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Joyce Kilmer and War Poetry


joyce kilmer

If you’ve ever driven north to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve stopped for gas at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area:

joyce kilmer service area

I’ve probably been there a hundred times. As a kid, I assumed Joyce Kilmer was a woman. When I was tall enough to read the plaques, I learned the two main facts about Kilmer that most Americans know, if they know his gender — that he died in World War I, and that he wrote this stupid poem:

joyce kilmer - trees

This time I decided to find out a little more about him:

Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…

With the publication of “Trees” in the magazine Poetry in August 1913, Kilmer gained immense popularity as a poet across the United States…. Over the next few years, Kilmer was prolific in his output—managing an intense schedule of lectures, publishing a large number of essays and literary criticism, and writing poetry. In 1915, he became poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. In 1916 and 1917, before the American entry into World War I, Kilmer would publish four books…

I found a lot of his other poems online too. Some are better than the tree poem, but none are very good. Most have the same sappy Sunday School tone. And I’m not alone in that opinion; at Columbia University, Kilmer’s alma mater, they even have an annual Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.

Kilmer’s fans might argue that he just had bad timing; as one of the last prominent writers of formal, sentimental lyric poems at the advent of Modernism (J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1915) his work was bound to seem out of place.

It’s instructive, though, to compare him with Britain’s young poets who died in the war — Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen and various others — who are held in somewhat higher regard by modern readers. Their war poems are often considered in two groups: the “early war” poets like Brooke and Grenfell, both killed in 1915, were notably more patriotic, but also more sentimental and lyrical, than those who saw the war drag on. They mixed pastoral and other natural motifs, common in Georgian poetry, with celebrations of soldiers’ valor and glory. 1915 was also the year of In Flanders Fields, penned by the Canadian John McCrae, which is possibly the best-known poem of the war and exemplifies this style:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poets who died later in the war struck a very different tone — as in Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est, whose structure (a rhyming double sonnet) is a bitter mockery of those sing-songy fields-of-glory poems from just a couple years earlier:

…If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

…or Arthur West:

God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends — the fools —
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality…

Kilmer outlived them both; he was killed in 1918, just a few months before the Armistice. But his last poem, Rouge Bouquet, was the same sort of pious elegy that Owen and West derided — it could just as easily have been written at the beginning of the war as at the end, given its complete lack of cynicism:

…There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band…

It’s odd to think of something like that being written after those classic anti-war poems, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only example. I wonder how much of it reflects a different American experience of the war as opposed to the European one — we obviously had a shorter war and many fewer casualties — and how much it’s just a matter of Kilmer’s own sentimentality and faith. It’s also a reminder that the whole early war / late war distinction may be partly a matter of cherry-picking the poems that fit it, something imposed by anthologists and critics to fit the later “Lost Generation” narrative of postwar disillusionment.

In any case, Kilmer was a brave soldier, but was he really the best American poet we lost in the war? Another candidate is Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a New Yorker who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and was killed in 1916, before the US even entered the conflict. His best-known poem is A Rendezvous with Death:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair…

It definitely fits in that early-war category — natural beauty, battlefield glory and a quick trip to heaven — but considered on those terms, I like it better than Kilmer’s treacle. The first line evokes Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, maybe deliberately, and it’s an interesting parallel to that poem. Admittedly I found some of his other war poems to be a little overwrought or preachy … well, in any case, as a New Yorker, Seeger is presumably not up for a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike.

In fact, as New Jersey poets go, Kilmer’s chief virtue seems to be that he came from an area (New Brunswick) that made a good place for a rest stop. Robert Pinsky is from Long Beach, too far away from the turnpike. William Carlos Williams was from Rutherford, which you’d think would be close enough, but the two nearest rest stops are named for New Yorkers Vince Lombardi and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s fatal duel was fought on the nearby Palisades cliffs, and Lombardi …well, he started as an assistant coach with the Giants, who now play in East Rutherford, so I’m assuming that’s the connection — but when he was with the team, they were still playing in New York, so it seems a little tenuous. Maybe Seeger has a shot after all…

More Bad News at Couchsurfing


Couchsurfing, the troubled nonprofit-turned-startup that I wrote about earlier this year, has now shed almost half of its employees, including the CEO:

The startup, backed by General Catalyst, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Point Nine and Omidyar Network, is now going to focus on mobile — and we have heard that this is where all new hires will happen. The company up to now had raised some $22.6 million, with the last $15 million in August 2012.

