New look

I bought the WordPress CSS upgrade, which means I can now control visual elements on this blog. The major change so far has been in the font size, which is larger. I’ve also made some smaller changes. If you have an opinion, let me know in the comments! I’m especially eager to hear from people who are on small monitors or netbooks, since I’m looking at The Story’s Story with a 24″ monitor that’s probably atypical.

What's Going on With Amazon and Macmillan?

The book blagosphere has been buzzing with the news that Amazon, a big website to which I link in most of my posts, isn’t selling any titles published by Macmillan, the smallest of the big publishers in the U.S. The dominant question in all this is “why?” There’s been lots of speculation, much of it not worth linking to, but Charlie Stross has written a handy outsider’s guide to the fight, which is actually about how the publishing industry will shake out as a book makes its way from an author to you, a reader.

The bad news is that Stross’ post is almost impossible to excerpt effectively, but I’ll try:

Publishing is made out of pipes. Traditionally the supply chain ran: author -> publisher -> wholesaler -> bookstore -> consumer.

Then the internet came along, a communications medium the main effect of which is to disintermediate indirect relationships, for example by collapsing supply chains with lots of middle-men.

From the point of view of the public, to whom they sell, Amazon is a bookstore.

From the point of view of the publishers, from whom they buy, Amazon is a wholesaler.

From the point of view of Jeff Bezos’ bank account, Amazon is the entire supply chain and should take that share of the cake that formerly went to both wholesalers and booksellers. They do this by buying wholesale and selling retail, taking up to a 70% discount from the publishers and selling for whatever they can get. Their stalking horse for this is the Kindle publishing platform; they’re trying to in-source the publisher by asserting contractual terms that mean the publisher isn’t merely selling them books wholesale, but is sublicencing the works to be republished via the Kindle publishing platform. Publishers sublicensing rights is SOP in the industry, but not normally handled this way — and it allows Amazon to grab another chunk of the supply chain if they get away with it, turning the traditional publishers into vestigial editing/marketing appendages.

The agency model Apple proposed — and that publishers like Macmillan enthusiastically endorse — collapses the supply chain in a different direction, so it looks like: author -> publisher -> fixed-price distributor -> reader. In this model Amazon is shoved back into the box labelled ‘fixed-price distributor’ and get to take the retail cut only. Meanwhile: fewer supply chain links mean lower overheads and, ultimately, cheaper books without cutting into the authors or publishers profits.

Read the rest on Stross’ blog.

This makes me feel slightly dirty for having bought a Kindle recently. On the other hand, this… thing… is between giant corporations, both of which are working to extract as much money from me as possible. If I had to root for either Macmillan or Amazon, I’d chose the former, since the prospect of Amazon as the middleman between virtually every reader and every author is unpalatable. But with the iPad en route, the Barnes and Noble Nook at least in existence, and other eReaders on the way, the prospect of Amazon’s dominance looks far less likely than it did. That’s probably why the company is so desperate at the time.

(500) Days of Summer with, as a bonus, Alain de Botton's On Love

(500) Days of Summer is about the mating habits of angsty hipsters. Said hipsters are endlessly concerned with the nature of love in a deep, romantic fashion when they should be thinking more about the mechanics of how and why someone is actually attracted to another person. To heal the anxiety that hipsters feel about attraction and love, I would prescribe Belle de Jour, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which, taken together, remind one that the important thing about love is having enough game to get someone else to love you, not merely mooning over another person—which is more likely to drive them away than attract them.

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom does the mooning and Summer is indifferent and perhaps callous to his puppyish attention. Tom wants romance so bad that his 11-year-old sister says, “Easy Tom. Don’t be a pussy” at one point. We’re thinking the same thing, although perhaps not in those words, which are given to the sister chiefly, I assume, for getting a laugh out of the incongruity of hearing her say them. In the next scene, Tom asks Summer, “What are we doing?” The better question, at least for the audience, is, “Should we care?” If Tom doesn’t get with Summer—who manifests no special or particular interests, talents, abilities, thoughts, capability, or expertise—there are another thousand girls right behind her, exactly like her, who are also part of the quirk genre, as described in the linked Atlantic article:

As an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions (on HBO’s recent indie-cred comedy Flight of the Conchords, the titular folk-rock duo have one fan), and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.

Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.

Over time, quirk gets boring and reminds you why you like the real feeling of, say, King Lear, or the plot of The Usual Suspects. The mopey plight of undifferentiated office workers is less compelling, and, once sufficiently repeated, it feels like disposable culture: another story about two modern people with no serious threats to their existence save the self-imposed ones that arise chiefly from their minds.

