Leaflet #3: Temporary

Newsletter #3: Time lags, deadline philosophy, childish scribbles.


Temporary

Once, when I was little, my family went on a drive-through safari, the kind where humans stay safely in a car while lions and giraffes roam freely. I remember that I objected angrily when my father paused the audio tour, which was on a cassette player. We were going to miss what the park ranger was saying! In those days, radios and televisions couldn’t be paused, and I didn’t see how a cassette player could work any differently. To hear the whole tour, surely we had to keep the device always on, no matter how far ahead of us the taped narrator got.

It isn’t obvious that writing takes place in time, maybe because reading doesn’t take place simultaneously or even necessarily at the same tempo. My childhood confusion is the writer’s secret weapon. But while there may be enough time, thanks to this décalage, to hide some of a writer’s flaws, there’s never enough to hide all of them.

Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work.

That’s from Iris Murdoch’s highly entertaining novel The Black Prince; a genre writer is justifying his mediocrity, and Murdoch is making a joke about her own prolificacy. But it happens to be true! Every piece of writing has a deadline—a moment past which it will no longer be possible to slot it into the context for which it was conceived. “Don’t take too long,” the editor of my first book, which was scholarly, said to me when I was dilly-dallying on a revision. “I don’t want those endnotes to get stale.”

Maybe women writers, historically more subject to interruption, have more often been thoughtful about the way writing is vulnerable to time. Here’s the novelist-heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour:

“But it was through no fault of my own,” she thought, her mind reverting to those cracked and riven chapters of hers; all of her books the same, none sound as a bell, but giving off little jarring reverberations now here, now there, so that she herself could say, as she turned the pages (knowing as surely as if the type had slipped and spilt): “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

The time of reading leaves marks, too. A couple of weeks ago, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, a bookseller let me page through a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again(1595). About halfway through the book, on a mostly blank verso, a child had scrawled in pencil, in large, loopy characters,

John

Cotton

1653

11 66 55 33

Tho-

mas

Cotton

The bookseller seemed a little startled. I said I thought the scribbles were charming, but I don’t think I looked enough like the sort of person who would actually be able to afford to purchase the volume to reassure him. “I don’t know,” he said. “It comes off a little strong, don’t you think?” When I got home, I asked Google but was unable to find a John or Thomas Cotton who was seven or eight years old in 1653. It also wasn’t until I got home that I wrote down the child’s inscription, from memory, which tends to be fallible. I see that the bookseller’s catalog entry does now mention it—I don’t know if it was added after the fair, or if it was there all along and I just now noticed it—and it records the inscription a little differently: “Thomas Cotton / 1653 / 165 / John / Cotton.”

The problem is more general, of course. Marcus Aurelius:

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.

A person is more or less a firecracker, in other words, and one’s sparkle, as a writer or in any other capacity, comes from the process of one’s self being used up.

Leaflet #2: Missions

What was Melville’s mission statement? Issue #2 of my newsletter.


Missions

A few days ago a friend sent me a link to “Sea Scrivener,” a 1944 comic-book biography of Herman Melville:

A little Billy Budd seems to have gotten mixed into the life (which starts on page 63, on the website linked to). While in grad school, I made a pilgrimage to Melville’s grave in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx, where a blank scroll decorates his headstone. My recollection is that on my way to the grave, I walked past an obelisk commemorating a family named Budd. Had it been put there before or after Melville? The New York Times reports that “plots are still available in the vicinity of Herman Melville, with prices starting at $20,000.” I’ve been getting a fair amount of junk mail from cemeteries lately, which causes one to wonder what the algorithms know about one. If any were to advertise such a propinquity, the solicitation would be a little more tempting.

At a recent dinner party, a friend who works in branding explained the importance of mission statements. Nike, for example, aims “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” whereas its rivals just hope to make running shoes. The ad executive who came up with Nike’s tagline “Just do it,” by the way, was inspired by the end of murderer Gary Gilmore’s life. As Norman Mailer recounts, in The Executioner’s Song:

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.”

At first, wondering whether writers have, or should have, mission statements struck me as just intellectual recreation, and maybe a little bit philistine in an amiable way. But as it happens, I worry constantly that my career is a magpie’s nest—I’ve written about antebellum legal flotsam, pirates, gay history, voting ethics, plus a couple of novels, and some commentary on sci-fi movies—and what if, all along, without my knowing it, I’ve been coherent? What a consolation that would be. All I need to do is discover the secret unity beneath my motley. The night after the dinner party, therefore, I couldn’t sleep for trying to deduce the missions of writers, retrospectively. Plato: to write down a conversation with someone who loves wisdom for its own sake. Melville: to penetrate the mystery of being incarnated as a man in a capitalist world. Orwell: to try to tell the truth about people even in the face of their dislike of hearing it. Margaret Fuller: to further the progress of liberty through intellectual service, while a woman in the 19th century. Emerson: to dramatize the way spirit escapes from and is betrayed by the forms that aim to represent it.

