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.