Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Book Publishing

A long New Yorker piece on Amazon and books from earlier this year is disquieting to say the least.  It seems that Amazon has become the Wal-Mart of book publishing, making demands that publishers can't afford not to accept.  It's not a pretty picture.

On the other hand, at least since the 1980s, New York publishers adopted self-defeating business practices, aping inappropriate business models, in which books became "product," etc.  It bred arrogance and (among real editors and authors) disillusion, so there weren't a lot of people left to feel sorry for them.

And the condition in this quote has been going on for quite some time:

Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

This became obvious to me as an author more than a decade ago.

As for the book business, the article cites one example of a counter-approach, which essentially has publishing going smaller and selling direct to readers.  Whether or not this would work, I believe Andrew Wylie is largely right in his quoted statement: "The [publishing] industry thinks of itself as Procter & Gamble*. What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddam business? It’s not—it’s a tiny little business, selling to a bunch of odd people who read.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015


I confess that among many other such thoughts, I worry that I'm slipping when I find typographical errors in my writing that I missed after reading the sentence a time or two.  Sometimes those errors find their way into my Internet posts, or in drafts meant for publication.  And sometimes I don't catch those errors in posts for a long time.

I suppose it should reassure me, or at least make me feel better, that I spot such errors in published books and especially online.  Just now I've read two articles on the New Yorker site.  I spotted two obvious errors in one, and one in the other. I recognize how they were made--a sentence is rewritten or a thought is redirected but an errant word remains, usually a small one: an "in" or an "a" or an "a the." These are byproducts of how word processing works--all this deleting and inserting.   Or a word is just misspelled--the kind of misspelling that eludes the spell-checker. Those sorts of things.

But for many year when it was a magazine and nothing else, the New Yorker was the standard for copy editing and perfectly proofread prose.  I personally never found a typo in any issue I read from the 1960s to the late 1980s, when they began appearing after the magazine changed ownership and editor.  They soon stopped, but the typos that I saw in at least a few issues seemed utterly unnatural in that distinctive New Yorker typeface.

But typos as well as bad grammar and other copy writing errors are depressingly frequent in heavily monetized online publications.  But the New Yorker?  The New Yorker!

So while I am a little reassured about myself, I am at the same time depressed by a different sign that perhaps this is no longer my time.  


It occurs to me there is a possible reason for these typos appearing on the New Yorker site and other sites that post writing by professional writers, besides just slipping standards or sloth, or even the usual excuse of the need to feed the beast with copy at a fast pace.

That possible reason is that the standard, or even the ethic, of online posts is that once posted, nothing in them is changed.  If changes are made, they must be indicated at the end, with a catalog of the revisions.

Apparently there is something unethical about correcting mistakes once the publish button is pushed.   I'm not sure why, except perhaps that this is just the Internet tradition.  Maybe it began with dated web logs, which also are apparently sacrosanct.

To which I say, sorry, but it seems like nonsense to me. Isn't the capability of changing what's published online a major advantage?  I'm pretty sure any of us who saw our mistakes permanently preserved in print would have appreciated the chance to correct them, then and there.  Changes in substance online (correcting facts, etc.) might merit an appended note, especially if in response to a comment or correction from outside.  But style matters?  I don't get it.  Maybe it's part of the aura?  Internet posts are supposed to be so spontaneous? And nothing provides the aura of spontaneity like sloppy writing. Maybe the lack of copy editing isn't just an economy, but an ethic.

In any case, I routinely change what I've written after I've posted it, to correct errors, to rewrite sentences and paragraphs in the effort to make things clearer or just better written.  I may do so several times until I am satisfied.  I've made revisions on this post, for example, at least six times so far.

The ethics of this seem clear to me.  If I have annoyed readers with typos and misspellings, or confused them with awkward writing, I don't see the point of continuing to annoy or confuse future readers if I can correct the errors or improve the writing.

In the end, I suppose both parts of this post refer to the same set of standards.  And that they are part of my identity as a writer, because I make corrections even when believing that it's unlikely many or any readers will know or care.  I'll know, and I care.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Super Moon Memory

It's hard to believe a lot of the Super Moon photos on the web are real.  The full moon at a time when the Earth is closest to it happened the last weekend of August. I didn't anticipate it really--it was so hazy (thin marine layer, depressing smoke from distant forest fires) during the Perseid meteor shower that I didn't dare.

Then it rained--wind, a distant rumble, then a misty rain, then real rain for some time, during the night.  This was Friday going into Saturday, I think.  Rare enough in a regular August, really strange (and welcome) in another droughtful summer.

Then in the wee hours, after the rain stopped, the clouds began to move, to break up in strange patterns.  The full Super Moon was not especially big, so high in the sky, but it was bright.  Very bright.  It illuminated large clouds of extravagant, unusual shapes and textures with feverish brightness, and bathed these scalloped, spread-tailed, slowly swimming clouds in an indescribable blue.

For awhile there were thin clouds passing over the moon, which was so bright that it appeared that the moon was passing in front of the clouds--I could see them through the surreal luminance, as if the moon were brightly transparent.

