Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spoiler Alert: Publishing and The Artist

I saw The Artist this weekend, just in time for the Oscars. It really is a great movie; it's remarkable how much the actors are able to communicate nonverbally, and how secondary a role dialogue can actually play. But mostly what I took from The Artist is a question: What does this have to do with me?

I had the same reaction to Moneyball when I saw it on the plane, which may be an indication that I've become hopelessly self-absorbed. But I think mainly it's an indication of how much anxiety surrounds my industry--book publishing--right now; everybody's looking everywhere for hints at what the way forward might be. We are, to hear people tell it, fast approaching a time where books are not manufactured products but stored bits of data that are eventually either downloaded onto someone's system or printed on demand for the quaint and nostalgic. Meanwhile, and partly as a consequence, it's becoming dramatically simpler for anyone to publish a book, and there are less hurdles to sales success than there were in a more concrete, brick-mortar/paperback world. It seems, to the morose among us, that every publisher's anxious cry "What will become of me?" is met by its customers' cold response: "Frankly, I don't give a damn."

A similar futility faces the silent film actor George Valentin in The Artist. He's at the top of his game, an American treasure, when he bumps into a young, starry-eyed girl (Peppy Miller) looking to make her break in the business. They feel a spark but don't act on it; he's married and, while not particularly happy, he's noble and responsible. But he does her a couple of big favors and she's on her way to the top--just as "talkies" are about to make their break.

George is initially incredulous about the dawn of the nonsilent film, but in the best scene of the movie we see the fear of his own obsolescence come into stark relief. We see him pass through the stages of grief as the film progresses--through that initial denial, to anger at the industry that is so quickly and gleefully leaving him behind (including a sad moment when Peppy mocks him while he listens on), to bargaining with the American people to continue to trust him for their entertainment, to a prolonged and devastating depression, and finally to acceptance--a point that has its own sense of tragedy. Like any experience of grief, the path is not clean, and we see each stage reassert itself at various points. But it's a classic passage, one that many of us face in ways large and small. It's why the movie works so well despite not having spoken dialogue; it's why the movie feels fresh and progressive even as it uses a long-outdated form.

What's most interesting to me--and what I hope will be encouraging to my friends in my industry--is that The Artist adds a sixth stage to grief. Beyond acceptance comes, surprisingly even to George himself, a new wave of creativity. No sooner has the talkie killed the silent film star than the silent film star has innovated the talkie, revitalizing his industry before it even realized that innovation is necessarily part of its mission.

We are reminded in The Artist that there was no Cambrian explosion in cinema, before which all films were silent and fundamentally the same, and after which all films were talkies and fundamentally the same. Cinema, like all art--like publishing if we're smart about it--is never static but always growing, and major changes are never the final page of the story, only the turning of a chapter. The rise of the ebook, the democratization of the publishing process, the advances of on-demand printing are to publishing what talkies were to silent films: they are challenges, most definitely, but they are not terminal diseases, not death sentences. They are challenges to our creativity, and it would be a shame if we settled for mere acceptance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Send This Book to Congress: My GoodReads Review of Fixing the Moral Deficit

Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the BudgetFixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget by Ronald J. Sider
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Earlier this year I included in my Year of Overdue Books (books I should have read by now) the recently released Back to Work by President Bill Clinton. I justified its inclusion rather flimsily by deciding that getting the United States (and the world) back on its financial footing was an urgency and that those charged with the task were taking far too long. Whatever--I really just wanted to read the book. Anyway, I finished it and moved on, and a few weeks later pilfered a copy of Ron Sider's brand-new Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget. Published by my employer (full disclosure), it wasn't even officially a book yet; it arrived a few weeks early from the printer and hadn't yet been received into stock. I begged my colleague to let me have one of his review copies and took it with me on my cruise vacation.

