Sunday, May 26, 2013

Flying The Literary Skies

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

According to a recent report in AdAge, an international airline is planning to “curate” a series of books for passengers so that they will be able to finish reading them just as their planes touch down. Each one will last only for the duration of one of the airline's routes. "According to our literary friends at Hachette, the average reader consumes between 200 and 300 words per minute," the head of the airline’s agency is quoted as saying. "For the longer flights, we accommodated some napping time and meals."

G'day, mates! This is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard. On your right, you can see the Harbour Bridge, and on your left, you’ll see a small pile of paperbacks. I know you’re used to reading books only on screens, but here, as a treat, is the real thing. Go on, pick up any one of them. Flash them for snob appeal the same way you do your chunky fountain pens and LPs.

Not to worry, the plane’s on autopilot, so I can ramble on for a bit. You don’t mind, do you? Good on yer. Well, even if you do mind, there’s little you can do about it, heh-heh. Just joking. No, I haven’t been sampling the Shiraz.

Checking out the books? You’ll find something for every taste. All you Wall Street tycoons can curl up with the financial thriller in which a young man armed with a management degree foils dastardly deeds planned by the Occupy Movement. Software tycoons: for you there’s the saga of a couple who rent out their garage to programmers working on the next big thing, only to find that they’re ripping off Apple devices instead. And for the women -- hello, ladies! -- there’s the heartwarming story of Sheryl Sandberg’s live-in maids and how they’re the power behind her throne.

The special thing about these books is that we've designed them to be just the right length. Start now and you’ll finish as you land. It’s six hours till we touch down, and according to our research the average reader consumes about 200 words per minute. Mates, I’m not suggesting that any of you are average, but still, that’s the only metric we have at present. So: 360 minutes would mean 72, 000 words. Whoa, I can hear you say, that sounds like a lot! But hold on a bit, you blokes.

On flights like these, we’ve noticed that you like to nap for an hour. So we told our talented writers to cut off 12,000 words; they're a fair dinkum lot. Then, of course, you’d need an hour at the very least to do justice to our fine wines and comestibles. That’s another 12,000 words gone.

Restroom breaks? No worries: take half-an-hour. Lop off another 6,000 words.

That’s not all. Stretching and strolling down the aisle to check on the status of co-passengers: 45 minutes. Take off another 9,000 words. Then again, should you be seated next to an attractive co-passenger, fumbling attempts at conversation would take, say, an hour. That’s another 12,000 words gone. Should you happen to be the attractive co-passenger in question, the same applies, as it’s difficult to read with someone burbling in your ear.

Further, you do need to listen to our in-flight announcements and safety procedures. That’s 45 minutes. We’ve also made allowances for those who conduct conversations in loud voices as well as children who are less than well behaved. These distractions shouldn’t occupy more than another 45 minutes.  Which means, as we’ve instructed our willing writers, another 18,000 words gone.

Let’s see, have we left anything out? Well, we’ll give you a little free time, because a part of flying is also, as we’ve observed, simply moving about in your seat trying to get comfortable. Let's take 3,000 – or make it 2,950 – off.

That leaves us with 50 well-chosen words. Read them right now, so you can sit back and enjoy the in-flight movie.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reading In A Time Of Distraction

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

This column isn’t about what I thought it would be about.

Last week, I picked up a new anthology of Indian literature, intending to take a few days in going through it and then writing about my reactions. But reading ran aground, as it’s been doing for some time now. Every few pages, a drowsy numbness pained my sense, as the poet chappie would have said, and I put the book aside, reaching for a nearby screen.

Maybe I was just intimidated by the anthology’s phalanx of authors, professors and translators writing about – in their words – stalwarts and towering figures, with books that shaped contours, created a stir and, in one case, behaved like a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the establishment (which gave rise to the urge for a cocktail of a non-explosive variety).

It would be unfair to point fingers at this book alone, however. Even the new le CarrĂ©, which otherwise would have been consumed in a gulp or few, took several more swallows than necessary, and that’s not because of the quality of the novel.

