathed?

I'll try to live up to my, um, following, by posting things worth knowing about. But it will be difficult. I am, after all, an 81-year-old granny trapped in the body of a much younger woman.


Monday, February 02, 2009

A blog about readings

For those of you who are becoming understandably concerned about the fate of literary readings in the DC area in the wake of closings such as Chapters and Olsson's, and the folding of "Book World" in The Washington Post, a local author and blogger named Mark Athitakis offers one answer: Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes It's a one-stop shop of readings in the region, and to my eye both complete and easy to use. Thank you to Dr. Maurice Jackson for pointing this one out.

NB: He spells the possessive Athitakis', and I spell it Athitakis's. I think I'm one of the last editors who still prefers the full possessive. About 70% of my faculty authors agree with him, not me. The NYTimes agrees with him, too. All I have in my corner is fusty old Strunk & White, and I'm not even a major fan of that volume. ;-)

When you think you had it first

Publisher's Weekly recently launched a column about food and cooking titles called "Cooking The Books." That's such a great title, I wish I'd thought of it! Wait... I did. A few years ago. I wrote two columns with that title on cookbook publishing for Foodservice Monthly, a terrific mid-Atlantic publication edited by a dedicated Washington foodie, photographer and editor Michael Birchenall.

So did PW steal my title? It's tempting to think so, but probably not. In reality, people often think up the same titles, and even the same concepts; it happens all the time. It's part of the principle behind zeitgeist. Most of us consume a surprisingly similar porridge of popular culture, both low and high, in varying amounts, and because of this disparate people are bound to make the same mental connections simultaneously. That's part of why so many Hollywood "he stole my screenplay" legal fights aren't always open and shut. Many people may have a similar idea for -- say -- a romantic comedy, simply because we've all ingested the same formulas for so long. Think back to the Restoration stage, and how similar many of the comedies can seem.

But I still admit it grates (joke!) a little.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Origin of the Spouses

It's finally February, and I love Valentine's Day. In honor of it, I offer this quote from Charles Darwin when he courted his wife Emma. I first read of it in Christopher Benfey's New York Times Book Review article on Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Then I found the Darwin Correspondence Project online, and looked it up.

Charles Darwin wrote to an old school friend on May 8, 1838: "As for a wife, that most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals, Providence only knows whether I shall ever capture one or be able to feed her if caught."

Who says science types aren't romantic?

The title of this blog post and the photo above are from London's Daily Mail.