Support your favourite inkjet-stained wretches! Send an indie e-book — or three — for the price of a birthday card

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He grew red roses and white lilies on the edges of deep shade in his lush garden — the owner of the page for today in every diary that was ever ours — and the birthday card we could have sent him, if he were still here, might have been a salute to his green thumb.

But birthday cards addressed in familiar scripts on stamped envelopes have been making their way to the same old-media life-after-life as floppy disks. E-cards are a thin substitute. We have seen scarcely any not designed for mass appeal in styles that remind us of our multimedia-artist friend LCM’s opinion of the look of the Facebook site: ‘It’s like walking into Walmart.’ Paper cards, in the decade or two before they began to vanish, came in an infinite variety – from Hallmark-treacly and bland to clever, quirky, idiosyncratic and even cryptic, if you knew where to look. It was easy to find an offering that let you tell recipients what they meant to you either through a perfect reading of their taste, or some blend of graphics and words at a happy junction of their sense of aesthetics and yours.

What is better than an e-card in 2014?

Possibly, an e-book, preferably an indie e-book, an undiscovered gem spotted on the wayside in your net wanderings. If it is a text you love, you have the satisfaction of helping the writer to earn the cash for another manuscript. Unlike print greeting card artists who collect only a shockingly small fraction of what their publishers charge us, a scribbler brave enough to try independent e-publishing at this turbulent and nerve-wracking stage of its evolution can collect as much as 70 per cent of royalties on the U.S. site of the Amazon publishing platform.

Fiction delivered as an e-book now sets you back by no more than the price of a print construction on an ever more scantily-stocked supermarket greeting card shelf. It can cost embarrassingly less. Recently, when we sent two birthday e-books to someone whose cards chosen for us over a span of thirty years have a habit of falling out of books in our personal library, we were afraid that she might think us stingy – but could not decide what other title she might like.

Indie e-books already range from pulp to work that meets the most exacting literary standards. Really? We note the dubious pitch of that question, the arched eyebrow. Admittedly, first-rate literature by e-publishing indies is not easy to find. The well-known print reviews that most time-pressed connoisseurs of good writing still rely on to shrink the universe of reading possibilities to negotiable proportions still shun e-only works, and do not look at the exploding numbers of them without intermediaries in conventional publishing.

Anyone worried – rightly so – about falling into the error of prejudice against the future could, like us, try John A. A. Logan’s new novel, Agency Woman, which we have just started reading. ‘A dark, Scottish tale of conspiracy, espionage, murder and terrorism, with an existential edge,’ is its description on the author’s web site.

The few pages we have had a chance to absorb — in a time of seemingly unending chaos — are intriguing and, in the best way, nonconformist and unslottable. The tone is thriller-noir, but the sleuth-like main character is no whisky-soaked Inspector Rebus or Kurt Wallander getting by on a diet of microwaved cholesterol. He is a sensitive, dreamy, drifter who copes with being imprisoned in a chair for most of a day and night with ropes cutting into his skin by doing yoga breathing exercises. Offered food after hours of starvation, he asks if he can have something vegetarian. When a character we have so far assumed to be a villain quotes Kierkegaard, it does not seem to be intellectually pretentious tarting-up in place of characterisation, but fits the story’s half-real, half-otherworldly, atmosphere.

Taste tests have no equal for introducing writers, in our opinion, so we will end this post with the first paragraph of Agency Woman. It has a certain grand, leisurely, philosophical majesty, as well as poetic beauty – but soon, in a succession of subtle and deft transitions, the story’s pace accelerates and we are somewhere that both is and isn’t gritty modern Scotland, observed with a keen hawk’s eye; something like Antonioni’s London in Blowup — as in our second short extract, consecutive snippets from a tense sequence.

… Before we leave you to sampling: to say that John is proving a new medium and ‘business model’ for literary publishing is not unlike praising Graham Greene or Mikhail Bulgakov for raising the standard of ‘content’ created by combining stationery and typewriters. But with most members of the intellectual establishment still sceptical and, or, sour about e-publishing, that is a point that needs making. John is a pioneer who stands out.