As for the layoffs … a spokesperson tells us that the full number is about 40% of staff, with now no more than 20 people working at the company…

A little more unconfirmed detail: part of the layoffs, apparently, have resulted in deep cuts to its engineering team, with the entire engineering team let go “except for a 3 person skeleton support crew,” according to a tipster.

Our tipster — again, this is unconfirmed — says that the reason for the layoffs and other changes is because the company has seen an $800,000 monthly burn rate. But we understand the company has a long cash runway at the moment to figure out ways to turn that around (staff cuts help, too).

This is sad news, and I don’t take any pleasure in having predicted it. I still hope there’s a going concern to be salvaged here. But it’s very difficult to imagine a business model that will provide a material return on that much investment, or even enough cash flow to keep the lights on when the existing money runs out.

Early on, in an attempt to quell user anger at the for-profit conversion, the company seems to have ruled out advertising, selling member data in any form, or charging any kind of fee for existing site functionality. That didn’t leave many options. One that they floated was to solicit donations to charity every time a “surfer” was hosted, and take a small cut of these donations. Cute but a little pushy, and it likely wouldn’t amount to more than pocket change. They also considered a “freemium” model, but there wasn’t much you could add to the basic services that would really be worth paying for:


Freemium models work best when the premium features are relatively independent of the basic features. If someone else pays for more space on Dropbox, you don’t get less space in your free account. In the case of CS, the main thing they can offer a premium member is various types of priority over non-premium members. You can dress that up however you want, but in the end you’re not really adding a new service, just pitting your existing users against each other: the premium service degrades the free one. If frequent flyers board the plane first, the rest of the passengers have to wait a bit longer. If premium CS members show up higher in searches, then free members show up lower.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back this “verification” gimmick — a way of aggressively hitting you up for a voluntary $25 donation when you join by arbitrarily attaching it to this “trust” marker whereby they send you a postcard to verify that you have a mailing address, and then you get a little check mark icon on your profile. I don’t know how much money that’s bringing in, but it can’t be very much. (And just think about it: if this process actually does have a material impact on member safety and trust, shouldn’t it be mandatory? Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to charge for if you have any regard for your members’ safety?)

So now they’re going to “focus on mobile”? To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. They’ve already got mobile apps, which could certainly be better, but this is a network that relies on huge amounts of text-heavy user-generated content — forms, member-to-member references, discussion boards — exactly the kind of content that’s difficult to enter and consume on a tiny touchscreen. It’s about the farthest thing possible from apps like Instagram or Shazam that play to the strengths of a mobile platform. It seems more like OKCupid or Quora: it needs a good app, no question, but it also needs a fully-featured, well-functioning website — not the kind that can be run by a “skeleton support crew” while they redirect most of their budget to mobile development.

Anyway, maybe this “mobile” thing is just the latest round of buzzword bingo at a company that’s out of ideas, but I hope there’s something more substantive behind it. And it does suggest the glimmer of a revenue model, which is to simply charge for a mobile app while keeping the website free. That way they’re not technically charging for any functionality, just charging to make it easier from a phone.

I can imagine a lot of travellers setting up an account on the website, sending out some hosting requests, and somewhere in transit, frustrated with trying to load the full site on their crappy mobile browser just to find a host’s phone number or something, being willing to pony up $5 for the app.

(I can’t imagine many new members joining through an app and filling out a decent profile, because that’s just too much data entry for a small-screen environment. So again, they still need a usable website.)

Anyway, this paid mobile app strategy would be kind of sneaky, I guess, but at least it would bring in some additional revenue, and it’s the only thing I can think of that really would. What else is there?

Incentives in Sports, Part 2


Last year I wrote about situations where NBA and NFL coaches call more conservative plays than the odds would dictate. Today there’s a good article about the baseball equivalent: the sacrifice bunt.

Why do managers call for so many bunts with no outs and a runner on first, when the stats show that it lowers your expected runs scored?

Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful … Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt.

run expectancies

Well, I’m not sure those stats go into enough detail to resolve the question. You’d have to know what led up to each situation, for one thing, and where you are in the batting order. Sacrifice plays are not called at random; there are a lot of potential confounding variables.

