How are publishers looking at reopening?

Can you imagine being told to come back to work in the US right now? You’d be like, dudes, I did not sign up to be a firefighter running into burning buildings. FFS, I work in editorial. It’s like the opposite of firefighting. I set fires under people for a living. How am I supposed to do that while constantly trying to not get burned? Publishers Weekly looks at how the industry is surveying the situation with an eye to reopening.

All publishers are working to balance the safety of their employees with a desire to return to some form of normalcy. For the most part, however, the uncertain course of the pandemic has made companies reluctant to move too quickly to fully reopen their offices, particularly as questions surrounding mass transit and childcare remain unresolved. “We are not going to put anybody’s health in jeopardy by rushing the reopening process,” one company executive said; that sentiment was echoed by all publishers contacted by PW.

To prepare for bringing back employees, one company described some of the changes it has made: new protocols for lobby screenings, improved circulation and air flow, new foot traffic patterns and floor plan adjustments, and new policies regarding mandatory PPE and social distancing.

On how paywalls are contributing to the dumbeningdownening of Western thought

I get why paywalls exist. Good writing needs to be financially supported and if ad revenue isn’t able to provide (or is against an aesthetic) a paywall ensures a continuation of the subscriber-based model from print days. Simple right? But what if you haven’t the budget for it? Like me. I am frustrated a lot that some of the outlets I used to go to for media are locked tighter than a conservative voter’s mind. I recently begged an editor friend to open up a few more stories at their trade publication so I could send some traffic their way and he pointed out that it would basically spell the end of the entire endeavour. I get it. Except, when you put all the good writing behind a paywall, you end up hiding the truth while all the lies of the internet remain free. How do we mitigate this? The Guardian takes donations to remain free (and I donate a few times a year when I have cash), but other than charity or state sponsorship (also dangerous in its own way), how do we move forward? Fascinating article here.

Now, crucially, I do not mean to imply here that reading the New York Times gives you a sound grasp of reality. I have documented many times how the Times misleads people, for instance by repeating the dubious idea that we have a “border crisis” of migrants “pouring into” the country or that Russia is trying to “steal” life-saving vaccine research that should be free anyway. But it’s important to understand the problem with the Times: it is not that the facts it reports tend to be inaccurate—though sometimes they are—but that the facts are presented in a way that misleads. There is no single “fact” in the migrant story or the Russia story that I take issue with, what I take issue with is the conclusions that are being drawn from the facts. (Likewise, the headline “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts” is technically accurate: the U.S. government did, in fact, say that. It was just not true.) The New York Times is, in fact, extremely valuable, if you read it critically and look past the headlines. Usually the truth is in there somewhere, as there is a great deal of excellent reporting, and one could almost construct a serious newspaper purely from material culled from the New York Times. I’ve written before about the Times’ reporting on Hitler and the Holocaust: it wasn’t that the grim facts of the situation were left out of the paper, but that they were buried at the back and treated as unimportant. It was changes in emphasis that were needed, because the facts were there in black and white.

This means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. Eric Levitz of New York is one of the best and most prolific left political commentators we have. But unless you’re a subscriber of New York, you won’t get to hear much of what he has to say each month.

Monday blahs

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Story of the Year

John Boyne searches google for ingredients to dye clothes red and accidentally includes ingredients made from monsters in the Legend of Zelda video games. His novel is not a fantasy… THIS…. This is Bookninja’s bread and butter — the ridiculousness at the bottom of it all. In the end the art is affected by what’s happening around it, as always. He handles it well, though, and moves on. Could have happened to anyone (except me because my kids never stop talking about Breath of the Wild so I know too much).

Boyne took the revelation in good spirits, and said he wouldn’t be changing the section – but would add Zelda to the acknowledgments page of the novel’s paperback, despite never having played a computer game in his life.

“I’ll leave it as it is. I actually think it’s quite funny and you’re totally right. I don’t remember but I must have just Googled it,” he told Schwartz on Twitter. “Hey, sometimes you just gotta throw your hands up and say ‘yup! My bad!’”

He added: “Note to self: never talk about poisons in a novel again.”

Boyne took the revelation in good spirits, and said he wouldn’t be changing the section – but would add Zelda to the acknowledgments page of the novel’s paperback, despite never having played a computer game in his life.

