Links: The writer, the adjunct, the technology

* Professors, we need you! (Maybe.)

* This is probably fake but definitely hilarious and true to my own teaching experience.

* “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” I tend to answer “Yes, with qualifications,” and indeed I write many fewer negative reviews than I once did. Then again I write many fewer reviews in general than I once did.

* “Is Paying Adjuncts Crap Killing Technological Innovation?” Hat tip and further commentary: Dean Dad.

* Technological Progress Isn’t GDP Growth and, relatedly, Tyler Cowen: “Robert Gordon’s sequel paper on the great stagnation.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy.

* “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?“, which is to say, bad?

Week 29 Links: Kindle prices, book reviews, fiction in the workplace, fake teen pregnancy

* The rise of the 99-cent Kindle e-book.

* Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough: “It is time–probably past time–to declare that traditional book reviews are no longer the dominant measure of a book’s impact, or even necessarily the most effective way to reach the intended audience.” For more on why, see the first link.

* Obsolete Computers That Still Do the Job.

* Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life.

* Toppenish teen fakes pregnancy as school project, which is impressive and ballsy.

* Teaching from the Kindle. Short version: a major pain in the ass.

* Working Best at Coffee Shops. This seems like bullshit to me, and a way to encourage distraction, but it must work for some people.

More words of advice for the writer of a negative review

Nigel Beale quotes Helen Gardner:

“Critics are wise to leave alone those works which they feel a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate. Only too often it is not the writer who suffers ultimately but the critic…”

Beale asks: “Which is great and poetic and all, however, is silence enough?”

To me, the chief function of the critic ought to be explore a work as honestly as possible and to illuminate to the best of her abilities. This means openness and it means being willing to say that a work is weak (and why), as well as showing how it is weak. In other words, you should be able to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how on it, with an emphasis on the last two.

One should squelch “a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate,” if you’re attacking merely to attack, or merely because someone’s balloon is overinflated. For example, Tom Wolfe seems a frequent and, to my mind, unfair object of ridicule among critics. But if you’re rendering a knowledge opinion that happens to be negative, you’re doing what you should be, and what I strive to. Often this means writing about why a book fails—perhaps too frequently.

Good reviews and Updike

Every attempt at review and criticism ought to be good—but that doesn’t mean positive. A review should be “good” in the sense of well-done and engaging might be a negative one. In an ideal world, the book should decide that as much as the critic.

John Updike’s rules for reviewing are worth following to the extent possible. I would emphasize three of them:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

In the end, I think such rules are designed to keep the reviewer as honest as the reviewer can be. I keep coming back to the word “honesty” because it so well encapsulates the issues raised by Beale, Updike, Orwell, and others.

I especially like the “direct quotation” comment because there are no artificial word limits on web servers, meaning that you should give the reader a chance to disagree with your assessment through direct experience. Quoting of a sufficient amount of material will give others a chance to make their own judgments. Merit can be argued but not proven: thus, a critic can avoid silence and unfair attack.

As the above shows, I like Beale’s answer—”no”—which seems so obvious as to barely need stating. I’d rephrase Gardner’s assertion to this: “beware of relentlessly and thoughtlessly attacking.”

The Aeron, The Rite of Spring, and Critics

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he quotes Bill Dowell, who was the lead researcher for Herman Miller during the development and release of the now-famous Aeron in the early 1990s; I’m sitting in one as I type this. The Aeron eventually sold fantastically well and became a symbol of boom-era excess, aesthetic taste, ergonomic control, excessive time at computers, and probably other things as well. But Dowell says that the initial users hated the chair and expressed their displeasure in focus groups and testing sites. According to him, “Maybe the word ‘ugly’ was just a proxy for ‘different.’ ”

That’s a long wind-up for an analogy that explains how Helen Gardner might be telling us that when we instinctively dislike, we might be reacting against novelty rather than its real merit, as critics and listeners notoriously did during Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She’s wise to warn us about that danger, because it’s how people who pride themselves on taste and knowledge become conservative, stuffy critics. If we’re saying something is “bad” merely because it’s “different,” then we’ve already effectively died aesthetically because we’re no longer able to expand what “good” means. One thing I like about Terry Teachout’s criticism and his blog, About Last Night, is that he has strong opinions but still very much seems to have aesthetic suppleness.

But the Aerons and Ulysses of the world are exceedingly rare. Dune and Harry Potter aren’t among them. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland at least might be, which I concede obliquely in my post about it.

Most works of art are, by definition, average.

The question is: to what extent is that a bad thing? Maybe none at all: an average novel doesn’t cause the death or disfigurement of children, or propagate social inequality, or do any number of other pernicious things. Its chief ill is that it wastes time for the person who reads it and perceives it as average (as opposed to the person who reads it and judges it extraordinary, which many Harry Potter readers have evidently done).

Milan Kundera thinks otherwise—in The Curtain, he writes, “… a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.” He gives himself a key out here: the word “consciously.” I doubt many writers consciously set out to produce commonplace books, or do so with that intent, and so may be rescued from the burden of Kundera’s scorn. Like the criminal justice system, Kundera separates those who knowingly commit a crime from those who do so accidentally.

You need to have read widely, however, to be capable of knowing the average from the incredible, and those whose effusive praise for Harry Potter and Dan Brown splatters the web show they haven’t. Hence, perhaps, the hesitance many Amazon reviewers show toward low scores, which one of Beale’s commenters observes.

