Book Covers, Uncategorized

A Book by its Cover

We’ve all heard the story by now of how the printing press revolutionized Western society and launched the Reformation.  

Before Gutenberg, books were made by hand.  Often by monks.  Sometimes over the course of a lifetime.  And each was treasured. The covers were embossed leather, wood or even ivory and studded with gems.  While this pre-printing press-style scribing has not entirely died out, it’s now a curio.

Bookmaking as we know it today began with the printing press and, more importantly, movable type.  Modern book styling was born from the ability to automate the printing process, although for a long time these books were still being bound individually.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century the cloth book cover was finally invented.

Finally, the 20th-century mass-market paperback was invented and, combined with widespread literacy, helped launched the pulp fiction era.

At first pulp covers were wonderfully lurid and low-brow, even on high-brow books, but over time paperbacks became almost industry standard.  Then the “trade paperback” and “literary paperbacks” made them respectable, a shift which set the tone for covers for many years IMHO.

Then came the copy machine revolution (full disclosure, my first publications were in zines), and now, of course, ebooks threaten to sweep away the need for a book cover entirely.  Which, despite the old saw that you should “never judge a book by its cover,” is sad to some of us.

Things are changing.  Book art is quickly becoming an anachronism.  A new revolution is happening.  Wikileaks has nailed its ninety-five theses to the castle church of the internet. There may always be images that help sell stuff, but that’s not the same.

In all the excitement I hope that we never forget that great book covers are something worth celebrating.

Films, Uncategorized

Films About Fiction: Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) works on that shopworn trope of the writer as misanthrope to tell the story of a prom queen soured with age, returning to her home town to try to suck the life out of her high school sweetheart’s happy marriage.  Meanwhile, she drinks too much and works on the final novel in a teen romance series.  That’s the plot, but plot is the least interesting thing about this movie.

Instead it’s a character study of author-protagonist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a woman self-absorbed to the point of absurdist satire.  For screenwriter Diablo Cody there was something inherently progressive about portraying a woman this emotionally retarded:

I knew a lot of people like Mavis—not as malicious as her, but who are kind of slovenly immature like her, which is the opposite of the way we’re used to seeing women portrayed. I relate to that really strongly and wondered why we didn’t see them in movies. When the movie came out, sure enough, I had so many women tell me that Mavis reminded them of themselves—which I’m proud of, because it’s tough to admit that you’re like Mavis.

Young Adult movie poster

Cody goes on to compare her to a Kardashian, but why then was it necessary to make Mavis a writer?  Why not make her a TV personality or some kind of dilettante (or both)?  Well, we wouldn’t have that great title, for one thing, and for another the kind of books that Mavis writes form a sort of commentary on the kind of person she is.

Although Mavis does several things that are traditional of writers in the movies — struggles to put words into her laptop, eavesdrops for inspiration, and writes in voice over — she is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the similarly self-indulgent character of Hank Moody in Californication.  She has achieved a modicum of notoriety as a writer, at least in her home town, but she has done it by writing someone else’s books.

She may be loath to cop to her true status, but Mavis is just the latest hack hired to tackle one of these never-ending series upon which the publishers continue to slap a popular author’s name (even after the author is dead), and then foist upon the YA market.  I guess those books sell, because from what I can tell it’s an increasingly common practice.

In any case, Cody is using the novels — and the YA genre as a whole — as a metaphor for Mavis’s shallow, hollow self-involvement.  Govindini Murty summed it up pretty succinctly in her Huffington Post analysis:

Charlize Theron’s Mavis embodies all the narcissism of modern popular culture. She’s obsessed with reality TV (the Kardashians drone on in the background of several scenes), a medium that has elevated the navel gazing of minor celebrities to the level of major entertainment. Mavis writes young adult novels that are only thinly-disguised relivings of her own high-school glory days, and she’s otherwise obsessed with appearances and shallow celebrity status. The film repeatedly shows Mavis studying herself in the mirror — either in depressed self-loathing after an alcoholic bender, or with vain self-satisfaction as she puts on makeup to impress her former boyfriend.

All of this comes together in one ridiculous, yet poignant scene:  Mavis arrives at a bookstore in her hometown to find copies of her novels stacked together on a table.  After she convinces the clerk that they’re her novels, despite the fact that there is a famous author’s name on the cover, he tells her this display is the final effort of the store to sell them, and nobody is buying.

Hiding her hurt, Mavis offers to sign the books to increase their value, but the clerk stops her because the books can’t be remaindered if someone has written in them.  In one blow he crushes what little of her self esteem was left.  And, of course, she tries to sign them anyway, because when they disappear so will the proof positive that she ever amounted to anything special.


Philip Roth on Writing

Philip Roth on Writing from The Daily Beast Video on Vimeo.

Roth’s comments here about the process of writing are spot on.  The comments about a “vomit draft,” an ugly but apt word interviewer Tina Brown provides him with, are particularly incisive.

Here are some other interesting observations of Roth’s from a contemporaneously published Wall Street Journal interview:

What do popular writers such as James Patterson and Nora Roberts have that attracts such huge numbers of readers?

I don’t know their books. They are entertainers. They aren’t writers. And entertainers have a wide appeal. People love entertainment. They have a different kind of magic.

How does Charles Dickens fit? He wrote for monthly publications.

He’s one of those people with great popular appeal… and is a genius. They are the rarest of all birds. Our great writers didn’t have that. Melville died in obscurity. Faulkner wasn’t widely read. Bellow wasn’t widely read. The best are rarely widely read… There’s always been a popular novel and every once in a while a genius happens to be a popular novelist. But that’s not the rule.

The division of writers away from entertainers is evocative, but begs the question:  If you find a work of fiction entertaining, is it no longer literary?  Has it, to cop a phrase from WSJ film critic Joe Morgenstern, committed “the sin of entertainment?”  Personally, I enjoy fiction that is both entertaining and literary.  In fact, I find literature entertaining.


How to Write a Great Novel

For the cover of today’s “Weekend Journal,”  Wall Street Journal journalist Alexandra Alter interviewed a random sampling of novelists for this series of mini-interviews.  Titled “How to Write a Great Novel” and covering the multifarious writing process, it’s as good an entry as any with which to launch this blog, since the how of great writing will be the primary topic …

Behind the scenes, many of these writers say they struggle with the daily work of writing, clocking thousands of solitary hours staring at blank pages and computer screens. Most agree on common hurdles: procrastination, writer’s block, the terror of failure that looms over a new project and the attention-sucking power of the Internet.

A few authors bristle when asked the inevitable question about how they write. Richard Ford declined to reveal his habits, explaining in an email that “those are the kind of questions I hope no one asks me after readings and lectures.” Others revel in spilling minute details, down to their preferred brand of pen (Amitav Ghosh swears by black ink Pelikan pens) or font size (Anne Rice uses 14-point Courier; National Book Award nominee Colum McCann sometimes uses eight-point Times New Roman, forcing himself to squint at the tiny type). Some now offer fans a window into the process, reporting on their progress on blogs and Twitter feeds. On his author Web site, John Irving describes how he begins his novels by writing the last sentence first.

Here is how a range of leading authors describe their approach to writing—a process that can be lonely, tedious, frustrating and exhilarating.