I like reading books like this on a cruise ship. Given the obvious excess and self-indulgence that I and the other vacationers are enthusiastically indulging in, reading about budgets as moral documents seemed patently absurd, and I'm entertained by absurdity. (I read Andy Crouch's delightful Culture Making on a cruise as well, sitting just outside the ship's casino as I read about the human vocation of creating culture, not simply consuming or critiquing it.) But I also wanted to read up on the budget crisis and a solid, evangelical, ethical take on how the U.S. budget affects "the least of these" (to borrow language from Jesus) and how the budget might be reshaped to re-establish justice, promote the general welfare and re-form a more perfect union.

Ron Sider is the right person to write such a book. Author of the provocative Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, Sider has made economic justice his central vocation for decades. During that same time, the U.S. budget has become increasingly unwieldy, while politics have simultaneously become increasingly cutthroat. Our fiscal situation seems intractably disordered, quite honestly, and those charged with crafting a responsible budget seem too close and too compromised (by their electability, by their donors, by the heated rhetoric of their colleagues) to break through the morass and come up with something creative, just and sustainable. It takes people like Sider, like you and me, who are invested in the results of budget negotiations but who can keep enough critical distance to ask the right questions and commit to the best answers, and who have enough political clout (through the vote, through petitioning, through other collaborative ventures) to influence the decision-makers in a responsible direction.

Sider was one of the drafters of the 2011 Circle of Protection statement, which called for a budget that took debt seriously but also took the government's responsibility to its suffering citizens (and, it should be noted, to the least of these throughout the world). This book is in many ways an expansion of that statement, with specific suggestions and honest critique and a fair bit of attention to "generational justice," or an acknowledgment that spending beyond our means now is effectively the exploitation of the generations that come after us. I'm not sure I buy that; every investment is, effectively, a debt carried forward, and so some of the debt we incur today will actually benefit the people who come after us. That's not the only thing that I don't totally buy into in this book (figure 3.1 on the "different levels of Christian responsibility," for example, made me flinch a bit, as it seems to ignore Jesus' response to the question "Who is my neighbor?"); and it sometimes seems that the more specific Sider's recommendations get, the less likely they are to be implemented (the progressive surcharge on federal income tax to be applied to the debt strikes me as something that will never ever pass Congress ever). But quite honestly, no one tells it like it is quite like Ron Sider, and as moral documents go, this book is hard to dismiss. I'm going to send a copy to my congressional representative, my senators and my president, and I wouldn't mind it if you did the same. Fixing the moral deficit in the U.S. budget is overdue by decades, and the clock is running down for a responsible response. Sider may not have hit the bullseye with Fixing the Moral Deficit, but he's absolutely aiming in the right direction.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

The New Prodigal Age: My GoodReads Review of The Long Tail

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of MoreThe Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a fan of Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail--even though, to my knowledge, he's never gotten a penny of my money. I read occasional issues of Wired magazine, where he's editor in chief, when I see it on the magazine rack in our office library. I downloaded his super-interesting Free as an ebook when he was giving it away, for free. And while I've been talking with coworkers and other publishing industry people for years about Anderson's ideas in The Long Tail (c. 2006), I didn't actually stop to read it till it showed up this month on the free table where I work. What can I say--I'm a moocher, and it's easy to not have to pay Chris Anderson for his stuff.

Anyway, The Long Tail is in many ways the perfect book for me to read in this, my Year of Overdue Books. It has direct bearing on the work I do, acquiring and developing books in the publishing industry, which is as much as if not more in flux than it was when Anderson was writing this book. It's also horribly dated--MySpace has eight index page entries, while Facebook has none; and ebooks for Anderson circa 2006 are a non-thing, whereas now, just six years later, they're the thing that will either save us or destroy us. And yet it's still an important book to read for a couple of reasons:

1. It challenges the deep-seated and self-reinforcing assumption that hits drive the economy, and so all resources must be mustered perpetually for the next big hit (say, Lady Gaga), to the sacrifice of the "misses" or "losers" or "also-rans" or whatever derogatory term we assign to the nonhits among us.

2. It points to (although it doesn't deliver entirely) a strategy for capitalizing on the abundance of nonhits that in reality buttress the economy and, in the new prodigal age, have the potential to be the main drivers of any business success.