I couldn’t figure out my own. Something to do with the connection and conflict between life and art, between attachment and detachment? Which doesn’t explain why last year I wrote an essay about finance capitalism. Maybe the common element is my interest in stories that depose the individual they purport to serve? It would be pleasant to have some reason to think that it wasn’t just out of distractibility that I was a critic and journalist before I got around to becoming a novelist, and to know whether my fiction has to be about gay people or just happens to be about them.

“Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible.” —Stig Dagerman, quoted in Johannes Lichtman’s new novel Such Good Work. I like Lichtman’s gentle sense of humor. He’s very good at, for example, suggesting how bad Germans are at explaining card games: “When you put down a queen and then he puts down a queen, then two are down, so it’s until the next turn, unless it is broken.” Such Good Work is about a recent MFA grad who tries to distract himself from relapsing into opiate addiction by moving to Sweden, where he further distracts himself by volunteering to teach refugee children. It turns into a meditation on distraction and ambition, and whether feeling good undermines attempts at doing good, and ends up suggesting, without getting too heavy-handed, that there may not be a higher purpose than helping other people and oneself pass the time not unhappily.

By a stroke of luck, Peter and I were recently able to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers, a one-night-only presentation at BAM by Film Forum programming director Bruce Goldstein of dance numbers by, home movies of, and interviews with Fayard and Harold Nicholas, debonair black dancers in American movies of the 1930s and 1940s. (An earlier version of Goldstein’s presentation seems to be available here. We were clued in about the Nicholas Brothers because, a couple of months ago, while Peter was reading Zadie Smith, he was so struck by her praise of their dance number in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather that we watched it online.) By the end of Goldstein’s presentation, during a video he and a collaborator had shot of the brothers reprising, in their seventies, a dance number that they had first recorded for Vitaphone in their teens, I was in tears—at their elegance, at their good nature, at the longevity of hard work and talent. In Goldstein’s telling, they took every opportunity that was consonant with dignity, with a cheerfulness that seems to have been a force of nature. If there were frustrations and disagreements, they seem not to have dwelt on them, and if there were romantic troubles or personality clashes, they did as well as they could and moved on. Nothing became a tragedy; no setback was allowed to become as meaningful as the work. There’s something beautiful about that, and about their gameness—their willingness always to do their best. Were they lucky? Yes, probably, Goldstein’s documentary work suggests: in having been loved since childhood, in having been gifted, in having boundless enthusiasm. But because they were black they weren’t as famous or as successful as they should have been, and they seem neither to have pretended not to see this nor to have let it eat away at their love for their art. A model.

This is issue #2 of Leaflet, a newsletter by Caleb Crain. My next novel comes out in August, and you can buy an early copy now from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Leaflet

I started a newsletter. A week after saying on Twitter that I would never do this. (Sorry.) First issue: peeing in snow, seven centuries of music history.


Loomings

I seem to be writing a newsletter. No idea what I’m doing here.

Until yesterday, when they melted, there were these enormous shunting-togethers of discarded snow in the park—large coagulations smeared with mud, studded with decayed leaves, and riddled with holes where dogs had peed into them. Our dog, of course, was fascinated; he could not get enough of sniffing them and peeing into them himself. Stuck waiting for his attention to weaken, I found myself thinking of the new philosophical concept of “the hyperobject”: a thing so distendedly significant that it exceeds any perceptual category through which one tries to apprehend it. Climate change, for example: too big for meteorology, too big for history, too big for political science. One can do nothing but loiter—mesmerized, compelled—and contribute to the aggregation.

“A man I know who should be well informed about this tells me that when the angels play music before God they play Bach, but when they play by themselves for their own amusement they play Mozart.” —Iris Murdoch to Brigid Brophy, 31 March 1964, Living on Paper. The internet seems to believe that the originator of this witticism was the theologian Karl Barth; I’m guessing he wasn’t Iris Murdoch’s well informed man.

Our friend Peter Mendelsund (author of the new novel Same Same) recently tipped us off to the new album c. 1300–c. 2000, in which pianist Jeremy Denk plays his way through seven centuries. It’s kind of like reading through all five volumes of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music but in under two hours and you’re just listening. Or rather, I imagine it would be like reading all of Taruskin, since I haven’t actually read Taruskin. Since pianos didn’t exist in the 14th century, Denk has made his own arrangements of early chansons and madrigals, which is of course musicologically impure but has the effect of abstracting away the early-period-instrumentness of those compositions as one usually hears them and one has the impression of listening instead to the evolution of mere music.