I have no camera capable of capturing this, and even if I did, I'm not sure even I would believe it.  I've never seen clouds like that, in sky like that.  I've seen the moon that bright, but the combination was unique.  Super, I guess.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why I Don't Have a Smartphone

I don't have a smartphone.  I don't watch new television programs, seldom see new movies, though a few on DVD.  I don't know who the celebrities are that the supermarket tabloids and their internet counterparts get all exercised about.  I don't listen to new pop music.  And so on.

This fits the profile for my age, and a lot of it surely is about age. But it's not mindless.  Some of it is about exploring past music etc. I missed, or in more depth, and some about revisiting books, tv shows etc. for what they now say that's different from the first times around. Or reminding me who I was then, and maybe who I forgot I was since.

Of course, that I don't like a lot of new TV, music and movies does make it easier to ignore.

 Apart from the comfort level, there's the tendency to want to have a deeper experience and find more meaning in what flashed by in the past.  That seems like the natural work, play and purpose of being this age, and in sound enough mind to try feeling the breadth and depth of my whole life while I've got it.

 (And in fact I use some new technology in these activities.  But why should I give up the advantages of the desktop computer just because they aren't fashionable anymore? Or the stereo, the record player?  Or the physical book off the physical shelf ?)

Though I take a certain amount of elder abuse for skepticism of new technologies and so on (which, by the way, I also exhibited when younger), I have my additional reasons. There's expense v. utility, for example. As interesting or enhancing as they might be, smartphones and multimedia packages are too expensive for what I need.  Besides, nobody calls me on the home phone or the flip phone now, so why would that be different? And the screen is too small and the sound too poor for much of anything else.

 So it's partly aesthetics, too: one of the major reasons that so far I haven't been able to bring myself to do Facebook is that it is so ugly.

Bad design, inferior materials also turn me off.  Some new tech is so obviously designed for younger eyes and fingers that it's the height of effrontery to expect I'd shamefacedly accept it.

The other element that is related to age is that the smartphone and related technologies are largely about marketing and selling things, and I'm not interested in that, nor are the marketers and sellers likely to be much interested in me.  In my demographic, and especially my income level.

 But there is a larger sense in which this is a choice, and I know what I'm doing.  What I am doing is concentrating on the past and the future.  The present makes its demands anyway, I don't have to cater to it.  People in youth and middle age, people with children or even actively involved with grandchildren, have reasons to keep up with the fast-changing present.  I don't, not nearly as much.

If I don't need to, I don't want to waste the time.  I am engaged in experiencing the past in more depth, and learning from it.  I apply that to concerns about the future.  Big concerns, about the big picture future.

That's my choice, my concentration, and it's meant to be my contribution.  It may well be futile.  Still, chances are a little better on something good coming of this, than from the distractions of the smartphone.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Birthday Sentences

On and around my 69th birthday recently, I had three birthday thoughts.

 The first was on the day, when I hiked up Trinidad Head. Unless you know the Head (in Trinidad Bay, far northern California), the thought may not mean anything, so I've included some photos from a subsequent walk, on a sunnier day. On my birthday there was considerable fog blowing in from the sea. Still, I wish I'd taken my camera that day.

 The thought was simple: my birthday present was that I hiked Trinidad Head--the experience itself (I even got quite close to a young rabbit on the trail) and the fact that at 69, I could still hike up Trinidad Head. That's the best gift.

It's not a climb in any mountain-climbing sense, it doesn't require equipment or training--it's not that kind of accomplishment. It's an ordinary climb--rigorous enough especially at the start, and a workout as the trail winds up. I've been hiking it for about 19 years, though not often enough. And I still can.

 It overlooks the Pacific on one side, and Trinidad Bay on the other. It's quiet and beautiful, and for now, it's available to me.

 That was first thought. The second thought, which came the next day or so, was more complicated. It had to do with success and failure.

 "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake," Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter. Maybe, but for an American man the basic criteria for success are pretty clear.

You're a success if in your life you make a sufficient living to raise a family, or if you produce work that receives honors and earns you a recognized place among peers as well as some more general community, or preferably both. You can be a success in your life, or a success in your work, or both. You are failure if you accomplish neither.

 I have accomplished neither. The failure is not absolute, I did accomplish something in each area. But not enough really to count me a success by these criteria.

Yet looking back, I have some satisfactions. So the second thought was: if I failed, at least I failed big. That is, the failure (however complete) was not spectacular, but my aspirations were big.

 I was remembering an acquaintance I'd once worked with who I last saw a long time ago in southern California. He showed me a script he'd written for a sitcom then on TV. I never saw him again. Though it appears he had some achievements in the movies and TV, it wasn't as a writer. There are other similar cases I know.

 I made compromises in my working life. But at least I did not try to write scripts for sad sitcoms or pathetic or loathsome movies, and failed. I failed trying to write the most ambitious works, the best works I could dream up, in whatever form. What I failed at was big.