Also, the expected runs scored may not always be the right metric; sacrifices are more common in one-run games in the late innings, where you’d rather maximize your chances of scoring a single run than maximize the total number of runs scored.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that managers like Dusty Baker are costing their team wins in the long run by bunting too often. Which seems especially likely given that the gap in expected runs has more than doubled in the modern higher-scoring game. Does that fit with my argument in the previous post? Not really.

To recap: the two complaints I talked about were NFL coaches punting too often on fourth downs and NBA coaches not calling for enough three-pointers at the end of close games. In both cases, observers tend to look for the “irrationality” in the coach’s head; I thought it might be a fan preference for minimizing regret, one that interfered at the margin with our preference for maximizing victories.

This doesn’t usually apply in this situation. If a team has a man on first with no outs, doesn’t bunt him to second, and doesn’t score, I don’t usually think “if only they’d bunted.” So I guess we can blame this one on the old-fashioned managers:

…for these reasons of history, psychology, and nerd-hating-ology, the bunt endures, like a cockroach crawling around baseball’s basement, even as other relatively new practices … become uncontroversial. At this point, after all we’ve learned over the past 30 years, calling for the sacrifice bunt feels like muscle memory more than anything else.

What does trigger more regret in baseball, at least for me, is being caught stealing. So you’d think that according to my theory managers might steal fewer bases than is optimal. But I gather that the Moneyball types think that most teams steal more than they should. So … who knows. I guess this is why I’m not a sports pundit.

Robert Heinlein: Still Crap


It’s not often that a book is so bad that I feel the need to write about it as a warning to others, but this is one of those times.

That was the opening line of my review of Stranger in a Strange Land two years ago. This month, writer Ian Sales had a similar reaction to another Heinlein “classic”:

I’m starting to wonder what I’ve done that you should all hate me so much you’d make me read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress…

It’s good to know I’m not the only one. His rant is more knowledgeable than mine, but it hits a lot of the same points: Heinlein’s sexism, pedantry, clumsy writing and utterly hateful politics make it impossible to understand why he’s still considered such a titan of science fiction, or why he ever was.

…as the story progressed, and Heinlein spouted his bullshit through his various characters and manipulated situations to make points with all the subtlety of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I grew to really dislike the book … And I will cheerfully mock anyone who claims it as a classic of the genre. It is didactic in the worst possible sense, its politics are risible, its moral landscape is hopelessly confused, and it reads like the wet dream of the dirty old uncle everyone ignores at the family barbecue.

Go read the whole thing, and then check out Sales’ excellent review site Mistressworks to find some better choices.

German Private Eyes



Germany, Austria and Switzerland are big markets for crime fiction, and they write a lot of it too — but like their northern neighbors they seem to lean towards police procedurals, and most of the private detective sub-genre is translated from English. Even the best-known German private eye, Bernie Gunther, was created by the Scottish author Philip Kerr.

I asked the owner of my local Krimi bookstore about this, and he said “well, we don’t have a lot of private investigators working on major crimes like you do in the US. Here the police do it all. So those stories wouldn’t be as believable if they were set in Germany.”

To be honest, I think the US might disappoint him in that regard. There are many areas in which private operators supplement the police — background checks, surveillance, tracking down deadbeat dads and bail jumpers and maybe the occasional runaway teen — but I can’t remember ever reading about one who played a major role in solving a murder or kidnapping or far-ranging conspiracy, as they do in so many thousands of books. I suspect that the Chandleresque private eye, like the lone Western gunslinger, is far more myth than reality.

Anyway, he had only two recommendations for good private eye characters written in German, and I’ve now read a couple books in each series. The first is Gerhard Selb, whose last name means “self” and is translated that way in the English editions. Selb is a semi-retired bachelor in his late 60s in Mannheim, who’s mopey and somber about the past — particularly his own past as a Nazi prosecutor — but a charming curmudgeon when it comes to the present. He’s a gentleman who listens to classical music, enjoys fine dining, and counts CEOs, surgeons and chess champions among his friends. His cases are complex and highly entangled with postwar German politics and history.


Unsurprisingly for a character who is basically a lawyer’s retirement fantasy, Selb was created in 1987 by two lawyers: Bernard Schlink and Walter Popp. Schlink has since become much better known for his international bestseller The Reader, which was filmed with Kate Winslet, and as with the narrator of that story, there seems to be a good deal of Schlink himself in Selb’s ruminations.

