Table of Contents
- Keeping Watch Over Our Schlock by Night
- Genre: One Group Opts for More
- 230,000 Libraries: Their Future on Trial in The Hague
- Marketing: Play the Audience Where It Lies
- Craft: A Domain of One’s Own
- On Tour: Let Scrivener Be Your Guide
- Craft: Bundle Up for Winter Sales
- Conferences To Consider | Contact Me About Yours
- Books: Reading on the Ether
- Last Gas: Stoked for Whitman
Keeping Watch Over Our Schlock by Night
There will never be a return to quality but a steady decline as the crap merchants pile on higher and higher. Success will become more and more random.
This is our good colleague Baldur Bjarnason writing about an issue a lot of us hesitate to address head-on.
One of the consequences of anybody being able to publish is that everybody can publish, not just the worthy few who big publishing never got around to or those who were a little bit too weird, innovative, or unique for an editor to take a risk.
In a post titled with baleful accuracy Schlock, Bjarnason — an Icelander based in London — looks hard at an aspect of digitally enabled content abundance that many of us routinely duck.
The biggest beneficiaries of open, free, and equitable access to publishing tools will never be skilled writers, readers with taste, or anybody who sells a quality good, but the purveyors of mass-manufactured schlock and buyers who either don’t mind it, or can’t tell the difference.
Part of the widespread reticence to address this as forthrightly as Bjarnason does is a kind of political correctness, of course. We live in an age in which it’s not cool to speak ill of one’s fellow…you name it, employees, church members, classmates, parents, authors, publishers, editors, agents, at least not in public. Only in Direct Messages.
The truth-killing dictum “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” was not, to my surprise, confined to my own Deeply Southern upbringing. There’s a widespread fear of criticism, much more potent in American society than in most European cultures I’ve lived in for any length of time. We’re counseled never to speak ill of anybody.
But however cordially such instruction is intended, mind you, it looks like foolish politeness when someone like Bjarnason calmly points out the emperor’s schlocky clothes.
The $5,000 bonus to which he refers here, of course, is the one announced for U.S. Random House employees because of the success of Fifty Shades of You Know What. Bjarnason writes:
That $5000 bonus might well be the herald of a brave new world, not a world where big publishers think that rebadged fan fiction is the next big thing…but a world where helping anybody and everybody who manages to have some success to scale is their biggest source of revenue.
— Bring us your intellectual manure, your algo-generated pap, your generic schlock, and we can leverage your success into massive profits for us both!
Speaking of leverage, Bjarnason would not shy from, I think, my description of him as a firebrand, albeit for the right reasons. Like a white-hatted hacker, he likes to point out weaknesses of process and perspective in the industry! the industry!
He tends to disturb some with this because he generally has a good point to make.
What does this all mean?
Simple. If you are trying to sell a good book you have to earn your customers one by one and learn how to treat them well enough for them to return to buy your next book.
It’s a slow-going task, full of hard work and few rewards, but it’s the only sustainable tactic in a market that is increasingly dominated by randomness.
It’s also a tactic that doesn’t scale. It can work well for individuals and small- to medium-sized publishers, but the direct selling necessary isn’t easily scalable to the levels needed to sustain a large corporation.
What you might find makes this latest essay from Bjarnason especially potent is that there’s a such a profoundly blind side to our international publishing hive.
Everything that makes a crap book crap also makes it a more contagious idea on a social network.
We’re bound together by social media and yet, for the most part, we don’t really know who can write, and who can’t; who can edit, and who just says he can; who can really market a book and who’s just retooling platitudes swiped from people named Seth and Tony and Anne.
Crap is grasped at a glance, its actual content is so scant that it can be boiled down to tweetable catch phrases.
Do blog entries reveal literary-fiction talent? Maybe.
Good books have no god-given right to exist.
Do artful tweets promise incisive nonfiction? Possibly.
There is no reason on earth why a market should automatically give good books the space they need to survive.
Do we really know who we’re talking to? Nah.
The dynamics of free-access digital markets favour rubbish.
