Archive for February, 2011

Bad book reviews = great sales?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The conventional wisdom in the book biz has always been that any publicity is good publicity — and a spectacular, jeered-at failure is a better option than a quiet, well-respected success reviewed only in the Journals That Count.  Even more so now, when the biggest risk is that your book will float away in the receding tsunami of seasonal offerings.

This Stanford study by two business professors confirms the conventional wisdom — to a point.  Bad reviews can dramatically boost sales for obscure and up-and-coming writers.  They don’t help the famous.

“Any publicity is not always good publicity, as the old adage goes,” Wharton’s Jonah Berger told the Stanford Daily. “But there were also cases where even negative publicity seemed to help sales, so it was interesting to think about when it helps versus hurts.”

The study,  co-authored by Berger and Stanford’s Alan Sorenson, first examined a 2001-2003 dataset of weekly national sales for 244 fiction titles reviewed by The New York Times. The size of sale spikes in the week following the release of each book review showed that positive publicity benefited all titles and the bad publicity only helped lesser-known and obscure authors.

The second part of the study looked at how bad publicity impacted well-known and obscure books over time. Subjects looked at glowing and nasty reviews for a well-known book by John Grisham and then reviews for an invented title.

Those who read bad reviews of well-known books were less likely to buy the book. Negative reviews of unknown books, however, did not affect whether or not the subject was likely to purchase it.

“Let’s say you’ve got bad publicity or bad press on one of your new brands,” Stanford business professor Baba Shiv said. “On one hand, it’s making your brand look familiar, which is associated with positive emotion and at the same time, it’s eliciting negative emotion towards the brand, which comes from the bad publicity.”

As mediabistro explained:

The studies depended on emotional “decay rate”– how quickly an emotion (both good or bad) fades away. Stanford business professor Baba Shiv explained: “In the case of a well-known brand, the familiarity is already there … the decay rate of negative emotion will be much slower.” (Via Sarah Weinman)

The key point was that familiarity with the authors helped everyone, and familiarity was such a strong positive that it dissipated much more slowly in consumers’ minds than the bad taste of a critic’s diss.  But the well-known books and authors already had the boost of familiarity — so the bad reviews could only hurt.

Read it here if you want to figure it out better than I have.

Of course, I wonder who is classifying a review is good or bad — most are kind of mixed, aren’t they?  And for myself, I’d much rather read a interesting failure — a profound book that failed in some key way, than a very well-reviewed lightweight book.  And name recognition is measured … how?

For another take on reviewing, read about Owl Criticism (hat tip, Frank Wilson).  Charles Baxter takes on amazon-type online reviews, accusing them of “Owl Criticism”: “With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’”

Frank’s reaction to Baxter is worth reading, too:  it’s here.

Liu Xia’s desperate internet message: “I’m crying. Nobody can help me.”

Friday, February 25th, 2011

"Can't go out. My whole family are hostages."

On Thursday, the 17th of February, the Chinese celebrated the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

Liu Xia, wife of this year’s Nobel peace laureate, the writer Liu Xiaobo, celebrated in her own way:  she managed to get on the internet for five minutes, communicating with a friend.  It is believed to be her first contact with the outside world in four months. Her phone and internet lines were cut off soon after the announcement of the Nobel.

The friend provided the transcript to the Washington Post.

“I don’t know how I managed to get online,” Liu Xia wrote to the friend in her post. “Don’t go online. Otherwise my whole family is in danger.”

The friend asked, “Are you at home?”

“Yes,” Liu Xia responded, writing in Pinyin, the Chinese transliteration system. She said she was using an old computer and apparently could not type Chinese characters.

“Can’t go out. My whole family are hostages,” Liu Xia said. …

“So miserable,” she wrote. “Don’t talk.”

“I’m crying,” she added. “Nobody can help me.”

She added that she had only seen her husband once since the Nobel.  The friend wrote was afraid of causing her more trouble, and wrote: “Please log out first. We miss you and support you. We will wait for you outside.” She replied “Goodbye” and “Okay,” and the chat ended.

According to Radio Free Asia:

Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a New York-based pro-human rights and democracy journal, told RFA that he was surprised Liu Xia came online on Thursday.

