The Google Book Settlement

I'll make this post brief – this link to the e-news source, Wired, says it all, and I don't want to be too repetitive. Suffice it to say that some rather high octane writers have come out against the Google settlement, in particular the role the Authors Guild had in blessing it.
The Authors Guild's rationale here is a bit like that for Congress' bank bail-out. It's hoping for a long-term solution to the paper-to-digital transition, positioning writers for future digital dollars.
Will it work? The above link(s) will leave you informed. I hope you'll read this and make your opinions known, whether here or in more powerful venues.

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Digital Is Comin’ At Us!

The future of books rests, it seems, with the new digital realm. Blog posts pop up everywhere lately, as do, ironically, a rising tide of newspaper articles on digital publishing. The latest addition to the digital reader marketplace appeared a week or so ago from Apple with its iPad. It joins Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, and a couple more soon to come down the chute. What does this quickly proliferating lineup of electronic readers mean to readers, writers, and publishing in general?
A recent op-ed in the LA Times (Apple’s tablet and the future of literature – 24 Jan 2010) deems these – for all their inventiveness – rather primitive. I agree.
At first blush, the iPad seems little more than a version of the iPod Touch too large for the pocket. It’s innovation, however, is a new take on the digital bookstore that Amazon made famous. From what I’ve seen of the iBook, and Apple’s new digital reading form, it will simulate a bookstore much better than Amazon’s and even allows you to simulate turning paper pages.
Still, it’s primitive. I want a digital reader you can open, like a book, read like a book – in a book’s size – turn pages like a book, underline, bookmark, and highlight like a book. In other words, something like a combination of the iPad and Kindle – only more book-like. As with radios, TVs, cell phones, stereos and other devices, electronic readers will only get smarter, more flexible, and more accessible.

Already, school systems are requiring the use of digital textbooks. Newspapers and magazines – already in the process of converting from paper to digital – will go completely digital, and maybe save one of the bastions of democratic life, the free press. Sadly, while we can still access books and mags for free, we’ll soon have to pay for them. But the price will be (hopefully) much less that the print versions.
What will digital mean for writers? The conventional wisdom says: smaller (read: less voluminous) books. Are you listening, novella writers? Short story writers? And you, the nearly extinct essayists?
I suspect this trend will be short-lived, though. Would you ask Don DeLillo or Joyce Carol Oates or Orhan Pamuk to write thirty thousand-word books? Hardly.
I also suspect – and call me Pollyanna if you will – that digital will open up a constricted publishing industry in much the same was that FM radio did for that medium in the ‘seventies, or that satellite radio is beginning to do now.
For those who read this from within these United States, be advised that the U.S.’s freedom of the press rating of something like thirtieth in the world – thanks to corporate, multinational ownership of communications media in the country – can only improve.
Factor in broader vistas for the world’s reading public, more publishing freedom for writers, and you have something we can look forward to in the twenty-first century.

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A Tale of Two Translations

Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy
My writing pal, Miz Hawks, that’s Lyn Hawks, if you don’t already know her, recently posted on her blog, A Writer’s Journey, concerning the need for writers to, as she put it, “make it fascinating.” How do writers manage to do this? 

• First, there’s the gosh-awful command of grammar, as writers use it: concise nouns, strong, imaginative, action-related verbs, minimal use of adjectives and adverbs, variation of sentence structure, i.e., a mix of simple, complex and compound-complex sentences. 

• And story-telling always relates best if the teller/writer has command of a sense of drama. 

• Of course none of this matters much if a writer’s voice isn’t strong enough to draw story, teller, and reader together. 

 I certainly won’t accuse Count Leo Tolstoy of violating any of these writerly precepts; his skills are exemplary, without question. As an aside, translators should keep these bulleted points in mind when crossing language barriers between such adept writers as Tolstoy and his contemporary readers.
My first acquaintance with Hadji Murad occurred a couple of years ago, through a translation published by a small house, Cosimo Classics. 

And here I think I need to boil the story down for you:
This more or less true story concerns an insurrection in the Russian (not Soviet) empire of the 1800s by Chechnyan Muslims. One of the more prominent Muslims of that day, Hadji Murad, has become embroiled in a dispute with another of his kind, Shamil. Hadji Murad decides to cross over to the Russian side of this mini-war in hopes of bringing the formidable Russian forces to bear against Shamil.
But Hadji Murad and his small inner circle begin to get bad vibes from the Russians. 

Why? First, they’re held in close quarters by the Russians and not allowed to roam freely. 

Second – and this should prove the most intriguing aspect of Tolstoy’s story to modern readers – Hadji Murad and his band are so culturally removed from the Russians that neither group can conceal their mistrust of the other. 

Then news comes to Hadji Murad that Shamil has taken his family hostage. Shamil hopes to lure Hadji Murad back to Chechnya so the two can do battle and so, hopefully, Shamil can kill Hadji Murad.
By now, Hadji Murad is sick of his Russian “protectors” and he does attempt an escape. The ensuing chase ends in a very cinematic battle between Hadji Murad’s small band and the Russians. 

What made this story popular throughout the Russian empire of the day was the valor displayed by Hadji Murad’s band in this final battle – some half-dozen men against two hundred.
Harold Bloom called this early work of Tolstoy “the best story in the world.” Besides portraying a segment on Russian history (Tolstoy’s forte) the Count masterfully depicts the differences between these cultures: the European cant of Russia, with its faux-French sensibilities, the manner in which it used its military technology to hold a far-flung empire together. And his compelling depiction of the tribal, Asian mode of these Chechnyans, with their simple manner of living, their internecine feuds, their preference for simple weapons bravely used is a story in itself, a most pertinent one in the twenty-first century. 