The second private eye is Kemal Kayankaya, a younger man in Frankfurt. Ethnically Turkish, he was orphaned as a child and adopted and raised by native German parents. As a result, he doesn’t speak any Turkish and isn’t accepted by the Turkish immigrant community, but still encounters constant discrimination from ethnic Germans:

So he’s the ultimate loner, the ultimate outsider among hard-boiled private eyes, forever caught between two solitudes, too Turkish to be accepted by German society, and not Turkish enough to be accepted by that community. As he moves through all strata of society in Frankfurt (“the ugliest town in Germany”), through sex shops, gambling dens, government offices and other unsavory centers of vice and greed, only stopping for an occasional drink or two, he’s beat up, harassed, threatened with arrest and torture, even as he peels away layer after layer of corruption and racism. [source]


Written by Jakob Arjouni, who died earlier this year, these books are much more in the Chandler mold. I found them more successful than the Selb books, not so much because of the direct parallels to Chandler, but because Arjouni understood that a good private eye character gets his edge from being an outsider, alienated from his own society — and making his detective ethnically Turkish but culturally German was his device for achieving that distance.

Selb, by contrast, is just not enough of an outsider. He’s got too many friends in high places, too many ponderous thoughts about the past, and, ultimately, too much to lose in his comfortable life. But if these books don’t quite work as traditional private eye novels, they’re still an interesting tour through German history.

A third one that I’m just getting started with is Simon Brenner, a somewhat reluctant and unwitting detective created by the Austrian writer Wolf Haas. Unlike Selb and Kayankaya, who narrate their books in the first person, the Brenner books have a third-person narrator who writes in a very colloquial, folksy, humorous style, and Brenner himself is kind of a comic sad-sack figure. I haven’t read enough of this series to have an opinion yet, but it’s extremely popular.


The photos in this post are from movie adaptations. The first of the Kayankaya books was filmed in 1992, and I can recommend that as a fun movie and a good place to start. A year earlier, one of the Selb books became a TV movie which I haven’t been able to track down.  And there have been several recent higher-profile adaptations of the Brenner stories starring the comedian Josef Hader, which I plan to watch as I finish the books.

As always, if you’re interested in private eye characters, the place to start is the Thrilling Detective website, which I quoted above on Kayankaya; they also have good summaries and bibliographies for Brenner and Selb.

How to Filter for “Holy Crap” Fiction


Christopher Beha has coined an interesting new term in this recent article. Another writer, Jennifer Weiner, has been criticizing the New York Times Book Review for giving too much space to little-read “literary” novels and not enough to popular “commercial fiction” like her own. Beha is defending this practice.

Here’s the short version of his argument: even the best genre fiction, while it may be interesting to read, is usually not that interesting to read or write about. Instead, the TBR should focus on “holy crap” fiction, or books so original that they leave the reader thinking “Holy Crap, what was that about?”

So here’s my main point: books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing, are more interesting to talk and think about. And at least when it comes to fiction, these are the books that I want professional critics weighing in on, so these are the books that I want the TBR to cover. Unfortunately, the phrase we most frequently use to describe such books is the same phrase we use to describe members in good standing of the conventional genre called “literary fiction.” This is one reason I don’t really like the phrase “literary fiction.” It is also one reason I don’t like thinking about books as members of genres at all. Instead I like to think about individual books. If I have to think about genres I suppose it could be said that the genre of fiction I find most interesting to talk and write and read about—the one I think the TBR should be reviewing—is the genre that has the genre specification “does not conform to any genre specifications.” For our purposes I would call this genre “Holy Crap fiction.” In case I haven’t made this clear, lots of Holy Crap fiction isn’t all that good. Certainly lots of it is objectively worse than the average competent genre novel. But even bad Holy Crap fiction is far more interesting to talk about and read about than a competent genre novel, because it requires making sense of.

Very well put. But here’s where he starts to lose me:

…if it were my job to decide which works of fiction got reviewed in the TBR, I wouldn’t have time to read every work of fiction that crossed my desk. I wouldn’t even have time to skim all of them. So I would fall back on certain shortcuts … Eventually one shortcut that would seem irresistible just in terms of efficiency would be to discount right out of the gate books that advertised themselves as commercial fiction or as examples of a particular genre, since experience tells me such books are a lot less likely to be Holy Crap books.

