ReaderWriterVille

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Category: book industry

Book-related thoughts

This is a grab-bag post of things I’ve been mulling over.

Goldsmith Prize: My favorite fiction prize was awarded to a very deserving book. Yes, Lucy Ellmann won for Ducks, Newburyport. There were other novels that I would have been happy to see win, e.g. Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, but Ellman’s work is such an amazing accomplishment. I’ve only read 50 of the 1000+ pages so far but even that short section made it clear to me that something important was going on. This doesn’t change my general attitude to prizes, but I’m very glad that both Ellmann and her publisher, Galley Beggar, will reap the financial rewards that come with a major prize.

Also, reading Ellmann’s interviews as she did her Booker publicity tour has been a hoot. She is completely unapologetic about her dedication to Literature with a capital L and to her belief (one I share) that too many men fail to take women’s work seriously. A man writing a 1000-page book about whatever is brilliant. A woman writing a 1000-page book about a middle-aged married woman in suburban Ohio who bakes pies and thinks about the world around her is doing something weird and unnecessary. Some of the more prize-obsessed readers I follow online were distressed by her answers to questions. She was insufficiently respectful of readers, etc. My reaction: You go, Lucy. You write what you want and you treat the publicity tour crap however you want. It deserves very little respect, frankly, and if writers of literary fiction can’t write what they want and expect readers to come to them, we are truly doomed as a civilization. Which we probably are anyway.


Jeannie Lin has a new book out! It’s a collection of short stories set in the same world as the Gunpowder Alchemy series. It’s her first publication in quite some time, and she made the difficult decision to keep the ebook off Amazon. Lin talks about it at AAR and more extensively at her blog (buy links are at the bottom of her post). This is a major instance of putting your money where your mouth is, given how thoroughly Amazon dominates the book market, especially in the US. Kudos to AAR for hosting her explanation, although of course they don’t miss the opportunity to point out that they make all their money from Amazon (as most blogs with referral links do) and will continue to keep that relationship. And of course there’s that one commenter who spends many, many words explaining how important and wonderful Amazon is for self-published authors. Great place to make that pitch, author-person.

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Nobel and Booker prizes 2019: You had one job!

The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced last week and the Booker Prize for Fiction was announced yesterday. Both organizations awarded two winners, for different reasons. The Nobel double award was made up of the 2019 prize and the delayed choice of the 2018 prize, the latter having been suspended because of the discovery of corruption and worse on the part of (some members of) the committee and its allied participants. The Booker two-fer resulted from the jury’s inability to reach a decision on a single winner despite having an odd number of jurists, which rules out the possibility of a tie vote. Its decided, against both the stated rules and the exhortations of the Booker organization, to flout their terms of reference. Good times all around.

The Nobel committee awarded the 2018 prize to Olga Tokarczuk, who seems eminently deserving of the recognition. So are a lot of other authors, but that’s always the case. And hey, if the Nobel crowd can get the number of women up to 15 by choosing Tokarczuk, I’m all for that.

But then there’s the 2019 winner, Peter Handke. I have read none of his written work, although I’ve seen some of the films for which he’s written the screenplays, and they are superb. But in the Year of Our Lord 2019, why are we giving an award to someone who spoke sympathetically at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral? Who was skeptical that massacres of Muslims by Serbs in Bosnia were actual massacres, and posited that there may not have been a genocide? It’s one thing to separate the art from the artist to recognize great art, it’s another to elevate and celebrate the artist for an entire body of writing, which is what the Nobel does.

The Booker jury’s decision is simpler and less, well, stomach-churning. A massively popular and critically acclaimed novelist, one who has been frequently mentioned for the Nobel, was recognized for a sequel novel which no one believes is as good as the original (which itself was shortlisted but did not win in its Booker year). She shares the prize with Bernardine Evaristo, whose book has been widely acclaimed by critics and Booker-focused readers, and who is highly regarded but not that well known by the reading public (much like Anna Burns, last year’s winner).

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Thoughts on the Booker Shortlist and the Giller Longlist

Yes, it’s awards season again. Labor Day is over and my library holds are coming in with a vengeance, what with all the Big September Releases. The Booker shortlist and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist are coincidentally released on the same day. I woke up to the Booker news, which had been announced at 10am BST, and then waited for the Giller announcement to be delivered from St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador at 8:30am my time.

The Booker shortlist:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

I’ve only read one of the six (the Obioma, which I reviewed here). That seems unusually low for me, but I do own three of them and have a fourth coming from the library in two weeks. And I’d read five of the seven longlisted books that didn’t make it. I will probably not read the Atwood any time soon. I read The Handmaid’s Tale back in the 1980s and still have my ancient mass-market paperback edition. It made a big impression on me then but I haven’t wanted to revisit it, and I had no interest in the TV adaptation. So I’ll wait for the reviews and word of mouth to see if I want to read the sequel. The Rushdie is getting mixed reviews, but I’m curious about it and I got in early on the library hold list so I can at least sample that before the winner is announced.

