A brief anecdote (and more) from Neal Stephenson

It’s over a decade old (2004) but a Slashdot post by acclaimed sci-fi author Neal Stephenson (left) is worth repeating:

 

“ … a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From…being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.”

But rather than leave it at that, Stephenson goes into a more detailed analysis:

“… once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

One way to classify artists is by to whom they are account- able.

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper—to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church’s goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It’s the same as in a modern book when it says “this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation.”

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.

A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they’ll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market—it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it’s culture, but it’s also economics.

The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money.
There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It’s not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer’s salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.

Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition—which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The printing press ... gave creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture
The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn’t need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It’s conventional to refer to these as “commercial” novelists, but I hate that term, so I’m going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called “literary” as opposed to “commercial” but I hate that term too, so I’m going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic
Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable … Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them—hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer’s conference. Because she’d never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer—one so new or obscure that she’d never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn’t be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous.

All of this places someone like me in critical limbo. As everyone knows, there are literary critics, and journals that publish their work, and I imagine they have the same dual role as art critics. That is, they are engaging in intellectual discourse for its own sake. But they are also performing an economic function by making judgments. These judgments, taken collectively, eventually determine who’s deemed worthy of receiving fellowships, teaching appointments, etc.

If I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I don’t care about the chef’s personality flaws
The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I’ll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it’s not clear why they think I’m any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone’s going to read it. Secondly, I don’t understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I don’t care about the chef’s personality flaws—I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book “The System of the World” by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it’s implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one’s book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I’m trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.

Mind you, much of the authority and seniority in that world is benevolent, or at least well-intentioned. If you are trying to become a writer by taking expensive classes in that subject, you want your teacher to know more about it than you and to behave like a teacher. And so you might hear advice along the lines of “I don’t think you’re ready to tackle Y yet, you need to spend a few more years honing your skills with X” and the like. All perfectly reasonable. But people on the Beowulf side may never have taken a writing class in their life. They just tend to lunge at whatever looks interesting to them, write whatever they please, and let the chips fall where they may. So we may seem not merely arrogant, but completely unhinged. It reminds me somewhat of the split between Christians and Faeries depicted in Susannah Clarke’s wonderful book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The faeries do whatever they want and strike the Christians (humans) as ludicrously irresponsible and “barely sane.” They don’t seem to deserve or appreciate their freedom.

Later at the writer’s conference, I introduced myself to someone who was responsible for organizing it, and she looked at me keenly and said, “Ah, yes, you’re the one who’s going to bring in our males 18-32.” And sure enough, when we got to the venue, there were the males 18-32, looking quite out of place compared to the baseline lit-festival crowd. They stood at long lines at the microphones and asked me one question after another while ignoring the Dante writers sitting at the table with me. Some of the males 18-32 were so out of place that they seemed to have warped in from the Land of Faerie, and had the organizers wondering whether they should summon the police. But in the end they were more or less reasonable people who just wanted to talk about books and were as mystified by the literary people as the literary people were by them.”

The full post — of which the above is just an answer to one reader’s question — is  here.

And if you’ve not read Neal Stephenson, you’re missing a treat. I particularly enjoyed Snow Crash, Cryptonomicron and Reamde.

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Fancy earning $200 a word?

A few weeks ago I mentioned Bath Spa University’s Novel in 25 Words competition, (sorry, entries are now closed), that paid the equivalent of £20 (NZD$35) per word. Pah! That’s small change. Fancy earning US$200 (NZ$270) per word? You’re going to have to do a bit more work for it, but not much.

Well, all right, about four times as much.

But that’s still only 100 words.

The 5th Edition of the International Prize for Micro-Stories, organised by the César Egido Serrano Foundation in Spain is now accepting entries.

  • Entry is free.
  • Writers from anywhere in the world may participate.
  • Your story must be original and may be on any theme.
  • Only two entries per author, maximum.
  • Stories may be submitted in Spanish, English, Arabic or Hebrew.
  • First prize is US$20,000 dollars for the best story in any of the languages above.
  • Three runner-up prizes of US$1,000 for the best stories in each of the other remaining languages admitted in the contest.
  • Stories must not exceed 100 words
  • The contest closes at midnight on Thursday, 23 November 2017 (Spanish time).
  • Entries must be submitted via this online form.