…I wouldn’t be able to use [this shortcut] when it came to the genre called “literary fiction,” because too many legitimate Holy Crap books are labeled with that name. So when I failed in my mission to only assign Holy Crap books, it would almost always be because I’d assigned for review some literary fiction genre book about which there wasn’t much very interesting to say.

So what he’s describing is something like this:


And if the editors of the TBR have to use rough heuristics to filter the books they’re considering down to a manageable number, the single most valuable one is to ignore genre fiction entirely:


This means they’ll inevitably miss the occasional Holy Crap book on the genre side, and review too many dull, formulaic novels in the “literary” category. According to Beha, they should simply accept the first problem and focus on minimizing the second one.

But why pick a single rule? That seems like quite an artificial constraint. It doesn’t take much more time to apply five or ten rules. Here’s one of mine: at this point a new novel is unlikely to be a Holy Crap experience if the protagonist is a writer, journalist or academic. In its own way, this has become just as much of a formula as any other. And I’m hardly the first one to notice it; Thornton Wilder, for one, was already making a similar complaint in 1956:

Since 1800 many central figures in narratives have been, like their authors, artists or quasi artists. Can you name three heroes in earlier literature who partook of the artistic temperament?

I promise I’m not bringing this up to pick on Beha, whose own novel is about a writer. Actually it sounds like he may be using a writer-narrator as a framing device or secondary character, not the protagonist. But anyway, lots of great novels do have a writer as the sole protagonist, and just like commercial/genre fiction, they occasionally reach Holy Crap status. (Miss Lonelyhearts is one I’d nominate.) But if you’re playing the odds…

Here’s how this might look in the diagram, along with a few other potential criteria:


OK, I’m half kidding about “set in Brooklyn.” But remember, I’m not insulting the novels in those grayed-out fields. There are books in all those categories that I love. But they’re rarely good in that “Holy Crap” way that makes for an interesting review, so a sensible editor will simply triage them out. Right?

Anyway, surely you have your own rules and would draw the diagram differently. The point is, Beha’s rule is more arbitrary than it sounds. Especially when you take into account the feedback effect: the more the TBR and other highbrow outlets focus on literary fiction, the more Holy Crap writers will choose to write in that mold, which just perpetuates the pattern.

The line between “literary” and “genre” is also pretty fuzzy, of course, and partly determined by where the book gets reviewed. But my real objection to Beha’s story is one that’s already being raised:


That’s not a “small” objection at all. If the number of true Holy Crap books is sufficiently low (and that’s the part I agree with), then the editors are unlikely to miss any regardless of their source, which pretty much renders Beha’s argument moot. (If the editors can’t spot them, well, what are we even discussing exactly? Do we need new editors?)

In any case, it brings us back to the question we started with: if a book review can meet its primary purpose of highlighting every Holy Crap book and still have pages left, how should it fill them?

Taking Readers for Granted



I recently finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a good novel with a small bad habit. It’s a bad habit I’ve noticed in other recent sci-fi books: a tendency for writers to name-check their peers in the middle of the story. Here’s the most egregious instance:

It was also time to elect the president and VP of the OASIS User Council, but that was also a no-brainer. Like most gunters, I voted to reelect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton (again). There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade.

Get it? Well, there’s not much there to get, but let me explain. The book is set in 2045, and Doctorow and Wheaton are real people who are popular on the internet among sci-fi fans. Among other things, Doctorow is an editor of the website Boing Boing, which gave the novel a glowing review, and Wheaton is the voice of the audiobook.

The whole book is kind of a Gen X nostalgia trip, full of references to ’80s nerd culture, but Cline knows that many of his readers will be too young to remember these things (I only got about half) and he always explains them. Which makes this unexplained reference stand out even more.

Now here’s another passage which at first may seem unrelated. It comes from this anti-Amazon rant from Dustin Kurtz of Melville House, a small press in Brooklyn. He’s lecturing authors about why they should NOT link from their personal websites to Amazon, but rather find a local independent bookstore that sells online and link to them instead.