If anything, the “democratizing” elements of the web’s Mousquetaire–ish community ethos welcomes all to the table. Its egalitarianism is blinkered to such topics that dare not speak their name: talent, genius, the general paucity of both. Writers of beautiful-dead-girl romance for young women are greeted as the peers of humanitarian essayists.
Toxic ideologies and world-views stand out more easily and are grasped more easily than considered opinions.
This all makes for happy relations in the digital marketplace. Here amid the dings and dumps of the digital disruption, we are a happy, happy crew, aren’t we?
Online communities are allergic to nuance and subtlety. Originality cannot be condensed down to a tweetable description. Anything that faithfully represents the complexity of human life and thought is trampled into the ground by the pandered herd.
While keeping watch over our flocks by night, it’s good to have a Bjarnason ever near us. Reminding us that once we were about quality, and business, too, surely, but the business of finding and promoting quality. Literary quality.
Is that what we’re about today?
Difference needs to be hand-sold, one by one. Or, it needs to be lucky, relying on the whims of randomness. Neither way is reliable and neither is easy.
It’s a thin line between drama and pathos.
— Jeffrey H Baer (@JBaer10314) December 14, 2012
Genre: One Group Opts for More
After careful deliberation, and correspondence with the National organization, my Board has decided to disband the Chapter.
This is Laura Drake in a post at Writer Unboxed. She’s describing a difficult decision made by a chapter of the Romance Writers of America to leave that umbrella organization. RWA, according to Drake in Change Is Not the Enemy, has adjusted its regulatory bylaws so that its chapters all must identify themselves as being focused on romance. The change makes it difficult for women authors whose interests and career work go beyond romance to gather in relation to the larger group. For reasons no doubt carefully considered by those running the national association — you have to hope the organization knows what it’s doing — it has, by the account here, squeezed its sub-chapters, demanding that all associated with it bow to the pink hearts and flowers. The requirement is that all chapters be, in Drake’s words:
Not women’s fiction writers. Romance writers, first and foremost. Which many of us are not.
Drake writes that she and her cohorts have found the idea of separation from the larger group daunting. But along with the chapter’s originator, Therese Walsh (co-founder with Kathleen Bolton of Writer Unboxed), Drake wants to keep the group together in some form and move forward without the romance canopy of RWA. Want to see an upbeat, positive attitude at work in part of our digital-weary business? Here’s Drake’s commentary:
We may even come out of it stronger, since we may pick up women’s fiction writers who were previously barred from our group under RWA, because their work contained no romantic elements. In fact, our group is re-energized, committed, and may become more than any of us imagined before this happened.
I don’t know Drake, but I do know Walsh, and I can tell you that any writer looking for association with a group of merit — whether it must live under a banner defined by gender, genre, idiom, or preferred hair color — is in good hands if Walsh is in place. Drake:
I dreaded sending the email to chapter members this morning, not to mention informing Therese that her baby had been hit by a truck, on my watch. Much to my delight, both Therese and the membership have been very supportive, and the group has decided to stay together under some other umbrella, yet to be determined.
What I’d like to think a turn of events like this might mean to a group of writers is that genre need not be a binding force — or even their key market force. Sure, if any of the sobering observation we’ve read in our first item here from Baldur Bjarnason mean anything, it’s that the digital dynamic might open, and even require explorations of literary definition no longer dependent on such labels as “romance.” While I wish our culture hadn’t made it so, surely the chance to say, “Here is a society of women writers who will not be pinned to the romance-‘n’-relationship corkboard anymore but are opening for themselves a chance to free up their creativity.
I should reveal a personal bias here: It’s my conceit that romance is like the word “spellbinding”: as Curtis Brown agent and joint CEO Jonny Geller in London opined in a tweet recently, if “spellbinding” no longer appeared in promotional copy about books, that would be fine.
But more important than freeing the group from romance or any other specific genre that I or someone else may not care for, is the chance to explore establishing an author’s collective in which members pool their resources and needs to hire publishing services and support. I wrote about this concept in March at Writer Unboxed, coincidentally, and was glad to see a lot of interest in the general outlines of such a possibility. Here’s Drake writing, handsomely beyond the romance brief:
When old structures fail, new ones can be built that are stronger than before.
