Thursday detritus

This has been a week of long hours—tough, but a relief to start having work come in again after the holidays. That Thanksgiving to New Year's lull can be brutal for freelancers, especially since it falls at a time when more funds tend to be going out than coming in. Every year I convince myself in December that no one will hire me again—only to end up in February with an uncomfortably long task list. But in this case, being overworked is better than underemployed, and I try to stay grateful to be in that position.

Having said that, I'm only human, and sometimes that reminder doesn't succeed in lifting my lagging spirits (usually around 5 p.m.) here's a couple things that have been this week.

1. This great news that more than 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee is finally releasing a second novel. It's called Go Set a Watchman, and Lee has said that she's "happy as hell" to have it coming out. (Relatedly, I've been sloooowly working my way through this New York Magazine story from last summer called "The Decline of Harper Lee." Haven't dug through to the end yet, but like most NYMag stories, it's chock-full of great details and quotes and moments that seem to capture that elusive sense of how something—even if you aren't sure quite what—feels. A snippet: "[Lee had] once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, 'I’m really Boo.'" Undoubtedly more on this later.)

2. "Lorraine," by Jesse Thomas. I was introduced to Jesse Thomas this winter, just before Thanksgiving, at Paul Willson's Singer-Songwriter night at the Camel, and she absolutely blew me away. I also love that she's guzzling Bulleit bourbon in the music video—that stuff ain't cheap.

3. First Fridays is tomorrow night! I'm particularly excited about this series of screenprints depicting animals wearing Regency-period clothes, by Triple Stamp Press, at Ghostprint.

4. Sugar Shack doughnuts. Still not at the level of Country Style (who is?), but doughnuts + a 20-minute drive out towards the airport seems a little overindulgent for a weekday. Only 12 days until Fastnacht Day!

Process, not product

It's surprising how often I forget this, but when it comes to work, almost everything is a draft.

This shouldn't be a epiphany to someone who works as an editor. The entire job of editing is an acknowledgment that no human product is ever perfect: that there are always corrections that can be made, points of view that can be included, typos or incorrect cross-references or images accidentally overlaid on text. This is why in book and journal publishing, at least, there are several different layers of people who put their hands (and eyes) on the manuscript: because no one pair (hands or eyes) can pick up everything.

In a sense, your physiology works against you: your eye is designed to make sense of the myriad competing signals it picks up every millisecond. One way it does that is to gloss over the disjuncts in those messages, smoothing them out before they become a part of your conscious thought. That's the principal behind the puzzles that write a statement by substituting a jumble of numbers and symbols for the letters that would ordinarily be used. As it turns out, your mind CAN decipher, fairly easily and quickly, what is being conveyed, because its whole purpose is to make sense of a massive amount of frequently incoherent data. Your eye will do the same thing when editing, skipping over the tiny pieces that disturb the flow of sense.

So mistakes are inevitable. We build bulwarks against them by slowing down, instituting checkpoints, and bringing in other people. We create a process.

I'm not going to diminish the feeling of utter euphoria that you get when you produce a piece of writing that "comes together." There's no better sensation. The only thing that comes close is the consuming absorption of putting together that story—and the fact is, over the course of your life, you'll have that experience of absorption far more than the experience of euphoria. Nor will the euphoria last: sweet as it is (and it is sweet), in a few hours or days you will notice that there are typos. Or you will realize that you made an assumption you weren't aware of but is incorrect. Or you will hear some information that inexplicably never came up during interviews or research that changes the picture you have sketched.

That's because, no matter how many bulwarks we build, they are never enough. You do what you can, and you learn to love the process.

In some idle trolling of the Interwebs the other day, I stumbled across one of the best illustrations of this principal I've ever encountered: this Medium article called "10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered." We can spend so much time focusing on the product that we lose sight of the process—and without the process, very little of value can be produced.

Most of what you write is going to get thrown out, and the best thing you can do is get comfortable with that. When I'm writing an article, I usually have a few documents going at once—some with quotes or excerpts of transcripts, one with a couple versions of a lede, and sometimes scraps of paper or post-it notes with reminders or points to work in. The final version is dwarfed by the material that has been thrown out, whether that's information or subpar sentences...and that's even given that I generally write stories in a linear fashion instead of piecemeal.

