Saturday, October 27, 2012

What do baseball and presidential elections have in common?

There must be at least a bazillion answers to the question posed in this blog post's title.

But on the eve of the SF Giants third win of three to-date in the 2012 World Series, I'm thinking about that arcane, obsessive, obscure quantification thing. Stats. Or, as XKCD spun it a week and a half ago, precedent:

If you use an RSS reader and aren't subscribed to, I contend that you're pretty much missing the point.

Hilarious, once again... Thank you, Randall Munroe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Early e-publishing: 30 Million Book Giveaway! (circa 1995)

Recently I was combing through back issues of a now-defunct New York literary magazine, the very one in which I first published short fiction. That story, "What was Slain in the Sun," appeared in the penultimate issue of Christopher Street, in November of 1995. I was looking for the magazine's circulation figures (this to do with eligibility criteria for a short story contest), but what I found was more interesting than that.

There was an advertisement in pretty much every issue of Christopher Street that I looked at in the library stacks at UC Berkeley, where I work. The advertisement was printed as a full page in many issues, and a half-page in the issue in which my story appeared. It promoted a book written by the woman with whom I'd corresponded when my story was accepted for publication, Neenyah Ostram. The book she was promoting in 1995 was: America's Biggest Cover-Up: 50 More Things Everyone Should Know About the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic And Its Link to AIDS.

I haven't read the book, so I won't speak to its subject matter. What called my attention to the ad was this bold callout, seemingly so naive from a distance of (only) 17 years:
How do you give 30 million copies of a book away? On the Internet.

It gets better:
For those of you who know your way around the Internet, access to the Electronic Newsstand is free and available through the Newsstand Home Page at URL and via gopher or telnet. Please gopher or telnet and login as enews.

For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet, we suggest that you modem yourself to your nearest bookstore and buy and old-fashioned hard-cover copy of AMERICA'S BIGGEST COVER-UP. [...]
For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet? Port numbers in a URL? Gopher? Telnet? It's like discovering evidence of a lost civilization!!

What's "gopher" -- both the noun and verb? Gopher was a widely used protocol for distributing documents over the early internet. It presented text menus for retrieving hierarchically organized documents, which made sense in a world in which many computer systems handled text display much better than graphics. Gopher lost out to the web, as we all know now. It was invented at U. Minnesota.

Telnet was (and is) a protocol for opening interactive, text-oriented communication sessions with remote computers. It was superseded by the still very broadly used SSH protocol, which handles the same sort of communication securely (so communications between computers can't be intercepted by tapping the 'wire' between the legitimate parties to data exchange).

I know, I know, it's like trying to explain rotary phones to today's elementary school kids. Or landlines. Grandpa, what's a modem?

Leaving aside the trip down Ancient Technology Lane, what really struck me about the ad for Ostrom's book was how clearly it anticipated the sea change in book distribution that electronic formats would make possible -- a dozen years before the explosion of e-books detonated by the Kindle in 2007, and fueled now by the likes of Smashwords and iTunes and Google Play in addition to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. These sea changes are roiling the publishing industry, hard, to this day. I don't suppose that Ostrom's work was read by all 30 million subscribers to 1995's Electronic Newsstand, but it could have been. For free.

Remarkable what you can find in the stacks of a library, at the border between the pre-digital world and the one in which we're immersed today.

Thanks to wackystuff for the rotary phone image, via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
My short story "Martin's Pond" published as an e-book
Are dust bunnies an argument for e-books?
Getting a grip on attention span
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bubblegum: an affliction in every generation

It won't be my childhood friends who get this wrong, but lest anyone else imagine I was consistently cool from the moment in 1968 when I 'discovered' rock and roll (described on this very blog a couple of months ago) I need to make a confession. The first LP I bought might have been Hey Jude -- leaning toward cool if you consider I was eleven in 1970 (and I still want to be a paperback writer); but not long after that I became a teenager, and my musical tastes lurched all over the place. They were keeping pace, I suppose, with my hormones.

So was there a period when even bubblegum spoke to me? Yes, there was.

According to Wikipedia, Bubblegum's classic period ran from 1967 to 1972. Justin Bieber's mom wasn't even born yet, but I was there, thank you very much.

I'm sure I've self-protectively blocked out the worst of the worst songs that made me weak in the knees. Which leaves me wondering, because the songs I do remember swooning over are, um, pretty embarrassing. Take Lally Stott's Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, for example. The video's kind of hilarious looking back on it -- hilarious in the sweetest and corniest way -- but imagine taking this song seriously with nothing more than radio play and a 45 rpm disc to garner a following:

This was a period in which Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal were pulling major heartstrings with Love Story, 99 minutes of pure cinematic schmaltz. I will not admit over the public intertubes how many times I (a) sat through the film -- in a theatre, people -- and, (b) wept at the end. This as a tween. The fact that I was mad about Tin Tin's Toast and Marmalade for Tea at about the same time is confession enough:

I bought these and other 45s at a memorable record store about a mile from where I lived in the early seventies. The name of the place was Banana Records, and it sat like a gigantic fruit crate across the street from the local McDonalds.

Back then its solid cubical surface was unpainted, unfinished wood, in harmonious tune with '70s aesthetics. The sales floor was set a few stairs down from street level, and the interior of the cube was empty space, a perfect venue for whatever promotional displays the record companies sent along to help sell the vinyl.