Whatever structure Drake, Walsh, and their associates may raise next (okay, even if some of them churn out more spellbinding romance), it’s worth congratulating them on taking change in hand and deciding to make something of it — without knowing yet just what. In pluck alone, these writer are RWA’s loss.
Wow just heard Payphone… it doesn’t seem very long since I have heard it, but then again, I don’t remember when I heard it o.O — Tim Wu (@AppSniped) December 10, 2012
230,000 Libraries: Their Future on Trial in The Hague
After many hours of discussion and examination—talks that inevitably spilled over into local pubs and restaurants—none of us was left feeling that libraries were firmly seizing control of their future.
Peter Brantley of San Francisco’s Internet Archive and Books in Browsers Conference is also a tireless advocate for a better library system in the United States. He recently was called to join a blue-ribbon working group in The Hague to consider the plights of library systems internationally. In his report on the debate, You Have Two, Maybe Three Years… for Publishers Weekly, Brantley describes the International Federation of Library Associations’ (IFLA) discussion-starting report, ” the most lucid review I have yet encountered on the play between libraries and publishers: an IFLA commissioned report entitled ‘Libraries, e-Lending and the Future of Public Access to Digital Content,’ written by Dan Mount, of the UK’s Civic Agenda, and consultant Paul Sturges.” That report is to be released, Brantley writes, as “an independent analysis of the current marketplace for libraries.” But, he goes on:
Attendees at the meeting came away with a sense that time may be running out for libraries. The general consensus among participants was that public libraries have two, maybe three years to establish their relevance in the digital realm, or risk fading from the central place they have long occupied in the world’s literary culture.
As delegates in the debate worked through issues, Brantley writes:
Canada represented the most successful alliance between libraries and publishers. Two years of negotiations with the Association of Canadian Publishers has resulted in a landmark draft proposal for licensing a bundle of e-books, with terms loosely based on the HarperCollins model, but good for 40 loans rather than 26, with each library paying out over five years.
But in other countries, Brantley reports, the news is not so great.
Relations between Swedish libraries and publishers soured to such a point that libraries are now engaging in a PR campaign that paints their country’s “next librarian” as a fat-cat, suit-clad publisher.
Our good friend and colleague Brian O’Leary was in these three days of sessions, as was Mark Coker of Smashwords (which has pioneered direct-to-library availabilities with participating self-publishing authors from its own platform). Of O’Leary’s extensive contributions to the sessions, Brantley writes that he:
…offered a succinct analysis of the major publishers’ strategic market position, finding an industry strikingly ill-positioned to respond to new challenges. Large, international trade publishing, he noted, is an industry that lacks a competitive and innovative culture, is historically riddled with cozy relationships, and frustrated by many strong forces—including its own customers, the retailers. Generally speaking, publishing has focused its market response to e-books on a single source of acute pain—the largest retailers like Amazon and Apple—and its only response to market dynamics has been consolidation.
You can read more of O’Leary’s thoughts from the meeting in The Netherlands — and his travels through the beautiful autumn Lage Landen, the Low Country — in his post, The First, Best Defense. The real struggle gripping libraries, Brantley writes, is for relevance.
With more than 230,000 public library buildings across the world, libraries possess unparalleled opportunities. Although there is unease as we enter a world of digital content abundance, where collecting may seem paternalistic and unnecessary, and tools for reader feedback and interaction are ubiquitous, we all welcomed a vision of libraries using technology to bring people and their communities together around books.
But how to build and protect that vision remains elusive. And if anything, Brantley returned to tell us that libraries have to find their place in our new world:
The most serious threat facing libraries does not come from publishers, we argued, but from e-book and digital media retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Google. While some IFLA staff protested that libraries are not in the business of competing with such companies, the library representatives stressed that they are. If public libraries can’t be better than Google or Amazon at something, then libraries will lose their relevance.
