Archive for December, 2008

The Evolution of the Paperback

December 17, 2008

Paperback books are beautiful things these days. Their covers are stiff and thick, their coverart has clearly had some real effort put into it to make it look modern and relevant, and the general quality is very good. Unfortunatley, they’re also called Trade Paperbacks and cost $14-18 a pop.

I think my generation has been the one that has straddled the the transition for Literature from the basic paperback to the trade paperback. I think I remember seeing the change begin in earnest about ten years ago, as these large, obviously well-made books began creeping onto bookshelves amongst their smaller, flimsier brethren. Where this happened first was The Classics, thier status amongst the other books apparently lifting them to higher quality stock.

I also remember noticing the clear price difference between the conventional paperback and the Trade Paperback.  Where I could grab a copy of Breakfast of Champions for $5 in the standard paperback, the Trade Paperback wanted to pry $15 out of my wallet. but I guess that’s the price you pay for Classics.

And now it’s the price you pay for Literature. I got a couple of Borders gift cards through my credit card company last week and, coupon in hand, ventured into Borders to get a “free” book. Well, as free as having used my credit card for hundreds of dollars of purcases so that I could use my Reward Points for a couple of $25 gift cards, at any rate.

I picked up The Last Town on Earth, a debut novel by Thomas Mullen. This in no way is to reflect the quality of the novel. I haven’t read it yet but I bought it so I clearly think it’s something that at least stands a chance at being pretty good.  But it also cost $14. With my coupon, it took the cost plus tax down to just under twelve.  And we wonder why it’s hard to get young people interested in books. I’m betting price has a reasonable hand in it as they make movies look affordable.

And we’re starting to see the Trade Paperback drift into the genre sections as well. Phil Dick and Ray Bradbury were among the first of the genre writers I remember seeing with these big, sturdy editions of their classic work. And now I’m seeing William Gibson’s Spook Country retailing for $15 (though, kudos to Amazon for having it and many other books on significant markdowns). 

For all of the talk about the RIAA pillaging music fans with ridiculous prices on CDs and deserving to be similarly plundered by filesharing programs, I can’t help but think that the publishing companies have followed a similar path. The covers might be a little nicer and the books a little bigger but I’m not sold on these developments requiring a $10 price hike over the more conventional paperback. And I also wouldn’t hesitate to just buy a conventional paperback if given the choice.

But we’re not given that choice and I have to wonder if the prices are not hurting the growth of the book industry. While once someone becomes a reader they are probably hooked for life, and will continue to buy (and gripe) regardless of the price,  I have to think it turns away potential readers. I also wonder if it doesn’t limit the possibilities for success of new writers. If someone is on a bit of a budget and they have a choice between the new novel from a writer they’ve read and enjoyed or a new novel from a new guy, I’m betting the old and familiar usually wins that tug of war.

And maybe I just miss the days of being able to buy a good book for $6.

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Go: The Coherent Novel on the Beats

December 15, 2008

I think reading the Beats is a bit of a right of passage for most young readers/writers. In America, they were arguably the last significant “movement” in that there were a clear group of people closely associated with each other and who actually hung out together and worked on their craft together to have a significant impact on not just the literary world but the world in general. this isn’t to say that there haven’t been writers since who can be grouped together through style/influence/subject matter. You can always create these artificial groupings. But the Beat Generation, to me, was the last Group, with a capital G.

I have a feeling my experience with them isn’t unlike others. You hear of this group of writers, you hear about them writing some real way out stuff that no one you run into who read them and liked them can quite explain. They’re just damn good. And you should read them. And I did. And I started with one of the biggies, Ginsberg, from a college poetry anthology my English teacher had given me. From Howl, Khaddish and America I moved on to Kerouac and On The Road, Big Sur and the Dharma Bums and then on to Burroughs, etc.

Follow the strings long enough and you, as I did, come to Snyder, McLure, Bukowski and others. You start seeing Ann Charters’s everywhere. On the bookshelves at Borders or Barnes & Noble you start seeing the collections of letters and criticism and the various versions of various peoples “My Time with Such and Such…”  You listen to REM and read in the liner notes that Michael Stipe was a reader of the Beats and see Ginsberg showing up in bob Dylan documentaries. The Beats appear to be everywhere.

Who you don’t notice is John Clellon Holmes. Or at least I didn’. I’d know of him in the same way I know of the Boer War. I’ve heard of it, I know that it existed in some point but I couldn’t pick it out of a lineup if my life depended on it.

until I bought the novel Go a little over a year ago.  To anyone accostomed to the energy of Kerouac’s Beat-centric novels or Ginsberg’s passion, this can be quite a shock of a read.  First, and most importantly, it is insanely well written. Secondly, it gives a far different view of the Beat characters that would be made famous later when other members of the group started finding their fame. Holmes’s view of Neal Cassady, for example, is radically different from Kerouac’s and it is these differences which help give flesh to the characters, if you’re familiar with them from other works.

If you’re not familiar with them, it’s still a great read as you follow Holmes’s self-styled “Hobbes” for six months as he pals around with the other Beats and attempts to reconcile their lifestyle with his own, never truly achieving a full synthesis but whose remaining on the outside is useful for the trust you can give his narration. 

For more information about Holmes, here’s his Wiki page. And here is a webprint of an article Holmes wrote in 1952 for the NY Times talking about the Beat Generation in a larger, non-literary centric way.

Here is Holms’s page from the exhaustingly well done Lit Kicks site.

If you’re near Kent State, their library has a large collection of John Clellon Holmes materials, including a collection 20 records made by Holmes of various things Beat related including Ginsberg reciting poetry to Kerouac and Ginsberg just talking to eachother. Unforunately, these materials are not available online (and, in all honesty, I’m not sure they are available in person, either, or if  they are simply “archived” materials).

Finally, if you’d like to just buy the novel, here’s the Amazon link for GO.

MFA Programs

December 12, 2008

My girlfriend is applying to MFA/creative writing programs right now. She is stressed out, writing a bunch of statements about teaching adn the formative moments that defined her life as that of a writer. 

I’m not big on MFA/creative writing programs. I’m not big on creative writing being something that is taught or has an academic discipline. The process seems counter to the process of writing. It feels like something that clusters ideas and breeds conformity. It encourages writing that goes from point a to point b to point c and makes all of the right and expected stops along the way.

It’s something that would have been hard on James Joyce or Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner. Or Mark Twain. Or a host of others.

I’m also not thrilled with the negative environments it creates. Granted, having been in my share of writing/poetry courses, I know there are times you just want to say to something, “pick a different hobby.”  But it often seemed as if people were unnecessarily hard on eachother. they would bring sledge hammers and machetes into class and use them liberally.

I have a friend who just graduated from an MFA program at chatham in pittsburgh. She shares a lot of these concerns, which surprised me a bit with her going into the program. And now she’s pursuing a PhD in creative writing.

I guess if your goal is to teach, then options are a bit limited and this is what you have to do. But I think a lot of people go into these programs wanting to write. But if they really wanted to write they would just…write. 

And what’s especially odd for me is that, despite my reservations about such a program, I’m considering applying for a couple myself. Just test the waters. I don’t hate school and the idea of teaching at the university level isn’t a bad one.  But I don’t expect it to make me a better writer. I just want it to give me a career path.