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My 20 Books of Summer

I am once again joining Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, which she hosts at her blog. I’ve sworn off most reading challenges, but this one is a fun way to mark summer reading. There’s no pressure and you can choose whatever you want. Since I read 6-7 books a month anyway, it’s not about the volume for me so much as thinking about what to read in the stretch of the year where I know I have more time for all kinds of fiction.

The Man Booker longlist will come out in late July and that will create a bit of a crunch because I plan to read as much of it as I can, but I’m going to list 20 books anyway and see how far I get.

Translated Fiction

  • In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Yes, I’ve been reading this for ages. This is the summer, I swear it.
  • Compass by Mathias Énard: Énard’s most highly acclaimed novel and the one which most thoroughly engages with his interest in Orientalism.
  • Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić: This was on a bunch of awards lists and comes highly recommended.
  • Celestial Beauties by Jokha Alharthi: This just won the Man Booker International Prize. I bought it when it was longlisted but haven’t read it yet.
  • Valley of the Fallen by Carlos Rojas: A 1970s novel about Spain during Goya’s and Franco’s times. Recently translated by Edith Grossman and well reviewed but has not been talked about much.
  • Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra: A book of essays about reading, authors, and literature by the always-worthwhile Chilean writer.
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ReaderWriterLinks

Here’s an interesting article which focuses on the rise of marketing to niche audiences in music, but is applicable to books and other cultural products. Since Game of Thrones just ended we all have to invoke it in our writing, so here’s mine: GoT stands out as a widely appealing product in a time of niche hits, and I’ve seen a number of articles pointing out that its Sunday audience exceeded Big Bang Theory’s finale numbers. But if you compare live audiences, then BBT beat GoT handily, 13.5 million to 18 million. Live broadcast TV is not quite dead. And where do they compare to series finales of the past? Neither would break the Top 10, which would require an audience of at least 35 million viewers.

But back to the point about niche markets:

Fandom is fragmenting. Streaming personalization and falling radio audiences are combining to rewrite the music marketing rulebook, ushering in a whole new marketing paradigm. Hits used to be cultural moments; artist brands built by traditional mass media. However, this fire-hydrant approach to marketing lacked both accountability and effective targeting. Now, hyper targeting, both in marketing campaigns and streaming recommendations, is creating a new type of hit and a new type of artist. Global fanbases are being built via the accumulation of local niches, while a few big hits for everyone are being replaced by many, smaller hits for individuals. Niche is the new mainstream.

We can see this in commercial fiction. Romance Twitter, as is frequently observed, doesn’t reflect the overall reading trends of the universe of romance readers (compare the waitlists for Mary Balogh at US libraries with the amount of discussion of her works on Romance Twitter, for example). But that doesn’t mean that Romance Twitter darlings don’t sell, and sell well. They just sell across different markets. They may not be Balogh level sales, but they’re healthy and can sustain careers while they’re popular.

The upside is that a lot more authors can break through. The downside is that the cultural space is fragmented and so is the discourse. Being a romance reader doesn’t mean you have the same books and authors in common anymore, at least not with as many people.


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Weeknote 8

We’re settling in for the summer, which should mean that except for a trip in June, blog postings should be more or less normal. Which is good, because I’m finding these Weeknote posts both enjoyable to write and useful.

Work

The semester is officially over, which means I’m only working with graduate students (those are a 12-month responsibility) and doing the off-semester admin that never goes away.

Not much this week, since the first half of the week involved the road trip to get here. But I spent half a day doing necessary administrative work and another few hours unpacking and setting up my home study space. Now I have no excuses, which is good because it’s time to get to work.

Reading/Watching/Listening

I read Spring, the most recent installment in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet. I didn’t find it as enjoyable or satisfying as the previous two, but I’m still not sure I’m being entirely fair to it. My review is in the previous post and Janine’s questions expand on some of the review points in helpful ways.

I also spent a few hours trying to read one of the new It Books in the rom com subgenre, Red, White, and Royal Blue. I tried it because a friend and I were having a long discussion while she was reading it and it was easier to just read parts of it myself. I abandoned it after 4 chapters or so because it was just so dire. It has loads of 5-star reviews at Goodreads, which reinforces my belief that people read books for a wide variety of reasons. I can only conclude that the readers who love this one are reading into the book a great deal that is not there and ignoring what is actually on the page. The characterizations are inconsistent and insubstantial, the setting bears no resemblance to anything in the supposedly real world in which it’s set (it’s an alternate timeline but not an alternate universe setting), and it is clearly supposed to be snarky and witty but for me it failed on almost every attempt. Some of the other negative reviews have described it as Tumblr-type fanfiction, which seems about right to me. The author has written an RPF fanfic of actors in The Social Network and after reading a bit of that story, I can see definite similarities in the approach and writing style.

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Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

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ReaderWriterLinks

Like the Weeknote post, the links post is late this week, but not absent!

Here is yet another article on how news isn’t news anymore. Yes, it’s a preoccupation of mine. I’ve been thinking about writing a post on what reading the “news” in the 21stC looks like these days. I’ve talked about it in links posts, but it deserves its own discussion. In the meantime, though, read this thoughtful Guardian article on news media consumption.

The profound experiential shift we have recently experienced is not merely down to the fact that the news is now available around the clock; CNN pioneered that, way back in 1980. Instead, it arises from the much newer feeling of actively participating in it, thanks to the interactivity of social media. If you are, say, angry about Brexit, it is possible to be angry about Brexit almost all of the time: to encounter new and enraging facts about Brexit, and opportunities to vent about Brexit, in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as the mid-2000s. If you had fulminated then to your family and colleagues as even respected peers, novelists and philosophers now routinely fulminate on Twitter, you’d have alienated everyone you knew.

One crucial difference is that raging on Facebook, or sharing posts or voting in online polls, feels like doing something – an intervention that might, in however minuscule a way, change the outcome of the story. This sense of agency may largely be an illusion – one that serves the interests of the social media platforms to which it helps addict us – but it is undeniably powerful. And it extends even to those who themselves never comment or post. The sheer fact of being able to click, in accordance with your interests, through a bottomless supply of updates, commentary, jokes and analysis, feels like a form of participation in the news, utterly unlike passively consuming the same headlines repeated through the day on CNN or the BBC.

I think that one of the reasons we feel as if tweeting and sharing and so on is “doing something” is that activism and protest have been transformed by the availability of social media. There’s no question that coordination is easier with online tools. But limiting our participation to online forums rather and foregoing the old-fashioned, effortful methods of physically showing up to a meeting or public gathering (for those of us who have that option; not everyone does) does not do much to advance collective action goals. Yes, the Arab Spring was aided by Twitter. But did you know that the most common ways of communicating information during those protests were still through voice and text? And, for all of us, there is evidence that reacting and venting on social media about supposedly newsworthy events makes us feel worse about the world, not better.


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