Witnessing the holiday crowds tonight called to mind that Anchorman quote: “Well, that escalated quickly.” — Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) December 16, 2012
Marketing: Play the Audience Where It Lies
Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, came to the conclusion by using the social listening tools in the market (like Covercake and Radian 6) that the best approach with them was to use them categorically, rather than title-by-title.
It was at Publishers Launch in Frankfurt, at the Book Fair in October, that Mike Shatzkin heard Joyce — always a persuasive and eloquent speaker — talk about the idea of using audience interest as a guide to marketing approaches. In Rethinking book marketing and its organization in the big houses, Shatzkin writes:
Here’s a modest proposal about how marketers at big publishers should be organized. By audience segment, or, to use my own favored terminology, by vertical.
He couldn’t be more on-target with the rationale:
Marketers have always asked about every title: “who is the audience?” Now to optimize their digital marketing efforts, publishers large and small are wanting to know about that audience: “where can I find them?”
Of course, there are publishers known for developing their work — and readership relationships — around verticals. Osprey Group is one, of course. F+W Media, which many authors know through Writer’s Digest and/or Digital Book World, is another.
But, as far as I can tell, no [major, Big Six-size] publisher has (yet) taken the step of moving away from title-centric marketing structure to an audience-centric marketing organization. It is bound to happen. There will be increasing pressure on the existing structure driven by two related realities: bookstore decline and Internet-based marketing opportunities.
Point-of-sale is shifting, as Shatzkin notes:
Until a very short time ago, books not in a bookstore had very little chance of selling, regardless of how powerful a publicity break they could generate. Now we’re seeing an average (across titles and genres) of more than 30% of the book sales being made online…Only the successful books remained widely available more than 90 days after publication date, so media breaks that occurred later than that in most books’ lives had to meet a very high threshold to be worth acting upon.
In the digital dynamic, of course, that’s no longer a factor.
Life isn’t like that anymore. Books can be discovered at any time because the metadata doesn’t disappear from the virtual shelves…So while it used to be perfectly acceptable (even “highly professional”) to ignore an author’s call telling his or her editor that s/he has a radio interview scheduled for next Saturday (although you would always say “thanks for letting us know”), it isn’t anymore.
There’s a telling comment, isn’t it? And completely viable, of course. Shatzkin is neatly pinning down one of those iconic elements of old-world-new-world changes that makes the industry’s upheaval both so promising in some ways and so galling in others. Keep looking forward, not backward, it helps.
@donnamhanson I am also that—a wombat who is straight talking.
— Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) December 17, 2012
Shatzkin goes on to walk through a scenario in which a very large house develops marketing to verticals, assigning teams of marketers to each audience segment.
Flexibility is key here; each audience has different value to the house and the person-hours allotted to the vertical has to bear some reasonable relationship to the revenue potential. So these teams are not “one size fits all”. That’s why marketers will be on more than one team; some will warrant a fraction of the time and effort of others.
Pay extra attention to Shatzkin’s explanation of why this concept — which may seem simple and straightforward from the outside — can be so hard for a major to implement.
It means blowing up — or at the very least diverting a lot of resources from — the existing title- and imprint-based marketing structure. Imprints in major houses were rarely if ever formed around audiences; they were formed around editorial units. In general houses, even the individual editoral units work tend to work across many topical areas. In the big houses, really it is only the genre fiction that gets an editorial unit, branding, and marketing teams dedicated to them.
Success in such a deep-level overhaul, as Shatzkin says, could be a long time in coming and should be anticipated only in stages. But, as he points out so well:
The reality is that the title-driven and pubdate-driven marketing techniques that we all grew up with will shortly have outlived their usefulness.
In related reading:
Shatzkin this week has also published a very thorough going-over of the extensive Digital Book World week of conference event in New York, January 15-18 (including Authors Launch). See our conferences section below for more on that. And his story on the programming he is heading up is Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January.
Just had a great holiday argument with my family. I argued that since the founding fathers owned human beings they weren’t Christians.
— Dan Krokos (@DanKrokos) December 16, 2012
Craft: A Domain of One’s Own
If you’re looking for Big Boys in Boots magazine, odds are BigBoysInBoots.com is the website. This means that when people enter Firstname Lastname into Google, you have a good chance at controlling the first information they see.
