Archive for February, 2009

I’ve heard versions of this sentiment before — probably back in the old art school days in the early 80’s — but came across it again in the NYT today while trolling articles about art and music.  Specifically, the story was about a huge sale of Damien Hurst art at auction (snore) and the haul that this one particular collection took.  Stories about the commerce of art bore and slightly offend me for some reason.

But in discussing the seeming incongruity between the financial news of the day and the record sales at auction the old line was tossed out, to paraphrase, that when empires fall all that is left is the art.

True, and not just the statues in the public squares or the mosaics in the buildings or the coveted paintings that become the capital seizures of invading armies, but the poetry, the stories, the dramas.  These things aren’t created for posterity, they endure because they speak to something within us as humans, through the generations, they call to us in languages we don’t speak so much as we feel.  We can buy and trade in the arts but we never truly own them.  When we die their ownership passes to others who become nothing more than caretakers for future generations.

Our stories, our words, our songs, those things we struggle to understand and share with others, they take on lives of their own. The Greeks, the Romans, the Assyrians, Egyptians, the various empires of Asia and the Americas, and all that’s left is the art.

Makes me want to create something.

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Today I’m doing two posts in one, and the poems are offset so you can read them and ignore the rest if you want.

I’m inter-cutting some haiku with some ideas that came about when a neighbor asked me if I thought the publishing industry was going to survive.  It was odd because the questions was “if” and not “how,” the implication being that the media has pretty much prepared the obituary for paper publishing in the wake of e-readers like the Kindle.

Basically, the publishing industry needs to get back to its roots.  It needs to stop trying to act like a a subdivision of a large corporate entity (even if it is one) and it needs to stop second guessing trends like a teen without style chasing the popular kids around school.  It needs to dump the business models and the marketing tools. My interest is primarily in children’s books, but some of this could be more universal.

this old hat, stolen
from a scarecrow… how fiercely
the cold rain pelts it!

~ Kyoshi

1. Standardize the size of picture books. Mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks, the majority of hardcovers… these books are all the same trim size in each category for a reason: they are more economical to mass produce and ship when they are the same size.  If you’ve ever seen the receiving area of a bookstore you can spot a box of mass markets from a distance because the box is a particular size.  Inside that box and number of titles are fitted without a single inch of wasted space.

Then you look at other boxes, also of a particular size, but you know they contained “mixed titles” which means non-standard sized books fits as best as a shipping monkey could fit them, with lots of bubble wrap, shrink wrap, packing peanuts, or wadded up paper to keep them from jostling around.  This is how picture books arrive.  They waste space and resources because they aren’t standardized and cannot be shipped in mixed quantities in a standardized box.  Because of this, they cost more to ship in the long run (and they already have a very low profit margin), they are environmentally unfriendly, and honestly, isn’t it a little like having the paintings determine the size of the museum?  Which brings us to our second fit.

thinking comfortable thoughts
with a friend in silence
in the cool evening

~ Hyakuchi

2. Make picture books smaller. Yes, there are some wonderful picture books out there, some oriented to portrait and others to landscape, some so large they exceed the peripheral vision of the child reader.  But where a large book becomes an item to covet — and who hasn’t seen a small child clutching a large book they way they would a favorite stuffed animal — the fact remains that a favorite book, a good book, is coveted no less no matter its size.  Kids like treasures as well (as do some adults if they’re honest) and the Sendak Nutshell Library is proof that size doesn’t matter.  It’s the same amount of paper and cover materials in Make Way For Ducklings that would make twelve copies of Chicken Soup With Rice.

I’m not suggesting picture books go microscopic, only that in addition to finding a universal size that the size be economically feasible.  I already hear the heated debates on what size, but I would suggest 9 by 12 to start.  It’s close to the (often reduced) trim size of paperback editions of hardcover picture books, it’s a decent size for illustrations, and I seriously doubt kids are going to rebel unless they have already been programed to like super-sized everything in their lives, including books.