Over to his mysterious Agency Woman — who wears high-heeled red shoes:

Agency Womanol

Extract One:

The old stories don’t need to be repeated endlessly. The ancient knights can be allowed to fall from their horses, lumpenly, and die. Even the horses, though with more grace, can be allowed to fall over and turn limp on the grass. Thus, in a moment, they are permitted their release from this arena. Their struggles forever on record, for perusal later, at a safe distance.

Extract Two

On the Scottish mainland, this month, for example, there are only twenty-seven of our agents in operation. Unlikely, then, to meet one in Tommy’s Café. And then there’s the head. Ten years ago, even five, there would never have been an agent with a head like that. The agent would always have been one of the other people in the café, one of the men or women I hadn’t even noticed. They would be from the Scottish Agency, and they would have been watching me ever since I came in today and sat down. But I have to remember that times have changed. Now, these days, anyone can be with the Agency. Anyway, here he comes. […] I don’t want him to sit with me. I want to sit alone, in peace.

His voice is shaking. There’s an edge to his voice like a dying rodent screaming. He punches the table-top right beside my mug. I feel the reactions of the thirty other customers who are sitting all round, openly watching the situation unfolding at our table. This man with the swollen head wants to explode. I look at his eyes for a few moments, but there is nothing there. Not even pain. I glance away from him, scan the faces at the other tables as they watch. If I speak too readily, I could easily say the wrong thing, and give him the release into action he is craving. If his story is real, then he wants me to react to his violent presence, give him an excuse to start something in the café. That way he’ll not have to make that court appointment. If the story’s a fabrication, if he’s an agent, then he’ll still use the story as the excuse for exploding.

 […]

 After a minute of silence I say,

 ‘I don’t mind talking to you but, I need to know, are you going to make trouble at any moment, maybe hit me? …


John Updike: the literary seer who predicted too much privacy as the price for living on the net

In hindsight, Updike's is one of the strangest sour predictions - photograph by MIL22, 2013

In hindsight, Updike’s is one of the strangest sour predictions
– photograph by MIL22

Loathing and resentment of the e-future can even throw off a mind as sharp and capacious as the late John Updike’s.

Martin Amis, writing in 1991, described the great novelist – one of the most astute observers of American life — as ‘a master of all trades, able to crank himself up to Ph.D. level on any subject he fancies: architecture, typography, cave painting, computers, evolution (“asteroidal or cometary causation” set against “punctuated equilibrium”) and Gospel scholarship …’.

But Updike never waxed more bilious than on e-publishing and the internet. His judgment about their effects was at least as warped as that of a few other worthies, pontificating on the most recent twist in the privacy debate – a subject to which we hope to return in our next post. In the meanwhile, here is the masterly wordsmith’s prognostication, reproduced for the pleasure of quoting someone who was never so elegantly and profoundly mistaken:

Millions find bliss of sorts in losing themselves in the vastness of the Internet, a phantom electronic creation which sublimates the bulky, dust-gathering contents of librarians and supermarkets into something impalpable and instantaneous. The Web is conjured like the genie of legend with a few strokes of the fingers, opening, with a phrase or two, a labyrinth littered with trash and pitted with chat rooms, wherein communication is antiseptically cleansed of all the germs and awkwardness of even the most mannerly transaction with another flesh-and-blood human being.

A mass retreat into richly populated privacy has occurred before: in the acts of reading and going to the movies. Excitement lay in both for my generation … I have yet to be persuaded that the information revolution, so-called, is anything but an exercise in reading and writing wherein evanescent and odorless PC screens take the place of durable, faintly fragrant paper and ink.

