POINT OMEGA by don delillo

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a beautifully structured murder mystery, or is it an idea of the universe as an inversion of the infinite, a compression of all event into a common, everyday chamber? war as haiku is one of its “unintentionally humorous” conceits… i admit to being totally surprised by this book. at first approach, reading the familiar delillo scenes of lonely men in empty rooms i was lulled into thinking we’d be covering old ground. but in the middle of the book, a plot point, which initially feels somewhat easy and perhaps manipulative, twists this plain land into a haunting and eldritch möbius strip.

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after you’ve read the book (because it contains spoilers), this odd publicity prose from scribner, documented on wikipedia, is a very good précis of the book.

a great interview in the WSJ here. a liked bit:

WSJYou’ve often discussed the need for writers to stand in opposition to society and people in power, and to be outsiders. How has that idea guided your work?

Mr. DeLillo: It’s very non-specific. It’s not something one does consciously; it’s just a general sense that this culture is so filled with consumption and waste that, even if one doesn’t write about it in specific terms as I did write about it in “Underworld,” I think a writer may feel that he is standing in opposition to this, and perhaps in a very general way to the idea of power itself.

WSJDo you think most contemporary fiction writers are living up to that task?

Mr. DeLillo: It’s hard to judge. I don’t know

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delillo interviewed by NPR’s steve inskeep describing the book on morning edition.

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delillo reading at the PEN event, Reckoning with Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the “War on Terror”

MERCHANTS OF CULTURE by John B. Thompson

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in the brooklyn rail, a great interview with sociologist john b. thompson on his latest book — a synthesis of five years of research studying the slowly and reluctantly transforming trade book biz.

thompson posits a few interrelated  forces eviscerating the publishing business: the teetering economies of the big chain stores; the increasing power and prominence of literary agents; consequences of the ongoing digital revolution; and the consolidation of publishing houses into public companies who, while in a relatively plateaued industry, are forced to seek bottom-line growth. but while these forces have been elaborated on elsewhere, thompson’s carefully considered analysis is refreshingly absent of both chicken little squawk and futurist drool.

some favorite bits:

Rail: So the change in publishing is certainly more complex than the chat that “e–books are destroying traditional publishing?”

Thompson: Absolutely. The publishing industry is in trouble—but not just because of the digital revolution. The real trouble for the publishing industry, in my view, has more to do with the gradual unfolding of this economic transformation that led to this structure of publishing, where we now have five large corporate groups and a small number of retail chains dominating the industry. These corporations have to achieve growth year on year, and when that top line revenue begins to fall, as it did when the 2008 economic recession suddenly tipped the narrow profit margins into the red, it has devastating impact throughout and the only way that they can preserve the profit at the bottom line is to push people out, and to reduce their overheads and costs dramatically. You don’t see this in the small houses but the big corporations respond quickly, immediately, because their absolute priority is to protect that bottom line profitability, which they have to report to their corporate bosses. And so that was the real crisis in the publishing industry in the autumn of 2008 to the present. Now, it also happened to be conjoined with an upsurge in e–book sales. Kindle had been introduced in 2007, the Sony Reader a year before that, and there was some impact from these before the recession. But as you moved into 2009, commentators and observers of the industry were seeing that the only thing that had an upward movement in the book publishing industry were e–book sales. Now, of course, that’s misleading because, still, 95 percent of the revenues in the industry are coming from physical book sales. It’s just that the only thing that is growing are e–book sales, so everyone focuses their attention on that and says the “revolution” or the “crisis” of the book publishing industry is about e–books, and that’s not the case actually.

Rail: So it’s largely a media ownership issue.

and

Rail: But will e–books become more of a norm as time goes on?

Thompson: There’s no consensus on this issue. I interviewed many, many key players in the digital divisions of all the large publishing houses, as well as the medium and small size publishing houses and everyone is very interested in this topic but everyone has a different opinion about what will happen in the future. Some believe that it will sweep aside the printed book and the printed book will become a relic of the past that you find only on the bookshelves of collectors. Whereas there are others who say it will plateau at some level. Some say it’s going to be 10 percent of readers, others say it’s going to be 20 percent, others 50 percent. Everyone has a different opinion on the matter. My own view is that what we will see is a differentiation of the marketplace. Readers and consumers have many different values, and beliefs, and preferences and you will see some be very happy to read on electronic devices of one kind or another. Others will remain wedded to print on paper and will want books in that form. There are deeply embedded cultural practices around writing and reading and these are not going to change quickly and easily. There are people who believe that technology sweeps all before it, and that technology is really the driving force of social change. I don’t take that view. I regard that as a technological fallacy—the view that technology is a driving force of social change. I think technologies are always embedded in social, cultural context and what technologies get taken up depends on a variety of factors that shape people’s practices and beliefs. There are many examples of technologies that went nowhere. You remember the great CD–ROM fiasco? In the late 1980s all publishers thought that the future of books was the CD–ROM. A lot of money was invested; publishers set up whole units developing CD–ROM technology and then it disappeared. It just didn’t go anywhere largely because it wasn’t very useful. So technology doesn’t produce results in and by itself.

read the whole at: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2010/11/express/is-publishing-doomed-john-b-thompson-with-williams-cole

a review in the UK’s Times Higher Education: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=413351

pick it up from the library.

