Posts Tagged ‘NYTimes’

A country of typewriters

The New York Times recently reported that Cormac McCarthy, author of such novels as No Country For Old Men, would be auctioning the typewriter on which he wrote his 2005 bestseller. He's replacing it not with a computer, but a newer typewriter.

It's no surprise that there are authors who prefer typewriters, just as there are videophiles who insist on vinyl or retrocomputer enthusiasts who use computers with 16K of memory. But what is surprising is that such antiquated production methods are still in use in modern industries.

My father was once in a similar situation when he remained committed to running his home business using the same spreadsheet software for two decades. The files were kept in a format inaccessible to his lawyers, brokers, and accountants, so information exchange was never as easy as emailing an attachment; more often, he had to print the files himself, and sometimes then bring them to a printshop to be concatenated into a single larger document. He was tolerated as a client because he'd been with these firms since before Microsoft Office was standardized. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when his computer finally gave out, forcing his upgrade to a modern platform.

I suspect the same is true of Mr. McCarthy, who has been a published author since 1965; his track record has earned him a leeway that would not be afforded to fledging writers. The likelihood of one of his novels being a success is worth the added cost of hiring a transcriptionist to convert his work to digital format.

Still, the cost of such unwavering technological devotion must at some point be question — as the New York Post did earlier this year when it reported that the New York City police department had spent a million dollars on new typewriters. Much of the police department's work has been computerized, but, as evidenced by these bills, a few artifacts remain. Wouldn't this money be better spent on bringing our civil servants into the 20th century? Typewriters may be fine for the entertainment industry, but the time and cost of accommodating diehards like Mr. McCarthy is not a luxury our government may always have.

Unintended posthumous publications

The New York Times recently reviewed The Original of Laura, a book assembled by Dmitri Nabokov from index cards left by his late father, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. Vladimir had left instructions for this unfinished novel to be burned after death, giving his literary work a literal deadline for publication. Now we see his wishes left unfulfilled — but how will it be received?

Thanks to an unprecedented transparency, interested readers can immediately see what parts of Laura are Vladimir's and which are his son's. The publisher chose to provide readers with the author's original notes, reproducing the index cards alongside the final edited work. This is an ingenious alternative to what Christopher Tolkien did with The Silmarillion. JRR Tolkien's unfinished work was published by his son in 1977, followed years later by a twelve-volume set of The History of Middle-Earth, which collected the various works from which Christopher chose the parts that would become The Silmarillion. "Th[e]se materials are now made available… and with them a criticism of the 'constructed' Silmarillion becomes possible," he wrote. With The Original of Laura, no delayed considerations are necessary, with the publisher instead choosing to provide readers with the immediacy of the unfinished work alongside the final work.

The review mentions that Vladimir's wife similarly saved Lolita from destruction, which is a compelling argument for letting the masses be the judges of a work the author may be too critical of. Since Vladimir is long beyond caring about his reputation, and most of his peers are similarly unable to provide judgment of their late friend, perhaps it is time for history to speak for itself.

The formula behind book reviews

After reading Dwight Garner's book review of Edmund White's City Boy, I thought: Finally! After reading several author profiles and book previews, here is an honest-to-goodness review. Actually, at first I thought it was a combination review and interview, as the critic quotes the book author regularly. Then I realized he was simply excerpting from the book he was reviewing. It's possible, even likely, that the critic and the author never met. Though this might seem like bad journalism, citing a secondary instead of primary source, I disagree. First, the book being quoted is autobiographical, so it is a primary source. And second, it can be difficult to write an unbiased review when one knows the author personally. "Gee," the critic might think, "He was such a nice guy and so open to talking to me, taking time out of his busy schedule to do so. I'd hate to give his book a bad review…" Avoiding such personal interaction and potential conflict can produce a more honest review.

In the third-to-last paragraph, the reviewer writes, "Some of this material feels like filler… This is a book with a low-grade personality disorder." By saving such criticism nearly for last, the reviewer follows a format that journalist Aaron McKenna once prescribed to "video game journalism":

Most reviews follow a simple formula of going through the game, taking apart all the bad points if it is a bad game and sticking a line or two in about its redeeming qualities, if in fact there are any, at the end, or else (if it is a good game) going through all the really good points about the game, and then sticking down the negatives into a paragraph at the end, usually beginning something like "Despite all this, Game X does have one or two minor problems…"

The format of this literary review is quite similar, which makes me wonder if McKenna did not cast his net far enough when describing this pattern.

I suppose that's more a response to the composition, not the publishing, aspects of this article. Still, it's what caught my interest.

One book sale leads to another

Last Thursday's New York Times had an article about William Fiennes and his new book, The Music Room. Like last week's article about Neil Sheehan, this piece offers a glimpse into the author's background and methodology, without being a review of him or his work. Barely mentioned at all was Mr. Fiennes' previous work, The Snow Geese, published seven years ago. It makes me wonder how much influence a track record has on a book author's ability to get new contracts. Seven years is a lifetime in the book publishing industry. Does anyone even remember Mr. Fiennes' original book — and, if so, could he have gotten The Music Room published without it?

Once the contract is signed, does the previous book affect sales of the current one? My understanding is that sales of an author's current book are predicted by sales of his previous one. Will distributors and retailers thus look at how successful The Snow Geese was in determining how many copies of The Music Room to order? The books are on such different topics that it seems illogical to compare the two — yet it's exactly that practice that has led many an author (Stephen King) to write under a pseudonym (Richard Bachman) and thus avoid such expectations.

As an aside: did anyone notice that the picture of William Fiennes on page C1 was juxtaposed with a picture of actor Joseph Fiennes? Coincidence?

Reviewing A Bright Shining Lie's author

The New York Times today ran a review of Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, though I don't see it as a review of the pending book as much as a review of the author and his methodology. I found that approach interesting, as it was a new one to me. I read plenty of books but don't often read about books. I know when a new movie is announced or about to be released, the director's filmography is often analyzed as a method of predicting his style and success with the new film; it never occurred to me the same sort of articles could be written about authors.

I couldn't tell if the reporter meant to cast Mr. Sheehan in any particular light. The constant referrals to his nocturnal ways seemed intended to enforce the stereotype of writers as those who work when the inspiration strikes, keeping ungodly hours. I half-expected the photo of Mr. Sheehan to have him either hidden in cigarette smoke or sitting at a typewriter. I walked away with more of an impression of the author than the book, though I would've liked more of the latter; instead I was thinking about watching Fail-Safe again.

Perhaps the NYT thought they made up for that lack with the sidebar referencing the online excerpt. Rather than the exclusive sale of serial rights from the publisher to the newspaper, the online version of the story simply links to Is this the typical sort of pre- release coverage for a book? Or are advance copies/galleys supplied to critics?

[Update: On October 4, the "excerpt" link was changed to within the domain, suggesting Random House's online excerpt was a limited-time exclusive.]