As Madeleine L'Engle said, "Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it." You may never come to love this work, but until you respect it (by which I mean respecting the process), the journey will be so daunting that it may hardly seem worthwhile to begin.

"Belmont Park"

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"Richmond's inventory of building lots far exceeded demand, and the residents put vacant ground to good use."—T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape

An apt Devil's Triangle response to the parks of the Fan. A low whitish house—more like a shed—used to sit on this lot, set at a 90-degree angle to the surrounding apartments, so that it faced away from the street and looked instead into the windows of the neighboring buildings. A few months ago, bulldozers showed up and razed the structure to the ground over the course of a few days. No signs yet of what's planned for this parcel of Park, but for the time being, "Belmont Park" doesn't seem like such a bad alternative to Caliente.

Long overdue

JF autumn regent's parkSomehow the autumn has slipped away, and here we are once again on the threshold of the holiday season. Although I've been quiet here for a few months, I haven't been absent from my desk. More often than not, the problem hasn't been too little to say, but too much on my hands and mind: too many words in an article, too many notes on Post-Its and legal pads, too many lists. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is probably not the best time to try to cut down on excess, linguistic or otherwise, but it is supposed to be a time of hope. So, in a spirit of hopeful minimalism, here's just a few of the assignments that have been on my plate recently (most of which can also be found over on the Clips page):

  • "Sign Language": A story for Style Weekly about a documentary entitled Sign Painters that VCU screened this November. I was lucky enough to get to see this roughly 80-minute film when it came through town, and it was worth sitting uncomfortably in a university lecture hall once again for. Beautifully shot, the filmmakers mostly take a step back and let the sign painters tell their own story of a trade that is making an unlikely comeback in cities across America. If you get a chance to see it, go—you won't regret it. A list of screening dates and locations can be found on the documentary's website.
  • "Signs of the Times": A profile of local sign painter Ross Trimmer, who tipped me off to the Sign Painter documentary that was coming through town—always nice when one story leads to another! Ross has been going through something of a Richmond media blitz lately; between the time I pitched this story to Hometown Junket and the time it was published, he was also the subject of a great RVA News profile, somewhat to my dismay. But in a small city, it's inevitable that sometimes your work is going to overlap with someone else's—good ideas rarely come to one person alone.
  • "Future Bound": Another story for Style, this one about the Richmond used book market. Could have used a few thousand words for this one. Booksellers always have the best stories: about themselves, about other people, about the books they carry. My favorite interviewing moment, which I just couldn't cram into the article, came as a bookseller was describing to me a former store owner who was forced to close her doors. This bookseller wound up the tale ominously and decisively: "A few weeks after she sold the shop, she collapsed and died." I've been accused of ending too many stories with the phrase "And then he/she died," so I can appreciate that conclusion when I hear it from another person's mouth. After that, there isn't much else to say, usually.
  • "Q&A with Bill Loehfelm": An interview I did for the Washington Independent Review of Books with the author of The Devil in Her Way. This is a terrific thriller, and Loehfelm has very insightful answers here to questions about New Orleans post-Katrina, intuition vs. knowledge, and the nature of "the system." I'm particularly enamored with this observation of his: "Every system is built on high ideals and then becomes a battleground between our better and baser natures, just like we are." A good thing to remember in these days of contentious political warfare.

I also have an e-review for Rattle magazine slated for publication at the end of the month—more on that when it comes out. In the meantime, if you've never checked out their website, it's worth getting sucked into for a few hours. And if reading their mission statement doesn't make you tear up a little, you're too cynical and probably need to take advantage of the holiday respite later this week.

Hometown Junket

If you live in Richmond, here's the new site you should be reading: Hometown Junket. This project, conceived and edited by Phillip Gravely (who between the hours of nine and five is UR's Director of Web and Editorial Strategy) aims to "put the voice of the community back in the hands of its storytellers, calling them to arms and giving them a unified charge—tell the story of your hometown."