If…if…you have your own domain name. Far be it from me to guess why Harry Guinness is looking for Big Boys in Boots magazine. That’s another gas, not Ether. But his point in Why It’s Worth It To Purchase Your Own Domain Name is one I’d like to tear him from those booted boys more frequently to explain.
Trust me, you need a domain name. You might not need it today but in a few years time you’ll want it. The way people think about websites is changing, and more personal landing page services like flavors.me and re.vu are popping up—and it takes a matter of minutes to set up. In a few years it may well be common to send a link to your online CV.
(In a few years?) For the most part when asked by writers if they really needed to use their names in their author-site URL — not their book titles, cats’ nicknames, or favorite spellbinding romance settings — I’ve used brand-centricity for the reason and my answer has dealt largely with marketing and discoverability. To wit: You will write more than one book, why train an audience to find you only at one title? And you are the brand of you, you need people to find you, the creator of your magic, not the faeries at the bottom of your garden. But here is Guinness at Lifehacker getting into some more technical reasons, good ones, for you to obtain and control something as close to your name as you can get in a domain. But let’s say, Porter be damned, you’re going ahead with TheSubjectWasPotatoSalad.com as your homebase. You should still pay attention to Guinness on getting your FirstnameLastname.com domain:
Even if you never totally need it, it’s damn handy. It doesn’t need to link to your own website, you can forward it to Twitter, Tumblr, or one of the personal landing pages that I mentioned above. Set up Google Apps on it and get Firstname@FirstnameLastname.com as your email address. Save yourself from giving out that ridiculous hotmail address you set up when you were sixteen.
He knows whereof he speaks: This is a man whose main site is BawdyZebra.com. (So there’s one popular URL search you can just cross right off your list, right?) Do you have an author friend who hasn’t yet corralled his or her FirstnameLastname.com domain? Holiday gift. Save your friend’s soul now, buy the domain and transfer ownership to her or him in exchange for large amounts of meaningful eggnog. Guinness has some points about controlling unfortunate data, such as “those photos of you engaged in a bit of one-on-one time with a friendly, and very supportive, lamp post.” (He’s never far from those boys in boots, is he?) And he has a very good point about how you look online when people look for you, in or out of boots:
Don’t leave it to Google to decide what people see when they search for you.
So if you’re not persuaded by Etheritic Principle — when your author platform rolls out, be sure the show on it is about you — then listen to Guinness:
What are the advantages of having your own domain name? Honestly, they’re endless.
Rubbish, the advantages are not endless. There are lots, but I’m sure there’s an end to them somewhere. That’s OK, Harry, it’s a web tradition, overstating everything. And your post is the best ever. But seriously, Guinness is right. Even if you’re an author who’s taking your time and not trying to work the social media (still a plural word, damn it) to your advantage yet, nowhere building a site for yourself, still enjoying the pleasures of lined paper in spiral-ringed notebooks for your writing…get your name domain and hold it.
…that photo of you in a bear suit that your brother submitted to AwkwardFamilyPhotos…
That’s enough, Harry.
When we argue for platform neutrality and interoperability are we saying the medium is NOT the message? — Peter Turner (@PeterTurner) December 13, 2012
On Tour: Let Scrivener Be Your Guide
For the blog stops, I put them in order of appearance. Every time I get a confirmation, I put them in the correct spot, and also add the event to my Google calendar.
In Staying Sane While Doing an Insane Blog Tour – Using Scrivener, Angela Quarles does, yes, have a cat picture. I apologize for this. Nevertheless, for a person with a cat picture on a post, Quarles’ advice is good for trying to fulfill the hectic writing schedule of a blog tour during a book launch.
The nice thing about this is that I can take snapshots of previous versions and export in whatever format that particular person requires. I can also quickly click around and copy an answer to an interview question that got asked in another. Same with all the little bottom stuff (bio, blurb, links). It’s all right there and I don’t have to try to remember which post had what and only be able to find out by opening every single Word document. As the posts go live, I’ll add a link to it as well.