Last year’s contest attracted 35,609 stories from writers in 149 countries, so it’s pretty competitive. The winner, the delightful and touching Oysters by Emily Raboteau, is here.

Read it and get writing!

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Writing with a tomato

The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time-management many writers find useful. It was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Crillo originally used. (Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”.)

There’s a whole website devoted to it, but you really only need three items to get started:

  • A timer of some sort.
  • A pencil.
  • A piece of paper.

You can use a timing app on your computer or cellphone, but Crillo recommends a mechanical timer – the type you twist and set – because the physical action of doing so helps you focus on the task. (And personally, I find the quiet tick-tick-tick in the background a subtle prompt to keep going.)

A pomodoro is 25 minutes. It is absolutely indivisible! There’s not such thing as a half-pomodoro or three-fifths of one. If you don’t complete a pomodoro, it’s just not counted.

Here’s how to “pomodoro”:

  1. Decide on a task; writing, revising, editing, etc.
  2. Set the timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. When it rings, put a tick on the piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four ticks on the page, take a five-minute break then go back to step 2.
  6. If you’ve accumulated four ticks, put a line through them to cancel them out and take a 15-20 minute break. When you return, go back to step 1.

The advantage of working this way is that it breaks time up into manageable units and helps you keep focused. (“No, I won’t check my email till the timer rings.”) What’s more, the pomodoros don’t have to be contiguous. I know of one writer who makes her four-a-day by doing two in the morning before work, one at lunchtime, and one in the evening. Writer Kat Loterzo even credits it with helping her draft a book in just three weeks.

There are plenty of reasons for not writing, but surely you can fit in a pomodoro or two…?

 

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A novel in 25 words

There’s still time (just) to enter Bath Spa University’s Novel in 25 Words competition. Entries close on at 23.59 on Friday 30 June (that’s UK time so locals have an extra half-day.)

There’s a couple of caveats. You can’t be a published author – “someone with a track record of publications — books, stories published in magazines or elsewhere” or “employed in the field of creative writing”, but there don’t seem to be any geographical limitations.

The prize is £500 – an astonishing £20 (NZD$35) per word – plus your story will be recorded by the University’s Chancellor, Jeremy Irons. Yes, that Jeremy Irons.
There’s modest prizes for the two runners up too.

What are the judges looking for? There’s a page about that. And a page of samples. Here’s three: (The title isn’t included in the word count.)

Love Birds, by Nancy Kay Clark
The length of his spotting scope attracted me. He said I had a great pair of binoculars. Heart aflutter, I blushed like a roseate spoonbill.

A Bird Told Me, by Conor Kiely
Colourful parrot for sale. Only one previous owner. Extremely good memory for conversations, names, and voices. Also invents conversations by itself. Genuine reason for sale.

Dreams vs Reality, by Ryan Lynch
My family lay dead on the living room rug.
I wake up.
I had that dream again…
The one where I didn’t kill them.

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Fun & Just Plain Weird Book Covers

If you’re looking for bad book covers, there’s plenty of sites specialising in just that — try or Lousy Book Covers or Kindle Cover Disasters — but some of them are funny or just plain weird. Here’s some of my favourites …

What’s odd about this one? The hands. Notice how many hands she has?

And speaking of hands, horsey has ’em …

Language changes all the time. Words take on new meanings. Sometimes unfortunate ones …

… and sometimes they have a double meaning the editor should have spotted …

Some are just interesting concepts for omnivores …

… while some are less so due to untantalising cover imagery …

And speaking of interesting concepts …

In the end it all comes down to survival. The zombie apocalypse was so 2016. Here’s the book you really need …

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The state of the NZ book market

Last year, New Zealanders purchased 5.3 million printed books — not bad for a country of just 4.6 million people, but a long way behind Australia. While Kiwis purchased an average of 1.3 print books per person, the Aussie average was 2.3. (24.5 million people bought 56.4 million books.)

Where the figures get really interesting is in the number of ebooks sold. Almost every Aussie also bought an ebook each last year: 22.4 million sold, or the equivalent of 28% of total book sales. Ebook sales for New Zealand are harder to measure because we have no country-specific Amazon store so most of our purchases go through either amazon.com (the US) or amazon.com.au (Australia). Still, even without figures from Amazon, Apple and Kobo sold 1.3 million ebooks here in 2016 — which makes up around 20% of total book sales. Given Amazon’s market penetration overseas, I suspect the real number of ebooks sold here is at least double that figure.