“I’ll leave it as it is. I actually think it’s quite funny and you’re totally right. I don’t remember but I must have just Googled it,” he told Schwartz on Twitter. “Hey, sometimes you just gotta throw your hands up and say ‘yup! My bad!’”

He added: “Note to self: never talk about poisons in a novel again.”

On ADHD and self-help books

As a middle-aged fellow who was diagnosed with ADHD only earlier this year, I can tell you that there is a massive scam market out there for people looking to have someone tell them how to live. I looked into them before a friend told me to go get checked out. Forget the books, people. Like parenting books, they all say something different. Go talk to a doctor. They will mostly say the same things. It’s life-changing when you realize that most of what you’ve found frustrating about yourself since birth is explainable on a chemical level and you’re given the actual tools to deal with it. Imagine if I’d known this 25 years ago? But seriously, books don’t do the job. If you identify with the woman below, I mean, without exaggerating, go ask your doctor about it.

For as long as I can remember, I have been forgetful. My mind is a steel trap for facts like Henry Purcell‘s birth and death dates (1659–1695). But for the life of me, I can never remember doctor’s appointments on my own. I lose an important item daily. If it’s not interesting enough to completely capture my attention, I will forget what you say almost immediately after you say it. Meetings are fun.

Without outside accountability, I will not finish a project. With outside accountability, I will procrastinate longer than you even thought possible. In college, I wrote more than one paper in fewer than 20 minutes. I can’t recall ever getting my car’s registration tags updated in a timely manner. I am late (and I wish this was an exaggeration) a full 95% of the time. Even though I’ve been working remotely and the only places I really have to be right now are Zoom meetings.

All of these behaviors, I now know, are common symptoms of ADHD. All of these behaviors are commonly targeted by the self-help industry. Want to be on time? Try these books! Sick of procrastinating? These’ll tell you how to stop! Looking to improve your memory? Try this on for size!

A little love for Alanis

90s-me had a few musical loves, and strong female vocalists was one of them. I think I’d seen Alanis perform at the City Centre in Bramalea when I was much younger, probably in passing as I was on my way to Coles, when she was still a much happier looking teenager as well. Or maybe that was Tiffany? Or Debbie someone? Don’t remember. One of the one-name mall singers. But when she re-adopted her last name and showed up with Jagged Little Pill, well, it was pretty good and timely. It was an early example of women talking openly about shitty men, as well as women not trying to be perfect ideals for men. Like that Carly Simon song but with stringier hair and more anger. Yes, we all pointed out that her one song was more about bummers than irony, but come on, it was good and as angry as any grunge/metal. We all loved her. And she was Canadian. This article uses Morissette as a case study for how confessional writing from women is discounted while the same from men is considered literary.

Personal writing by women is often seen as indulgent, while personal writing by men is more often lauded as universal, reflective of the human condition, high art. As Lori Saint-Martin writes in Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media, “The realm of the personal and sexual has always been literary for men (Saint Augustine, Rousseau, Michel Leiris, Henry Miller) and confessional for women (Colette, Erica Jong, Anais Nin).” Many critics were condescending in their reception of Alanis’s work—even in ostensibly positive reviews. In a 1995 profile, Rolling Stone’s David Wild called Morissette “queen of this year’s pop culture prom,” whose live performance is “less like a concert than modern-rock group therapy.” And AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “Her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts.” Then there was all the widespread discussion of how the scenarios presented in Morissette’s hit song “Ironic” were in fact not actually ironic.

The brash vulnerability and confessional nature of Alanis’s lyrics often led to sexist critiques and dismissals like the one I encountered in my mom’s car that day. And yet her music felt right on time. Morissette has never framed her work’s expression of anger as overtly political, but it’s hard to imagine that her transition from bubble-gum pop to emotionally charged confessional rock wasn’t influenced by the political moment, centered on women’s outrage, into which she wrote these songs. Or that the vast popularity of Jagged Little Pill wasn’t, in part, the result of a culture ready to hear women divulging the details of their repressed anger; a generation of women that were growing quite angry themselves.

Finally Friday news dump

Ms. Ninja finished her next novel last night, so we stayed up late and had an extra drink and now Morning-George is cursing Evening-George for his poor decision-making. I hope the rest of you are having a fine Friday. Don’t read the news today. Just float the knowledge that you have two days ahead of you when it’s okay to be the slothful, self-indulgent old git you already are.