He said that on Friday he had spoken on the phone with one of Liu Xia’s friends in China who was saying that everyone was worried because they had not heard any news from her in recent months.

Hu Ping also expressed concern over Liu Xia’s psychological state.

Tobias Wolff: “Tell the truth.”

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

At Kepler's in 2008 (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff shares his own evolutionary path in the Los Altos Town Crier this week.

“The first step to becoming a writer is to be a reader,” Wolff said. “I remember being huddled under the blankets with a flashlight reading Albert Payson Terhune. I loved those collies. Being able to see the world through the eyes and the mind of a dog captivated me. I read all his books.”

As a boy, Wolff was also taken with with the works of Jack London.  “I was so enthusiastic that I changed my name to Jack,” he said. “I was writing all the time and began to try to imitate London’s style. I learned a writer reads differently. He notices the form, language, sense of character and voice.”

In fact, he said:

“You need to imitate until you find your voice,” he told the audience. “It’s just like listening to great music before you play. I assign my students an essay to be written in the style of Henry James,” he said. “One of the most difficult parts of writing a book is selecting names for your characters. They need to fit like a suit of clothes.”

His final advice to those writing memoirs:  “Tell the truth.”

Peter Dale Scott’s “J’aime mais j’accuse”

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Poetry reviews are hard to come by in our increasingly distracted world, so Peter Dale Scott wrote me yesterday to say that he is understandably chuffed with John Peck‘s hefty, megawatt review for his  Mosaic Orpheus in the current Notre Dame Review. (If you scroll way down to the bottom of the screen here, you can download the 15-page pdf, which is certainly a clumsy way for NDR to do things.)

Peter, a former Canadian diplomat, is one of the few to tackle political poetry in a way that is gritty and specific, rather than the more commonplace attempt to commandeer politics to give oneself unearned gravitas via airy and politically correct generalities.  Robert Hass called Peter’s 1988 Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror “the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time.”

Peck’s discussion opens with the 1988 “contemplative epic”: 

“Coming to Jakarta, his attempt to contain distress over the blocked publication of his investigative research findings comes up against ‘mosaic darkness’—not familiarly seamless obscurity, but kaleidoscopic stuff—while in the poem’s later books Dante’s civic grief and wrath, with his loyal love for a dead woman, make him an Orphic brother-father to Scott, in that Alighieri’s existential defeat folds out into contrary visionary assurance. Such is not regulation Orphism, particularly as invoked collegially against American amnesiac indifference toward a largely occulted, webby congress of state terrorism, proxy mass slaughters, off-the-books funnelings of the sluice from international drug cartels to black ops, economic decline and the management of fear by debt, false-flag events, assassinations, and greasy resource wars.”

Shovel ready

Peck’s writing style is dense, but often rewarding.  And while I hadn’t been terribly looking forward to a long gaze at the nastiest sides of American policy — other than that proffered by the daily news — I must say that Peck’s review has heightened my interest.  Of Scott, Peck writes:

“He must be the only poet now writing who can say that Czesław Miłosz, peace-studies scholar Ola Tunander, various prominent vipassana teachers, and certain unnamed informants in government service deceased in mysterious circumstances, equally have nourished his effort. This span, together with an iron stomach for the forensics and catharsis of difficult findings, spell his personal equation. His poetics therefore will likely be neither a standard Orphic affair nor a canonical Buddhist one, although the poetry plainly arises in order to square those canons, and that personal equation, with a civics obdurately impersonal and malign.”

Peter, one of Miłosz’s earliest translators, describes his up-and-down relationship with the Nobel laureate — the two parted over politics, but reconciled much later — in my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Peck concludes:

“The spirit of research in this our dump needs every acolyte who carries a shovel. My Ketman-meter, its needle pushing into the red zone, tells me that our bitched order forces doubleness into both zones, out behind the vast oligarchic scrim and down into the crannies of palimpsested authority.  Scott has done us the honor of adopting this country as his own. Shall we read his voluminous J’aime mais j’accuse with due attention? His vade mecum, Mosaic Orpheus, reminds us that this labor has been one of hopeless, yet justified, love.”

