Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dictionary Cops, Literary Snobs, and Twitter Wrestles with Hercules


Not far from where I write this blog rests like a sturdy door stop Webster’s Third International Dictionary published in 1971 in the Philippines and given to me when I received a PhD in Philosophy a few years later.  Over the decades, I have opened this thirty-pounder usually when I wanted to get deep into etymology and learn whether a particular verb appeared in the subjunctive mood on Anglo Saxon riotous tongues.  These days such excursions over to the wild side of linguistic subtlety are few and far between, but I did pull out this old, respected and heavy beast during Hurricane Sandy, when we were reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what it really meant to be pinned down at the safety level.  Reading Webster under a hurricane lamp is no laughing matter.

Webster is already halfway out the door because all its utility, history and girth are available in a variety of apps.  This dictionary technology has always been something of a useful fiction, suggesting in its sheer tonnage that there is something exhaustive and final about the creation.  We know dictionaries also serve cultural and nationalistic ambitions.  The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the 1970s and 1980s intentionally omitted some words with foreign origins, a curious, petty and racist stance from the man sitting in the high chair overseeing a language that has remained globally vibrant by embracing, at least since 1066 when the French came calling, all manner of words from the global language tree.

Over the last five years, I have given to charities and libraries at least five hundred books, many of them novels I had used in high school and university teaching as well as for academic research.  The sting is less than I thought.  William J. Lynch Jr., CEO of Barnes & Noble, has said he doesn’t really read physical books anymore, an odd thing for an executive to say when his company still generates most of its revenues from physical books.  But it is far more compelling to embrace the Nook in public rather than be seen flipping through a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

I think it was the NPR program “On the Media” that suggested that the second disruption in the book business will be about entire book categories disappearing or shrinking badly, with literary fiction perhaps the most vulnerable.  The argument goes something like this.  Before America had universal education that would be in place, more or less, by the 1880s, Americans used the poetry and fiction of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman and others to forge a national identity.   I think there is truth to that.   I would add that it is in the language of Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and H.L. Mencken, among others, that America found its voice, vernacular, humor, and language appropriate to the psychic terrain, the new geography, and national habits.

Not surprisingly, by the mid-20th century these writers and others had become enshrined in English departments across the country and literary criticism had become a teachable science with an army of adherents who decided to publish rather than perish.  I was a member of that brigade and that tribe.

Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Herzog, Rabbit, Run, Sophie’s Choice, Invisible Man and other favorites had a relationship to American culture that is hard to replicate.  This doesn’t mean current writers have less talent; I simply suggest that literary fiction early in the 21st century is a less important part of our culture and national psyche.  And that trend is likely to continue no matter what screen we are using.

This doesn’t mean fiction is going away, though literary agents will feel the squeeze.  Publishers will focus on their constituencies.  HarperCollins just announced its Harper Teen Imprint, which will publish short stories and novellas, priced from $0.99 to $2.99.  With books and increasingly with magazines, we can expect more unbundling of content that will be distributed in information chunks depending on the desires of the customer.   Atavist, fueled by investment from Barry Diller and Scot Rudin, tells stories through digital apps, ebooks, and magazines with subscription offers.  Ebooks, such as Deborah Blum’s Angel Killer, are under 20,000 words, have audio, video and social features, and are available on all platforms.

Simon & Schuster has teamed with Author Solutions, a self-publishing firm, and created Archway Publishing in part to keep an eye on which self-published authors are rising to the top.  Changes in media, culture, technology and attention span will make it increasingly difficult for writers of literary fiction to find a publisher.  This is a situation that I’m presently facing with “Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” based on Vietnam experiences.  Since traditional publishers offer relatively little marketing help for literary fiction, it’s tempting to self-publish, particularly if the category is a vertical with an identifiable audience.  And a sailor never leaves the sea.

And a favorable wind helps.  America needs to take a more jaundiced viewing of its military.  General Petraeus has been an absolutely godsend.  We now have permission to say in public that the emperor has no clothes.

We know from our cultural and political history that what begins in tragedy often ends in farce.  For this reason, I’m pleased to learn that a British group aims to revive the classics, retelling one-hundred Greek myths in one-hundred tweets.  The group will also have a go at Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

There’s a good chance Cliffs Notes will be disrupted.


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