Love stories about the relatively pampered can work: I watched (500) Days of Summer because a bunch of students mentioned it in relation to Alain de Botton’s On Love. But the novel is better: a philosophically minded and self-aware narrator is fascinating precisely because he is aware of the ridiculousness of his own predicament and the randomness of love. He has a therapist and a philosophy professor in his mind. The dichotomy between how he should feel (she’s just another girl) and how he does (transformed through love!) fuels much of the comedy, as does the narrator’s tendency toward self-sabotage thanks to Marxism as applied to love: he would never want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Tom would, apparently, sign up to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. His lack of interiority makes him boring. His lack of exteriority makes the movie boring.

Whoever wrote (500) Days of Summer must have read On Love (Tom is a wannabe architect and gives Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness as a gift) and wanted to do a film version, or at least steal from it. Stealing from On Love, by the way, is a brilliant idea: the novel still leaves much territory to be explored, and it’s probably impossible to draw a complete map to represent the problems that love provide. But the interior commentary that makes the novel special can’t be effectively represented on screen. So we’re stuck with two people whose averageness is painful and unleavened by any real sense of awareness of their own situation. One of my favorite passages from On Love goes:

But there wasn’t much adventure or struggle around to be had. The world that Chloe and I lived in had largely been stripped of possibilities for epic conflict. Our parents didn’t care, the jungle had been tamed, society its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.

On Love is acknowledging that the stuff that makes good fiction has largely been evacuated from modern love stories. In doing so, I laughed with recognition and at the narrator’s neuroticism about his own love stories. Moments like this abound in On Love and make it such a wonderful novel. Moments like this are absent in (500) Days of Summer, which make it a tedious movie.

Rereading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity

There are two really remarkable things about High Fidelity: how funny it is and how well constructed it is, especially given that the subject matter (romantic entanglements and existential dilemmas for the aging man and relationship) could easily be a plotless mess.

A novel about extended adolescence (or extended adolescence in general) can become vague, wishy-washy, and meandering. I’m trolling for specific examples of constructedness, but most aren’t as good out of context as they are in context as they are in it. Still, the novel moves: it starts with Rob’s “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order,” proceeds through them, brings him back to the cause of his most recent breakup, propels him forward to his most recent hook-up, and then moves through scenes involving a funeral, a dinner party, a move-out, and a real party, each of which feels developed and connected to each other. There’s a strong sense of Rob moving, and him both acting and being acted upon that’s so often absent in similar novels, like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, or Kate Christensen’s Trouble, all of which ramble and drift and make you long for the cohesiveness you don’t realize you’re missing until you see something like High Fidelity, or Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, or Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

Not that jokes are everything, but High Fidelity is filled with them, and the tremendous humor gives poignance to moments of seriousness, especially when those moments are tinged with existential fear about the future and one’s social position:

You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and there are no sets, or locations, or supporting actors, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?

(Not to worry: in the next paragraph, a woman asks “Have you got any soul?” and the narrator thinks, “That depends […] some days yes, some days no.”)

Rob both rationalizes and sees himself as others might:

Me, I’m unmarried—at the moment as unmarried as it’s possible to be—and I’m the owner of a failing record shop. It seems to me that if you place music (and books, probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the center of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it of it the finished product. You’ve got to pick it up, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again […] Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realized.

He knows the argument is wrong and unlikely—art comes from the most unlikely places and conditions, much like the appreciation of art—yet he still half-believes it, just as we half-believe the joking things we say to ourselves to get through the day, or to convince ourselves of our value and self-worth. The alternative is often a depressing sense of how you look in others’ eyes, a kind of objectivity that might be a cure worse than the disease of being wrong. This doubleness of Rob’s view—he’s joking, but aware that he’s half-serious, which makes the joke funnier—is one of the novel’s great pleasures.

To return to the blockquote above, it should be obvious based on the plentitude bordering on plethora of novels about marriage in all its configurations (see: the collected work of Updike and Roth), one’s love life isn’t finished until one decides it is or one dies. Rob knows this: he warns against starting “to think of it as finished,” rather than knowing it is finished. And blaming your love life on listening to pop music is a cute pop psychology theory that’s hilariously wrong and yet plausible enough for us to appreciate it.

The novel’s humor and voice combined with its structure to give it meaning where so many not dissimilar set ups fail. The TV show Californication, though mildly entertaining, is basically about the difficulties of information hiding: Hank is a frequently blocked writer who derives pleasure from sleeping with various women, which he in turn has to conceal from various women because of the potential sexual and emotional side effects of revelation. But the show trades in a narrow range: who can Hank sleep with, and who matters enough to keep it from? If the show has a larger plot, it’s not evident: Hank’s relationship with his ex-wife, whose name I can’t remember because she isn’t that important to the show, oscillates in a narrow band between reconciliation and estrangement from which it cannot escape with eliminating the show’s potential for future seasons. Although the show isn’t pornography, its limits become steadily clearer over time.

