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Sunday, October 26, 2003  

Writer's world: Dispatches from the front

  • Say good-bye to Book
  • One of the periodicals I rely on to keep me up-to-date about what writers are up to is about to cease publication.

    NEW YORK - Book, a bimonthly magazine partly owned by Barnes & Noble, is going out of business. The last issue, featuring a cover story on Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, comes out next week.

    "Barnes & Noble made the decision it couldn't go forward supporting the magazine," Jerome V. Kramer, editor in chief and a co-owner of Book, said Wednesday.

    . . .The magazine was founded in 1998 and at one point had more than 1 million subscribers, thanks largely to a free promotional offer from Barnes & Noble, which owns 50 percent of Book. Barnes & Noble ended the program last year and the subscription base has dropped to around 190,000.

    Book was sold in numerous stores besides Barnes & Noble outlets, but Kramer said it lost business after "Barnes & Noble" began appearing, in small print, on the cover earlier this year.

    "A lot of independent sellers pulled out," he said.

    It appears Kramer unwittingly allowed his publication to get caught in the crossfire between corporate and independent booksellers. I suspect adding the phrase "Barnes & Noble" to the cover of Book was an effort to increase sells by giving it the stamp of approval of a respected brand. However, the change may have doomed the periodical by limiting the number of outlets willing to carry it.

    Perhaps Kramer will find a way to continue contributing to the literary world. Book was intelligently written and edited and well worth one's time.

  • American readers ignore translations
  • An essay in the Books section of The New York Times makes me realize my reading habits are somewhat anomalous. I estimate at least a quarter of the books I read in a given year are translations from another language. Apparently, that is not so for most people.

    "There is no Frigate like a book/ To take us Lands away,'' wrote Emily Dickinson. But the ship most American readers sail remains strictly within national borders. According to a recent Publishers Weekly article, of all the books translated worldwide, only 6 percent (maybe less) are translated from other languages into English. By contrast, almost 50 percent are translated from English into those other languages. We all know that events of global importance take place outside our linguistic borders every day. And since our educational system is famous for how poorly it teaches foreign languages, it might try to compensate by offering students a lot more books in translation.

    I think I became a reader of international literature for several reasons.

  • Some of my earliest favored writers were French. I can't imagine not reading Balzac and Zola or ignoring Collette.
  • I am interested in cultures beyond white bread America and have never understood why most people in the United States aren't.
  • I believe an important part of a writer's objective is to try to understand human nature. The more I know about people from different places, the better I can do that.
  • Margo Jefferson, who wrote the piece in the NYT, believes that the increasing availibility of news from other countries may lead more Americans to read foreign writers. A recent convergence of literary events had that effect on her.

    Sometimes literature itself puts a country on our internal map. At about the same time the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, Oprah's Book Club announced that its next selection would be another South African novel, Alan Paton's 1948 book, ''Cry, the Beloved Country.'' To learn more about South Africa, I turned to the Feminist Press's rich new anthology ''Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region.'' It's an amazing resource, close to 600 pages, and it's a true collaboration, the work of seven editors from four countries. The 20 or so original languages include English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and siNdebele. The traditions are oral and written: there are poems and folktales, stories, diaries and political documents starting from the 1830's.

    In a country in which people still mumble about 'the dark continent,' as if we were living in 1703 instead 2003, that is an encouraging thought.

  • Nerve's longevity is quality driven
  • One effect of being a longterm Internet user is one sees different sites develop or fall by the wayside. I have been a member of Nerve.com, a site that publishes tasteful material about sexual issues, for several years. The magazine began as online only, branched out into real world publication and now operates on a Salon-type model -- offering regular and premium content. Over the years, the contributors to Nerve's nonfiction, fiction and photography sections have become increasingly mainstream.

    This excerpt from the introduction to the fall fiction issue exemplifies the kind of thoughtful discourse I have come to expect of writers for Nerve.

    . . .Many modern stories with sexual content are clever, intelligent, provocative, sad and funny. In the best ones, the characters are marvelously human. But in our sophistication and scrupulous questioning, it seems we have lost something -- the force of that animal which can come out of "nowhere," tear your precious personality to pieces, then melt back into the dark to quietly lick its paws.

    Describing this experience is very hard. Describing it while maintaining the delicacy and complexity of your characters is even harder. This is a dilemma for the modern writer who chooses to write about sex: make your characters genuine personalities without being restricted by the limits of human personality; evoke the enormity and ferocity of sex without demonizing it or making it exclusively about feminine shame. Part of the difficulty may be in that last part -- people are now leery of rendering feminine shame, or shame of any kind for that matter. It's almost as if we're too cool for it. But shame is a profoundly human experience, and we risk it every time we encounter a force bigger than ourselves. From my point of view, the older writers sometimes tried to avoid it by palming it all off on the skank. But it's even worse to try and correct that by writing as if shame and uncontrollable depth don't exist at all.

    My only complaint is the site has become less contributor friendly. I, and other contributors to the old Nerve, lost our sections at the site during its latest retooling. Though the alteration saves the magazine server space, it also reduces the diversity and communal nature of the site.

    If you haven't been reading Nerve, you might want to explore the site. Don't be surprised if you find yourself bookmarking it.

    6:00 PM