Virtual retreats?

What the frig? If I want to retreat virtually, I will do so in Fallout 76. What I REALLY need is an actual retreat where I can go without my phone or an internet connection, and to have enough time there that I can afford to spend at least three days procrastinating before I get so bored I start writing again.

And, for the first time, I almost started applying for that sort of thing this year.

Sadly, just before all this end-of-the-world stuff went down, I had been discussing with Ms. Ninja that I’ve always done the responsible thing and taken the needs of my family over my needs as an artist. Which is why I don’t spend semesters away teaching at cool schools or head off to do residencies for weeks or months at a time or even really do more than the occasional week away during publication for a new book. I wanted to be there for the kids, and also, to not miss out on anything important for my own sake and peace of mind.

But our thought was that, now with the eldest child having moved out and the next three are either gearing up for university or a teenagehood spent on a skateboard, it’s probably fine if I decide to take some time away. I’ll miss them more than they’ll miss me, but at least I’ll get some shit done. This freed me up to start looking into these possibilities right before things shut down.

Who am I kidding? I would have probably hated it. Forced confinement with other artists at a residency? Shudder. Finding constructive things to say about unfixable guy-in-your-MFA poems? Shudder. A remote cabin in the woods around which there is surely a some dark secrets and … is that someone standing out in the thunderstorm with their head down and hair dripping over their face as they rhythmically tap a long chef’s knife loosely against their leg? Double shudder.

Truth is, I’m probably best off here at the dining table. Never leaving home again.

Not pictured: psycho with a knife

Yesterday, MacDowell, a prestigious artists’ residency in New Hampshire—who has suspended their regular fellowship program due to the coronavirus pandemic—announced a “pilot program” for a virtual version of its famous retreat.

It will certainly look a lot different than usual, considering that the artists will be participating from their own homes—but MacDowell executive director Philip Himberg hopes to at least recreate the sense of community that MacDowell offers along with its solitude. Those famous group dinners and picnic baskets will even be involved—sent to the participants’ homes.

Is the lit world waking up to women?

Women have held a central role in publishing and as a target audience for books for years. But now everyone seems to be waking up to the fact that they write better than most men as well. Two articles on the subject below:

The Irish Times looks at why women suddenly dominate the market….

This upsurge in commercial success and critical acclaim is not just the preserve of Irish women, of course. In 2019 the Booker Prize was awarded to two women (that the award was split between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo was a disappointingly lazy cop-out from the judges and no comment on the inimitable talents of either author). And so too this year the Booker Prize longlist contains just four men out of the total 13. Women’s domination of the literary landscape seems all but complete. But of course it raises the question: Why? And why now?

In light of the Booker Prize longlist this year, deputy books editor at The Times of London James Marriott asked: “Where are the new male hotshot novelists?” It seems likely that the answer to his question would too contain the answer to mine. And to an extent, it does.

…and the Guardian writes about Irish women writers finally being taken seriously.

Of course, women’s lives have always been dominated by the needs of others. Surveys of the division of labour during the lockdown revealed – to the surprise of nobody – that women still ended up performing the vast majority of housework and caring duties. Women writers, no less today than in my grandmother’s day, must find a way of working amid all this noise, and they do. Anne Lamott famously said that, before she had a child, she couldn’t write if there were dishes in the sink – but afterwards she could write if there was a corpse in the sink. Christine Dwyer-Hickey, the winner of this year’s Walter Scott prize for her novel The Narrow Land, believes that being a housewife is the best scenario for a writer, because you use your time with great economy. Edna O’Brien worked while her children scribbled her notes and pushed them under the door. It has always been thus.

O’Brien was the Sally Rooney of her day, the first Irish woman writer to become a star both critically and commercially. First published in 1960, The Country Girls is a novel whose success was richly deserved, but quality alone was never enough to guarantee a woman writer a hearing. It was the novel’s scandalous theme – sex – that made all the noise. Women’s writing was more often dismissed as “quiet”, a label long attached to my Grandmother’s work. Curious to find out if this label was deserved, I recently set myself the task of reading through her entire body of work – more than 100 stories – and was amazed by what I found.