The Aerons of Art

I now look at the Aeron as beautiful, and to me the over-stuffed office chairs that used to symbolize lawyerly and corporate status look as quaint as black and white photos of Harvard graduation classes without women or minorities. If we’re open to seeing the new, I think we’ll be safe enough in condemning the indifferent and pointing towards the genuinely astonishing works that are very much out there.

Edit: The Virginia Quarterly Review weighs in.

February 2009 Links: Book Reviews, Literary Blogs, Amazon, and more

* The Washington Post’s Book World supplement won’t be available in print any longer. Terry Teachout expresses my sentiments in Omega/alpha:

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: it is the destiny of serious arts journalism to migrate to the Web. This includes newspaper arts journalism. Most younger readers–as well as a considerable number of older ones, myself among them–have already made that leap. Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.

* Cynthia Crossen answers a reader’s question about books that change lives in much the way I would: by saying that no book can be the universal answer, since the right book has to find the right person at the right time.

(But, for the record, I’ll give my personal answers: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

EDIT: * Cynthia Crossen part duex:”How People Reveal Their True Colors” asks for literary expression of how masters treat slaves in a Hegelian sense. My answer to the headline, however, would tend to be that no one behavior or situation tends to reveal “true” colors, whatever those are.

* Patrick Kurp on blogs:

Maintaining a literary blog is like keeping a big band on the road during the waning days of swing music. The audience is aging and no longer guaranteed. They look elsewhere for diversion – television, bop or R&B. As the boss, you make sure the arrangements are in order, payroll is met, dates booked, players rehearsed and reasonably sober. You’re not Basie or Goodman but you’re a professional and people count on you. You’re never certain who’s listening, if anyone, but you still love the music and probably aren’t suited for doing anything else. Tomorrow’s another gig and you’ll be there.

* Strained metaphors and questionable analogies probably capsize the argument of “Technology is Heroin,” but I’d also never considered the entertainment evolution ideas contained within.

* Nigel Beale lists ten wicked quotes on writing.

* Sad:

Why is the newspaper business losing readers at an accelerated rate while television viewership is stronger than ever? Here’s a speculative idea: A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginnings of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.

Consumers are increasingly avoiding newspapers — and books, too — because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden. People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.

* Tim Berners-Lee, who in effect invented the Internet as we know it, on Net Neutrality, which might turn out to be one of the essential rights of our age.

* I wrote about and prices earlier, and a New Yorker review piqued my interest in Robert Crawford’s The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography. The book’s retail price is $35; is selling it for $23 as of Feb. 7. I called the Barnes and Nobel and Borders in Tucson, both of which are selling it for… $35.

This is why is doing so well. On a side not, Farhad Manjoo argues that “Amazon’s amazing e-book reader is bad news for the publishing industry” on Slate. He’s probably right, but, like Microsoft’s operating system hegemony with Windows, it’s unlikely that much will change the larger trends he’s examining.

* CNet’s “Tech coalition launches sweatshop probe” offers yet another reason to like the excellent Unicomp Keyboards (as discussed previously in Product Review: Unicomp Customizer keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn):

A tech industry watchdog plans to investigate conditions at a Chinese hardware factory that supplies IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, following a damning report on conditions there by a human-rights organization.

The National Labor Committee report, “High Tech Misery in China,” said these tech giants use Meitai Plastic and Electronics, a keyboard supplier that operates a factory that “dehumanizes young workers.”

In response, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a self-regulating body set up by tech companies, will carry out a third-party audit into the working conditions at the factory, IBM told ZDNet UK on Friday.

* Although it has almost nothing to do with books, Mark Bowden’s “The Last Ace” is a compelling piece of contrarian reporting that demonstrates the trade-off issues frequently left out of other articles, like Fred Kaplan’s “The Air Force doesn’t need any more F-22s.” The F-22 is among the most maligned expenses in the federal budget, and yet Bowden implies that buying more of them might paradoxically mean they’re less likely to be used.

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.

See this post for more about the issue, including Bowden’s clarifying point that he’s not arguing for the F-22, but rather trying to understand the consequences from not building more of them. In other words, he’s evaluating trade-offs. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to read between the lines of his article and come away with the impression that building more F-22s would be a smart idea, even if it might not actually be the optimal use of resources.

(Why “almost nothing” to do with books? Because although this isn’t between hard covers—yet—Bowden wrote a number of fascinating foreign policy and nonfiction books, including Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam and, perhaps most famously, Black Hawk Down.)

More on reviews

I commented previously on the decline of newspaper book reviews, and even in the short month and a half since then much has happened, as chronicled in the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviewing. Note particularly Michael Connelly’s perspicacious post.

Now the New York Times weighs in. They’re hardly a disinterested party, given that they have one of the strongest, if not the strongest, newspaper book reviews in the country, but the article covers the debate: do book reviews matter in the age of blogs, and if so how much? The debate is occurring chiefly among bloggers—or the public part is, anyway. I like Maud Newton’s assessment:

“I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger,” Ms. Newton said. “But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”

I agree, and I do not like to think of myself as a “triumphalist blogger.” But I cannot perceive what force could stem the decline of newspaper reviews, and enlightened self-interest seems unlikely to suddenly ascend in newspapers, and so view the rise of blogs as more or less inevitable, whether it is a net gain or loss. In an ideal world both would coexist, complementing each other, but that works only if newspapers continue to provide real coverage.

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