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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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Weeknote 7

I’m so late this week! Blame it on more cross-country driving. We had beautiful weather and we had the chance to visit relatives and catch up, but I’m glad we’re done and settled.

Even though this week is more than half over, for consistency’s sake I’m writing this weeknote about last week.

Work

More meetings. Most went well. More tasks assigned to me, some of which are fine and some of which I wish I didn’t have to do. But what else is new! If I manage my time well I can take care of the administrative and teaching stuff without sacrificing research and writing time. I could write lots more on the work front, but I’d rather talk about other things!

Reading/Watching

I finished North and South. I really enjoyed it and I’m glad I finally read it. There were passages that felt as if they fit the world we live in today, especially those which talked about Milton’s workers and how they were constantly busy and had almost no time to stop and think about their lives. I found the way Gaskell brought John and Margaret together to be quite interesting. Margaret slowly lost everyone around her that she most cared about, which pushed her toward John. She also had a chance to visit her home in the South and she discovered that it had changed and so had she. And John suffers setbacks which bring him closer to Margaret. By the end they both knew they were meant for each other and that each was right for the other person. It was an interesting way to bring about the happy ending. A bit contrived, obviously, but effective.

My library holds are coming in with a vengeance. I’d suspended a bunch because I knew I wouldn’t have time, and I cancelled some as well, but apparently I have a hold problem. 😉 One long-awaited hold was welcome, though: Ali Smith’s third installment in her Seasonal Quartet, Spring. I’ve read about a quarter of it so far. It’s very good in places and I like the characters she introduces first, but it hasn’t grabbed me the way Autumn did. It might be that I’m not giving it enough attention. I’ll finish it this week and report back.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for May: Her Cowboy Defender

I wasn’t sure I’d get this month’s book read, let alone post a review on it on time. But I’m just under the wire. This month’s challenge book is from an author with more than one novel on my TBR. Needless to say, I have lots of those available. I chose this Harlequin Intrigue release from 2012 because I’d really liked an earlier book by Connor and as a result I’d bought a few more. I wish I could say that it lived up to my hopes, but I can’t.

Piper Lowry is an accountant in Boston who finds her predictable life upended when her younger sister Tara is kidnapped and her twin, Pam, who is an FBI agent, winds up in a coma after an accident. The two events are related. Piper heads off to New Mexico to try and rescue her sister and meets rancher Cade McClain when she demands, at gunpoint, that he drive her to her rendezvous with the kidnappers. Cade is angry (who wouldn’t be?) but then won over by Piper’s story (yes, really) and decides to help her rescue Tara, who is conveniently being held at the ranch adjoining Cade’s.

The entire novel takes place in a 48-hour period and in that time and category page count Connor has to introduce characters and plot, work through several storylines, and bring about an HEA for Cade and Piper. It isn’t enough. The characters are strangers when they meet and they spend the first 24 hours organizing a rescue. Most of the narrative is taken up with introducing the characters and the plot, to the great detriment of the setting. This is technically set in New Mexico but there is nothing to make the reader realize that. The bulk of the story takes place on Cade’s ranch or adjacent to it, but we never even find out what he does on his ranch (except for a lot of paperwork). Is it a cattle ranch? Sheep? Alpacas? Llamas? Donkeys? (I’ve seen all of those in NM, I think.) Who knows. Not only do we not know what this huge ranch is for, apparently Cade can send off the ranch hands and the cook-housekeeper without missing a beat. Maybe he’s just growing sagebrush and cactus.

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

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ReaderWriterLinks

This article feels as if it was generated by the Slate Contrarian Bot circa 2005. In Bookriot, a librarian (and aspiring author) says she thinks that tagging authors in all discussions of their books, including negative ones, is a great idea!

I can understand why some authors might be hurt by negative reviews. Criticism is hard! I’m just not convinced that the “risk” outweighs the “benefit” here. Easy access to more information on authors is important to me and authors are not required to read reviews. Most books don’t fall within categories that are strictly positive or negative. If we lean toward caution and decide against tagging authors in negative reviews, we can’t tag authors at all—it’s rare that any review worth anything doesn’t mention anything that hasn’t gone well in a book. In that case, authors are losing out on additional potential readers.

Is this a huge deal? Absolutely not. If it was, I’d go on with tagging authors regardless of the kind of reviews I write. But I do think it’s worth considering who the reviews are for, at the end of the day.

This is a bad argument. As many, many Twitter responses and some site commenters are letting Bookriot and the author know. However, given that she seems to be one of the site’s most active contributors, and the content maw is never sated, I’m sure it’s not the last #slatepitch piece we’ll see with the same byline. Sigh.

UPDATE: The post is still up on Bookriot, but the original Bookriot tweet publicizing it, which so many people replied to (and probably ratioed badly) is gone. Which … is kind of missing the point?


I posted a link to Christian Lorentzen’s Harper’s essay on the demise of book reviewing a while back, and now LitHub has used it to generate more content published a roundup of responses from his fellow critics. They run the gamut from complete disagreement (mostly by critics who run or work in these listicle- and Q&A-dominated sections) to overall agreement (from a critic at the TLS, which is hardly a surprise).

This is at best not addressing his points at all, and at worst confirming them:

Are book reviews drying up? Is the world of serious criticism shrinking? It seems to me that, actually, the world of book reviews is expanding. There are readers everywhere, of all kinds. They all deserve to know what books are out there that might be of interest. We do our best to reach them all.

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