Anderson argues that the Internet age has caused a shift in the economy from scarcity (cut-throat competition for limited time, money and other resources) to abundance. Today the cost of manufacturing pretty much anything is being perpetually shrunk (although that's as much to do with exploitation of workers in a global economy as it is to technological improvements). Meanwhile, everyone with Internet access has the world at their fingertips, and in the post-2006 development of the smartphone, in their pockets. I use the Shazam app, for example, pretty much every day to identify a song on the radio or the Internet that was never a hit but is clearly appealing; as a result I've been able to discover b-side and album cuts from classic artists like David Bowie and John Lennon, as well as new songs by artists who haven't been given the hit-nod by the old-school mainstream music industry, such as Half-Handed Cloud and the Avett Brothers.

Of course, I'm hearing these songs, which means that they're getting played, which seems to refute Anderson's thesis. But remember that this is six years down the road from publication of The Long Tail and eleven years since the launch of iTunes, which Anderson writes has sold every song it carries at least once. Industries are already acting on the premise of the Long Tail; indeed, we had long tails long before Anderson pointed them out to us. What's principally different is the rise of bits and the decline of atoms--the shift to digital content and products and corresponding abandonment of the necessarily limited capacity of brick-and-mortar stores, three-shift factories and human consumption. All these have been solved (or, maybe better, problematized) by digital technologies. We can buy things from virtual stores; in increasing cases they come to us not as physical products off a truck but as pieces of data instantly transmitted; and human consumers can effortlessly translate every curiosity, every impulse, into an instant purchase. Toward the end of the book Anderson describes a printer you can buy that pulls data from the Internet and "prints" it as a physical product. That doesn't sound novel now (though it most certainly did way back in 2006), but think of the implications: as Anderson puts it, "Today you print your own photographs at home; tomorrow you may print the frame, too" (p. 226).

The Long Tail feels to me a bit long in the tooth. Anderson repeats himself here and there throughout; his book Free is a much more systematic presentation of some overlapping content about the declining costs of production and the implications thereof for selling. But the main thing here is hope: in the transition from scarcity to abundance in the global economy, the power is shifting from the supplier to the consumer, and the supplier's role is shifting as well, from baronic doler of content and materials to wise guide and creative bandleader. In an economy of abundance, producers and sellers have the responsibility and opportunity to do more, not less.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Year of Overdue Books: My GoodReads Review of The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard

The Writing LifeThe Writing Life by Annie Dillard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My Year of Overdue Books--books I honestly should have read by this time in my life--continues with The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. I rescued this book from the free table at work a few years ago; as an editor and a writer myself, I thought it was certainly worth giving some time to. Then it sat on my shelf for years. Probably my coworker who left it on the free table has seen it sitting there and silently judged me on more than one occasion.

Annie Dillard published The Writing Life in 1989, well into her writing career. She could legitimately claim, at age forty-four and with multiple publications to her credit, the writing life she claims in the title. She had already won a Pulitzer Prize for her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and had written quite a lot besides. Any writer could write a book about writing; Annie Dillard is the kind of writer whose book on writing people want to read.

At 111 pages you'd think this book would be barely a walk in a park. But it takes a long time to read. That's the nature of Dillard's writing, which is slow-cooked and well-crafted. You can almost make out the beads of sweat in between the lines that bore the prose from draft to draft. "Writing a book, full time," she claims, "takes between two and ten years" (p. 14). That's funny, because I've written two books and a booklet, all part time, and the time between contract and publication for each was never longer than fifteen months (and a good chunk of that time was taken up by the publisher's work). There is, I'm left to understand, a difference between the avocational writer, such as myself, knocking out prose in the cracks of the day, and a Pulitzer-level writer who gives her life to the work.

So, all props to Annie Dillard. That being said, I had a hard time reading the book. There's something about writing about writing, honestly; we're curious about how great writers do what they do, but we go into it knowing that their experience is distantly removed from our own, and so we take their counsel with a grain of salt. Annie Dillard writes in a converted toolshed in late winter because she likes a bleak space with nothing to distract her; I'm writing this review on my laptop in my family room with an episode of Kevin Smith's television show Comic Book Men playing in the background. Annie Dillard is trusted with a key to the local university library so she can work in dark solitude in the wee hours of New Year's Eve; I write when I can't think of anything better to do. I simply can't relate.