John Updike, ‘The Tried and the Treowe’ (2000) in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, 2007

Log-rolling turns transparent as e-publishing and online art promotion come of age

'Spanky' and N -- LCM 2

‘Niko and Spanky’ - photographs by Willodel http://www.facebook.com/Willodel

‘Niko and Spanky’
– photographs by Willodel http://www.facebook.com/Willodel

‘Alphonse et Gaston’ – the gold standard for mutual feather-stroking – from the Wikipedia

‘Alphonse et Gaston’ – the gold standard for mutual feather-stroking – from the Wikipedia

‘She is too reserved for the big internet world,’ read the message pounded into a keyboard a fortnight ago at hypersonic speed typical for B, post-Gutenberg’s inseparable friend at roughly ten years old. ‘She does not promote herself at all, but all the same has a whole lot of faithful admirers and buyers, so she remains old style.’

This description of a shy artist, K, lucky enough to have been born into a family exceptionally well-connected with prosperous buyers of art, gave us pause. Our immeasurably dear B — who only ever posts her own work online in disguise — was signalling a preference for arts workers who adopt the old unwritten creed of aristocratic reserve. Once, this might have been our choice, too – because we share K’s innate, incontestably genetic, cringing-violet introversion and dislike of egotistical puffery. These days, we are less sure of its rightness – for at least three reasons.

• Everything to do with attracting attention to new art and literature, even mere blogs, has become confusing — at least as perplexing as those members of the ancien régime marched to the guillotine in revolutionary France in spite of siding openly against their lofty origins. B, for example, had introduced us to K’s work with a link to one of her pictures – a serene, meditative portrait in the yellow-brown-ochre palette that Paul Gauguin often used in his time in the South Seas – and a request to vote for it on the web site of a gallery using a contest as a promotional device.

By coincidence, this happened in the same week in which we witnessed a fight between two writers who had entered one of the many online literary contests nowadays, also designed for audience-building. One of them was accusing the other of an attempt at vote-rigging – a charge that struck us as dubious. The accused writer had done no more than openly suggest reciprocal voting – that they each vote for each other’s entries.

How, we wondered, is that any different from the latest evolutionary leap of the old ‘gentleman’s game’ of traditional, print publishing – behaviour to which Private Eye routinely draws its readers’ attention, with nearly audible guffaws? In its 26 July-8 August issue, for instance, spotlighting recommended summer reading by literary power brokers in London newspapers:

”Tasha is my sister-in-law,” declared Lee Child, selecting a Tasha Alexander novel in the [Mail on Sunday]. Robert Winder’s book about Wisden, “for which I wrote a foreword”, was David Kynaston’s pick (Times). And “I can’t wait to read my friend Mark Lawson’s astonishingly expansive, hilarious and heartbreakingly dark The Deaths,” gushed Julie Myerson (Observer), enthusing too about a novel from “the latest to be published from my husband’s creative writing MA”.

Such advice was most influential – with the naïve and unsuspicious — when the recommenders hid their ties to authors. Post-Gutenberg is all for letting in the sunlight and dropping the pretence of objectivity. But after that, the point of such recommendations is – precisely what?

• Aristocratic reserve has passed its sell-by date — for aristocrats. Long before the internet sped up the digitisation of human life in every pore, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, avidly promoting tours of Chatsworth, his ancestral pile, were only among the most successful English grandees hawking their ‘brand’.

With unabashed Teutonic frankness, the home page of a successful expatriate painter (and wife of a friend lost to distance and time) announces its owner, in gold-on-black lettering, as ‘Antoinette Baronesse von Grone’. From there, she proceeds immediately, without any timorous beating about the bushes, to

ARTIST BIOGRAPHY

I was born and raised in Northern Germany, in a village that has been the seat of my family for over 500 years.

• Declining to dirty your hands with audience-building for yourself can mean failing to acquire any power to help other people.

Post-Gutenberg has long discouraged friends from initiating even semi-intimate conversations in the comments section of this blog because we can find clubbiness on other blogs off-putting. Even so, we liked last week’s justification of e-barn-building by Cally Phillips, an engagingly exuberant, extempore Scottish blogger (yes, we follow each other’s blogs):

It’s an interesting thing this ‘you read my book I’ll read yours’  It seems that there’s a notion that we  should think there’s something a bit suspect in that  (like trolls or sock puppet alerts) but hey folks, that’s part of what ‘indie’ writing is about. It’s about finding people you have some kind of a connection with – and guess what – you’ll probably find you might like their writing.