small bird forgive me
i’ll hear the end of your song
in some other world

~ anonymous

3. The world isn’t all children’s picture books, so for my next suggestion I would say Let a thousand smaller presses bloom. I’m thinking specifically of Grove Press here as the little engine that could.  If the monolithic houses have lost their way, then I would hope that all these shuttered imprints and newly laid off editors would do as many are suggesting these days and start up a publishing house of their own.  With closer control over content and an eye toward quality, I would think there was much to be gained by smaller houses with loyal followers.  And that loyalty could extend to the authors as well.  Writers, I have heard, love their close interaction with editors and houses that care and don’t feel cold and corporate.  This mutual admiration and shared interest spreads to the readers as well.  Even as a teen I managed to learn that a Grove Press book was worth taking a chance on; I could never have said the same thing for a larger house like Harper & Row (as it was once known).  A savvy ex-employee of a large house would set up shop and align themselves with a couple of creative writing schools, the way Grove seemed to do with the Black Mountain poets and the Beats back in the 50’s.

And I don’t mean Let a thousand imprints bloom, but hogtie them to the corporate chain of command the way you have been for the past 15 years or so.  Spin off the smaller imprints and let them sail on their own.  Don’t the economists insist that a market flourishes when the consumer has more choices?

even stones in streams
of mountain water compose
songs to wild cherries

~ Onitsura

4. Stop publishing hardcover releases for middle grade and YA books, or at least do a simultaneous paperback release.  Kids tear through books, and parents balk at buying hardcovers for something that will probably only be read once.  Kids with their own money – say, a gift certificate from a bookstore – will almost always buy two paperbacks over a single hardcover if given the opportunity. Yes, as a gift, a hardcover is nice.  It’s a treat, even.  But as an author, if you asked me Would I rather have two copies of my book sold in paperback over one hardcover? my answer would be Yes.  I’m not going to pretend I know the economics of the situation, the concern to me is that more books in circulation means more readers.  Period.  If a book is cheaper people are more willing to take a chance on it.  Aside from publishing phenomena like Harry Potter, there isn’t an imperative for hardcover books for children beyond library durability and greed.

In his book Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life author David P. Friedman laid out the problem of over-inflated costs at the concession stand in movie theatres.  He very clearly laid out how, if theatre operators lowered their costs to one-third their current amounts, they would more than double their current profits.  The idea being that if you walked into a theatre today and saw them selling giant buckets of corn and soda for $1 instead of $5 more people would be inclined to buy and it would more than make up for the difference in prices. People would stop smuggling in food, it would become part of the draw that would bring people back to theatres.  I actually had a brief opportunity to do this with a special series of midnight movies in a college town.  We had special one-size-only menu items that cost substantially less than the regular sizes on offer, and per-person sales were nearly triple.  But the theatre company didn’t accept the results as anything beyond an interesting “experiment” because, in truth, they were afraid of setting a trend and failing.

Hello!  The economy is in the tank!  now is the time to take a few chances and discover what those of us on the retail side hear every day: people want to pay less, but they’re willing to spend more if they think they’re getting a deal. Pretend it’s the war and rationing is going on, do as they did then.  Forget hardcover new releases and sell more books.

when the tight string snapped
the kite fell, fluttering, then
it lost its spirit

~ Kubonta

5. Stop doing book tours in book stores.  Huh?  What?  That makes no sense, you say?  How bout this: musicians play in clubs and not record stores.  They go to venues where their audience is comfortable and put on a show and get people excited to want to go out and buy their music.  With books moving to multiple streams of sales like books, with digital downloads and hard copies available simultaneously, the author tour needs to change into something other than a gathering of the faithful in the temples of distraction.

There’s this theory that a person going to a reading will buy the author’s book, perhaps their previous books as well, and maybe just impulse-buy some other things while they’re there.  In reality, people come to author readings with their books already purchased (sometimes from competitors of the hosting store), get their book signed, and leave.  That could happen anywhere.  A cafe.  A co-operative diner.  A department store window. A live Internet vodcast. A nightclub on a slow night in between sets of a band that shares the same audience.  The point is that a change of venue frees up the author from the cog of sales and allows them to focus what they are doing as storytellers.

And author’s should be ashamed to put a price on their public appearances.  Admission $3, or free if you arrive with a paid-for copy of the book.  Authors want to tell their stories, not give them away, and yet that is what they do with every appearance they make that doesn’t generate sales.  Even a bar band that plays a no-cover-charge club gets paid from bar sales – do authors get anything for their appearance in a bookstore by drawing in customers?  No, I didn’t think so.