Tween boy, talking to peers, overheard on the sidewalk last week: “It’s true. They rub their cloacas together. That’s how they do it. A cloaca is literally a birdhole.”

New: Last week, on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, I wrote an accordionable line-by-line commentary about “The Palinode,” a double-sonnet from 1600 about the transience of pleasure, beauty, soap bubbles, and praise. (I did this kind of commentary once before, years ago, with Thomas Wyatt.) I also wrote a post suggesting that brick-and-mortar bookstores might thrive if publishers were to set books’ retail prices. In theory yes, the economist Mathieu Perona wrote in to tell me, but in practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. When Perona wrote his doctorate on the policy of fixed book prices in France and elsewhere, he discovered that in the real world, fixed book prices don’t always correlate with the flourishing of bookstores; he found that in France, that’s partly because French publishers have used their price-setting power to deny sufficient profit margins to French retailers.

The future: My novel Overthrow will be published by Viking in August. If you buy a copy now, ahead of time—either from your local independent bookstore, or from Barnes & Noble or Amazon—it will give the book a boost. Cover art and description here.

On disappearing bookstores

One of my favorite telling details, in the ongoing story of the vanishing of New York’s bookstores, is from a 1926 review by Edmund Wilson of the then-new uptown location of the bookstore Brentano’s:

One finds in the new Brentano’s the same admirable features as in the old: the varied and enormous stock, the easily accessible galleries, the comprehensive foreign departments, with clerks who are at home in the languages of the literatures to which they are accredited, and the fascinating display, in the basement, of the tables of periodicals from all over the Western world.

Working in a bookstore will always be cool, but in Wilson’s day, it was apparently reasonable to expect the staff of a top-of-the-line bookstore to be conversant in multiple languages. No doubt there are a few such staff still in New York today—McNally Jackson has very smart-looking foreign-language sections—but I’m pretty sure that such standards long ago ceased to be de rigueur. An article in The Guardian today by Oliver Conroy charts the decline, more plainly, in numbers:

In 1950, Manhattan had 386 bookstores, according to Gothamist; by 2015, the number was down to 106. Now, according to a count by the city’s best-known bookstore, the Strand, there are fewer than 80.

“Why are New York’s bookstores disappearing?” Conroy wonders. As possible explanations he cites competition from Amazon, a secular decline in the habit of reading (which I’ve written about before), and spikes in retailers’ rents, which are sometimes caused by real estate speculators. All of these are likely contributing—indeed, McNally Jackson’s Soho store is seeing its rent hiked from $350,000 a year to $650,000—but there’s another cause that I suspect is more powerful.

The economist Steven E. Landsburg spells it out in Can You Outsmart an Economist, a new book that hides key economic ideas inside the Trojan horse of dad-friendly mind-benders. After challenging readers to explain such mysteries as why people stand still on escalators, Landsburg offers a puzzle relevant to bookstores: “Why doesn’t Sony wants its TVs sold at a discount?”

Sony is far from the only company that insists on what’s known as “resale price maintenance” or, less charitably, “vertical price-fixing.” Most big-ticket consumer electronics items in America can’t be bought cheaper from one retailer versus another. Want an Apple I-phone? Want a Fujifilm digital rangefinder? Try to shop around, and you’ll quickly discover that the prices offered by all retailers uncannily coincide. The practice is completely legal. Antitrust law won’t allow a manufacturer like Canon to coordinate its pricing decisions with a rival like Fujifilm, but Canon is free to dictate independently the prices of all its brand-new Canon goods. All it has to do is require retailers to sign pricing agreements and refuse to supply stock to any who fail to follow instructions.

As Landsburg points out, it isn’t obvious why a company like Sony should “care about the retail price of its TVs.” Sony, as a manufacturer, only gets paid the wholesale price of its TVs, after all. If a retailer is willing to lower the retail price, cutting into its own profit share, why should the manufacturer mind? In general, a manufacturer expects to sell more units when the retail price is lower, or so the simple math of the supply-and-demand curve predicts. Why then do so many of the most successful companies selling in America think different on this question?

Landsburg explains:

If retailers are free to set their own prices, you’ll walk into Best Buy, latch onto a salesperson, ask questions for an hour, spend another hour playing your favorite You Tube videos on all the different display models, ask a bunch more questions, and then go home and order from Amazon, where the price is lower. Best Buy will soon enough get tired of this and either stop carrying Sonys altogether or stop displaying them.

Or go out of business, one might add, though Landsburg doesn’t mention that alternative. If price is invariable, on the other hand, retailers, instead of competing on price, have to compete by offering better service. If, as a manufacturer, you take pride in the quality of what you make, you want customers to have a chance to become more knowledgeable. In the corporate world, in other words, it’s widely understood—it’s a commonplace—that the only way to create a network of pleasant, thriving retailers is to control pricing.