I'm glad I read the book. It's good for me to read up to such writers. I learn from their style, from their craftsmanship, and I also learn to recognize the distinctions of my own style. I'm not holding my breath for a Pulitzer, but I do hope to continue to write. I got very good advice once, on a first draft, from a friend who's much closer to Dillard's aptitude than I am; he told me to go through the manuscript paragraph by paragraph and drill down deeper at every point. I thanked him and set about revising, but I'm sure I didn't get as deep as he would have wanted me to. And I'm sure Annie Dillard would have read the finished product and sighed in frustration at what weekend writers such as myself are doing to her craft. But every draft--even the last--is in a larger respect a work in progress. We archive moments in time by what we write, but we don't cease to think and reflect and evolve and erode once the publisher presses "Print." Whether vocationally or avocationally, we write for our lives--which is as it should be. Dillard's advice on page 68 I will take to heart, albeit half-heartedly: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"

Well, when you put it like that . . .

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Year of Overdue Books: My GoodReads Review of How the Irish Saved Civilization

How The Irish Saved CivilizationHow The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm Irish. Don't let my last name (Zimmerman) fool you. I'm the proud son of a guy whose surname unfortunately obscures the fact that my mother (of whom I'm also a proud son) is 100 percent Irish, so assuming my dad has a little Irish in him (who doesn't?) I'm at least 50 percent.

Not sure why that's so important to me, but it is. There's a mystique to Irishness that simply isn't there with other countries of distant origins. Ireland is ever green, it's charmed and charming, thick with thin space. So you would think that by now I would have made my pilgrimage there. But I haven't; Ireland remains a place of fanciful imagination for me. You would also think that by now a proud wannabe Irishman would have read the 1995 national bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization, but again you would be wrong. It's been on my shelf for at least fifteen years, waiting for me to finally crack the spine and dig into it. I'm not sure what kept me otherwise occupied; it might be that my copy has a very distracting manufacturing error on the cover (the spot gloss over the title is offset by about an inch, or it might be that I have so much time-sensitive reading to do that I just left this one slow-cooking on the back burner, or it may be that I know that calling myself Irish is absurd and vaguely insulting to people who actually are from Ireland, so I felt guilty and avoided the uncomfortable feeling. Whatever: 2012 is the Year of Overdue Books, so I swallowed my pride and indulged my self-perception and dug in.

How the Irish Saved Civilization is popular history at its apex. Part of a series of audacious arguments from Thomas Cahill ("The Hinges of History"), this one observes that the fall of the Roman Empire, and the corresponding neglect of the archives of Western Civilization, was paralleled by the Christianization of Ireland, whose nascent monks saw their calling as twofold: with no real opportunity to experience the "Red Martyrdom" of persecution unto death for their faith, the Irish took first to "Green Martyrdom," or the cloistered life of studying the Scriptures and the works of the early church. The prodigality of the Irish mind (from p. 131: "In Patrick's world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind--and, therefore, does not preclude suffering--all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind's good, teaching, succoring, and saving") was such that enthusiasm for these early works extended to pagan classics and other ancient culture. Irish monks became archivists for the ancient West at a time when Roman civilization could no longer be bothered by its own history, its own legacy.

Simply archiving history wouldn't save civilization, of course. And the Irish historically were not known for sitting around all day. Irish folk history, told compellingly by Cahill, is lusty and brazen, sometimes violent and always earthy, painting a portrait of a culture consumed with life. Such virility informs monasticism in unique ways, and the Green Martyrs eventually created an outlet for Irish wanderlust with "White Martyrdom," self-surrender that involved taking to sea and going where the waves took you. White Martyrs went everywhere--some undoubtedly to their death--and some of them wound up in Europe, where they reintroduced Europe's classics to itself. Not only Western civilization's culture was restored but a culture of being cultured was introduced: the love of learning and the life of the mind, and ethical responsibility that flows from it, can be traced back to the missionary efforts of these White Martyrs.