One of the few disappointing things about High Fidelity isn’t the book itself— the other output of its author. Like Robert Penn Warren, Hornby seems to have only one really, really good book in him; I’ve at least started most of the rest of his work. Some books, like A Long Way Down, aren’t bad but aren’t compelling, and they don’t have that sense of drive and purpose High Fidelity. They’re like the story about a dream your friend wants to relay in exhaustive detail. The events in those other books are exhaustive even when they’re short, and they don’t have the pep and vigor of High Fidelity, which almost has too many short and wonderful asides to mention them all.

The end of High Fidelity trends toward sentimentality, but it’s saved by a continuing self-awareness that its concerns are silly. By making them serious while retaining its essential lightness, the novel works. And, the ending implies, life trends toward sentimentality: if you never indulge in any sort of authentic feeling, then you’re left alone and an agglomeration of preferences in music, books, or movies, dangling before a world that will, more likely than not, be mostly indifferent to your existence. But that’s an awfully heavy premise: I’d rather hear about Rob’s top five breakups and the linguistic implications of “I haven’t slept with him yet” as compared to “I haven’t seen Evil Dead 2 yet.”

Problems in the Academy: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

The problems in American universities are mostly structural and economic, and the biggest are occurring on the faculty side of the liberal arts and social sciences: since around 1975, too many professors (or at least people earning PhDs) vie for faculty slots relative to the number of undergraduates. Menand says (twice) that “Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased by 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900.” Undergraduates clear out of the system in four to six years; graduate students who get PhDs (presumably) stay or wish to stay for whole careers. Since 1975, college enrollments have grown much more modestly than they did from 1945 – 1975, and the department that’s grown most is business, since so many undergraduates now major in it. But grad programs haven’t scaled back, leaving humanities types to fight for scarce jobs and write polemics about how much it sucks to fight for scarce jobs.

Menand doesn’t identify the supply/demand problems as the major root cause of the other issues around political/social conformity, time to degree for academic grad students, and so forth, but it’s hard not to trace “the humanities revolution,” “interdisiplinarity and anxiety,” and why all professors think alike to supply and demand. Each of those topics are each covered in a long chapter, and Menand’s first, on “The Problem of General Education,” seems least related to the others because it is mostly inside baseball: how we ended up requiring undergrads to take a certain number of courses in a certain number of fields, and what academia should be like. But the others make up for it.

The Marketplace of Ideas is worth reading for knowledge and style: the book has the feeling of a long New Yorker article—Menand is a staff writer there—and if he occasionally pays for it with the generalization that gets coldly stamped out of peer-reviewed writing, the trade-off is worthwhile. Menand is also unusually good at thinking institutionally, in terms of incentives, and about systems: those systems tend to evolve over time, but they also tend to harden in place unless some catastrophic failure eventually occurs. Such failures are often more evident in business than in public life, since businesses that fail catastrophically go bankrupt and are much more susceptible to competitors and regulators than governments. The academic system is, as Menand points out, something out of the 19th Century in its modes of tenure, promotion, displinarity, and so forth. But it’s unlikely to go anywhere in an immediate and obvious way because public universities are supported by taxpayers and even private ones are most often nonprofit. Furthermore, whatever problems exist, universities do well enough, especially from the perspective of students, and having a glut of PhDs to choose from doesn’t harm universities themselves. Consequently, I don’t see as great an impetus for change as Menand implies, very loosely, that there is.

Take, for example, the PhD production problems from earlier in this post. The logical conclusion would be for fewer people to enter PhD programs, for universities to close some programs, for degrees to take less time (the natural sciences often end up requiring five years from entering to conferring degrees, while humanities programs creeping above ten years), and so on. But there’s no real incentive for that on the part of an individual university: having graduate programs is impressive, grad students are cheap teachers, and people keep applying—even though they know the odds (this basically describes me).

Thus supply and demand stay out-of-whack. University departments can remain perhaps more insular than they should be. Publishing requirements increase as publishing becomes more difficult. But there’s little need to change so long as enough students enter PhD programs. Menand suggests shortening the time to graduate degrees, making them more immediately relevant, and closing some programs—none of which seem likely in the near future unless students stop enrolling. But they don’t because, once again like me, they see professors and think, “that looks like fun. I’ll take a flyer and see what happens.” Nonetheless, the professoriate is already changing in some ways: about half of students, as Menand observes and the Chronicle of Higher Education does too, are now taught by part-timers. With as many choices among instructors as universities have, that trend seems ripe for further acceleration.