Publishers and the publicists who handle their authors should continue to set authors up on tour, but the stores need to be taken out of the equation.  How many readers don’t go because they secretly feel ashamed the don’t have or cannot afford to purchase the book in an author’s presence?  How many don’t go because the store environment isn’t a comfortable venue – folding chairs and bad lighting and usually not far from where you can hear other customers or employees talking, or sales at the nearby register distracting you from the experience?

I’ll let it go at this for now.  Just some thoughts I had about the industry after someone got me thinking about the survival of publishing as we know it.  One final unrelated haiku before we go.  And I thank you for your kind indulgences.

the best i have
to offer you
is the small size
of the mosquitoes

~ Basho

Poetry Friday is gathered over at Mommy’s Favorite Children’s Books this week.

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As I plow my way through my critical thesis I find my mind drifting.  The problem of having to exert so much brain toward thinking critically only makes the longing for creative writing stronger.  I half wonder if this is the desired effect.

That phrase, the desired effect, sticks.  What is it I want from my writing?  What, exactly, is the desired effect?  Beyond the overall impression from any particular story, what is it I truly desire?

A song.

I don’t mean I want the work to be lyrical, or to imply something that borders on the precious, but that sensation you feel when the overall effect is like a song you want to hear over and over, that you never tire of.  A piece of music that lodges itself into the memory banks at such an angle that it refelcts like a prism the time in which you first heard the song, the feelings of that time, simultaneously with the current moment.

Not art, I’m not talking about anything as rational as art.  There isn’t necessarily anything special about the words, or the construct, but something in the way they all come together — song or story or whatever.

The desired effect is something you cannot shake.  The desired effect is something else, something other.

It is something you find when you aren’t looking for it.  But how do you find something you want without wanting it, how do you achieve without trying?


Back to the thesis.

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First, I haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire, though I want to.  That said..

I woke up this morning unsettled by last night’s Academy Awards ceremony.  It’s always bothered me that a storytelling medium gives lip service to the people who actually write the stories, and that it spends vast fortunes to tell these stories.  It calls itself entertainment but it is an industry, it employs a vast number of people and produces a product that occasionally fleeting and ephemeral.  It is an industry that talks openly about its magic, and like a magician performs slight-of-hand to prevent the audience from thinking about the larger issues.

Here’s what’s bothering me this morning after: If Slumdog Millionaire had been produced and directed by an Indian national, if it had been funded primarily outside of Hollywood, would we be seeing newspaper headlines about its awards today?

The Indian film industry has been producing movies for quite some time, and not just Bollywood product but Oscar-quality films at least since the 1950’s with the work of Satyajit Ray. I’m not going to pretend to know more than I do, but I have seen my share of foreign cinema co-opted by Hollywood that, in turn, pats itself on the back for its forward-thinking inclusion of other cultures.  It doesn’t often do so in the Best Picture category though because films have to be primarily produced through an American studio to be nominated, so often this self-congratulatory affair takes place in the Best Foreign Film category where every other country in the world gets to put forth a single film to represent them that year, and from that mush pot the Academy chooses five films to duke it out for attention.  At last count there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 190 countries in the world besides the United States, some with film industries of their own.

So I guess with odds like that I shouldn’t really be bothered that a film set in India, with a British director and another Brit adapting the screenplay from a book by an Indian author, should win hat is typically considered an American award.  The Academy Awards go out of their way to honor the “best” in film, and yet like the World Series of baseball, their definition of “best” rarely extends beyond its continental boundaries.

Are we really to believe that this is the best film of its kind, about India?  Is this truly the best film produced in the previous year over all others?  Or is this the best film about India that is commercial enough for an American filmgoing audience to accept?  Is this about the uniqueness of the foreign, about a moviegoing nation full of people who can’t remember the last film they saw set in India (if ever) that didn’t feature known British actors in key roles?  Is this award not really about people patting themselves on the back for being so inclusive of other cultures that they are blind to everything else that culture may have to offer cinematically?