If you use Scrivener, or have been thinking about using it, this should add some value to the switchover from Word or another software.
I’ve even found an interesting phenomenon happening–I’m usually one of those people who seem to only be motivated by deadlines. I knew I should write a lot of these ahead of time and send them off, but they weren’t really due yet… But getting this set up, it made me feel like I had everything nicely contained and it then made me want to start filling it out!
@porter_anderson I just had a thought. Cameo Tweeting would be a great name for an English cricketeer
— James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) December 17, 2012
Craft: Bundle Up for Winter Sales
Ganxy, a New York-based startup that helps authors and publishers sell and market e-booksthrough a set of online tools, has added the option to sell e-books as bundles. Users can adjust the bundles’ prices in real time; bundles can also be gifted to others.
I first became aware of Ganxy as a result of a presentation at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Now, Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent reports on a development and offering there that could be of particular use to serial writers and for “hybrid” authors who are building up traditional publishing project with ancillary shorter-form books.
With the new bundling feature, authors and publishers can create “box sets” of e-books and sell the bundles directly to their audience through the showcase. They can also quickly adjust pricing and offer flash sales.
Owen’s story is Publishing startup Ganxy now lets users sell e-book bundles.
It’s okay to wait to post the right news instead of rushing to post the wrong news. — Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) December 14, 2012
Conferences To Consider | Contact Me About Yours
Please note that my listing here of publishing conferences upcoming is not meant as a commercial promotion for them but as an informational guide highlighting major events ahead and providing discount availabilities for writerly budgets wherever I can.
This week, I’m glad to add the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ February 1-3 conference in New York. They contacted me to let me know their dates and details. If you have a publishing conference event coming, follow the SCBWI’s lead and notify me through the contact page at porteranderson.com, and I’ll be happy to consider listing it.
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Registration continues for Digital Book World (#DBW13) (January 15-17) — and the associated Children’s Publishing Goes Digital (January 15) and Authors Launch (January 18, see below). Substantial savings are available, and you’re most welcome to use my affiliate code PORTER to trigger them as you register. For more, see Mike Shatzkin’s new article, Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January.
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A 20-percent discount has been offered on registration for the all-new January 18 Authors Launch one-day conference. It’s being produced by the Publishers Launch team of Mike Shatzkin and Michael Cader (seen, for example, at Frankfurt Book Fair). To get the reduced rate, use code AL395 as you register. This is the daylong series of specialized presentations from a roster including Peter McCarthy, Dan Blank, MJ Rose, Randy Susan Meyers, Jason Ashlock, Meryl Moss, Ether host Jane Friedman, David Wilk and more.
For more, see Mike Shatzkin’s new article, Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January.
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The 14th Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is set for February 1-3 in New York. “This year’s conference features two jam-packed days of inspiration and the latest on what’s happening in the field of children’s literature from top editors, agents, art directors, authors, and illustrators. Make sure you look at the detailed description of each workshop on the Schedule before you select your breakouts.”
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Author (R)evolution Day (#TOCcon) (February 12) from O’Reilly Tools of Change and Publishers Weekly has special early pricing ending December 20. Among featured presenters: Cory Doctorow, Eve Bridburg, Laura Dawson, Allen Lau, Jesse Potash, Dana Newman, Kristen McLean, Peter Armstrong, Tim Sanders, Michael Tamblyn, Rob Eagar, Kate Pullinger, Kat Meyer, and Joe Wikert.
You’re welcome to use my affiliate code AFFILIATEPA for a discount of $300 on your registration.
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O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (#TOCcon) Conference (February 12-14) has a December 20 cutoff date for early pricing, and includes a major brace of workshops for industry professionals during Author (R)evolution Day (your pass must include Tuesday), plus two more days of multi-tracked offerings.
You’re welcome to use my affiliate code AFFILIATEPA for a discount of $300 on any registration package.
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For an updated list of planned confabs, please see the Publishing Conferences page at porteranderson.com.