But the irony of this story, as it applies to modern times, is how little part religion played in Tolstoy’s story of Hadji Murad. 

 Now back to the subject of translations:
The earlier translation mentioned left me cold. I hardly remember any of it, although it did register that Tolstoy had a good story on his hands.
Recently I read a new translation of the novella in a compilation of Tolstoy’s works by Pevear and Volokhonsky. The difference is stark, and here we fall back on Miz Hawks’ exhortation to “make it fascinating.”
To draw these two translations together in order to see how “making it fascinating” works, I’ll cite a passage from each translation.
This segment opens Tolstoy’s novella in its third paragraph, with a rather poetic metaphor for both Hadji Murad and the Chechnyan subculture – that of a thorn bush called a “Tartar.”
Cosimo Translation:

The Tartar plant had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it.

P/V Translation:

The “Tartar” bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off, and the remainder of the branch stuck out like a cut-off arm. On each of the other two there was a flower. These flowers had once been red, but now they were black. One stem was broken and half of it hung down, with the dirty flower at the end; the other, though all covered with black dirt, still stuck up. It was clear that the whole bush had been run over by a wheel, and afterwards had straightened up and therefore stood tilted, but stood all the same. As if a piece of its flesh and been ripped away, its guts turned inside out, an arm torn off, an eye blinded. But it still stands and does not surrender to man, who has annihilated all its brothers around it.

For my money, the P/V translation wins this translation Super Bowl. While the two translations are of a narrative segment, both humanizing the plant, the second does a number of things storytellers would do well to keep in mind: 

• In the first sentence it implies with “shoots” the inherent vulnerability of the plant. This is a wise and effective word choice. 

• A short, simple sentence draws attention to the flowers. 

• In the bush’s ensuing description, P/V use varied sentence structures, almost musically, to give information. 

• In the final sentences, any reader will surely be aware of the storytelling – the “drama of the telling” – which draws the teller, story, and reader closer together. In the first translation, these sentences seem clinical and distancing by comparison. 

I hope this rather long post echoes Miz Hawks’ expressed sensibilities as it informs on this early work of one of western culture’s finest storytellers. Making it fascinating has the effect of searing a piece of writing into a reader’s memory. The story has to be a good one, of course. But the telling makes it memorable.

My Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Personality and Writing

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser – 30th Anniversary Edition
I had one “go-by” book to help me when I started writing: Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness, by Leon Surmelian. I gleaned what I could from it, took copious notes, performed various exercises with the information and insights I gained. Surmelian, judging by his photo on the back cover, was a proper fellow, formal in appearance as well as in his text.
Roughly a decade after I received the Surmelian book as a Christmas present (“Go forth and read,” said pals Bill and Barb Scoggins. “Much success in writing.”), Zinsser wrote his first edition of On Writing Well, a primer for those compelled to non-fiction writing. During my first few tries at writing so many years ago, an editor advised me to take on non-fiction. Had I had Zinsser’s book in hand then, I probably would have.
This book hardly needs me to tout it – perhaps millions of reader/writers have done that already. It’s been edited constantly to adapt to writing trends (see my previous post). But upon a recent reading of this book – in toto, for the first time – one thing comes through loud and clear: personality.
Zinsser proclaims early in the book (and harps on the point thereafter) that what we writers are selling is not really a story (although that certainly helps), nor writing ability (agents and editors will take that for granted, or send you one of those photocopied, generic rejection slips). You’re selling YOU. Personality. And Zinsser isn’t afraid to put his out there, even with such an edifying how-to book.
What of Zinsser’s personality bleeds through the advice? He’s a detail type. He clearly believes in dotting and crossing the “i” and “t” of one’s writing. He’s prideful of what he writes, to the point of crankiness. He has a refined sense of humor: wry, witty, sophisticated, but he also seems to enjoy humor of the ribald persuasion, although perhaps in small doses. He has an inquisitive nature, and his intellect is founded in the commonality of life's basics.
But why am I going to the trouble to depict his personality here? To amplify on the point he makes in his book: Personality sells. It’s at the basis of his voice, and its rhythms, in the way he turns phrases, even in the way he punctuates. Once published, an editor might read his work and know a lot about the person – how difficult – or how fair – Zinsser would be in a professional encounter. The same editor might be able to assess his interests, how Zinsser might approach them once given a writing assignment.
And readers: they would know his voice immediately, feel comfortable in reading it over and over, despite stylistic or subject changes.
You get the idea.
He goes on about personality, not because manifesting it in his writing has succeeded in gaining him writing prominence, but because:
· A beginning writer feels vulnerable in exercising his/her personality in writing. We're all flawed, and personality showcases our flaws along with our assets. But he sees even flaws as an asset, something readers will be able to identify with, be at ease with. Go on, he says, be vulnerable.
· It’s your writerly signature. Do you know Hemingway when you read one of his pieces? Steinbeck? Mailer? Oates? Nabokov? Vonnegut? McEwan? Of course. Grisham? Grafton? Crichton? Cornwell? Well, yes. But less so. Do you want to be remembered? Do you have a personality – albeit vulnerable, cranky, morose, sly, witty, angry, or slightly insane – that can stand up to massive public scrutiny?
Then I’m sure William Zinsser would tell you: Get with it. Develop it. Put it out there.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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