Parsing Coetzee and Dostoevsky

It's always great to read a review of a book that gives deep background – something rarely done in  this age of all-is-hype. This is a Coetzee book that I've somehow missed previously. But not to worry – it'll soon be on my stack.


The Millions : Known Answers and Unknown Questions: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?



A Mood in the Taiga


Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson


This book was lying around the house, and the Missus said it was interesting, and I didn’t have any more novels on my stack, so I thought I’d give it a try. Petterson is a Norwegian writer with five novels to his credit, a former librarian whose fiction has won several awards. Too, it has received a glowing review in the New York times. So. How could I lose?


The story’s narrator in this first person, largely present tense account, is a nondescript man, Trond Sander. Following the death of his daughter and wife, he heads for the Norwegian outback (read: taiga, or tundra) to live. It’s not completely clear what his reason for this is, except to, in some fashion, simplify his life. But simplification to Sander doesn’t mean divesting himself of wealth, property, and accompanying responsibilities – instead the simplification he seems to be looking for is an internal one.


In his new, rural home, things are indeed simple – and humble. He has no phone, only a beat-up Japanese car, and has somehow gained sufficient food and shelter to get him through the Norwegian winter.


In his new home, he connects with old friend, Jon, with whom Trond remembers several youthful gambits, including the eponymous tale of “stealing” horses. Following this, Jon leaves a loaded shotgun in the presence of two younger, twin brothers, Odd and Lars, and predictably, one of them, Odd, kills himself accidentally with the gun. Jon, meanwhile has gone away to sea, only to return to take over the family property from Lars, who seems not to care – at least to Trond.


There are other writerly contrivances, memories of cutting hay as a child with Trond’s father and others, launching timber into a river to float it to market, the Nazi occupation during WWII, and Trond’s father a member of the Norse resistance.


My overriding question throughout most of the book: So what? There are no real epiphanies, few significant memories or understandings coming from the physical labor to which the older Trond puts his shoulder. There are two significant memories, though, both near book’s end, following a visit by Trond’s surviving daughter, both memories involving Trond’s parents. The rest of the book seems a prelude to these two memories, the rest perhaps laying this pair’s groundwork.


Petterson does create mood; I’ll give him that. And perhaps a lot of what I have a problem with is the translation by Anne Born. Where so many writers, especially the less skilled, seem to depend too much on dialogue to more character and story, along, Petterson’s book seems overly dependent on his first person narrative. As a result, the book was a hard, somewhat boring experience for this reader. And in an apparent attempt to emulate Hemingway, either writer or translator (I have no knowledge of the Norse language’s structure) succumbed to rambling, poorly punctuated sentences that keep the reader from losing his/herself in the story.


The thrust of Petterson’s effort here is a historically noble one – to equate solitary existence in the wilds with the inner resolution of a life. I only wish I could pick Petterson’s mind as to how he rationalized structuring his story – and this manner of human resolution – in the way he did. Perhaps then I’d find his writing more likeable.



My rating: 2-3/4 of 5 stars




Media Convergence and Transmedia

With the growing interest in digital media, it's inevitable that these separate tech/communication paths will occasionally converge. While there will likely always be a demand for storytelling as a separate medium, it's going to be easier to add video – dramatic snippets, interviews, reviews. Possibly music will be added to help draw attention to published stories in a crowded marketplace. Here's one more bit on the subject (and see this more recent post):

Technology Review: Transmedia Storytelling

Several years ago, I asked a leading producer of animated features how much creative control his team exerted over the games, toys, comics, and other products that deployed their characters. I was reassured that the distribution company handled all such ancillary materials. I saw the movement of content across media as an enhancement of the creative process. He saw it as a distraction or corruption.


e-Books and Transmedia

This is a final excerpt from the latest newsletter. Transmedia seems a bit out there at the moment, but then so did e-books five years ago. What seems most relevant to today's readers and writers is set in bold below. 

If the transmedia possibility takes hold, writing and publishing will no doubt seem as complex and collaborative as movies are today. 