I’d written about this earlier, referencing Nicholas Carr’s much-discussed 2011 work, The Shallows, which – to put it baldly – claims that the Internet is making us stupid. His subject is what happens to the brain when faced with digital distraction: "On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream."

This cognitive overload rewires the brain, Carr writes, and one of the costs of such switching is that "the linear, literary mind" becomes "yesterday's mind". Brains are scrambled by Twitter, Angry Birds, RSS readers, e-mail and all the other distractions that flesh is heir to. Neuronal grooves caused over time by the act of sustained reading are being overlaid by smaller nets, each one triggered by getting a quick fix.

The world we live in makes such pursuits increasingly easy and gratifying. As Damian Thompson writes in his The Fix, “our problem is that we’ve built an environment that bombards us with rewards that our bodies don’t need and that do nothing to ensure our survival as a species. Yet, because they are rewards – that is, because they provoke specific feelings of anticipation and pleasure in the brain – we grab them anyway.” Thompson’s thesis is that we’re all addicts in one way or another, entranced by objects from cupcakes to smartphones. It takes considerable willpower to break free -- although won’t-power may be a better word.

Present shock is what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls it. “Everything is real, real-time and always on”, he says in his new book, the title of which is a tip of the hat to and update of Alvin Toffler’s influential 1970 work. We live in a “distracted present”, Rushkoff writes, always reacting to “the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands”.

He identifies several consequences of this new presentism, the first of which is narrative collapse: the abandonment of the traditional, linear stories that we all live by. With no charted journeys or goals, we’re more impulsive and impatient, and though he doesn't spell it out in so many words, this could also be why reading for a prolonged period is becoming more difficult. “How do we tell stories and convey values without the time required to tell a linear story?” he asks. Social impact apart, this has implications for the future of the novel itself – a new mode, fractured and jittery, may well come into being.

All of which can cause anxiety and exhilaration in equal measure. Swinging between the two, I managed to get this column done on time, in large part because the wi-fi stopped working and the technician resisted all attempts at contact. If he continues to prove recalcitrant, I may even be able to finish reading the anthology I intended to write about.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

John Williams's Novel Of Everyday Heroism

This week's Sunday Guardian column

It made only a few waves when it was published almost 50 years ago, but now, a novel by an American author is climbing the charts in Europe. According to a recent report in Publisher’s Weekly, it’s the No. 1 bestseller in the Netherlands and also doing remarkably well in France, Spain and Italy. In the US, it was a reissue by New York Review Books Classics in 2006 that gave it a renewed lease of life.

Stoner, by John Williams, is at first glance a novel unlikely to merit such popularity. In brief, it tells of the life of William Stoner, born to an impoverished agricultural family on a small farm in Missouri in 1891, who goes on to study at the state university and discovers a love for literature. He becomes a professor, gets married, has an affair, is embroiled in petty academic politics and ages before his time.

That, on the surface, is what the novel contains. In Williams’s hands, however, this saga of the everyday reaches heroic proportions, which is, one supposes, one of the points he is trying to make. “From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties,” we’re told at the start, and much of the novel deals with how this principled man goes about his duties in the best way he can.

Although his parents assume that after he completes his course in agricultural studies their son will return to their farm, it’s a course in English literature that derails expectations. This “troubled and disquieted [Stoner] in a way nothing had ever done before”, and he makes a full-time commitment to it -- a commitment that lasts for and defines the rest of his life. After reading the classics, “he became conscious of himself in a way that he had not done before”. In effect, he recreates himself and this is reinforced again later: “As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself”.

It’s after Stoner starts teaching that he comes across a St Louis debutante who sweeps him off his feet. They marry and have a daughter but it’s a relationship that’s fraught from the start. Williams paints Stoner throughout as upright and kind, with the portrayal of his unpleasant wife decidedly one-sided and enigmatic. Approaching middle age, Stoner embarks upon an affair with a much younger instructor at the university, and this relationship, in contrast, is idealized: when together, “they seemed to themselves to move outside of time, in a timeless universe of their own discovery”.