As you can see in the photo at right, the cube is now (or was, in March 2011, when Google last did a street view drive-by) painted a dull industrial grey, and houses a computer repair shop.

The times, they've been a changin' ...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Rock and roll awakening: my first songs, circa 1968
Melancholy popular music: Lana Del Rey and her antecedents
Take a sad song

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

First sentences in fiction

It's a widely-rumored 'truth' that first sentences in fiction are key to hooking book buyers. I suppose there's a measure of actual truth in that, though when I browse in bookstores I tend to read more than a single sentence, or even an opening paragraph, to form a would I like to read this? impression.

For a writer who pays attention to the sort of advice dispensed by agents and editors, there's a lot of pressure built up around first sentences, paragraphs, or pages. Novice novelists can easily get the impression that first pages without gripping plot hooks are destined to be slush-pile rejects. And while that may be true depending on the agent or publisher reading one's manuscript, it's also true that some stories don't want to start out with a big flash-bang ... and not all readers are looking for a plot twist every third paragraph. A more subtle -- and perhaps more honest -- variation of the hook 'em early rule is that a compelling voice is as much an invitation into a fictional world as a page one cliffhanger.

A writer in my critique group asked us recently to post "the first sentences or paragraphs of the best Chapter One you've ever read." I had a hard time coming up with favorite first sentence or a best Chapter One. Off the top of my head? In truth, nothing came immediately to mind.

As it happens, on the day my fellow-writer's prompt came over the transom I began reading Open City, by Teju Cole. The first sentence was ... fine. Not remarkable. But by the end of the first paragraph I was wholly pulled into the narrator's voice:
And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.
Now this sort of opening may not be your cup of tea. It won't draw every reader in. But for this reader, smitten with W.G. Sebald's work from the moment I first picked up Austerlitz, an inveterate city-walker, and in love with New York City from my first sojourn there at a tender age, I knew right away that Open City was going to take me places I longed to visit.

So with no immediate favorite leaping to mind, I decided to answer the question asked of my group by looking at a couple of dozen novels I'd read recently, and star-rating the first sentences to see how my scores would correspond to what I thought of the novels as complete works.

I realized as I read these couple of dozen sentences that first-impressions aren't all about craft: my response has as much to do with the types of books I like to read as with the writer's objective talent.

For example, the start of Jodi Picault's The Tenth Circle is this: Laura Stone knew exactly how to go to hell. Not even ten words, only one of them polysyllabic, and all the punch a hard hitting, plot driven story needs. If you're looking for that sort of thing, you know right away you've found it. Me? I rolled my eyes when I read this sentence for the first time, and indeed I didn't like the novel at all. I gave the sentence a single star as I ran through my scoring exercise, but -- really? -- that's an idiosyncratic decision. The sentence represents what Picault wrote vividly and accurately.

Here's the rubric I used to apply stars to sentences in the list below:

***** Hooked! I'm compelled to read this book. I'll be shocked if I don't like it. I'm probably going to love this book.

**** Nice, an auspicious start. I have a feeling I'm going to like the voice and writing here.

*** Inviting, but not exciting. I want to keep going, and need to if I'm to get a real sense of this book.

** Can't tell anything, really, about the book, voice, or writing from the first sentence.

* Uh oh. This novel could be really painful to read.
So, twenty-four books grouped from most fabulous to least interesting opening sentences in this reader's subjective opinion:
***** Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)
**** The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)
**** A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
**** Open City (Teju Cole)
**** This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman)
**** Ransom (David Malouf)
**** The History of Love (Nicole Krauss)
**** Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
*** In The Woods (Tana French)
*** When We Were Orphans (Kazuo Ishiguro)
*** Growth of the Soil (Knut Hamsun)
*** The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
*** The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
*** An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Brock Clarke)
*** State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
*** City (Clifford D. Simak)
*** How to Buy a Love of Reading (Tanya Egan Gibson)
*** War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
** I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson)
** The Cat's Table (Michael Ondaatje)
** The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)
** The Gospel of Anarchy (Justin Taylor)
* The Melancholy of Resistance (László Krasznahorkai)
* The Tenth Circle (Jodi Picoult)

I won't list these books in the order I liked them, that's TMI ... and star ratings can be dangerous: look at what XKCD had to say on the topic recently, in the cartoon embedded at left. I will say that books on this list whose first sentences left me indifferent went on to be books I liked or even loved. Books whose first sentences made me swoon turned out to be serious disappointments. The few books I loathed were evenly distributed from awful to fabulous when it came to first sentences. In a few  cases, the first sentences were pretty good predictors of how, for example, I rated these books on Goodreads.

Bottom line: I found that the correspondence between how I responded to first sentences and how I responded to a book as a whole varies ... through a wide range.

If you ask me, sniffing out books I'm likely to enjoy reading involves a much more complex alchemy than can be cooked up from first sentences alone.

What's your read on this question? Do first sentences tell you everything you need to know about a book? Or do you need longer passages to get a feel for whether you'd like to read a novel?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A childhood favorite: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize
Book first or movie first?

Thanks once again to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris; and to xkcd for all the chuckles, especially this one.