Monday, December 6, 2010

Why 127 Hours Felt Like 130

Some time ago a friend of mine saw Aron Ralston speak at a business function.    He told me that it was the most inspirational talk he’d ever heard.

Ralston — as everyone knows by now — is the young man who became pinned by a boulder during a misfortunate solo hike and used an all-purpose tool to cut off his right arm below the elbow in order to escape.  It was an act of astonishing courage, the kind of thing that prompts normal people to pause in their daily routines when they first hear about it, to reflect for a moment on the human capacity for survival, and to wonder whether we ourselves would have the chops to do what this man did in extremis.

So why did the feature film 127 Hours, which tells this story, fall so flat for me?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Saved at Birth

It always begins this way.

An idea intrudes, insists that I give it attention, finally settles upon me.  It’s exciting — a promise to oneself that makes the hair stand on end.  And, of course, because it resides in the mind, not on the page, there’s a certain perfection to it.

Oh, I know it’s not really perfect.  It’s incomplete, in fact, not fully formed.  But there’s thrust behind the thing.  So even if the blade isn’t sharp, the subject has been engaged.

Then comes a moment when the only way to move the idea forward is to think more deeply, to hone the details.  This represents a profound psychological shift.  It’s the difference between a pitcher knowing he has a start scheduled for next Saturday and undertaking the stretches for that start in an hour hence.  With preparation comes trepidation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Four Meetings on the Future of Books

In the course of about 24 hours, I met in New York this week with four book publishing professionals. Not in symposia or conferences, mind you, but one on one, old friends across the table.

Nor was this an academic exercise. I have completed two novels and hope to have more on the way. Yet current business models — the “old” business models, if you will — look more and more like castles made of sand. The tide of technology is lapping at their foundations. Is this the time to build another sand castle in the same spot or should I strike out in search of firmer ground?

The Director
My first meeting took place over Indian food with the director of a small division within one of the large houses. The division has a spectrum of products, not all of them books but all in support of a branded worldview. Despite being earlier to market than a startup competitor, this division has had its clock cleaned by that competitor, a company with no prior baggage and with a tendency toward innovation.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Words Unsaid

A few years ago, my father-in-law, who is quite erudite, introduced me to a phrase that the French have: L’esprit de l’escalier, which is often translated as “staircase wit.”

The phrase refers to the clever comeback that occurs to us only after the best moment for delivery has passed — after our opponent has walked away or left the room, say, or we have. There’s also a German equivalent, treppenwitz.

We’ve all had this experience: a situation flusters us, takes us out of our game. The moment passes and when it’s too late that great comeback line hits us and we wish we could re-live the opportunity.

The phrase L’esprit de l’escalier originates, apparently, from Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comedien, where he tells the story of just such an occurrence, an argument upstairs in a mansion where he didn’t regain his wits until he was down at the bottom of the staircase alone.

Monday, May 17, 2010

No Comment

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, said the famous artist whose works — lo, thirty years later — command tens of millions at auction.

In the present, everyone has fifteen opinions on everything, said the not-yet-famous author, though I’m working on it.

Well, maybe I’m not working hard enough on it. And maybe not everyone has fifteen opinions. Just those who inhabit the land of the comment culture.

In the comment culture, writers write things and readers are not content to appreciate another point of view without sharing their own. They post a comment, and sometimes the writer comments back, and sometimes this goes on for a while, and the comment count gets run up.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Choosing to Write in Oil or Watercolor

It’s spring in Delaware. Azaleas and primrose in bloom, warm days and cool nights. In celebration of their beautiful garden, some friends recently hosted a large party under a big white tent. They seated me at a table filled with people whose passion is painting pictures.

A few of these people were retired, painting as a serious hobby. Some were studying painting. Others were making a living at it, their work represented in galleries. I found it especially interesting that when asked, “What kind of painting do you do,” the answer was never “abstract” or "landscape" or “figurative,” etc. It was always “oil” or “watercolor.”

One of the oil painters said to a watercolorist, “I could never do that. I prefer the freedom to paint over my mistakes.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Come the Volcano

In the past week, two things happened at about the same time, but very far apart in geography and scale. First, an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name began spewing ash into the atmosphere. Nearly at the same time, my wife’s Kindle died.