Notably, Williams’s prose is crystal-clear and poised throughout, with a tone of gravitas that’s simple but never simplistic, and always grounded in details of the real world. At times, for example, he sums up characters in an incisive sentence. Stoner’s father-in-law, “like many men who consider their success incomplete…was extraordinarily vain and consumed with a sense of his own importance”. As for his wife, “her voice was thin and high, and it held a note of hopelessness that gave a special value to every word she said”.

The novel is immensely moving, especially towards the end, when Stoner reckons with what he’s had to give up and what he’s gained by following his way of life. Passion may be a strong word for what drives the noble Stoner, yet we’re told that he had “given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving…. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.” This animating emotion ripples through every page of the book, encompassing university life, the values one lives by, close relationships and loss. The novel’s German publisher recently said that it is about the final things of life: “Love, commitment, compassion, work, backbone, truthfulness, death.” It deserves every bit of its new-found popularity.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Giving Novelists A Kick Start

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Zach Braff was in the news this week for raising over $2 million in less than five days to make the follow-up to his 1994 film, Garden State. What was unusual about this was the way the writer-actor-director went about it: he put up a request on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, explaining that he was reaching out for funds from the public rather than the Hollywood system in order to preserve control over the final product. He was inspired, he said, by the example of the makers of Veronica Mars, who had earlier acquired funds via the same source.

Upon reading this, I wondered whether any fledgling novelists had tapped the same channel  – after all, the one piece of advice they’re constantly given is not to give up the day job, as success in the profession is hard to come by and the pay is meagre. Had any of them used Kickstarter to give them, well, a kick start?

I checked, and it turns out that they have. Take Jack Cheng, for example, a designer and former advertising copywriter. “For the last three years, I've spent my nights and weekends working on a novel,” he writes. “Now I'm raising money to hire a professional editor and publish the book in a range of formats.” His novel, These Days, is described as the story of a guy who designs “fake computer interfaces for plastic prop displays in furniture showrooms” who meets a girl who doesn't own a cellphone. The last time I checked, Cheng had raised over $20,000, so there must be an audience for this sort of thing.

Not to be outdone, one G. D. Falksen has posted details of his magnum opus, called the Ouroboros Cycle, “an illustrated novel of vampires, werewolves, and paranormal adventure”. He needs money to pay for ads, social media management, promotional assistance, and other methods of “boosting the signal”, but so far has raised a little over $800. (Could the market for vampires be fading? One can only hope.) Doing slightly better at over $4,000 is a graphic novel entitled JFK Special Ops by Craig Frank, a thriller in which John F. Kennedy survives his assassination and decides to hunt down all those who were involved in the conspiracy. Hey, I’d read that.

From this limited sample it appears that so-called literary novelists – all those bespectacled wannabe Franzens in their garrets – have stayed away from crowdfunding. Which is understandable, and not because of aesthetic scruples. The best of such novels, after all, don’t rely on action and plot for their effects, but a distinctive take on the world, often expressed through close attention to characters and language. All of which is rather difficult to summarise and whip up excitement over, especially when one is in the middle of a first draft.

Imagine, for example, if you were a budding electronic patron of the arts and came across this on Kickstarter: “Hi, I’m Jimmy Joyce, formerly an English teacher at the Berlitz language school. I’m writing a sprawling work with a cyclical structure, using free association, puns and dreams, which ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same one. Here's what I've got so far: a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." Chances are, you’d hastily switch off the computer, mutter about these long-haired artist fellas and go back to leveraging buyouts or whatever else it is you do to rake in the shekels.

It looks like there’s no way out. Such novelists will just have to believe in themselves and their work, write, revise and re-revise, and then wait for agents and publishers to jump off their chairs in excitement. In case that doesn’t happen, they can always write about assassinations or befanged creatures of the night.