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The Literary Agent of Yore (Unspeakable Rascal!)

October 14, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Lauren Stout for Lawton Mackall's Bizarre, 1922.

My continuing odyssey across the World Wide Web—I’ll read it all, someday—has yielded these two gems from the public domain, both early constructions of the literary agent as a type; neither, I’m sorry to say, is very flattering.

Now as then, agents get a bad rap. In the popular imagination, they’re usually seen as unscrupulous middlemen, always on the phone, insistently plying their wares. The agent, we’re told, is a necessary evil at best, or, at worst, the first in a line of craven corporate interests designed to suck the marrow from a writer’s work, making it suitable for a wide and churlish readership. In movies, writers are always seeking agents, falling out with agents, or at the very least nervously talking to agents, twisting the phone line in their fingers. And then there’s the editor-agent relationship, in which the agent never wins: he’s either part of a profit-obsessed cabal keeping subversive “new voices” out of print, or he’s a tasteless entrepreneur disturbing the delicate rapport between editor and author.

I’d thought all this was a fairly recent phenomenon—I had always imagined it came from the eighties, when publishers couldn’t conglomerate fast enough and the soul was said to have fled the industry—but these two old books suggest it’s been going on much longer than that. Which makes sense: in publishing, the sky is always falling. Every year is an abysmal year for books and a terrific year for books. Editors no longer edit, except when they do; publishers care only for their bottom line, except when they don’t; the three-martini lunch is always dead, always quietly continuing. That’s what’s fascinating about these excerpts: they’re both about a century old, documenting that same thwarted intersection of art and capitalism.

First, from Arnold Bennett’s Books and Persons, an essay collection composed of work from 1908 to 1911, the parts cited below being from 1908: Read More »

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Where Are They Now? Part Four

August 28, 2014 | by

The fourth in a week-long series of illustrations by Jason Novak, captioned by Eric Jarosinski.

imageimage_20Read More »

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A Screaming Comes Across the Tongue, and Other News

June 26, 2014 | by

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Paul Klee, Mumon sinkt trunken in den Sessel, 1940.

  • For seven years in the sixties, Dennis Hopper disappeared from Hollywood. What was he doing? Attending the Fonda-Vadim nuptials, hanging around LA’s Love-In, watching Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and photographing all of it.
  • Today in brave souls and/or fool’s errands: “I’m drinking everything mentioned however peripherally in every Pynchon book and jabbering a bit about what it’s like … So what is Chivas Regal like? I’m tempted to say that a screaming comes across the tongue.”
  • Amazon is demanding concessions from publishers that are tantamount to “assisted suicide for the book business” …
  • … And a new, “fiercely independent-minded” book, The Everything Store, reminds of Amazon’s considerably less-incendiary early days: “Bezos hired writers and editors who supplied critical advice about books and tried to emulate on Amazon’s website ‘the trustworthy atmosphere of a quirky independent bookstore with refined literary tastes.’” Years later, these people were replaced by an algorithm called AMABOT, which, given the meaning of amatory, sounds sort of like an animatronic sex doll.
  • But it must be said: “When Anne Campbell of the Open University in Scotland looked at how students used Kindle readers and paper books, she found that the electronic devices promoted more deep reading.”
  • Soon before her seventieth birthday, a woman named Sandy Bem found that her mental faculties had deteriorated enough that she wanted to take her own life—so she planned her suicide with her family. “We looked at the calendar and said, ‘OK, if it’s going to be next week, what day is it going to be?’” her husband said. “I wouldn't have had it any other way,” her daughter said.

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Vancouver in Neon, and Other News

May 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Vancouver Public Library

  • “University presses don’t just publish books: they keep books in print and rescue out-of-print books from obscurity … But the digital age complicates and threatens the mission of the country’s approximately 100 university presses. Ellen Faran, who has an MBA from Harvard and is the director of MIT Press, recently told Harvard Magazine: ‘I like doing things that are impossible, and there’s nothing more impossible than university-press publishing.’”
  • Almost every book set in Africa seems to have the same cover art: “an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both … the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.” (Plug: Norman Rush’s Whites, Mating, and Mortals, all set in Botswana and all excellent, have acacia-free covers.)
  • Why have we ceased to eat swans? “Often served at feasts, roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce.”
  • Midcentury Vancouver “had the second-most neon signs per capita on the globe, after Shanghai … neon signs fell victim to a ‘visual purity crusade’ in the 1960s. Critics thought that the neon cheapened the look of the streets, and obscured Vancouver’s natural beauty. (‘We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs,’ wrote a critic in the Vancouver Sun—a newspaper whose headquarters was prominently bedecked in neon—in 1966. ‘They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous.’)”
  • Remembering the artist Richard Hamilton: “One evening, Hamilton told me he had developed a method for photographing the toaster prints, so as not to interrupt the surface with his own reflection: he would move his tripod off to one side to take the picture, later returning each image to its original orientation using Photoshop. Today, when I think of Hamilton, I think of that illusive process: the mirrored surface, the lens’s sidelong glance, the almost complete disappearance of the artist from the work—like a hotel lobby that someone has just walked out of.”

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Critics with Sharp Objects, and Other News

January 14, 2014 | by

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Preparing to take down an author. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

 

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Thoreau and the iPad

December 17, 2013 | by

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Recently I took my iPad to a park across a lake, sat under a tree facing the water, and started reading the e-book version of Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic avowal of the possibility of, as well as the necessity for, simplicity amid modern life’s profusion and superfluity. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t get much more dissonant than this.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys … improved means to an unimproved end,” wrote the handyman sage in the book’s first chapter, titled “Economy.” Few toys are prettier than the iPad, and its prettiness is by no means a feat of economy. Its minimalism, for one, belies the complexity of thought that went into its design, while its ease of use obscures the intricacy of the industry behind its manufacture. That there’s nothing new and improved about its ends should be evident from the resemblance between the categories of apps in the App Store and those of stores listed on the touchscreen directory at the entrance of shopping malls—that harried shopper’s guide to the nonvirtual versions of apps for games, books, sports, lifestyle, and even social networking. Or especially social networking, come to think of it, when you consider that the din from the food court or the theater lobby is nothing more than the noise from so many short messages being broadcast on an unmetered network with unlimited bandwidth.

But what does it matter if my iPad is merely a prettier means to pedestrian ends that are, in Thoreau’s words, “already but too easy to arrive at”? Does that make it one more toy to be transcended or tucked out of sight when meditating on sufficiency? I also own a paperback edition of Walden, its pages worn yellow with age and marred with the fervent notes of my much younger self. It has none of the iPad’s high-precision electronics; the letter m is smudged in several places, and yet it’s lost none of its functionality. And apart from enlightenment, it has only one other app, as a paperweight. Is this nonmultitasking relic the authentic medium for the all-in-one manifesto and proof-of-concept of the uncluttered life? Read More »

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