I was sorry not to see the Luiselli on the shortlist, especially after listening to her talk about it and read from it at the National Book Festival. My reading and reviewing of it was shaped by my knowledge of her personal life and Alvaro Enrigue’s work, but the panel I attended helped me separate that from the text, and the further away from it I get the more I think it is an excellent novel. But there are plenty of US awards coming up, and I’m sure it will be in consideration for at least some of those. Of the others, I don’t have strong feelings about their omissions from the shortlist. I enjoyed the Braithwaite and the Lanchester entries but they each had shortcomings and I don’t see them as Booker winners., I think the Barry, which I have finished and need to review, is stronger but a bit slight compared to some of the other entries. And I was the outlier on the Porter from the beginning.

On to the Giller longlist:

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The National Book Festival

I abandoned the political scientists for a few hours on Saturday to visit the National Book Festival, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress. Like so many public institutions in the capital, this is free and open (and welcoming) to the public. It used to be held on the Mall in tents, but this year it moved to the Washington Convention Center.

I had late afternoon commitments but my morning and early afternoon were free, and the panel that interested me the most was at 11am. This was a discussion with Aminatta Forna, R.O. Kwon, and Valeria Luiselli. It was in the Poetry and Prose stream and titled “Fiction Through A Different Lens.” Forna turned out to be the chair so she posed the questions and didn’t read from her own work. The panel was very well attended and the discussion and readings were engaging. I got a better sense of Luiselli’s approach and it made me want to read Kwon’s novel, The Incendiaries.

Of course the big draw that day was on the main stage, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg was doing a Q&A with Nina Totenberg. One of my friends who is a judicial politics scholar wondered if she’d make it given her recent treatment for cancer but she was there and good as ever. Or so I heard. The audience to get in was huge and the seats filled up in the session which preceded hers with RBG fans.

I had thought about going because it was an interview with Richard Ford and he was receiving an award, but 15 minutes after it started it was maxed out. Poor Richard Ford. I’m sure the audience was polite but he was reduced to being the warm-up act.

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ReaderWriterLinks: How To Read a Book edition

One of the things I’ve noticed about online media, both legacy and online-origin, is that a particular story idea will spread across several sites in a short time. Sometimes it’s generated by a research paper, like this one about how the TV you watch affects your political leanings. Or at least researchers found that what Italians watched when Berlusconi both headed up RAI and was a political leader affected their political attitudes. I could write a whole post on how one study does not a general theorem make, but that’s for another day; you can understand why this one went viral; it’s catnip for mediasplainers.

Today I have links from two major and historically respected newspapers which are designed to help people read books again. As you may have noticed, book coverage has changed to being about book culture rather than book reviews. I wrote about this a while back. And book culture is mostly about social media these days. Here’s the Guardian on how to love reading again. Presumably this is aimed at people who used to love reading but now find themselves not reading much, as opposed to people who were scarred by required reading in school and are just fine with not reading for pleasure, thankyouverymuch:

1. Follow book accounts on social media
If you’ve been away from reading for a while, it can be hard to know where to start. It can also be really tough to go from living your life online to building a separate one. By following Instagram accounts that regularly post about books, you’ll get ideas: try Book of the Month, Books on the Subway and Strand Bookstore for beautifully shot recommendations.
2. Read what you want to
If you haven’t read in a while, it can be tempting to set yourself lofty goals. For many of us that’s unrealistic, so instead: are there particular topics you’d love to read a non-fiction book about? Is there an author you’ve found easy to read before who has other books? Is there a favourite you can reread? When I’m finding it tough, I often punish myself by trying to slog through something hard before I let myself enjoy something that’s 200 pages and a laugh. But it’s enjoying the 200-pager that gets me in the swing of things, and makes it easier to concentrate on something tougher.
3. Join a library
Libraries are dying, and it’s partly because a lot of people don’t seem to consider them an option. But if finances are holding you back and you can trek to a library, it’s worth it. You can get recommendations, read for free and give up on books you can’t get into. Many have book clubs, too. For readers in the UK, you can find your nearest library here.

There are three more suggestions, and as the comments BTL (below the line) point out repeatedly, several of these involved using social media to get over your social media distractions. Yeah, that works well. But then this is someone who thinks libraries are dying because people don’t go to them, rather than because they are being starved of money. But I guess if the idea is to make reading trendy, pointing to social media is the way to go.

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