Satire and the Question of Taste

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In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of takes on the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre (see the Round Down for a good selection). One of the most common, and understandable, reactions from writers and thinkers has been the attempt to parse the sensitive cultural issues involved—this stems from the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often racist, specifically anti-Muslim. Add to this tangle the question of privilege: To whom does free speech really belong?

In this post, however, I will not lament the case of cartoons versus mass death. Many others have done it better before me. The issue I am interested in concerns the content of the cartoons. It is one of taste, and one of offense.

In 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed: “As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either.” The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that spurred the attack. They are not subtle. They are in fact so sophomoric that they seem to have found the low bar set by MAD magazine and ably limboed under. The drawings are emphatically not in good taste.

But why does good taste matter?Continue Reading

Round-Down: Same Booker Prize, New Booker Rules

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The Man Booker Prize was first described to me by a writing mentor as “the book prize of all book prizes,” its winning titles fast-tracked to literary canonization and international renown. With so many novels vying for that golden spot, the prize judges have a little bit of reading to do. So it’s no surprise that in 2013, when the prize opened its doors to American authors—a move that some worried placed the prize at risk of “losing its distinctiveness”—the sheer breadth of books under consideration for the title of “best” made for what I can only imagine was and continues to be a torturously difficult vetting process leading to a torturously difficult final decision.

The Prize recently released other changes to its rules. One such revision clarifies the difference between publisher and self-publisher; self-published works are disqualified from consideration. According to the entry rules, a publisher “must publish a list of at least two literary fiction novels by different authors each year.”

Additionally, eligible books first published outside the UK now must have been released no later than two years prior to their UK publication dates.

Perhaps the most pivotal change: A title’s publisher must also make an e-book of the longlisted work available if publication follows the longlist announcement. Conversely, if upon announcement a longlisted title is available as an e-book, the publisher must make 1,000 print copies available for retail sale within ten days.Continue Reading

Round Down: The Complicated Response to Charlie Hebdo

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As anyone paying even the remotest of attention to the news this past week, we all know this is a sobering time for journalists, satirists, publishing professionals, and supporters of free speech. The brutal murder of staff and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices by Muslim extremists, along with violent ricochets all over the greater metropolitan area of Paris in following days, has spurred a complex discourse around the issues of freedom of expression, satire, and inter-religious/cultural relations.

The discourse has volleyed from simple displays of solidarity (using #JeSuisCharlie hashtags) to more nuanced (using #JeSuisAhmed tags, which reference the French Muslim police officer who responded to the scene at the Charlie Hebdo offices and who died responding to the aid of those journalists who, as many pointed out, mocked his culture and religion). The latter spurred many to recall the oft-attributed Voltaire quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It also reminded many of the quotation attributed to Salman Rushdie, an Indian author who had an Iranian fatwa put upon him for his book, The Satanic Verses: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Queen’s Ferry Press

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Queen’s Ferry Press, based out of Plano, Texas, since 2011, is the brainchild of Erin McKnight. While it’s hardly the first independent press with the lofty goal of printing and promoting the best literary fiction, in just a few short years Queen’s Ferry has managed to attract an impressive stable of writers at the top of their fiction game—Sherrie Flick, Sarah Van Arsdale, and Phong Nguyen to name a few. As Queen’s Ferry has grown its catalog, it has garnered awards and accolades along the way for its wonderfully eclectic range of titles. Queen’s Ferry ventures also include the imprint firthFORTH, which publishes fiction chapbooks, and The Best Small Fictions, an annual anthology compiling the best short fiction in a calendar year. The inaugural collection, to be published in 2015, will be guest edited by Robert Olen ButlerTara L. Masih will serve as series editor.

Publisher Erin McKnight shares with Ploughshares the key to Queen’s Ferry’s success, and what’s in store for readers and writers in the New Year.

Ploughshares: Between Queen’s Ferry and firthFORTH, you’ve published more than two dozen attractively produced and well-received books in the past three years, with no sign of slow-down. Both presses also accept submissions year-round. How do you do it?

Erin McKnight: As trite as it sounds, I enjoy the work. The press is deeply personal, so emotional investment is high; making a manuscript into a book feeds my soul as well as my career ambition. Within the past few months, the masthead has also filled out—we now have marketing, editorial, reading, and social media roles—which has made my job far easier; it took me a long time to accept help, but this assistance was worth the wait.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Torture Report Book

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On December 30th, 2014, acclaimed independent publisher Melville House released a print copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”—also known as the Senate Torture Report. Though the material is in the public domain (has been since December 9th, is only a summary of the actual several-thousand-page Report—which remains classifiedand runs at about five-hundred pages) the publisher sold out of its first print run, a considerable fifty thousand copies, that very same day.