Years ago when I was a film reviewer I saw a film at a festival set in Iran, a simple love story about a local boy and girl who quietly fall in love while on the set of a movie where their characters are allowed to speak for them in ways they cannot.  It was a great film, a simple story well (and cleverly) told, and I was happy to see an American company (Miramax) was it’s distributor.  But it was never released.  The story I heard later was that the film rights were purchased to be refilmed as an American romantic comedy.  And thus, Through the Olive Trees languishes in obscurity, and our knowledge of Iran is limited only to those news reports we get from the BBC and NPR and, when it serves their purposes, American News media.  The film isn’t even available on DVD.  And then there’s Gabbeh, another Iranian love story, set in the mountains among goat herds and carpet makers.  This film got some limited release but still isn’t available on DVD as well.  Can it really be that there’s no interest in Iranian films, or is it there’s no interest in Iranian films that don’t fit an agenda or our preconceived notion of Iran?  Is it harder for Hollywood to sell a love story from Iran because there aren’t any terrorists or nuclear arms or weapons of any kind to be found?

Likewise, is it easier to sell a film about the Dickensian love story from the slums of Mumbai because that is what an American audience will expect?  Is Slumdog Millionaire the best film to come out of India this past year or just the only one American audiences would tolerate because it as marketed to their expectations after some good reviews following a few film festivals? Was it really the Best Picture made in 2008?

I used to have a mantra in my film reviewer days: see everything and judge for yourself.  Basically, never trust a critic or a reviewers word, but more importantly, see it all and go beyond the emotional first impression.  I’m still planning to see Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s going to have to compete in my mind with all the Indian, India-based, and Indian-directed films I’ve ever seen.  We’ll see if it holds up as award-worthy and hoopla-deserving then.

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If you want to get to heaven, let me tell you what to do,
Gotta grease your feet in mutton stew.
Then slide right out of the slippery sand,
And eeeeeeease over to the Promised Land!

That’s how I learned it in fifth grade, and that was all I learned. No mention of Woody Guthrie, no real explanation for why we were learning it. Maybe we were told, but I seem to recall it was in our Language Arts text and we did it as a class like it was a music unit. For most of my life I had assumed it was something like a plantation song. Why teach this to kids? Why would a kid be wanting to know how to get to heaven? As I read it now it’s a recipe for a slip-and-fall lawsuit.

Imagine my surprise the day the song pops back into my head and I run the lyrics through Google and discover the following:

If you want to get to heaven, let me tell you what to do,
You gotta grease your feet in a little mutton stew.
Slide right out of the devil’s hand,
And ease over to the Promised Land.

Take it easy! Go greasy!

I was down in the holler just a’settin’ on a log,
My finger on the trigger and my eye on a hog;
I pulled that trigger and the gun went “zip”
And I grabbed that hog with all of my grip

‘Course l can’t eat hog eyes, but I love chitlins

Down in the hen house on my knees,
I thought I heard a chicken sneeze,
But it was only the rooster sayin’ his prayers
Thankin’ the Lord for the hens upstairs.

Rooster prayin’, hens a-layin’,
Pore little pullets just pluggin’ away best they know how.

Mama’s in the kitchen fixin’ the yeast,
Poppa’s in the bedroom greasin’ his feets
Sister’s in the cellar squeezin’ up the hops,
Brother’s at the window just a-watchin’ for the cops.

Drinkin’ home brew-makes you happy.

Now, I’m just a city dude a-livin’ out of town.
Everybody knows me as Moonshine Brown;
I make the beer, and I drink the slop,
Got nine little orphans that call me Pop.

I’m patriotic…raisin’ soldiers. Red cross nurses.

Ain’t no use me workin’ so hard,
I got a gal in the rich folks’ yard.
They kill a chicken, she sends me the head.
She thinks I’m workin’, I’m a-layin’ up in bed.

Just dreamin’ about her. Havin’ a good time. . .
Two other women

Dude, are you serious? This was the seed they planted when they taught us that first verse?

Listen, kids, somewhere down the road you’re gonna come across this song that starts off like this. It’s okay, don’t be alarmed. Backwoods livin’ is fine. A little hog shootin’ a little moonshine, grow up to be a no-good womanizing layabout. Trust us, kids, heaven isn’t that far away…

I understand there’s a tradition of a sort of spoken “walking blues” that Guthrie is following, and while a but racy for these enlightened post-PC days, they were perfectly fine in context… back in the 1930’s, not in my 1970’s classroom!  Though now that I think of it, imagine the sort of conversation a class full of sixth graders would have today with these lyrics.  Hey, it can’t be any worse then hearing my youngest mention that in Current Events they discussed the domestic dispute between Rihanna and Chris Brown. 