So if the economic principle is so obvious, you’re no doubt asking, then why haven’t the publishers of America instituted vertical price-fixing?

Maybe books are different? They don’t seem to be. For a quick proof, consider that “Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain allow the vertical price-fixing of books,” as I wrote in this 2012 blog post, reporting on a conference about the future of books and copyright, and bookstores in those countries are prospering. If you’re a reader and you’ve visited one of those countries recently, you’ve probably seen them and wept. Maybe, as I constantly worry, reading itself is in decline, but it seems that bookstores needn’t be in a decline quite as steep as that in America and the United Kingdom.

Note an important difference in the kind of argument used to justify the laws that allow (and in France, require) publishers to set retail prices. Laws are passed for the common good, not to ensure that the customers of a manufacturer have a pleasant retail experience. The rationale for laws allowing publishers to control their books’ prices, therefore, is public-spirited rather than hard-headed. As I wrote in 2012,

The nations that allow for “resale price maintenance” . . . in publishing justify the legal exception for three reasons. They believe that it brings a bookstore to every village, that it makes possible a wide selection of books in those bookstores, and that it enables less-popular books to be subsidized by more-popular ones. In other words, the argument for resale price maintenance rests largely on the contribution that local, independent bookstores make to cultural life.

Online bookstores like Amazon might seem to undermine these rationales, because an online bookstore can bring a wider variety of books to a broader geographic range of citizens than any network of brick-and-mortar bookstores can. There’s an objection to this objection, however—an asymmetry. If a combination of uncontrolled pricing and online bookselling drives a brick-and-mortar bookstore out of existence, the special benefit to consumer-citizens that was provided by that well-managed brick-and-mortar bookstore is destroyed. The reverse, however, is not true. That is, if publishers were to control control prices, thereby supporting brick-and-mortar stores, the market share of online booksellers might well shrink, but it’s improbable that all online booksellers would for that reason go out of business, and as long as even one reputable online bookseller remained, the boons of wide variety and wide geographic distribution would remain available. If you believe that these boons are worth preserving, you needn’t necessarily oppose allowing publishers to set the retail prices of their books. Amazon remains in business in France even though it’s against the law there for online booksellers to undersell their brick-and-mortar rivals.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that a number of social democratic European nations have held onto the belief that bookstores contribute to cultural life and deserve protection, while in America and the United Kingdom, where the legal and political elites tend to be more market-fundamentalist, the consensus seems to be that cheaper book prices are worth more than the affordances of a nice bookstore. None of these ideological preferences alters the underlying economics of price-setting, however. Publishers needn’t wait wait for politicians, or for abstract moral argumentation, if they believe that well-run brick-and-mortar stores are the most congenial environments for introducing their books to readers. And in my experience, especially if one is looking to discover new books of high literary quality, nothing surpasses handling, sniffing, and leafing through ink-on-paper volumes in a well-curated brick-and-mortar store.

If Penguin Random House (to name the mega-conglomerate that happens to be publishing me this August) wanted to adopt Sony’s corporate strategy on the pricing of its TVs, it could do so tomorrow. Alas, there would be enormous risks. Federal antitrust regulators would be watching skeptically, because American publishers did adopt that strategy with e-books, as a roundabout way of supporting the price of ink-on-paper books, and got caught colluding with one another, in violation of antitrust law, when they did so. In the end, the publishers did get their way in the pricing of e-books, as Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger explain in The Book Business, a new primer on the behind-the-scenes economics of publishing. The results were mixed. Amazon decided to “let the big publishers be hoisted with their own petard,” Shatzkin and Riger write. While publishers kept the retail price of their e-books high, Amazon cultivated an alternative supply of e-books that were in the public domain or by authors who were self-published or who had taken their copyrights back from their original publishers. “The big publisher share of the e-book market appears to have steadily diminished since agency pricing began,” Shatzkin and Riger report, but “publishers take some comfort in the fact that print book sales have stabilized.”

I’m skating perilously close to turning this into an endless blog post about economics and the future of literature, so I’ll cut it short: Brick-and-mortar bookstores remain invaluable for publishers hoping to reach consumers who discriminate for literary quality and are interested in new titles, and as best I can figure it, vertical price-fixing is the only way to support an ecosystem of brick-and-mortar bookstores in the long term. The first publisher to attempt vertical price-fixing, however, will risk being undersold by rivals who delay adopting the strategy and being attacked in some way by Amazon, who will see it as a threat to market share. There will also be a more general risk, if prices are set too high, of spurring consumers to defect to cheaper alternatives.