Interview: David Marlett

Transmedia and the Changing Face of Storytelling

This month, we had the opportunity to interview one of the pioneers in transmedia, David Marlett. The founder of enkHouse, a transmedia production company based out of Dallas and Los Angeles, Marlett focuses on enhanced eBooks and interactive apps for the publishing, film and other entertainment industries. He has combined his background of law, film and writing to create a company that is a forerunner of transmedia production. Marlett believes that when the general population thinks about mash-up media at this point in time, people usually think about gaming. He wants to change that mind set into thinking about any and all combinations of media, whether it's enhanced eBooks, enhanced movies, enhanced music videos or a combination of all three.
           When asked what he liked about transmedia, he said he enjoyed the fact that there is no formula. "Transmedia is a land for creative exploration," Marlett said, noting that in many arenas such as film and publishing, people often think everything that can be done, has been done already. With transmedia, old and new stories can be imagined in a completely new way. Transmedia is still in definition and therefore "the sky's the limit". Because a project is not bound by only one media, the story can be told in whatever form makes sense for that specific project. Projects can be tailored very specifically to meet that individual project's needs. 
           Marlett believes that the newness of transmedia means that "everyone is in it together". People are so excited for new ideas and new projects that the amount of creative ideas and energy is incredible. EnkHouse is partnered with KiwiTech programming, the company that created Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth enhanced eBook for STARZ and Penguin Publishing. Marlett said that enkHouse is just going to keep throwing crazy ideas at them until they find something they can't do (which hasn't happened yet, and Marlett believes it probably won't happen).  
           When asked about copyright issues, Marlett says that he is not worried. As far as copyright goes, enkHouse works project by project. The majority of artists want to show their work, so they're not going to fight over rights. If all parties want a project, then whoever has the rights brings them to the table. It's more the publisher's issue if there is a problem with rights, such as a case with a previous contractual limitation, and enkHouse hasn't had much problem with that yet.
           When asked about working on educational platforms, Marlett said that enkHouse is already working on taking web based educational programs to the next level. He knows teachers and students can already interact with other students around the world via the Internet, but that transmedia on touch devices will take it to true social 'learning' in the classroom.
           We then asked Mr. Marlett about the future of touch screen devices relating to transmedia. Right now, the Apple iPad is really the only mass-market touch screen device and we wondered if that would limit transmedia. Marlett said that within the next few months, at least two more brands of touch screen device will appear on the market. He thinks that having many competing brands of touch screen devices will only help transmedia. Right now, Apple doesn't allow open source content. Having a competing brand that does will increase the availability of content and further promote transmedia. Marlett believes that this is the future. A year ago, apps and eBooks were something new but now if you're releasing a movie without an app or a book without an electronic version, you're behind the times. "This is a fast market," he says and he thinks that within the next five years, even the laptop will die out in favor of touch screen devices. 
           When asked about the rapidity of the market and other companies emerging to compete with enkHouse, Marlett didn't seem worried at all. "The more competitors we have, the better" he said, "Right now we're like a fox in a field full of rabbits: it's not a matter of whether or not we're going to catch some, it's a matter of choosing which ones. There are plenty of projects to pick from". He says that right now enkHouse is definitely one of the first movers in the field, as they are partnered with the only company with a truly enhanced eBook with a movie tie in. The demand from consumers is going to skyrocket and the more transmedia projects out there, the better. "The rapidity of the market is amazing," he says, "With every new project, the minimum is set higher. For example: at first it was great that PDF versions of catalogues were online, and now that's boring. People want something interactive, something better." 
           We then asked Mr. Marlett about the future of print books. He believes that in five years, eBooks will be 75% of the book market. He imagines a new generation of children who will pick up a print book and try to push buttons. Why would they need to use something like a dictionary when they can just press the word to find out what it means? He thinks print books will become more of the coffee table style, there for show but not everyday use. 