The third thought is perhaps a corollary. If I were to describe, as simply as possible, what I did all my life, I might say, "I made sentences." (Nobody has asked me that question, nor any like it for quite awhile, but at least I have the answer ready.) I also made music, and dreamed up images, wrote dialogue and so on. But basically, in the range of work I did for love, a larger duty and for hire, I made sentences.

 John Banville began his review of books on Emerson this way:"Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence." Of course in addition to sentences, I made paragraphs and pages and so on. I thought about and worked at all these forms, but they are basically built with sentences. So I'll make my stand with the sentence.

 And if it is indeed humankind's greatest invention, it matters less what those sentences were about than the fact that I worked at making them the best sentences I could. While trying to lead an honorable life. It was not a bad way to use a life. So I think I'll keep doing it.

Monday, July 20, 2015


"You don't have to sell a hundred million records, you don't need thousands of platinum disks, you don't need to sing to millions and millions of people for music to nourish your soul.  You can sing and play to the cat, it will still mend your life.  My mantra is five simple words: Music is its own reward."


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memory Day (Spring to Summer Flower Edition)

Every Memorial Day weekend, my grandfather would change the winter glass storm doors for screen doors, bring the window screens up from the cellar, and remove the dark cover from the glider on the front porch. It was the signal for summer.

 Hereabouts there's something blooming at all times of year, but the spring flowers are into their summer. We've got varieties of roses (yellow in front, red in back), Iris (though they tend to bloom earlier in the spring) and California poppies. We've even got purple sage (that's it above, along with the two flowers I'm about to mention.)

 But two kinds are dominant, and in our walks in the neighborhood, I don't see them as profuse (or even as present) as around our house. Nasturtiums (proper name Tropaeolum) are orange or orange and yellow striped flowers, with roundish green leaves. The stems are attached to vines which grow at an incredible rate that accelerated in April. They threaten to cover the back porch, and I confess to enjoy being surrounded by them in my usual chair.

 Nasturtium flowers are edible with a kind of peppery taste, and contain high amounts of vitamin C. We use them in salads from time to time.

The other kind is the Calla Lily. Before I came here, all I knew about calla lilies was what Katherine Hepburn said in Stage Door--it became one of the standard lines for Hepburn imitators. I first noticed them growing in the narrow strip between the north side of the house and the fence with the neighbor house. There's only one small door on that side of the house, from the garage, and access from the front through a small garden gate. This area has always been dense with bushes and, close to the house, with ferns. Back in the far western corner is where I first noticed a few calla lilies.

 They stayed pretty much on that side until recent years, then migrated to the front (also accompanying ferns) and now we have them in the back bordering the porch and near the small fruit trees (fernless however), as well as in the front under the picture window. They are strange and strangely beautiful white flowers on long stalks that can get quite tall. (The books say three feet, but several in the front this year were at least four feet.) I'm fascinated by their large leaves with their curves and folds. We seem to have the most callas in the vicinity. I don't know why. They are quite hardy and bloom for a lot of the year.

 Nasturtiums came from South America, calla lilies from Africa (though some species have been in northern parts of the US for a long time.) So I don't know where you draw the line on native plants. They probably do compete successfully with other flowers, though there are varieties scattered in our yards that I can't name that seem more like California flowers-- very complex, with bands and spots of colors, bell-like parts and other complexities, all so different. Even the wild iris are remarkable in their stripes and patterns, the subtle blend of colors.

 By contrast, I remember the flowers of my western Pennsylvania childhood as simpler: violets, daisies, profusions of dandelions considered weeds, the purple flowers I never knew the name of because they too were "weeds," flower beds of gladiolas and roses.

I was musing on this topic while out on the porch in April, on one of the rare occasions that I took my laptop out there (it doesn't do well in bright light.) What I was thinking of when I was out there watching and listening to what goes on around the flowers and trees was the profusion I recall--accurately or not I don't know, but I think pretty accurately.

 Here I watched a single wasp, and three bumble bees who are working the same territory but seemed to stay together at a respectful distance from the larger pollinator. I heard crickets, a fairly uncommon sound. The sight of a butterfly is rare, and the sight of more than one of any appreciable size is rarer still. In my childhood backyard and the adjoining field there were lots of bumble bees to watch and be wary of, and wasps and hornets were regular residents around the outside of the house. Lots of butterflies, large and patterned, all summer. Our neighborhood lore included the difference between Monarchs and butterflies that looked just like them. My favorites were the patterned butterflies in shades of blue.  (On the other hand, there were an awful lot of houseflies.)

 We've made things as bird friendly as possible here. I have a makeshift birdbath on an old picnic table and have watched birds splashing in it, though its been dry lately. I needed to find a smaller dish I can refill every day without drought guilt.

 But the birds who visit us mostly chirp--songs are rare. There were a lot more songbirds in the east, particularly where I lived in Pittsburgh. There were also cardinals and goldfinches we don't have here at all. (On the other hand, I can watch hawks circling above the community forest almost any day.) In spring however we do get species of bird visitors we may never see the rest of the summer, or rarely. And in April on the HSU campus I saw a pair of stellar jays--large jays, blue feathers--and heard what sounded like a macaw, or some bird call I remembered only from movies set in jungles or swamps. That was weird.