Sunday, August 19, 2007

A publishing phenomenon in China

Aventurina King at Wired is reporting on a publishing phenomenon in China, where free web access to novels has spurred record sales of printed books.

Literary sites like Source of Chinese and Magic Sword invite authors to upload their novels onto the web, where they might get noticed by an avid audience of young readers and eventually by publishers. King tells the history of Zhang Muye's serialized novel Ghost Blows out the Light, which has been "viewed more than 6 million times online" and has "sold 600,000 in print," and of another novel titled Killing Immortals that was launched online before selling over a million copies.

This is a collaboration of media that provides opportunities for emerging writers, increases revenues for the sites and for the publishers, and broadens readership. King mentions that "writing and reading novels has become the hobby of an estimated 10 million youth." The trend also strikes a balance between the "wisdom of the crowd" in determining pop-culture merit and old-fashioned editorial gatekeeping, since site publishers can identify the best novels to present only on their for-pay "VIP section."

The trend even contains a hint of throwback to the Victorian age, with its rage for serialized epic-length stories:

In the print world, book length is limited by the cost of paper, printing and distribution. On the Internet, where production costs are close to zero, length equals profit. VIP readers pay a couple of cents for every thousand characters (a print novel generally has 250,000 characters). Contracted authors are paid seven to 12 dollars per thousand characters, depending on their clout.

I've been arguing for years that hypertext does not represent any threat to the book. Here's a case of the web's influence to preserve a traditional aesthetic in writing while revolutionizing the economics of publishing, for the benefit of writers and publishers and the public.

Nor is it in the least surprising that the audience is willing to buy the books they can acquire at a lower price or even for free online. The pleasure of reading, especially fiction and poetry, continues to require the physical page. In his essay "Visible and Invisible Books" that appeared in The Future of the Page, University of Virginia's Jerome McGann points out that:

The history of the book medium and the development of fictional conventions within that medium have evolved an extraordinarily nuanced and flexible set of tools for the imagination. The truth is that the 'hyper' media powers of the book, in this area of expression if not prima facie, far outstrip the available resources of digital instruments.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Road for 50 years

I've been following the NY Times open forum on the 50th anniversary of On the Road, which has racked up almost 300 comments so far (just before noon, Wednesday).

More praise than criticism, I'm pleased to see. Much of the condemnation of the book amounts to an ad hominem against Kerouac himself for his treatment of women, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. Much of the praise amounts to lyrical affirmations of the counter-culture movement. But nowhere, so far, has there been any mention of the typewriter's role in that novel.

The book that Truman Capote dismissed as "typing, not writing'' is the quintessential typewritten novel, and the story of its making is the stuff of legend: Kerouac, pumped up on coffee and amphetamines, composed On the Road during a 20-day marathon in April 1951. To avoid having to stop repeatedly and insert paper, he stitched together a 120-foot scroll beforehand and fed it into the platen.

Kerouac could thus type as he had traveled, the pages rolling through the typewriter like the road rolling under the wheels of cars on their way west. On the Road couldn't have been written any other way. The typescript sold for $2.4 million in a 2001 auction.

Today we write with whispering keyboards on electronic screens. We run spell-checkers, move blocks of text around at will and print perfect copies that never have to be marred by an eraser or a handwritten correction. Fifty years ago, Kerouac created the prototype for one part of the modern technology: Word processors provide a "virtual'' scroll that allows us to glide along without interruption, from page to page, on a spotless white road that stretches to the vanishing point of an imaginary highway.

The Kerouac scroll was a rough, two-lane Rt. 66.

The major drawback of our modern word processors is that they make editing and revising too easy. They distract writers with limitless opportunities to second-guess themselves, to tinker with every sentence, to rethink and revisit everything they write. That writers get anything accomplished is a wonder.

His scroll compelled Kerouac to move relentlessly forward, along with the momentum of the work. It moved in one direction only, through the story and out of it, with no way to retrace his steps or reconsider his course. The lack of an opportunity for second thoughts set him free.

I think the immediacy of blogging is a healthy correction to the impulse for always producing faultless copy. In the rush to continue this freeforall online conversation, we publish errors and infelicitous phrasing. That in itself is a healthy, humbling discipline.

I think that if Jack Kerouac were alive today -- and sober -- he'd be blogging with the rest of us.