TELEVISION by jean-philippe toussaint

life in the eurozone! across the pond there’s a fabled land, a kingdom beating us into decline and empire’s twilight by a scant half-century. they say of it that democratic socialism is a viable political party there, but we’re skeptical of the outrageous. rumor also describes a state-subsidized intelligentsia so embedded and entitled it flirts constantly with bourgeois decadence — before collapsing into spasms of marxist self-flagellation. (our native, barbaric artists dream nightly of immigration.)

from those far shores, a message in a bottle. jean-philippe toussaint’s TELEVISION was published in 1997 at the dawn of the internet era — but, plus ça change, a find-and-replace of the one technology with the other would make a fairly (you could quibble) lossless reprise.

Television is formal beyond all reason, I now told myself as I lay on the Dreschers’ bed; twenty-four house a day, it seems to flow along hand in hand with time itself, aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might sometimes wonder where all those images go once they’ve been broadcast, with no one watching them or remembering them or retaining them, scarcely seen at all, only momentarily skimmed by the viewer’s gaze. For where books, for instance, always offer a thousand times more than they are, television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality (95).

the plot of an academic who gives up tv unfortunately allows toussaint to occasionally lapse from the art of prose into the (admittedly well-done) rhetoric of cultural criticism.

…”No, no, very little,” he said, “more or less never, maybe an opera now and then, or certain old films. But I tape them,” he added, “I tape them” (as if the fact that he taped them might somehow soften the reproach that could be leveled against him for watching them).

I’d often observed this kind of quiet, troubled modesty when people were forced to speak of the relationship we all have with television. They seemed to broach the subject in spite of themselves, as if discussing some grave illness which touched their lives not indirectly but on the most intimate level… and even out in the streets, in the cafes, in the buses and subways, on the radio, in the offices, in every conversation the subject was never anything other than television, as if the very basis of conversation, its single visceral material, had become television, and in spite of all this everyone went on looking away, forever denying the gravity of the disease (150-1).

but toussaint is at his most hilarious and at his witty best when describing the familiar tiny tragedies of the pampered intellectual:

Then, my breakfast at an end, as I passed through the chiaroscuro of the apartment to make my way toward the study, I caught a fleeting glimpse of myself in the entryway mirror, and I found this image of me to be rather a true one, that tall, hunched form in the half-lit hallway, a cup of coffee in one hand, advancing at dawn toward the study and its thousand untarnished promises of good work to come. My mind still keenly focused, I switched on the computer, which bade me welcome, sputtering like a coffee maker. I pensively opened the hard drive icon with a quick click of the mouse. Wasting no time, from among the dozen or so vaguely bluish folders that appeared before me in the electronic window I’d opened I selected the file… and opened it with two more quick strokes of my finger over the mouse’s clitoris, expertly teasing its little ductile zone. Almost without transition, a vast expanse appeared before on the screen, luminous and grayish. I raised my head, my gaze fixed, and began to think. I took a pensive sip of coffee and set the cup down onto its saucer. But nothing came.

For three weeks now I’d been trying in vain to get down to work (25).

an easy-flowing and beautifully lazy(-seeming) writer, toussaint’s charming slyness at times distracts from a (perhaps purposeful) shallowness. up for grabs is how much that’s mitigated by the fact we live in shallow times.

buy it from the publisher or pick it up from your local library.

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via dalkey’s BEST EUROPEAN FICTION 2010, you can read toussaint’s “Zidane’s Melancholy” here along with an interview with toussaint from it here.

and, in english, an interview with toussaint by KCRW’s silverblatt here.

poor yorick! soft skull closes its ny doors

soft skull in its peripatetic two decades in nyc went through several upheavals and sometimes was more of a brand than a consistent editorial philosophy. but throughout they were risk takers of a very necessary kind. among other things, they published some of the smarter fiction of the recent past, including authors david ohle, lynne tillman, eileen myles, lydia millet, wayne koestenbaum, and michael muhammad knight. sad to see them go.

cover story of the NY Press reports:

While it might not be the end of Soft Skull altogether, by leaving New York, the press will never be the same. After all, Soft Skull is the quintessential New York City indie press. Born in a Greenwich Village copy shop in the early ’90s, a birth that reeks of Reality Bites-style angst and passion in a still-affordable Manhattan where poets, musicians and anarchists ran amok, the press published progressive books and wasn’t afraid to get dirty.

and the NY Observer quotes a critical Nash:

In an interview, Mr. Nash praised Ms. Oswald’s efforts at Soft Skull and placed the blame for the closing of the New York office on what he said was Counterpoint’s insufficient commitment to publicity and marketing.

“Anne and Denise were acquiring books that exemplified the Soft Skull spirit,” Mr. Nash said. “But another part of the Soft Skull spirit is the drum banging, and their books weren’t getting the drum beat hard enough for them.”

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