By the way, Clive Wilmer called Peck, a Pittsburgh-born psychotherapist, “the outstanding American poet of his generation–as well as one of the most difficult.” As a young man he studied under Yvor Winters, and earned his Stanford PhD with doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, supervised by Donald Davie.  Some of Peck’s poems are at the Poetry Foundation here.

Io Sono Con Te: A film with a René Girard p.o.v.

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Over the last few years, I’ve come to serve as a sort of electronic butler for René Girard.  Other journalists, readers, and fans often email me if they want to reach the reclusive octogenarian.  I am happy to assume the role; I consider myself a friend as well as an occasional interlocutor.  A few weeks ago, however, the ad hoc role offered an unusual bonus:  I received an email from Italian director Guido Chiesa, who has just completed Io Sono Con Te, featured a few months ago at the Rome Film Festival and covered in Espresso, L’Osservatore Romano, and the Italian editions of Rolling Stone and GQ. It was filmed in Tunisia with mostly local, and often non-professional, performers.

René Girard‘s work was a great source of inspiration for our project and it helped us a great deal during the writing of the script and the understanding of several Biblical passages about Mary and Jesus’s childhood,” he wrote.  So he sent a DVD and press kit to me, as well as René.

Chiesa’s results are interesting, to say the least.  He retells the Nativity and childhood of Jesus from a Girardian p.o.v.

Not sacrifice, but mercy

Chiesa’s film confronts us with an archaic world of pervasive, quotidian violence – the contemptuous violence of Roman occupation; the temples soaked in blood and sacrifice; the slaughter of helpless animals.  Even Joseph is dominated by a fictitious (but altogether plausible) older brother, the head of the clan who is quick with his hands and his temper.

“Why do you have to take it out on someone?” one woman asks.  “Why is a scapegoat necessary, why do we need an outlet for aggression and blame?” is the unasked question.  The mob, as always, is ruled by fear, conformity, vengeance, and the need to blame.

René writes about the terrible tendency to target an alien, an outsider, the oddball.  Hence, Mary is seen as a skandalon, as René would say.

Mary as skandalon

Chiesa’s Mary is exceptional.  He has cast a very young Tunisian girl, speaking a Tunisian dialect, for most of the 100+ minute film; there’s nothing ethereal or otherworldly (or even conventionally beautiful) about her:  she’s round-faced and solid as a fire plug, simple and clear as water.  When her cousin Elizabeth frets over the complexity and bloodiness of Mosaic law, Mary tells her unaffectedly that what is needed is “not sacrifice, but mercy.”  It’s a persuasive message.

And perhaps it’s a message that has won:  René contends that, from these archaic societies to the Christian era, the word “sacrifice” changed. When used in the archaic world, it always meant the sacrifice of another – a human or animal sacrifice.  Now, “sacrifice” always suggests a sacrifice of oneself, of doing without something.

‎We noted the anniversary of Eric Voegelin’s death yesterday, so that’s an excuse for a relevant quote: “Christ is the head of the corpus mysticum, which includes all men from the beginning of the world to its end. He is not the president of a special-interest club.” Which would mean, of course, that there are no outsiders, outcasts, aliens, or oddballs.  This is of course, the implications of the Girardian theory.  It’s not a conclusion anyone comes to quickly.

The other face of time

The characters in the film, as people everywhere, are figuring this out as time rolls forward – hence, the scene with the tentful of confused “wise men” (not the iconic three).  “Loving your neighbor” finally extended outside the tribe, at least in theory if not practice, through the centuries.

The next day I got a full belly of archaic societies again, New World style, with the Olmec exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

These dauntingly huge statues were made for one apparent purpose:  to impress and intimidate.  When the rulers were toppled, their colossal heads were defaced, and that was that.   The exhibition even featured a massive, heavily decorated “butcher box” for blood and human parts in sacrifice rituals.

Happy birthday, Wystan

It reminded me again of Chiesa’s haunting film, depicting a society dominated by those who seek power for its own sake, a world where power is all – just before that hierarchy was to be turned upside down, not all at once, and not even today, but poco a poco – by an execution where (since it is W.H. Auden’s birthday today, and since his words were rolling through my head in the museum):


… three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came …

The powerless will always be alone.

