Category Archives: Literary Links

Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

There’s an interesting article over at the Guardian book pages from their literary critic, Robert McCrum, about the different types of writers that tend to get considered for literary awards. He draws from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Fox and The Hedgehog, as a way of classifying the types. (You can download the essay by clicking here), and read more about Berlin in this article in The Independent.

In fiction, Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, drawn from the pithy fragment attributed to the classical poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) remains influential. Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s celebrated essay, see the world through the lens of one big, defining idea. They include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes, who scour the landscape, drawing on a wide variety of experience and are indefatigably averse to a single explanatory idea, include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, James Joyce and, dare I say, Salman Rushdie.

McCrum doesn’t stop there, though. He also contrasts “history course novels” (such as those produced by Pat Barker and Ian McEwen) and the kind of “English course novels” that Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore write. Then, in nonfiction, there are the “mores” and the “differents.”

Mores are writers who, as the label implies, are immensely gifted and vastly superior to their fellows, but are conventional in their vision. Classic mores include Thomas The World Is Flat Friedman and Niall The Pity of War Ferguson. Your different, who might be a hedgehog or a fox, is a mould-smashing one-off, usually an original, and probably quite undisciplined, writer. Differents include Dostoevsky, Oliver Sacks, Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and Atul Gawande. As readers, we may be better satisfied, in the short term, by the mores, but it’s the differents we remember, and who will probably have the lasting influence.

McCrum’s argument is that “foxes” and “mores” win more prizes than “hedgehogs” and “differents.” It would take more of an in depth survey than I am prepared to carry out to prove him right, but I can certainly get on board with the idea that we live in a fox’n’more orientated society, and it’s these writers who seem to earn the most money. We demand versatility from our writers, and breadth of knowledge. It ain’t easy being different!

The Tubes

That’s where the publishing industry is going, apparently. As in, down. Way, way down. Deep into them there tubes.

Massive lay-off and some resignations, and entire trade divisions being wiped out. As gloomy as this might seem — especially for young writers, signing up for MFA programs and laboring over yet-to-be-sold first books — you can be sure of one thing: The human need for story will never diminish. How people buy and consume those stories, though, is likely to change, perhaps beyond recognition. This metamorphosis is going to be painful (what metamorphosis isn’t?) but whatever emerges might well be stronger, more efficient and actually better for writers.

In the meantime, information is power, people! KNOW what you are getting into. Be informed. To that end, here’s a helpful links round up. All hail the death of book publishing as we know it!

Read Galley Cat for breaking news. In particular here, here and here.

Things are not much better in the UK, in case you were wondering.

The Times weighs in, with some good common sense, about what new technologies mean for the demise — or not — of the book.

Booksquare has their own, ballsy take on the situation.

Then, if you really want to shock yourself, read this:

Continue reading

Joan Didion is Just So Cool

I have been most negligent in my blog-updating duties because I am in Florida, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, working on my new book project and trying to limit all contact with the outer world and especially the evil time suck of the internet. So, more regular posts to come soon. In the meantime, here’s Joan Didion, from the New York Review Of Books.

Juicy Links. And the End of Book Publishing as We Know It.

Why hello! Thanks for visiting. You are looking great, by the way. Younger every time I see you.

I’d like to serve up, today, some luscious literary links.

First up, David Gessner, in the New York Times magazine, on what it’s really like to be an MFA writing professor. Times have changed since his day:

I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis.

Gessner teaches at UNC-Wilmington, in case you are interested. At the end of the piece, Gessner worries that he might be intentionally sabotaging his teaching career by publishing his thoughts about it, especially a few weeks before he goes up for tenure. But if I were applying for nonfiction programs right now, his essay would make me add Wilmington to my list, if it wasn’t already on there.  Just so you know, tenure committee.

Then there’s New York magazine on the end of book publishing as we know it. Cheery!

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

That’s it! It’s all Jonathan Safran Foer’s fault!

Finally, Wired magazine is blogging the development of one of their stories, from the pitch to the “get” to the copy edit, with all the emails in between. It’s a great primer for anyone interested in the actual process an idea goes through to wind up on the pages of a mainstream magazine. Read it here.

More Juicy Links. And Mashed Potatoes.