Of course sometimes they write in genres you’re not that familiar with (or claim not to like – for me thrillers and sci fi) But sometimes it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone.  And when folks bother themselves with my writing, yes I do feel some compunction to ‘explore’ the worlds they have created and ‘meet’ them through their writing. I’m not ashamed to say that. […] I don’t think that being mediated by gatekeeper, guardian mainstream publishers guarantees me a ‘good read’ and I’m happy to take the responsibility on for myself to find what I want to read.  And if, in the process I make virtual (or real) friends of other writers, I’m not going to be embarrassed about that. It’s a good thing.

[Y]ou can read things you’d never have read while you grazed from the mainstream trough.  And that’s no bad thing.  Unless you want all your reading pre-packaged and homogenised off the supermarket shelves (in which case I’m sure you’re not even reading this!)  […] If you like what someone writes TELL THEM.  And tell other people.

Anyone who resists the new honesty about connections and self-interest risks being outed anyway, as in a delicious item in the other edition of Private Eye last month – featuring one Sam Baker, a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar, recommending a novel by Jonathan Grimwood:

”From the moment I encountered four year-old Jean-Marie d’Aumout sitting on a dung heap eating beetles, I was obsessed by this sensuous tale of one man’s search for the perfect taste,” she raves. “Part Perfume, part Pure, 100% original.” In a fit of absent-mindedness, Baker omits to add that Grimwood is also 100% her husband.

No publication pretends to despise the internet more than the net-spurning Eye does. Yet – as we have shown in an earlier entry, here – no rag is more gloriously infused with the take-no-prisoners spirit of the blogging world.

Who’s afraid of getting intimate with Chinese philosophy and world views? Nearly everyone Western, apparently

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation -- cultural and spiritual nourishment - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation — cultural and spiritual nourishment
– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

The ting (cauldron), cast of bronze, was the vessel that held the cooked viands in the temple of the ancestors and at banquets [… and … ] refers to the cultural superstructure of society.

– oracular philosophy in the I Ching (3000-2000 BCE); trans.: Richard Wilhelm (Chinese to German); Cary Baynes (German to English)

If a rival for economic and military supremacy is always potentially a foe, could a diluted version of the old adage, ‘Know your enemy’ – from Sun Tzu’s 6th century BCE classic, The Art of War — still be sensible advice to follow?

Obviously, yes.

So you — or certainly anyone paying attention to world affairs – might suppose. Bizarrely, though, adults in the West seem to be leaving the job of understanding China to future generations, starting with the one in junior schools today. In an interview seven years ago with America’s National Public Radio, a headmaster of a British public school and biographer of two recent prime ministers said, ‘I think, within 10 years we need to have as many children in Britain learning Mandarin as are currently learning French.’

But what if one of those little brows perspiring over her ideograms was a grandchild of, say, Dennis Overbye, the fizzing, often very funny, New York Times science writer? In a brief aside in his column yesterday, sketching the big questions now perplexing physicists – every bit as much as they have for the entire history of philosophy and science — he asked:

The latest cosmological wrinkle is dark energy, which is speeding up the flight of galaxies from one another. And the great question is whether this dark energy is going to suck the light and energy out of the universe so completely that some day billions of years from now nothing is left: no memory even of Homer, Jesus, Mozart, Elvis or Nelson Mandela, not to mention the rest of us.

Especially as a light-hearted throwaway remark, that was proof of stunningly unconscious and blinkered Eurocentricity, never mind his token tossing-in of Mandela — or any pedant who cares to bark that Christianity’s founder was Middle-Eastern. If Overbye were to insist to a school-going relation of his that a C+ grade in Mandarin was simply not good enough, there could hardly be a more discouraging example of the admonitory, ‘… not as I do, but as I say.’