Postscript on 2/23:  Several people have asked me how to get a DVD.  I emailed Guido Chiesa and asked.  His response today:  “The DVD will come out in Italy on April 16th, but it won’t be fit for the American TV standards. I guess the only way would be to find an American distributor willing to put it out there: any idea? I suppose you don’t have anything to do with the film’s world, but maybe some of your Facebook’s friends know a powerful movie-mogul…”

“If this is not love, I don’t know what is.”

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Some sort of ancient musical instrument

“POEMS: your topic, your price, about anything, donation.”

Name your subject.  Then, a poem emerges from “the crisp click-clacking of Zach Houston‘s lima-bean green, Swiss-made, Hermes Rocket portable typewriter … amid the bustle on the sidewalk.” The 28-year-old Houston sits on a folding chair he has set up, usually outside the Ferry Building in Oakland, but often elsewhere in the Bay Area.

He calls his project “poemstore.”

He’s written poems for Gavin Newsom, Joe Montana, Steve Martin and even the staff of Oscar de la Renta. He’s been featured on the CBS Evening News and Charles Osgood.

“Hey, want a poem?” Houston offered passers-by last weekend on an unusually warm San Francisco winter day. “Hi there, how ’bout a poem? You look like you need a poem!” Some stopped. Some didn’t. Nearly everyone smiled at the scruffy-faced guy in a black baseball cap with an infinity symbol on the front. Others approached just to view the anachronistic device on his lap, thinking it to be some sort of ancient musical instrument.

“It’s my job,” he says.  It’s been his only job since 2007.  “If this is not love, I don’t know what is,” he says.

You can read about him in the Oakland Tribune‘s Valentine’s Day article here.  Or catch up with him on his own minimalist website here.  Or write him at

(Hat tip, David Sanders.)

Eric Voegelin and the eagle eye of an archivist

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Voegelin letters (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Linda Bernard was deep in the pages of Edmund de Waal’s acclaimed The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, a family memoir of the Ephrussis, a wealthy Jewish clan who fled the Nazis in 1938.  Something clicked.

Here’s what clicked:  the Hoover archivist saw the name of Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria and died at Stanford in 1985.  “So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives,” she wrote on a blog for the Hoover archivists:

“When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.”

In August 1966 (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Voegelin and Ephrussi met while students in Vienna in the 1920s and remained close friends throughout their lives abroad, he in the United States (and eventually at Stanford) and she in England, where she had settled with her Dutch husband, Hendrik de Waal.

Linda Bernard wrote the author a fan letter to author Edmund de Waal, who is curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

“Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.”

Archivist extraordinaire

So the dozen letters were recently added to Voegelin’s collection.  It’s quite an exciting find.  According to the Hoover Archives website, Voegelin’s widow gave the original cache to the archives in the 1980s, including 45 letters from Ephrussi to Voegelin (from 1938 to 1976), and seven carbon copies of his replies to her (from 1941 to 1974). We have what she said to him, but comparatively little of what Voegelin said to her. De Waal’s donation fills out his side of the conversation.

So what do the letters say?

Their correspondence (in German and English) addresses the fateful events of 1938. Particularly poignant in this regard is her letter of November 8, 1938, in which she informs Eric of the death of her mother (about which more is learned in The Hare with Amber Eyes). But beyond the politics of the day that affected them both so much is a rich dialogue over five decades on philosophy, history, religion, and law between two brilliant individuals.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss looks pretty good.  Washington Post review is here.

Postscript on 1/19: ‎”The death of the spirit is the price of progress.” — Eric Voegelin died on this day 26 years ago.

Solution for sagging shelves — look no further!

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Bowed bookshelves are an inevitable feature of the booklover’s home. And perhaps like me, you never discard an old book.  If so, the solution to your sagging shelves is near at hand.  Yet another purpose for Oswald Spengler‘s Decline of the West!

John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

In 1727, Voltaire fixed an image of the hardscrabble John Milton that would prove hard to dislodge: he wrote that the poet “remained poor and without glory; his name must be added to the list of great geniuses persecuted by fortune.”