So, our major newspapers are run, variously, by tax-dodgers, a pornographer, a family who “didn’t notice” phone-hacking…. and a trust. #sigh
— alastair horne (@pressfuturist) December 17, 2012
Books: Reading on the Ether
The books you see here have been referenced recently in Ether columns or in tweets. I’m bringing them together in one spot each week, to help you recall and locate them, not as an endorsement.
- APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch
- Beer and Groping in Las Vegas by Angela Quarles
- Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto edited by Hugh McGuire and Brian O’Leary
- Come to the Edge by Christina Haag
- Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity by Ed Cyzewski
- Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen
- Dog Hills by Michael Hogan
- Duty, Honor, Contry, a Novel of West Point to the Civil War by Bob Mayer
- Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
- My Memories of a Future Life by Roz Morris
- Pentecost by J.F. Penn
- Quilt or Innocence: A Southern Quilting Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig
- Sell Your Book Like Wildfire by Rob Eagar
- The Shatzkin Files by Mike Shatzkin
- Sistine by Michael Hogan
- A Summer in Europe by Marilyn Brant
I’ve noticed this year that Ann Patchett and Kakutani seem to have opposing views on the books they both review. #teamann
— Amanda Nelson (@deadwhiteguys) December 12, 2012
Last Gas: Stoked for Whitman
“If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call you Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk.”
Bram Stoker was younger, a lot younger, than Walt Whitman. But he took that into account, too, when in 1872 he wrote the older artist of his sky-high regard for his work:
“I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world—a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them.”
Clearly he was right. Whitman would write back to Stoker and they would meet several times before the great poet’s death.
Critic and historian Meredith Hindley’s account of this Irish-and-American friendship, When Bram Met Walt, is one of those long reads you enjoy not only for the revelations of elements of both authors’ characters, but also because it’s so long, so leisurely, so…National Endowment for the Humanities.
It’s in Humanities, the agency’s magazine, and the piece moves as you might envision life being lived in the late years of Whitman’s life, when UL approved nothing and ADD was a strange upper-casing of the word “add.”
Stoker’s near-adoration of the man is completely a thing of its time, hard to imagine today in its excruciating expression and grace.
Hindley never runs. She walks. No, she ambles. She dallies and digresses a little here, a little more there. Who knew this kind of thing was still written? And good for her.
Just look at this extraordinary introduction Stoker, age 24, was making of himself to a man he’d never met:
I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world. I take a delight in letting people I don’t like— people of mean or cruel or sneaking or cowardly disposition—see the worst side of me.
Quietly, painfully, almost baffling to our sensibilities today, an age of letters comes into view again. Something our Western cultures may never again know in such luxuriant pacing and regard. It would take even Stoker years to get up the nerve to send his letter to Whitman. And then only three weeks to hear back:
“You did well to write me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and so affectionately, too. I too hope (though it is not probable) that we shall one day meet each other. Meantime I send you my friendship and thanks.”
Improbable as it seemed then, the two did meet, and more than once. And the poet left him a gift when he died. Hindley:
Given Stoker’s hero worship of Whitman, literary scholars have looked for evidence of the poet’s influence on Dracula. A cryptful of critics spent the late 1980s and 1990s fixating on the novel’s morbid sensuality and what it suggested about homosexuality. It was on this issue that they frequently located Whitman’s fingerprints. Belford regards Whitman’s influence as “profound,” noting that the Count and Whitman share common physical traits. “Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing. Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.”
Maybe during the holidays you’ll find yourself with more time than usual to take in an interesting look at two authors’ relations in a time so far out of our grasp now. It’s revealing of a stride our arts today rarely achieve and of a sweep — a knowledge of “the grand gesture” — that’s all but forgotten. This is a monograph well worth your time. And while Bram Stoker never revealed a model for the Count, Hindley speculates, I’ll bet correctly, that:
Given that Walt Whitman wasn’t averse to a little hero worship, he might have liked being turned into an immortal creature with a lustful fan base.
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“… odds are that books are your best furniture …” cmod.me/VKCX72
— Craig Mod (@craigmod) December 17, 2012
Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com
Main Image, a Verona Christmas market: iStockphoto / fazon1