If members of the intelligentsia were paying proper attention, Chinese Dreams, a revelatory short book or long essay by the Indo-American writer Anand Giridharadas – whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – would have been reviewed within an inch of its life by every high-profile current affairs publication in the English language, for a start.

It should have made no difference that Chinese Dreams – containing critical information distilled from a series of interviews with mostly young Chinese thinkers in the urban elite, ranging from academics to entrepreneurs – was self-published two years ago exclusively as a post-print e-book. As scores of reviews on the Amazon sites testify, though it is acutely disturbing, in parts — because of its implications for philosophical principles the West holds most sacred – it is a completely engaging fast, lively read that slips down as easily as dim-sum prawn dumplings.

Large, mainstream Western publishers have long shrunk from publishing books that delve into the roots of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions and perspectives – claiming that their readers have no interest in these, so perpetuating, if not setting up, a circle of willed ignorance. In no general-interest publication has post-Gutenberg heard from Chinese voices like the ones Giridharadas coaxed into his recording device.

A sample, from post-Gutenberg’s Kindle ‘notes and marks’:

Eric X. Li is a successful and well-connected venture capitalist in Shanghai. He was once a believer in the American Dream, he now wants to help create a Chinese Dream all its own.

[…]

While Westerners focus on how China has failed to measure up to Western principles – for example, its resistance of democracy or the capriciousness of its legal system – Li believes that China is inventing ‘an alternative set of organizing principles for human affairs that are fundamentally different – not in opposition – but fundamentally different from what the world has been looking to the West for in the last three-four hundred years.’

[…]

[T]he ideas of Li’s circle are now referred to as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ in some quarters, to rival the Washington one, and are, at the least, taken seriously in some of the countries that have struggled to implement Western political and economic formulas in contexts very different from the West’s.

[…]

These were the four core principles I was able to glean from Li, Jin, Rao, and others.

1. Individualism isn’t universal.

[…] The West … does not understand societies – for example, Iraq – where tribal or sectarian or neighbourhood loyalties overwhelm simple individualism. […I] n Li’s view, China has, at a minimum, shown the world something new: that a large society can be successful and bring peace and prosperity to its people without an understanding of the individual derived from the European Enlightenment. […]

2. Pragmatism over abstraction.

… [A]s the members of this circle view it, it is China that lives by pragmatism as a way of life and the West that believes, and is defined by a belief, in abstract, universally applicable truths.

In reality, of course, no one has a monopoly on either pragmatism or principle. But it can be observed that the culture of China, like that of India, is generally less comfortable with the kind of sweeping, true-in-all-cases ideology of the kind you find in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. ‘Our framework is more down to earth,’ said Fu, the political scientist. ‘We lack metaphysics. We are not interested in idea-based searches. We practice first.’ […]

3. Meritocracy over democracy.

[…] The members of Li’s circle are also seeking to revitalize the Confucian idea of meritocracy over democracy as the fount of political legitimacy. ‘Americans believe in election; the Chinese, if I simplify, believe in selection,’ said Zhang Wei-Wei, an international relations scholar who divides his time between Geneva and Beijing and once served as a translator for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who opened China’s doors to the world in 1978. […]

4. Representing the future.

… China’s senior leadership, for all its other faults, has struck a healthier balance between the country’s short- and long-term interests than many Western democracies

[…]

China’s relationship with the environment … is on the one hand, ravaging the planet … It should be excused, its leaders say, because they have to secure economic growth for its people. But China has also pivoted more speedily than many democracies toward building a renewable energy industry – something for which the short-term payoff is minimal, as Western politicians know, but the long-term societal benefits potentially massive.

… and to fill in the gaps and glean everything else Giridharadas’s book has to say, we suggest a quick hop over here, after which we hope readers will ask: why haven’t I read about any of this in – The New York Times? The Economist, … ?

[ For the record: no, post-Gutenberg does not know this author, and we have no acquaintances in common, as far as we know … ]