  Population Reported
Print Book Sales
(annual units)
Ebook Sales
(annual units)
Ebooks as
% of
all book sales
  U.S.A.   325,700,000  675,000,000  487,298,000  42%
  U.K.     65,400,000 187,500,000  95,623,000  34%
  Canada     36,500,000  50,500,000  26,017,000  34%
  Australia     24,500,000  56,400,000  22,463,000  28%
  New Zealand       4,600,000  5,300,000  *1,306,000  20%*
         
  5-Country Total:  456,700,000  974,700,000  632,707,000  39%

*(New Zealand ebook total only includes Apple & Kobo stores; Because Amazon has no country-specific store for New Zealand, Kindle ebooks are purchased in NZ through Amazon.com and thus included in the US total)

The figures above come from yet another brilliant Author Earnings survey, this time of the top five English-language countries the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

As usual, there’s tons of fascinating data in the report for both writers and publishers. It’s all clearly illustrated and presented from a non-partisan perspective, but one graph in particular caught my eye:

The report’s authors note:

That represents a wildly dramatic shift in fortune for non-Big Five traditional publishers; three years ago, their combined $ ebook sales were less than half of what the Big Five’s were.

A detailed breakdown of precisely who those “small or medium publishers” really are is promised in a future report.

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“A little lesbian joke …”

The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel test — sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test — began as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” back in 1985. Posed in a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it asks three simple questions:

  1. Does the story have at least two women in it?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something besides a man?

At first it seems a little silly — until you start looking at the data. In one study of almost 900 successful US films from 1950 to 2006, the ratio of male to female characters remained stable for more than half a century: 2:1. But women were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as their male counterparts.

A 2014 study of 120 films made worldwide showed only 31% of the named characters were women, a figure reflected in another study of 700 films made between 2007 and 2014. Only 30% of the speaking characters were women.

Why does this matter? According to US National Public Radio’s Neda Ulaby:

“it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”

It’s still largely applied to films, but it’s equally applicable to books. Goodreads has lists of crime, SF, YA and general fiction that pass the Bechdel test and it’s also been applied to the classics.

The Finkbeiner test

The Finkbeiner test  is a checklist to help journalists avoid gender bias in articles about women in science. Proposed in 2013 by Christie Aschwanden, a health columnist for the Washington Post, it was named after Ann Finkbeiner, one of her colleagues, who decided to write about an impressive astronomer and “not once mention that she’s a woman” because “when you emphasize a woman’s sex, you inevitably end up dismissing her science”.

The pair were concerned about this sort of thing:

“Jill makes a fantastic role model…because she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research.”

(In a profile of biologist Jill Bargonetti in the New York Times.)

“No matter how much she bends time, there’s no escaping the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon.”

(In a profile of pre-eminent physicist Lisa Randall in the Guardian.)

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children”

(The New York Times again, in an obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill.)

So Aschwanden proposed seven rules for stories to pass the Finkbeiner test. The story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to …”

She adds:

Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Apply that trick to the examples above and you’ll see exactly what she means!

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Advice from J K Rowling

When J K Rowling spotted a Twitter comment from @beauty_jackson that read:

“HEY! YOU! You’re working on something and you’re thinking ‘Nobody’s gonna watch, read, listen’. Finish it anyway.”

she responded with a memorable series of tweets:


That text in full:

There were so many times in the early 90s when I needed somebody to say this to me.

Even if it isn’t the piece of work that finds an audience, it will teach you things you could have learned no other way. (And by the way, just because it didn’t find an audience, that doesn’t mean it’s bad work.)

The discipline involved in finishing a piece of creative work is something on which you can truly pride yourself. You’ll have turned yourself from somebody who’s ‘thinking of’, who ‘might’, who’s ‘trying’, to someone who DID. And once you’ve done it … you’ll know you can do it again. That is an extraordinarily empowering piece of knowledge. So do not ever quit out of fear of rejection.

Maybe your third, fourth, fiftieth song/novel/painting will be the one that ‘makes it’, that wins the plaudits, but you’d never have got there without finishing the others (all of which will now be of more interest to your audience).

— J K Rowling, April 2017

 

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