When I first heard this news, I paused. I mouthed to myself, possibly even said aloud, “Holy crap.” I hadn’t heard of something like this happening before—this sort of treatment and release. I didn’t even quite know what to make of it. But soon I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of the print book at large, our pledged allegiance to physical copy, the responsibility of a publisher, and the ineluctable importance of vision—because it takes a seriousness of vision to do something like this.

In The New York Times’ coverage of this, Alexandra Alter mentions that this approach to re-release is not an isolated case. “Other government reports,” she writes, “like the 9/11 Commission Report and the infamous Starr Report detailing President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” So it’s not necessarily a surprise that this report, so momentous in its public release, has garnered so much attention, and so quickly. The Times also aptly captured the Report in labeling it “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend.” A mere fifty pages in—pushing past the many blacked-out words and phrases, the tiring lurch of long footnotes—I already found myself overwhelmed by the hard fact of that sentiment.Continue Reading

Round-Down: A Look at the Crowded Literary Journal Landscape

1024px-Atlantic_City's_Crowded_Beach,_New_Jersey,_U._S._A,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_viewsWe all know someone who thinks it. We’ve all heard it, somewhere, before: There are too many literary magazines on the Internet and in the world. The argument goes something like this: No one reads those small journals anyway. They’re all the same; they all publish the same kind of work. They have no subscriber base or readers. There’s no use, then, in creating a journal at all. The question seems to arrive with a defeated shrug: Why bother?

It is true that many new journals will have a short life span, disappearing after only a few issues, but many with serious intent and aesthetic vision are fast paving new roads in publishing, expanding their reach, and breathing new life into what some consider the tired promise of “innovation” in contemporary literature. To this end I submit the following evidence—recent, new, and soon forthcoming literary journals that challenge the notion of the online and print magazine itself, that own and celebrate truly fresh aesthetics, and that remind us of the power of the work, collected and distributed with desired effect, with consistent and often powerful aim.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The High Sales vs. High Quality Debate

painterOne of my truly terrible habits is a reflexive desire to pour salt on a wound. Tell me your troubles, and I’m likely to say, “Oh, this is so much worse than you think.”

For example, many editors and agents have said to me over the years, “I loved this book. I can’t believe it tanked.” Without thinking, I nearly always reply, “Well, there’s no correlation between sales and quality.” I’ve yet to meet the person who welcomed this advice.

In each of these cases, I was referring to the quality of the prose. These were books that were easy to read and seemingly easy to edit, but clearly that’s not the only way to measure quality. A good book isn’t just well-written. It might be inspiring, gripping, enlightening, depressing, or a dozen other things. It might win awards or have high sales figures (though both are entirely debatable, especially since awards rarely go to the biggest bestsellers).

The debate, between advocates of sales and advocates of literary quality in determining the success of a book, had a new entrant last week in the form of Ursula K. LeGuin’s National Book Award speech, where she urged the publishing industry to remember that the point of this is art, not commerce.

I admit that as a regular purveyor of depressingly specific marketing advice, I neglect to mention this salient fact: the way to good sales starts with great art.Continue Reading

The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Publishing Isn’t Dead

PublishingThere’s an old joke in publishing about consultants, though it’s probably rooted in truth. A new executive hires a prestigious firm to spend months on an expensive deep dive, and they come back, excited, with one key insight: “You should publish more bestsellers, and fewer books that aren’t bestsellers.”

Why didn’t we think of that?

All of the biggest houses need bestsellers to make their annual numbers, and those numbers are big. How big? To pick a random comparison, HarperCollins generated about $1.4 billion in their last fiscal year. That’s “billion” with a “b.” That’s just a bit less than, for instance, The New York Times over their last fiscal year. And HarperCollins did it while generating a bit less in expenses.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Ebook is Dead. Long Live the Ebook.

First computerOne of the best parts of being a book editor is that it gives you a magic power. You take a Microsoft Word file, wave your hand over it and say, “Now it’s a book.” And it’s a book. Up until that moment, it’s just words and ideas, and they could be changed, tweaked, or buried, never to see the light of day. After that, everyone, including the production department and the printer, believes it’s a book.

The creation of self-publishing has done little to erode that magical power. If you tell someone you’ve written a book, you can watch their eyes narrow as they wait to see what you might mean. Did you write something the length of a book? Or has a professional editor waved her magic hands over it and transmuted that into a book?

A book, the futurist Umair Haque once said, is already a perfected technology. An ebook has some advantages, but not enough to eliminate print books. It turns out the invention of ebooks is less analogous to the invention of the automobile and something more like the invention of shorts. Shorts are great, but they didn’t make everyone throw away their pants.

I thought of this late last week when I read about the closing of Atavist Books. Investors had put big money (by book publishing standards) into this startup, which was supposed to disrupt the book industry. The company only lasted for a little over two years before pulling the plug. For this to have happened, a lot of very smart people had to have completely misunderstood why readers read, and it’s worth figuring out what their mistakes were.Continue Reading