(Note: Parts of today's entry are re-cast from a 2001 article I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summertime blues

This is the summer of overload. I'm juggling six writing courses (two sections of business communication, two of technical writing, and one each of web and creative writing), in addition to a course in linguistics that wrapped up last week.

In addition, I'm trying to score an agent for my recent novel Entanglement and complete a few early chapters of my new piece.

This blog has suffered as a consequence, even though I daily run across stories I'd love to comment on at length, including John Tierney's piece in today's NYTimes about the possibilities that we're living in a computer simulation -- about a 20% possibility, according to Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom.

If we're characters on the hard drive of some higher intelligence's supercomputer, our best survival strategy is "to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation," suggests Robin Hanson at George Mason University.

I find the idea of life as a kind of hyperfiction oddly comforting right now, though it does concern me that my character has become more than a little boring with the repetitious acts of delivering lectures, grading papers, and riding the bus back and forth between home and campus. I need a better life if I hope to stay in the plot.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The RIAA vendetta against webcasting, explained

Mike Masnick at TechDirt provides some background information on the RIAA push to drive webcasters out of business by raising their royalty rates to absurd highs.

The answer is that webcasters favor eclectic artists and independent labels, over the corporately standardized music represented by the RIAA.

Traditional radio, of course, is dominated by a few similarly formated stations that all play RIAA-backed music. 87% of the music you hear on the radio is from an RIAA-member record label. However ... only 44%of the music on webcasts are from RIAA labels.

Quote of the day

Stefanie Olsen at News Blog has this new finding about environmental concerns in the online teen community:

Teens who are most active online and influential with peers are also the kids most concerned about the environment, according to a study published Monday by research firm JupiterResearch. ... Green teens are more apt to listen to music, post a personal page online, respond to an online poll or converse in a chat room, according to the report.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Peer review threatened by online academic publishing

I couldn't help but smile over Andrew Leonard's Weekly World News-inspired headline on Salon yesterday:


This posting on his "How the World Works" blog covered the shutting down of the Weekly World News, and an article by economist Glenn Ellison about the future of peer review in academic writing and publishing.

The issue is over economists who are short-cutting the rigors of traditional academic publication by posting their papers online, for public consumption.

Ellison, Leonard writes, has compiled "data indicating that top economists are responsible for a shrinking share of the articles published in the best journals. And while this might be good for promoting public access to the latest in economic thought, it's bad, suggests Ellison, for the time-honored academic practice of validating the merit of new research through rigorously mediated peer-review."

While there's no question that peer review is essential to assuring the accuracy and soundness of academic research, the practice tended to centralize scholarly authority in a limited number of "elite" journals. If prominent academics bypass the journals by sharing their work online, the privileged status of the journals (and of the universities publishing them) is diminished.

This diminution of privilege begins to level the playing field between institutions of higher learning, since professors at "non elite" schools can now have electronic access to the data and other resources once physically confined to the major research centers.

And in an online world where space and location can't erect barriers to collaboration, “an up-and-coming new-growth-theory theorist at the University of Florida can coauthor a paper with a Stanford or Harvard or Chicago professor without having to move across the country."

Leonard refers to this new development as "the democratization of education." It's also a serious threat to the major research institutions that subsist lagely by commodifying knowledge.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More generalizations about blogs and narcissism

Edward Champion's recent LA Times article "Blogging: a crash course on introspection" is probably the most muddled commentary on blogging I've encountered in the past year.

His thesis is that "confessional" writing has been "spurred by cyberspace," with narcissistic bloggers baring their most intimate secrets with shameless abandon, pandering to "our voyeuristic culture." Champion wonders "why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves."

The number of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations Champion manages to compress into the opening paragraphs of the article is truly dazzling. If only he'd taken the time to consult an undergraduate-level textbook on modern literature, he might have also gotten some of his terminology right.

The "confessional" writers were a movement of poets (primarily) who in the 1950s and 1960s began treating an autobiographical "I" as the primary subject of the work, delving with stark frankness into emotional and sexual experiences in a way that violated previous taboos about what constituted proper poetic material.

Champion conflates confessional material with introspection, though they are not the same thing at all. T.S. Eliot, for example, was a deeply introspective poet, but he avoided personal revelations in his own work. I've heard it argued that Anne Sexton, one of the leading confessional poets, was herself not terribly introspective.