A few days ago, I mentioned Milton’s famous — nay, notorious — contract giving him for £5 for Paradise Lost. Preeminent Miltonist Martin Evans had told me something about this contract a couple years back, and I wrote him to refresh my memory.  Almost by return email, he pointed me to a December 2010 article by his former student, Kerry MacLennan, on precisely this topic in the Milton Quarterly.  It’s online here.

Far from being a patsy, MacLennon insists that “Milton was an expert navigator in the capitalist landscape around him.”

What’s known:  the contract, signed on April 27, 1667, with printer Samuel Simmons, awarded Milton £5 on signature, and £5 on later retail sale for each of three contemplated editions of 1,300 copies each.  Hence, the real value of the transaction was £20.

Still small potatoes, right?

There’s more:  According to MacLennan, “For a writer to be paid in cash at all by a publisher was not customary at the time: seventeenth-century authors typically provided manuscripts to their printers in exchange for a small number of complimentary copies of the published work.”

This was not a royal work commissioned for an aristocratic audience.  Paradise Lost was a “risky speculative venture,” dependent upon “small press runs on speculation, displayed in bookshop windows, and awaiting discovery by readers with the interest, impulse, and either the cash or credit to buy them.”  In short, this contract marks the beginning of the decline of the aristocratic patronage system, to be replaced by a capitalistic, republican framework for writers.

MacLennon reviews Milton’s contact and determines that Milton was entitled to a share of the epic’s earnings — nearly two centuries, remember, before the advent of the term “royalty.”  She finds that while £20 might be slim pickings for the poem canonized as the most famous single poem in English, “recharacterizing the payment as a royalty of between 2.6% and 5.1% should extinguish any lingering indignation on Milton’s behalf.”

“I propose that we consider the likelihood that Milton was the architect, indeed the author, of the contract for Paradise Lost, as much as he was the creator of its poetry … Milton’s father’s professional skills as a scrivener may have directed him how to anticipate, and circumvent, contractual loopholes and trapdoors.”

She concludes:

The contract for Paradise Lost champions and models the rights of artists to manage and control the commercial aspects of their creative production. But rather than writing a pamphlet on the rights of authors, Milton’s polymath mind instead invented, and left us, a template.

(Paradise Lost images provided, of course, courtesy Gustav Doré.)

Orwell Watch #6: “Like” and the culture of vagueness.

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

"...and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’"

“Like.”  Need we say more?  Via Books Inq, we came across this description of “the culture of vagueness.” A suitable addition to our George Orwell Watch. “Nobody likes a grammar prig,” says Clark Whelton, a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.  Then he goes on to become one.  At least a bit of one.  Nevertheless, he has a point.  He takes on the current usage of “like,” which has “a long and scruffy pedigree,” buried in the mid-20th century’s Holden Caulfield


I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

Continuing on with a pool of undergraduates he interviewed for the position of intern on Koch’s speechwriting staff, Whelton considers other current verbal tics: “The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end.”  He also noted: “Double-clutching (‘What I said was, I said . . .’) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (‘So I’m like, “Want to, like, see a movie?” And he goes, “No way. And I go . . .”), made their entrance.” He finally takes on the trend to make statements into questions for the “all-interrogative interview”:

Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.

The Orwell connection to public life:

Is Vagueness simply an unexplainable descent into nonsense? Did Vagueness begin as an antidote to the demands of political correctness in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas? Does Vagueness offer an undereducated generation a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge?

More here. A postscript:  Some more thoughts on “vocabulary substitutes”:  How about all those emoticons to signal emotions the reader may not “get” from the text?  Or the insertion of verbal cues  — e.g., “Sigh,” “Snark,” “lol,” or, to suggest a lazy sort of irony, “ummm” — because the words alone cannot guide us to the writer’s intention? (In the case of lol, it’s become little more than a compulsive written tic, a space filler, even when no humor is intended.)  Or how about “Thank You” cards, with THANK YOU written across the front, because the sender couldn’t express the words convincingly in cursive, in his or her very own hand?

Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Valentine’s Day postscript (hat tip, Jim Erwin):