           We asked Mr. Marlett if he thought that enhanced storytelling would change the creative process for authors. He believes that it could, but it doesn't have to. Authors could think about different enhancements (such as backstory, telling the story from different points of view or adding such things as character diaries, embedded videos, documents, photos or journals) during the creative process or they could put together the whole story traditionally and then go back and think about enhancements. However, he thinks that all authors needs to think in a multidimensional manner now. Authors have to start thinking about such things as "what if this event could also be read from another character's POV?" or "what other ways can I reveal this backstory?" all the time. He imagines a world where almost every reader experiences the story in a slightly different way. It makes the story more complex. He compares it to a puzzle maker who is used to making a 1000 piece puzzle having to make a 1000 piece puzzle that is now 3D. 
           It also makes the creative process more of a collaborative effort. It's not just an author sitting in her cabin writing by herself throughout the whole process. It's a whole team of designers and writers and producers trying to tell the story in the best way possible. Marlett also envisions a world where the "was the book better or was the movie better" conversation has a third part that ties the two together. This third part will not just rely on the film team or the writing team, but a collaborative effort between the two to create something totally different. Coming from Marlett's dual filmmaker/writer point of view, he thinks this third part just "makes sense". 
           Finally, we asked Mr. Marlett what his favorite part of his job was. Like anyone who truly enjoys what they do, he says he had a hard time narrowing it down. He really likes any part of his job that is entertainment or story oriented. He likes working with designers and writers and getting them to collaborate their ideas into something greater.  He said that he is happiest when he is "surrounded by designers spitting out ideas" at the very core of the creative process. 


E-Text Books

The following is excerpted from on the rising use of e-text books. This issue should prove interesting as it evolves. 



Changing How We Learn

Anyone who is in the "back to school mode" right now has probably been thinking about one thing in particular: textbooks. There seem to be so many options now that it's overwhelming to shop around. Should you buy new or used? Should you rent? Should you get it online or in an ebook format? The possibilities are almost endless and finding the best price is certainly a high priority. But are ebooks really received the same way as print books? Colleges around the country are testing different technologies in order to figure out how best to serve their students. However, there are many obstacles and questions to overcome before the majority of students drop their print editions. 
            Virginia State University is taking a totally different approach to the traditional textbook approach. According to The Chronicle, the university is experimenting with a new program that gives free e-textbooks to students in its business school. The deal was negotiated with Flat World Knowledge and it treats buying e-books like buying campus software with the school paying a per-student fee for the usage. The giveaway was prompted by student complaints about the high price of textbooks. Mira Martin, dean of the business school, was upset about hearing multiple stories of students who were performing poorly because they could not afford to buy the books they needed. The Flat World Knowledge model offers the free ebooks to students who access the book online. If the student wants a PDF file for his or her own computer, it costs money but comes with a study guide, audio version or iPad edition. These textbooks are offered for eight core classes within the business school. This is great in terms of a price differential, but what about students that may prefer print texts? It's hard to read a textbook online for long periods of time without eyestrain. Also, if there is no Internet access where the student prefers to read the book, this could pose a problem to well-defined study habits. 
            Many colleges and universities are testing the iPad's classroom usefulness. Oklahoma State University was one of the latest, giving over 125 students in five classes the opportunity to participate in their pilot program. Professors Bill Hardy and Tracy Suter are in charge of analyzing the progress of the initiative and plan on blogging their progress throughout the program. The Chronicle also writes that Seton Hill, a liberal arts university in Pennsylvania, will be offering iPads to their entire undergraduate population in order to lighten the physical textbook load as well as provide new technology for learning. "The iPad was chosen by Seton Hill because of its mobility and the ease with which faculty and students, in the future, will have immediate access to e-textbooks and comprehensive and integrated learning," said Mary Ann Gawelek, provost and dean of the faculty at Seton Hill. George Fox University has announced that they will offer incoming students a choice between the iPad and a laptop.  It will be interesting to see if the iPad outperforms the Kindle, which was generally rejected by students as a replacement for print texts, as shown in Kindle's study at Reed University in 2009.
            The hardest people to turn over to the idea of e-textbooks seem to be professors. Publishers are working hard to change this. One of the ways they are making e-textbooks even easier for professors to use is by integrating them with course management systems they are already familiar with, writes a recent Chronicle blog post. In July, Blackboard announced deals with textbook publisher McGraw Hill and two college bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble College Booksellers and Follett Higher Education Group, to sell textbooks through the tech company's course-management system and to tie online assignments from the e-texts directly into existing online gradebooks. CourseSmart, another e-textbook distributor, announced a new feature that will link the texts with leading course management systems. McGraw-Hill's vice president for communication and marketing, Mary Skafidas, said that the publisher believes the easier the system is to use, the more people will use it. 
            Another e-textbook publishing company, Inkling, has a completely different feature to draw in professors and students alike. This company combines learning and social networking to allow students and professors to see each others' notes in the text. If a student has a question, they can just make a note next to the appropriate text and the professor can see that and leave a note with an answer. Professors can then also make notes about key points in the reading as well as, most importantly, mark content that will be on the assessments. Inkling also has texts with video, interactive quizzes and clickable key terms (see Your Guide to the e-textbook for more information on specific features of e-textbooks). 
            Then there is the other question: do publishers even want to promote e-textbooks? There is less profit involved in publishing something digitally rather than in print. There is also the issue of which format to use. Which one is the best one to use? And if the answer to that question is all of them, the text must be reformatted for each type to make sure the spacing and sizing of words and pictures is correct. And that's without any extra interactive features like audio or video. If a publisher wants any of that, it has to be picked out and imbedded properly. E-textbooks might be a good idea for the student, but how far down this road do publishers really want to go if the profit is considerably less? Is there another way to make money off of e-textbooks besides just straight up selling them? What will be the tipping point for students to choose e-textbooks over their print counterparts?
            Whatever the new and improved features are, it's clear that e-textbooks are more and more becoming a viable option for students and teachers alike. Schools are encouraging usage and experimenting with digital texts to see if they can offer advantages that print texts cannot. The price differential alone is certainly catching the eyes of students across the country and that combined with other features could lead to a future shift away from print textbooks. However, there are still many questions to be answered before a complete changeover is made. 
What is your experience with e-textbooks? Let us know!