The article also seems to equate "confessional" with "narcissistic" and (though Champion doesn't use the word himself) "exhibitionist." However, the "I" of the confessional poets was, more often than not, something other than the "real" I, an invented self or persona that enabled the writer to explore a wider range of themes than his or her personal experience permitted.

What this article contends this all has to do with blogging remains a mystery. Supposedly, writers like Ginsberg and Plath and Lowell are off in the afterlife kicking themselves for having died before the Internet came along and gave them limitless opportunity to indulge in their narcissism and expose themselves to an online audience. Supposedly, a new generation of confessional writers has emerged, again "spurred by cyberspace."

If that is indeed the point of the piece, Champion selects an odd assortment of writers to prove it. His examples -- Amy DeZella, Jane Ganahl, Jonathan Ames, Josh Kornbluth and others -- are professional journalists and performers who were already working with personal materials publicly, before moving to the Internet. In their interviews, they all seem fairly discontent with their online experiences, probably because their presentational styles are better suited to print or stage than to the blogosphere.

If there really were a new confessional school of writing in the process of emerging online, I'd be interested. But Champion hasn't found one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Technorati Profile

Britannica isn't the Pope

Slashdot yesterday provided this link to "Errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia."

The page lists 62 of them, in fields ranging from history and biography to math, science and linguistics. This one, for example, is on "Pushkin in Bohemia":

It is a basic fact of Russian history that the tsarist administration never allowed the poet Alexander Pushkin to go abroad, a nuisance that he deplored in Eugene Onegin and other verses. Therefore, Britannica's assertion that "frequent guests" of Karlovy Vary included Alexander Pushkin and Tsar Peter I the Great is untrue. -- Ghirlandajo10:27, 16 December 2005 (UTC)

Certainly the study of history, just like every other academic field, advances through debate, conflicting interpretations or selections of evidence, the discovery of new source materials, and the evolution of critical theories.

As I've contended before, that's the rough, sometimes contentious process through which all human knowledge must pass before it achieves status of generally accepted truth. And Britannica, as an artifact created by fallible human beings, may include the occasional facual error, without having its overall credibility and authority challenged.

But the point of this story is that Britannica is not infallible, and that authentic scholarship is happening at Wikipedia, as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bloggers, editors, and I.F. Stone

At Salon today, Gary Kamiya writes in praise of old-fashioned editing and editors, and naturally touches on the blogosphere:

In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.

Still, he says, the better writers will be the ones who ultimately prevail in the electronic age, as quality rises above the glut of competing voices. Success will be awarded either to the highly talented writer, or to the writer who collaborates with a highly talented editor.

Kamiya's piece reminded me of a tribute to another of my heroes, the rebel journalist I.F. Stone, that Dan Froomkin posted back on July 9.

"The best blogger ever," Froomkin wrote, "died in 1989 at the age of 81." The I.F. Stone Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971, was essentially a paper blog. Stone's newsletter was composed as a miscellany of short articles, opinions and commentary on material written by other journalists, like today's blog.

The newsletter's other blog-like quality was that it was unapologetically opinionated and passionate, "a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting."

Like so many of today's top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.

Froomkin criticizes the feeble attempts at blogging so many newspapers have launched, which he complains are written "in monotone." Stone's informal, impassioned, energetic style is what the print-reporter-turned-blogger ought to be emulating.

As Kamiya contends, editors have a significant role to play in the future of online media. But both writers and editors need to be attuned to the way that blogging involves a different approach to voice from the newspaper column.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quote of the day

The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth.
--David Milch on his vision of HBO's surreal John from Cincinnati

I wish Milch had been allowed to complete Deadwood, which was a far superior show. But I like what he has to say about perception being associative, and the ultimate illusory quality of logic.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Quote of the day

Copyright developed in the age of the printing press, and was designed to fit with the system of centralized copying imposed by the printing press. But the copyright system does not fit well with computer networks, and only draconian punishments can enforce it.

The global corporations that profit from copyright are lobbying for draconian punishments, and to increase their copyright powers, while suppressing public access to technology. But if we seriously hope to serve the only legitimate purpose of copyright -- to promote progress, for the benefit of the public -- then we must make changes in the other direction.

Richard M. Stallman, in the Abstract to his talk "Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks," before the Computer Science Club at the University of Waterloo.