I'm currently in the middle of working on a piece for HJ, and I'm stoked to see how many amazing stories people have turned up right off the bat. Briget Ganske's short video on Mrs. Yoder's Doughnuts and Jason Hatcher's account of his life as a CSX train conductor are particularly great snapshots of life in and around the River City today.

A snippet from the latter:

Railroaders may see some bad things from time to time, but they also see a lot of beautiful things. My favorite is taking the trains from Clifton Forge into Richmond. We take ‘em down the mainline on the James River Subdivision, which becomes the Rivanna Subdivision at Gladstone and Melton’s Lock. It’s a long ride — usually about a 12-hour shift — but I see the countryside and the mountains, all the way from J.D. Cabin and Iron Gate, down the James, and on into Richmond. Although I’m focused on being in charge of that train, I realize how beautiful of an “office” it is.

I like it when we get down to about Nine Mile Lock, Westham, Korah, Pump House, and all that, because I know we’ll be in Richmond soon, and we’ll either tie it down past Hacksaw Bridge and Texas Beach at Brown’s Island, or we’ll talk to the Fulton Yardmaster and take it on in past D.X. Cabin and Rivanna Junction, into Fulton Yard.

I don't even know where half of these places are—yet. But Mr. Hatcher's story offers a window onto the city and Central Virginia that I've never looked through, and it's to Phillip and Hometown Junket's credit that so many people now have access to that view.

A glimpse at the "sitting glimpser"

One of the best things about freelance writing and editing is that the job so often dumps fascinating information into my lap that I would never have otherwise encountered. A prime example is this first-rate story about Willem de Kooning for Smithsonian Magazine (admittedly nearly two years old) that I stumbled upon while doing background research for some student profiles I'm working on for the University of Richmond. De Kooning's paintings have never gotten my pulses racing, but this article is so good that it makes me want to give him a second try. It wasn't a surprise to come to end of the story and discover that the author, Mark Stevens, is a recipient (with his wife and coauthor Annalyn Swan) of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of de Kooning.

There's a lot to love here, but for me, the clincher is how masterfully he deploys that opening anecdote. Not only did that push me through the next several thousand words, but it's pretty sure to stay stuck in my brain for the next decade:

In 1926, Willem de Kooning, a penniless, 22-year-old commercial artist from the Netherlands, stowed away on a freighter bound for America. He had no papers and spoke no English. After his ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, he made his way north with some Dutch friends toward New York City. At first he found his new world disappointing. “What I saw was a sort of Holland,” he recalled in the 1960s. “Lowlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?” A few days later, however, as de Kooning passed through a ferry and train terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, he noticed a man at a counter pouring coffee for commuters by sloshing it into a line of cups. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s America.’”

Next to my desk, I have tacked up on my bulletin board an index card that reads: "The lede makes a specific promise to the reader. That promise is contained in the tension that will be released and resolved by the reading of the story." That's a hell of a hard task, but I think Stevens nailed it here, albeit in a paragraph rather than a single sentence. That one jarring question, "What the hell did I want to go to America for?"  and then that perfect image of the man sloshing coffee haphazardly into commuters' cups—the way I imagine the abstract expressionists sloshed paint onto their canvases, ignoring the borders and letting the color spill over the edges, churning out these almost (but never quite) monotonous series of pictures—well, boy, that's it, isn't it: de Kooning, the era, America.

Espresso (Book Machines) for all!

Working on multiple projects simultaneously sometimes means that I miss important news—in this case, the announcement that On Demand Books has made an agreement with Books-A-Million to install two Espresso Book Machines in its stores (press release here). The first location of Portland, Maine, has been revealed, but the second is still up in the air—Richmond, please? Given the typical stock of a Books-A-Million, I feel like the introduction of the EBM will automatically increase the number of actual books in the store by 100%.

Don't know what the Espresso Book Machine is? Hop on over to an article I wrote about a year ago for the Neworld Review, here.

Women in review

photo: Joyce Farman This week, VIDA—a nonprofit organization for women in the literary arts—released its 2012 Count, a report comparing the numbers of women and men (1) who reviewed books and (2) whose books were reviewed at thirteen of the most important literary/cultural publications over the past three years. Their data in chart form can be found here, and their brief analysis here.