Menand says that “For most of the book, I write as a historian.” He also says that he’s “not a prescriptivist” and implies pragmatism, rather than polemic. That’s wise: identifying the problems are probably easier than finding those pragmatic solutions to them. He uses English as an example of what’s going on more broadly, and he is an English professor at Harvard. Part of the crisis is within English departments—what exactly does it mean to study “English?”—and part of it is external. The part outside English departments has to do with rationale and economics—as Menand says, “People feel, out of ignorance or not, that there is a good return on investment in physics departments. In the 1980s, people began wondering what the return on investment was in the humanities.” Note his “people feel” formulation, which is unsourced but occurs throughout; most of the time, speaking of a common culture feels right because Menand has his finger on the intellectual zeitgeist enough to pull off such comments, and elsewhere he has the numbers to back those comments up, especially regarding the flatlining and even decline in the absolute and relative percentages of English majors on campus.

The other interesting thing is the word “crisis,” which I’ve used several times. The Oxford American Dictionary included with OS X says that crisis is “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” The word “time” implies that crises should pass; but in English, the one or ones Menand identifies has lasted for more than a generation of academics. According to “The Opening of the Academic Mind” in Slate, “The state of higher education in America is one of those things, like the airline industry or publishing, that’s always in crisis.” In Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, the protagonist, Renee, thinks:

In the great boom of the late fifties and early sixties, graduate departments, particularly at state universities, had expanded and conferred degrees in great abundance. But then the funds, from both government and private foundations, had dried up, and departments shrunk, resulting in diminishing need. Suddenly there was a large superfluity of Ph.D.s, compounded by demographic changes […] The result has been a severe depression, in both the economic and psychological senses, in the academic community.

That was published in 1983. People are still publishing the same basic argument today, only now they often do it online. Perhaps the real lesson is that academics are great at learning many things, but supply/demand curves and opportunity costs are not among them, except for economists.

The problems are exacerbated in the humanities and social sciences because grad students in those fields don’t have industry to fall back on, but the natural sciences are not immune either. As Philip Greenspun points out in “Women in Science,” America seems more than willing to source its science graduate students from developing countries, which takes care of supply from that angle (if you read his essay, ignore the borderline or outright sexist commentary regarding women, even if his point is that women are too smart to go to grad school in the sciences; pay attention to the institutional and systematic focus, especially when he points out that “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States”).

Of course, even as I make myself aware of works like The Marketplace of Ideas, I continue working toward that PhD, convinced that I’ll be the one who beats the odds that are still better than Vegas, though not by a lot. But I’m also part of the imbalance: too many people seeking PhDs for few too jobs, particularly too few jobs of the sort we’re being trained to do. Yet academics still provide a vital function to society in the form of knowledge, and in particular knowledge that’s undergone peer review, however difficult or abstruse peer review may have become in the humanities (for more, see Careers—and careerism—in academia and criticism).

The question of what academia should be like is to some extent driven by what professors think it should be like, but it’s also driven by what students think it should be like. Students ultimately drive academia by choosing where to go to school. An increasing number of them are choosing community and online higher education. It’s not clear what this shift means either. Still, professors have blame as well: as the aforementioned Slate article suggests, “[…] Professors, the people most visibly responsible for the creation of new ideas, have, over the last century, become all too consummate professionals, initiates in a system committed to its own protection and perpetuation.” True. But given that they have tenure, control departments, and confer the PhDs necessary to become professors, it seems unlikely that major change will come from that quarter.

Hedgehog in the Blog

My friend Elena just started Hedgehog in the Blog, with an early post about libraries. So far it looks good, except for the tiny font. This is partially the fault of WordPress, which seems enamored of very attractive, modernist designs that are hard to read (I’m guilty of the same sin, but not to the same degree).

I like Elena’s explanation of the blog’s name:

I named this blog after the 1975 Soviet animated film Hedgehog in the Fog. In it a little hedgehog on his way to bear cub’s house, where the two get together to drink warm tea and eat raspberry jam, finds himself in a thick fog. He encounters frightening creatures, but also helpful and kind ones amidst silence, darkness, and enchanting stars. He is frightened, but his curiosity keeps him exploring the unknown.

Buying a Kindle: Why Didn't I Think of This Last Semester?

Despite my extensive carping about the Digital Restrictions Management on the Amazon Kindle, I ordered one earlier today and now wish I’d been smart enough to do so last semester.

Why? I’m a graduate student in English Lit, and I looked at my reading requirements for this semester and found that the vast majority of the assigned books are out-of-copyright (meaning they were published before 1923), and I can download them free; most are also famous enough to make them easily accessible online. In other words, buying all my books for the semester will cost $200. Buying a Kindle will cost $259, plus another $30 for a case. The Kindle + free books effectively makes the Kindle $59. If I’d realized this last semester, it already would’ve paid for itself. In addition, I won’t have to lug around nearly as many .pdfs as I do now.

Given that the English curriculums appear to focus on pre-1923 texts, I’d be surprised if more English majors and grad students don’t take this path. At the moment, it’s possible to read class books either on a computer screen or print them out, but neither solution works all that well. I suspect this one will, though, as always, we shall see.

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