Thomas Cahill made me want to be more Irish, not less. His writing is elegant and exhilarating; you assume the truth of his absurdist claim--that a tiny island in the North Atlantic known mostly for famine, fantasy and fatalism gave Western civilization its life and soul back. I'm struck by the lessons from Cahill's take on European history for people today invested in the mission of the church. There are plenty of parallels between late antiquity and the modern day, from the comparable dominance and moral vulnerability of ancient Rome and the contemporary United States to the increasing cultural irrelevance of the Christian church. Cahill does a great job of noting the different worldviews of the two great Confessors of the era--Bishop Augustine of Hippo and Patrick of Ireland--one who developed an intricate and complex theology that over time proved oppressive and confining, the other whose theology was informed by and responsive to the people who surrounded it. Patrick's Christianity, focused as it is on God's good desire for his creation, is more welcoming than Augustine's, which emphasized the fall from grace and led to an emphasis on human depravity and eternal conscious punishment. If the church wants to "win some," it could stand to learn from Patrick's winsome approach. From the last paragraph of Cahill's book:

"Perhaps history is divided into Romans and Catholics--or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, . . . instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God, and that God will provide. . . . If our civilization is to be saved--forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass 'in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind'--if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints."

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Saturday, February 04, 2012

On Editing as Leadership

This is going to sound obnoxious and self-important. I've been thinking a lot lately about editing as leadership.

It sounds obnoxious because I'm an editor, and so it sounds as though I'm making some audacious claim to being a leader, which itself is a bit obnoxious because people (especially evangelicals, of which I am also one) talk far too much about leadership. You'd think "evangelical" and "leadership" were synonymous; but then you'd get to know some of us and realize that they can't possibly be.

Nevertheless, I, an evangelical editor, am feeling more and more convinced that the work I do is in many ways an act of leadership. Max De Pree, author of Leadership Is an Art, suggests that the first responsibility of a leader is to "define reality." And part of the task of an editor is to winnow and prune the assertions and assumptions of an author until the truth of it is clearly revealed. That sounds Quixotic when you think about it--what if, ultimately, there's no truth to be revealed in it, or the editor's biases and assumptions simply add to the murk rather than bring clarity? But that's the task; whether we're up to it or not is another question entirely.

I supervise editorial interns where I work, which is a self-serving way of saying that I show them around and help them do their work and try to explain why they're doing what they're doing. I don't get paid any extra for it, and I haven't received any training for it, so I make it up as I go. (Don't tell my boss.) But as I go about my business with interns I find that I regularly resort to language of leadership--taking initiative, challenging error, encouraging and empowering authors, noticing what's missing, anticipating what will or won't work, making tough cuts, solving thorny problems, all that sort of stuff. Introduce the role of acquisitions and you open a whole new vista for leadership values: in acquiring authors and their books, editors define the reality of a publishing program, giving it coherence and consistency in style, language and content. Editors function as ambassadors for their publishers to critics and reactionaries, defending the occasional provocative or controversial book or author by asserting the value of a marketplace of ideas. Editors look for new terrain to cover, new ideas to exploit. Editors effectively establish what's important, what merits 208 or 352 pages of ink on paper to be disseminated to the masses. Editors, with the acquisition of each author and in the development of each manuscript, help to define reality.

See what I mean? Obnoxious. Self-important. But I need to remember this every once in a while so I don't just roll over and take whatever gets thrown at me, so I don't give in to the temptation of expediency at the expense of quality. I need to remember this so I take my work seriously when so often it starts to orbit absurdity. And to be frank, the rest of you need to remember that editors offer leadership as well, because the temptation for authors is to bypass editing in the pursuit of quick publication, or even publication at all; and the temptation for readers is to accept the end result. The reader is, after all, the ultimate editor, editing with his or her pocketbook and defining the reality of what writing (and the research and craftsmanship behind it, and by extension, the pool of knowledge we all swim in and drink from) becomes.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...