This is the first I've heard of VIDA, and so far I'm impressed with it, especially its emphasis on data and its effort to stay focused on its original mission of examining women in writing without getting distracted by other (admittedly important) issues. Having said that, I wish they had provided some more background on the methodology of their 2012 Count, because I don't understand why they included some cover-to-cover/overall data or non-review-related data like Paris Review interviews. Because this seems to me to muddy the waters, I only talk about their book-review-related data here.

The results are a combination of sobering and not as bad as I expected—but that might say more about my own low expectations than anything else.

  • The Good: The New York Times Book Review and the Boston Review. The NYTBR topped the list, with women making up 45 percent of the reviewing pool. Close behind was the Boston Review, with 42 percent of reviewers being women.
  • The Bad: Harper's, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Women fell from an already-low 18 percent of Harper's book reviewers in 2010 to a jaw-dropping 9 percent in 2012. At the New Republic, they dropped from 21 percent in 2010 to a mere 10 percent in 2012. The New York Review of Books really breaks my heart, though: I love this publication, but only 16% of its reviewers in both 2010 and 2012 were women. Any way you look at it, these numbers are pretty dismal.

Best and worst aside, women's representation in most of the other publications has held pretty steady over the past three years, fluctuating by only a few percentage points. The most important takeaway of the report, though, is that at every single one of the publications on the list, women represent less—often far less—than 50 percent of reviewers and reviewed authors; in fact, a basic calculation reveals that on average, only 25 percent of book reviewers at these publications in 2012 were women.

So what's going on here? I hardly think that editors at these publications are sitting around and deliberately excluding women. In my mind, the underrepresentation of women at these thirteen magazines isn't so much the problem as it is the symptom of larger problems, one of which is neatly summed up by a commenter on the report:

Personally—and I fully realize I may have bias, being a male—most of the work of female writers just isn’t that . . . good, to me. It doesn’t appeal to me. Now I think that calling on publishers to ramp up their number of female writers published will not necessarily solve the issue. Quotas are never good for quality. What I think could be done are two things. One, have writers submit anonymously, only asking for their names once their work has been accepted. Two, call for more female editors, not for male editors to publish more females. If male editors are anything like me, then odds are they also aren’t drawn by female writing, which may be at the crux of the problem, rather than the very improbable scenario of editors actively discriminating against women . . . so hiring editors with more feminine sensibilities could see a rise in lady writers. . . .

I don't think this is all that uncommon of an opinion, although I don't think many men would put it out there quite as boldly as this guy does. I respect his honesty, but I don't think he realizes the many factors that likely feed into his "preference"—with the most important one being the belief that "women's writing" is a specific, fundamentally different thing than "men's writing" (which is never called "men's writing," just "writing"). That's a questionable assertion—what exactly do writers like Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Joan Didion have in common? Well, they're women, and they write. Beyond that, I'm not seeing a lot that joins all of them together, and to judge them primarily as women rather than as human beings seeking to illuminate the human experience seems narrow-minded.

Part of the problem here is expectations. Women are expected to read and value "men's writing," even when it portrays situations and scenarios we're unlikely to ever face. Take a novel like Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that shows up in English curricula nationwide and focuses almost entirely on men in a brutal, male-dominated environment. At least until we adopt an Israeli-style system of universal mandatory military service, I will never find myself in the position in which the narrator finds himself. I haven't been raised to respond to situations with aggression. The thought of having to flee to Canada if the U.S. became involved in a war I considered unjust and immoral has never seriously crossed my mind. I don't intuitively understand how male camaraderie grows and expresses itself.

But I'm expected to, in effect, look beyond the gender of the narrator and the bulk of the novel's characters to discern what the book has to say about not the male experience, but the human experience. And I'm glad that I've been expected to do this, because it forces me to look beyond myself, to move out of my own familiar patterns of thought and overturn my far-too-numerous assumptions. It makes me a better reader and also, I hope, a better person, because one of the purposes of literature, I think, is to help us see the great complexity of human beings, our terrible weaknesses and surprising strengths.