That’s not the part I want to dispute. What jumped out at me is when he introduces his marching orders as:

a very practical recommendation that serves to benefit everyone—and I mean everyone, quite literally…

Wait, everyone? Literally? What about readers? Isn’t that why authors would link to Amazon in the first place, because it’s more convenient for their readers? Even if an indie bookstore can match Amazon on price, delivery time and shipping cost (three big ifs), I’ve already got an account at Amazon with my credit card and mailing address stored, and I can complete an order in seconds — not to mention customer reviews, easy returns, wish lists, preview chapters…

But Kurtz makes it through his whole rant without mentioning the end customer experience at all. And the piece that started this particular discussion, by a British bookstore owner named Keith Smith, doesn’t spend much time worrying about it either:

The [Booksellers Association] should then put together a scheme that would enable individual bookshops to be linked to individual authors, selling their products on their behalf. This would need the support of authors and publishers. It is quite practical. My son, an IT specialist, tells me that he could knock up a transactional site in one evening which would enable me and any other independent either singly or together, to sell the complete range of an author’s books to the UK public just as efficiently as Amazon does. I would, of course, need the same support from the publisher on stock availability and discount that they currently see fit to give Amazon.

The reality of the American indie e-commerce platform that he’s trying to emulate would seem to suggest that it’s a bit harder than that. But look, I realize that’s not the main point. I like indie bookstores, and I understand that Amazon can be a brutal and sometimes unfair competitor. By all means fight back! And if part of that is appealing to readers to sacrifice a bit of their own money, time and convenience to support smaller retailers, then go ahead and make that case. For these guys, though, the readers don’t even seem to exist.

Now, I’m sure that Cline and Kurtz and Smith care very much about their readers and customers, and I don’t mean to nitpick or even to criticize them in particular. The point is that these little examples reveal how so many contemporary writers and editors relate to their readership: not as individual customers, but as members of an in-group whose other opinions and preferences can be assumed.

Writing for a certain in-group is nothing new, of course. There are many good novels (though few great ones, I think) that are full of cultural signaling. For example, half the pleasure of reading Richard Ford’s Sportswriter trilogy is in passages like this:

Over the last year and a half, Mike has embraced his new calling with gusto by turning himself into a strangely sharp dresser, by fine-tuning a flat, accentless news-anchor delivery (his voice sometimes seems to come from offstage and not out of him), by sending his two kids to a pricey private school in Rumson, by mortgaging himself to the gizzard, by separating from his nice Tibetan wife, driving a fancy silver Infiniti, never speaking Tibetan (easy enough) and by frequenting — and probably supporting — a girlfriend he hasn’t told me about. All of which is fine. My only real complaint with him is that he’s a Republican. (Officially, he’s a registered Libertarian — fiscal conservative, social moderate, which makes you nothing at all.) But he voted for numbskull Bush and, like many prosperous newcomers, stakes his pennant on the plutocrat’s principle that what’s good for him is probably good for all others — which as a world-view and in spite of his infectious enthusiasm, seems to rob him of a measure of inner animation, a human deficit I usually associate with citizens of the Bay Area, but that he would say is because he’s a Buddhist.

True, I probably wouldn’t recommend these books to a Republican friend, but as with Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon (“His body should have been burned in a trash bin“), it’s part of the package. You wouldn’t be likely to read someone like Ford or Thompson if you didn’t already somewhat identify with their cultural views.

By contrast, you could enjoy Ready Player One even if you’re not a participant in sci fi fan culture, but that passage would be a gentle but unmistakable snub. If you’ve never heard of Wheaton or Doctorow, it’s clear that Cline thinks you should have heard of them. There’s no way they could be made-up names, because that passage is such a jarringly unnecessary departure from the story. Unlike a built-in allusion that you either get or miss completely (like all the literary characters modeled on real people, or the way older sci-fi writers would name a spaceship or whatnot after a real writer or scientist) this is drawing a clear line — a pat on the head if you know what he’s talking about, and an irritating distraction if you don’t.

Cline and Kurtz are both taking readers for granted, though in different ways. Cline assumes that they’re following the same online discussions that he is, and Kurtz assumes that they’ll buy from anywhere that authors send them, regardless of cost or convenience, presumably because they’re so in thrall to the authors themselves. In a way, they’re both acting as if reading newly-published books implies participation in a certain meta-”book culture” surrounding them. Which it doesn’t.

Maybe this is just an inevitable defensive reaction as the audience for fiction continues to shrink and fragment. Admittedly a lot of readers embrace it: they think of their taste in books as part of their identity, something that gives them membership in a small community of like-minded fellow readers with the same tastes and worldview. But while this kind of subculture can help to consolidate your current fan base, it can turn off new readers at the same time.


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