Why back in my day we used to talk about the Symbianese Liberation Army for Current events

Poetry Friday is being herded like feral cats over at Big A little a this week.  No, I don’t know why I just said that.

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Sometimes, when the brain is actually functioning, I do smart things. Like how a few weeks ago I wrote and schedule this new post over at Guys Lit Wire because I knew my day to post would be the week before my first packet deadline this semester. Huh. Pretty good. I ought to plan things more often.

Anyway, head on over to Guys Lit Wire and see what a bunch of us think about books (and magazines!) for teen guys.

I’ll check back in sometime when the world isn’t spinning so fast that I’m barely hanging on.

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I can’t hold coherent thoughts, not in my head, not on paper. Conversations with myself, personal pep talks, leave me speaking of myself in the third person. I know what the jigsaw puzzle is supposed to look like but I cannot figure out the orientation of the pieces.

This is his brain. This is his brain on thesis. Any questions?

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So work on the Critical Thesis for school is plodding along.  Today I got my first dump of articles I requested from the library and began to sort through to figure out what’s useful.  I’m in this odd state where I’ve got some ideas about what to say but not really how to put it.  At the same time I’ve got all this information that I’m thinking would work well if I could find a way to force them into the text.

This is where I’m trying to force slivers of truth into my thesis.  Suze thinks I’m doing this backward, or wrong, but I’m not really sure what I’m doing.  I mean, I know what I want to say, but not how to say it, and as I’m finding a chunk here and a nugget there I’m finding it doesn’t really fit like the jigsaw puzzle I imagined.

In talking with my classmates its become clear that we are either doing the impossible or need to reinvision the end product.  The average for most of us to come up with a first, rough draft is three weeks.

Three weeks.  For a critical thesis.

With most of us still waiting for books or articles and other secondary sources, or reading books frantically instead of giving them the close reading they deserve, this idea of a draft of anything coherent is simply impossible.  Fortunately none of us believe its impossible and we’re setting out to prove it.

Some are writing sections of their drafts with notes to themselves to drop in documentation when they find it (if they find it!), while others are still gathering the raw data.  I tried dictating some and transcribing it, and that seemed to work to get some rough ideas down, but I’m still worried I won’t have the time to do it all this way — a bit to leisurely — and I’m going to have to work a lot faster.

Just to really show how disorganized I am, I’ve also got a journal going that has a list of running questions.  Anything that I think can be asked or challenged, I phrase as a question with the idea of going back and making sure I cover every base.  What do I mean when I say a picture book?  How does a picture book biography differ from other picture books?  From other children’s biographies? And so on.  It’s a little like an assignment I had when I was credentialing to be a teacher.  We were charged to write an entire essay on our subject area — in my case, teaching art history — using only questions.  Each question had to lead to the next, or suggest the answer to a previous question, and it had to make sense in the end.  It was a lesson in the Socratic method, getting us to think about how we would organize and phrase our thoughts to lead students to draw the conclusions we wanted them to.  It was a great exercise, but it was only four pages, and it didn’t require footnotes and MLA style.

What am I trying to say in this thesis of mine?

Why is it important?

Is it possible I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, or can barely understand within the aloted time?

If I was worried about page count that went out the window when I began makin notes on the individual titles and found them coming in at around two or three pages per book.  Given that I’ll probably expand some of these ideas, at eight books, I’m not going to have any problems meeting my minimum 20 pages (though my advisor keeps saying things like 30 pages, which scares me because I think she might be right).

So I’m up late worrying about things because I can’t sleep and I can’t focus.  I’m looking at the weather and praying there’s no snow days this week because, much as I love the girls, I need these full days I have withou distraction to knock this thing out.  I need to have an outline and some structured ideas by the end of this week.  I need to write solidly all next week.  I need to edit and slot and jigger and slam and wobble this thing into some sort of shape.

Because all of a sudden I can hear my middle grade novel calling me.  Loudly.  It’s saying Hey!  I think we’ve got a new angle!  Present tense! And that sounds more intriguing to me than anything else right now.  Of course, the whole time I was playing with the boys in my middle grade novel there were ideas about the thesis trying to catch my eye.


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