Good Advice From One Of The Best


Leap Of The Heart – Andre Dubus Talking, by Ross Gresham, Editor


I don’t know if I consider myself a short story writer or not. I do write them, but writing long fiction is what really sets my juices flowing. Still, I’ve had more luck in publishing short stories than the longer form, and one of these days, I’ll have to dig into that paradox.


My friend and fellow writer, Nancy Purcell, recommended this book, so, knowing that Nancy’s really serious about her writing, I bought it. The book is a series of interviews, not a fiction or essay collection, so it would be stretching the point to offer to critique this book.


Instead, what I’ll do is simply list a number of Dubus’ insights, strategies, and talking points that might interest writers and/or readers.


  • If you want to be famous, Dubus thinks, you’re swimming upstream, both financially and artistically. He knows, as I’ve discovered, that creative writing isn’t a smart venue for getting rich. There’s very little pay, and when there is, the threat of having to adapt your story piece to a publication’s editorial slant looms. Dubus adamantly refused to do this, much to his credit.
  • In tandem with the above point, he near-sneered at prestigious magazines, such as The New Yorker, which will often ask writers to change their texts – to fit TNY’s editorial position. I cheer, whistle, and applaud this, since I don’t really like TNY fiction.
  • Dubus grew on his own as a writer for a long while, then had the good fortune to be mentored, and this accelerated his learning of the craft. This has been my experience, too, under the guiding hand of Doris Betts and that of a couple of good writing teachers at UNC-Asheville.
  • For him, characterization is everything. He claimed to have been captive to a certain plateau in story writing until he slowed down his story drafts, allowing him to fix his characters vividly in his mind.
  • He didn’t say so in so many words, but his passion for writing (not $$) probably cost him each of his three marriages. Still, he claimed that his writing didn’t essentially interfere with his family life.
  • He read voraciously – and learned from it.
  • He never wrote a story he was completely happy with. That’s my experience, too, but I keep going back to revise them. Dubus did, too, for many of his stories.
  • Where did he get his stories from? Real life, he claims – by amplifying characters he met and from generally observing life.
  • His spiritual life overflows into his writing. He called himself a Catholic writer. 
  • He was a traditionalist in almost everything, including literature.

 An addendum: despite being as much a son of the South as it’s possible to be, he hasn’t lived in the south since his college days.


There’s more here – much more. The interviews are often repetitive but there’s always a tinge of uniqueness to everything he repeats on a given subject. Nancy's right. This book is a great primer on the lifestyle and ethos of creative writing.


My rating – 4 ½ stars out of 5.