- With the National Book Awards over and done with, we can turn our attention to a more pressing matter: the annual Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. As a close follower of this prize, I can assure you that this year’s nominees have written some of the best worst sex in its illustrious history. The competition is stiff. E.g.: “Gwennie shoved him in though she was dry. He shut his eyes and thought of mangoes, split papayas, fruits tart and sweet and dripping with juice, and then it was off, and he groaned and his whole body turned sweet.” Or: “She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide, and then I split her.”
- Wyatt Mason thinks you should read War Music, Christopher Logue’s version of the Iliad. If you’ve always found Homer boring, then Logue’s is the Iliad for you—he translated it even though he couldn’t read Greek. “His Homer sounds like no version of that ancient story you’ve ever heard … This is not Homer: it’s Logue’s Homer. Like all translations, it departs fundamentally from the language of the original. Unlike many translations, it arrives at a version that, because of its radical departures, gets us closer to the original than many more defensibly ‘faithful’ translations have ever managed … He died before he could conclude much more than half of a full account of those ancient sounds. But, oh, what he managed to leave us: a vision of Homer as intimate and alive as a breath.”
- Look alive, people. These are the days of the winner-take-all economy, the days when only a handful of novels each year attain “must-read” status—the days of the seven-figure advance for debut novels. “The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations … Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said … Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel.”
- Delete your weather app, turn off your GPS, and purge weather.com from your bookmarks—all you really need is The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been hailed for its accuracy since 1792. It remains, in its stubborn way, a forerunner of the Information Age: “The Old Farmer’s Almanac has long had a reputation for getting the forecast right, and doing so on an outlandish timescale. In the 1930s and 1940s, people would write to the Almanac to ask about weather conditions for specific days, months in advance. Brides wanted sunshine for their wedding days; rabbis would ask for the exact time of sunset in a certain city, so they could plan the lighting of altar candles … The Old Farmer’s Almanac didn’t have to be right all the time, it just had to be right most of the time. The perception that it was is a big part of why the Almanac has endured.”
- Today in wishful thinking: using the power of language, you can see a positive trend in any outcome, any set of data. Suddenly, significance is everywhere. Scientists learned this lesson a long time ago, as this list of weasel words from their research papers suggests: “a margin at the edge of significance,” “a marginal trend toward significance,” “a near-significant trend,” “a clear tendency to significance,” “a barely detectable statistically significant difference” …
The early eighties were strange times for the National Book Award. At the turn of the decade, the award’s custodians decided to modernize its image. As Craig Fehrman described the scenario in the New York Times a few years ago, “If publishers were going to spend upward of $100,000 a year running the prizes—not to mention the costs of transporting and feting authors—they wanted something that would give them a better return on their investment.”
And so the National Book Awards—which were, at the time, frankly even more literary than they are today—were dissolved. In their stead came The American Book Awards, a wan bid for populist affection, as implied by that patriotic new name. (That capital T in The is essential.) “It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run,” a spokesman told reporters, as if the fickle literary set were hankering for an injection of Hollywood glamour. Or Broadway glamour—a theater producer designed the set for the event, which was to be televised. An “academy” of more than two thousand publishing pros took part in the voting.
In 1979, awards were given in seven categories. In 1980, they were given in thirty-four, including typographical design, current-interest nonfiction, religion and inspiration, and—my personal favorite—general reference. In essence, the American Book Awards are to the National Book Awards as New Coke is to Coca-Cola Classic, i.e., a complete fucking disaster, one that all parties involved would prefer to forget. Read More
- The National Book Awards have published this year’s poetry longlist: Louise Glück, Edward Hirsch, and Fanny Howe are among the ten nominees.
- Technology was supposed to increase our leisure time and enliven our workplaces—that hasn’t really panned out. But in the early eighties, amid all the Pollyannaism of the Bay Area, a magazine called Processed World seemed to foresee all the resentments of the contemporary office drone. “In the writing … one can also find the beginnings of today’s revolt against Silicon Valley and its pernicious mix of libertarian economics, techno-utopianism, and the deracinated remains of the sixties counterculture.”
- “Fingerprint words”: the words and phrases we overuse to the point that they become our personal trademarks. (Mine are probably foresee, edify, and floccinaucinihilipilification.) The strangest thing about these words is that they’re contagious: “We’re all simultaneously donating to and stealing from those around us. But how do we pick up these linguistic signature words, and what is going on when we notice other people using those words and we feel, well, a certain way about it?”
- Writers seeking peace, quiet, and old-fashioned American bonhomie: Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose is renting a cottage in Ashland, Virginia—a town where “people wave at you from their front porch”—for weeklong retreats.
- On the performative paintings of Avery Singer: “The gentle sarcasm embedded in her work is usually aimed at art-world stereotypes. Her first solo exhibition at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin last year, for example, was a satiric take on the art industry and its conventions. Works with titles such as The Studio Visit (2012), Jewish Artist and Patron (2012) and The Great Muses (2013) play on myths around the romantic figure of the artist. The show was accompanied by a short text by Singer, a fake press release for an exhibition that will never happen.”
- At the Bookers, twenty-eight-year-old Eleanor Catton won the fiction prize for the hefty, historical The Luminaries, becoming the youngest-ever recipient.
- Meanwhile, stateside, the National Book Awards have listed their finalists.
- Bookish NYC gentlemen! There are still a few tickets available for Housing Works’s I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating, hosted, naturally, by CoverSpy.
- Ronan Farrow, activist, scholar, and son of Mia Farrow and someone else famous, is writing a book on military history. Pandora’s Box: How American Military Aid Creates America’s Enemies will be released in 2015 by Penguin.