Two disparate events. Yet I am tempted to connect some dots.

The volcano you know about as well as I. Downwind in Iceland, the landscape looked like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Farther downwind, air traffic in much of Europe ground to a halt, many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure rendered useless.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

E-telling on the iPad

Does the iPad change everything? Of course not. By now we should have learned that NOTHING ever changes EVERYTHING. But I’ve been playing with this device for a day now, and I can say with confidence that it does this: it expands possibilities for the storyteller.

To begin studying this issue, everyone should view the remarkable video created by Penguin, entitled iPad Imagineering. From the perspective of a book publishing fan, I found it heartening. It deserves to go viral. Too often book publishers have run scared from new technology, then ventured in one toe at a time, as if the water were too hot for their metabolism.

Not Penguin, not now. Here is a publisher acting, rather than reacting. Here is a publisher asserting that it will have a role in the new paradigm, a role it will seize itself, which is how all business gets done in growing markets, where nobody hands you anything — where, as Jack Welch famously said, you eat your own lunch or someone else will.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Defying Categorization

I recently read a Facebook mini-rant from an accomplished novelist expressing frustration that people insist on categorizing her book as “women’s lit.” She noted that there’s no such category as “man’s lit,” and suggested just plain “lit” would be a more appropriate description for what she’s doing, and a whole lot less condescending.

Fool that I am, although I don’t really know her (we have a professional connection that makes us “friends”) I waded into the infested water with a comment of my own. (By the way, I have deleted my link to the thread on my Facebook page to protect her privacy.) My thought was that if being put in a category like “women’s lit” is tantamount to being condescended to, then men are condescended to plenty. Maybe, I suggested, there’s more to this issue than sexism.

Well, naturally, that made me the skunk at the garden party, with several other women asserting the presence of a great sexist conspiracy. In fairness, no one used the word “conspiracy,” but the implication was there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Story Business

Q: Why don’t book publishers own Hollywood studios?
A: Because they realized too late that they were in the story business.

I was struck by news last week in the Wall Street Journal that Random House, “eager to cash in on the lucrative videogame business, has set up an in-house team to create original stories for videogames and provide story advice for games in development.”

In the first instance, this is an eerie sign that the cash cow of backlist books has begun to resist further milking. Random House publisher Gina Centrello comments, “We need new revenue streams.”

Gulp. There’s a thought every writer can dig. But maybe there’s something we can learn from this move. Let’s take a look.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bending Narration

In a writers group I used to attend, there seemed always to be a great deal of discussion about the reliability of first-person narration. People always seemed poised to find self incrimination, some suggestion that the narrator is fooling or manipulating the reader, and therefore every word he or she writes becomes suspect. In contrast, I have long contended, first, that all modern narration has an element of so-called unreliability. And, second, that the relative lack of reliability need not be a signal that the narrator is engaged in some kind of manipulation of the reader, which is what these discussions always seem to want to suggest.

Thus I was gratified to read the following in the critic James Wood's How Fiction Works: "So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking."

If omniscience ("so-called") has a point of view -- and I agree that it does -- then why are reading writers so eager to find the point where first-person narration trips into so-called unreliability?

Monday, March 1, 2010

How NOT to Price an e-Book

Have you ever walked into a butcher store and asked why the filet mignon was so expensive and received a reply along the following lines: “Well, ma’am, that cow had to stand out in the hot sun for two years, someone had to feed him all that time, then they had to put him in a truck, which costs money…” No. I don’t think so.

Yet, a month or so ago, there was Jonathan Galassi, a bright man and president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, explaining on the op-ed page of the New York Times how expensive it is to produce a book, whether it’s printed on paper or delivered in pixels. And now, this week, we have an article in the business section with more publishers weighing in on the cost of designing covers and copy editing and paying all that rent on the big building in Times Square.


We writers and others in book publishing should think back for a moment to the last time we considered buying some other product — say, the latest iPhone. Did we expect Steve Jobs to justify the price based upon how much that neat, scratch resistant glass cost to manufacture? No. We were more interested, undoubtedly, in what that iPhone might do for us or how owning one might make us feel.