By perpetuating this notion of "women's writing" and not expecting men to approach female-authored literature with the same attitude of looking beyond gender to the human experience beneath, we're doing everyone—men and women alike—a disservice. We're saying, still, that men's experiences can be universal while women's are always particular. And yes, at the end of the day, that does come down to the bottom line that women are less—less able to plumb the depths and reach the heights, less deserving of time, less deserving of column inches. That, to me, is the real problem here. And solving it, while largely a task for the editors who wield the power of assignment, is also a task for male reviewers to approach female-authored literature with a more open mind. That's something we can all do.

Related, lighter, two months late: This author got fed up with the "girly" covers publishers were slapping on female-authored books and came up with an interesting project: "take a well-known book, then . . . imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like." Huffington Post has the results in a slideshow here, and they're fascinating.

What's in a name?

As a less serious follow-up to yesterday's post on the Penguin Random House merger, while checking out the company's new logo, I came across this brilliant piece from Digital Book World on suggestions for what the logo (and company name) should be. "Ranguin House" seems to be the crowd favorite, although I'm partial to the "Penguin House" logo.

The actual logo, which you can see at the top of PRH's new website, seems a little off to me. Jamming the two former logos together and calling it a day gives the sense that both Penguin and Random House will continue operating on a mostly equal and independent basis. Whether that's true or not, I don't know—but I don't see a lot of cohesion in the new logo, and it doesn't convince me that the merger is producing a brand-new company. It looks more like business as usual (the marriage of convenience!) than an audacious effort to really shake up the market.

Penguin Random House finalized—sadly not called Random Penguin

Today was a big day in publishing: the planned merger between Random House and Penguin, announced back at the end of October, finally cleared all the hurdles and closed, producing a giant new company called Penguin Random House that the New York Times reports controls over 25% of the U.S. trade book market. Let’s reiterate: PRH is huge. A couple of news outlets are reporting that the new company will employ over 10,000 people and publish over 15,000 new titles annually through some 250 imprints. Now compare that to a publishing house like Simon & Schuster (another member of the Big Five), whose website says that it employs about 1,350 people and publishes about 2,000 books annually. Numbers like those seem to take consolidation to a whole different level, but it’s important to point out that PRH is still comfortably below the 30% threshold that the U.S. government uses to loosely identify what is and is not a monopoly.

Also in the same New York Times article, Julie Bosman makes the keen observation that the company’s 25% control of the U.S. trade book market will give it “unmatched leverage against, a growing force in the industry.”

The closing of the deal might seem to have come at a good time, then, given the DOJ’s recent rulings in the ebook price-fixing cases, which many believe gives Amazon an unfair market advantage and basically invites it to engage in predatory pricing (the Authors Guild sums this viewpoint up pretty thoroughly in a very long filing from last year, see here). It ought to be interesting to see what effect PRH will have on Amazon’s share of the ebooks market. Under Justice’s terms, the new company has to abide by the decision the government reached with Penguin, even though Random House (which owns the larger share of PRH) wasn’t involved in the suit. So although the company won’t be able to keep ebook prices as high as they have been, its size gives it a lot more clout when it comes to settling matters of pricing and distribution.

Of course, as with any issue of this size, there’s plenty of disagreement. Dennis Johnson, co-founder of independent publisher Moby House, argues in a February blog post here that the merger is actually a victory for Amazon, because it forced Penguin, the most resistant of the publishers, to settle with the DOJ and fall in line with Random House, which has tended to let Amazon slash prices. And Adam Davidson wrote in the New York Times Magazine last November that “when you see a merger between two giants in a declining industry, it can look like a financial version of a couple having a baby to save a marriage.” Which is a great line, but possibly overly pessimistic, as Davidson himself seems to admit later in the article, noting the “two competing predictions” about the future of publishing: smaller companies using new tech to destabilize the giants, or another round of consolidation that makes the field even more compact than it already is. Davidson’s article is worth a read—find it here.

Whichever way it goes, it’s certainly mind-bending to find yourself looking at a merger of this size and wondering whether it might actually be good for competition—but mind-bending in a good way.