David Carr Will Save Memoir! Or so says Leon Neyfakh at the New York Observer. Apparently Carr, author of a new book about his drug experiences, was so loathe to trust his drugged out memories that he reported on his own life, interviewed his friends and family, and even hired a private investigator. This makes him, in Neyfakh’s eyes, memoir’s “…white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true.”

This hilarious collection of Carr’s mashed potato analogies suggests otherwise, though.

Stuart Jeffries on the non-reading epidemic. Pithy.

There is a thing called reader’s block. It is not the same as writer’s block. In fact, reader’s block is a phenomenon partly explained as a reader’s all-too-understandable response to so many writers not having writer’s block.

My man Salman might just win the Booker prize again.

And, care of Booksquare, Jennifer Epstein, author of the Painter From Shanghai, on moving from writing books to blogging and blogs:

These short, sharp little sites and pieces can be vastly engaging and informative, and I’ve found several that I truly love. That said, they feel like the very antithesis of the way I write; tight deadlines, immediate readerships.

For New York type writing folk, Guernica magazine is looking for a managing editor and benefit director.

How To Get A Literary Woody

The great literary critic James Wood has a new book out, and he is being publicly fellated in print all over town. Nothing gets a book critic more excited, it seems, than the success of another book critic.

“In studying how fiction works, Wood shows how the critical mind ought to work,” exclaims Peter Conrad at The Observer (UK).

“Wood’s reviews are events,” froths Delia Falconer at the Australian.

“Reading Wood, no matter the book under review, provides enormous pleasure; his prose is at once buoyant and momentous, his judgment swift with imperial grace.” That’s from Gideon Lewis-Kraus at the LA Times.

David Gates at Newsweek, in one of the more tepid reviews, still manages to remind us that Wood is “one of the best critics alive.”

And Louis Bayard, over at Salon, starts his review with this line: “James Wood makes me want to be a better man.” He follows that up with: “Wood writes like an angel, with all the austerity and voluptuousness that implies.”

Bayard’s review is actually one of the better ones, despite these ebullient lines. He brings some of his own insights to bear, including this one, on the question of whether fiction even really needs to be explained:

Surely, if it’s doing its job, it need only be experienced. If it can’t be experienced without tearing off its gown to expose the skivvies beneath, then it’s even more of a minority art form than we feared. What, finally, is better for the soul: reading Tolstoy or reading how to read Tolstoy?

I’d vote for the former, but then I’m a sucker for writing about writing and insights into literature, so I’ll be checking out the book anyway. There’s something about the reverential tone reserved for Wood that irks me, though, which is why I was amused to see this somewhat crass attack on the Wood oeurvre from the authors of the Vulture blog over at New York magazine. The great literary critic James Wood seemed to feel so misrepresented that he responded to their implied attacks on his intellect in person. That’s all well and good, James, but do you still collect dirt?

Juicy Links. And Kindleporn.

The links section to the right is currently in progress. As soon as I get the time I’m going to be adding more: more people I know and love, more literary sites, more good stuff.

In the meantime, here’s a few interesting snippets for you to peruse.

This article about Kindleporn just throws up so many weird questions. Does the design of the Kindle facilitate easy one-handed operation? Are there now authors out there who are packaging their erotica into Kindle-page sized chunks? How should a Kindle be cleaned? The mind boggles.

Then there’s this: Robert Downey Jr. Postpones Candid Memoir. S’up Bob? Got creatively blocked, did you? Was your memoir so unbelievably candid that you were afraid of what your family and friends might think? Or was it just too much of a literary challenge? You should have called me, dude! I could have helped you with those issues. I do that kind of thing all the time!

Finally, literary tattoos. Try not to read the comments at the end from all those uptight and morally indignant Telegraph readers, just look at the pictures.

I do have a tattoo, and it does have words in it, but it’s not a literary quote. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. If I were to get a literary tattoo, though, it might be this quote from Thomas Mann, which is currently one of my favorites:

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Actually, I think all writers need to have this tattooed on their bodies somewhere, because it’s so easy to forget. We think that, because it’s difficult, we must somehow be doing it wrong, and there are other writers out there who find writing easy, and they are the real writers and we are not. Mann’s quote reminds us that, in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth.

What about you? What literary tattoo would you get?