25/07/2013

bookshop miscellany

(c) Beatrice Warde (1932)


What's the Hamlet of scifi? (Not the 'greatest and most complex work in its field': the book which earns you disapproval if you admit to not having read it.) Brave New World? Do Androids Dream? Dune? Gravity's Rainbow? It's hard to imagine anyone making fun of you for not having read 2001. So, is scifi less centralised and hierarchical, then? Maybe. Maybe the scifi world is just yet to have its Robert Hutchins, the fossilising stipulation. Maybe I've just not spent enough time around the geek equivalent of academic snobs: convention attendees.


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Scandinavian countries are the least violent places in the world, all hovering around 0.5 murders per 100,000. But their crime fiction - unusually pessimistic, lonely, and depraved even for crime fiction - has been taking off like nobody's business. How long will it take for the entire population to be fictionally murdered?
  • Scandinavia's population: 25m.
  • Scandinavia's actual murder rate: 0.5 per 100,000. (Iceland had one murder in 2010.)
  • Scandinavia's actual birth rate: 7374 per 100,000 
  • Date of area's death by murder: Never.

  • Number of Scandinoir books: At least 160 in the last 20 years.
  • Scandinavia's fictional murder rate: 8 per book for British crifi; extrapolate 10 for Scandinoir.
  • Scandinavia's fictional birth rate: 0. I wouldn't bring children into a world like that, would you?
  • Copies of Scandinoir sold: 150m (65m of which Stieg Larsson, 30m for Camilla Läckberg...)
  • Copies per year (1992-2012): 7.5m
  • Number of fictional Scandinavian murders per year: 75m (150m x 10 murders each / 20 years). Falsely assume constant sales for 1992-2012.


  • Date that there are only murderers left in Scandinavia: 1999.

    (And this is ignoring all books sold after 2004, so even without Larsson and Lackberg the area was modally doomed.)

(The above relies on the deeply dubious but metaphysically funny idea of counting the same character's death once each time their murder is read. This is balanced, a bit, by my false assumption that each copy of each book is read only once.)

Cheap explanations of Scandanavian crime fiction and Scandinavian are easy: 1) nasty escapism could get a boost from society's safety: the lower actual violence is, the safer and more enjoyable fantasy violence is. 2) Money: Did you see how successful Stieg Larsson's books became?


"What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness... A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley."
- Nathaniel Rich

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lot of contemporary novels have twee, mysterious titles of the form:


"The [Wacky Thing] of [Cute-Name McStrange]"


e.g.The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (2010); The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite (2008); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2013); The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud (2004); The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009); The Universe versus Alex Woods (2013); The Evolution of Mara Dyer (2013); The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (2008); Hector and the Search for Happiness (2010); Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2011); Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2012); Peaches for Monsieur le Curé (2013); The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012); The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2009); Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (2010); The Confession of Katherine Howard (2011);  The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007); The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2011). Spot the four which are good.

These books ride the era's general trend toward twee products of all kinds. Maybe it was the sugar-goth romp Charlie St Cloud started off this specifically crap form of the crap trend. I like to think it is actually because every writer in the Anglosphere is a massive fan of John Irving (consider his 90s books A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed). 

What does it mean? Nothing much - just that authors are carried by dumb currents as much as anyone, and that the internet continues to bleed and make most things less formal.


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Some classics rendered in this Twee Synopsis form:
  • "The Pervy Journey of Humbert Humbert"; 
  • "The Shit Island of Robinson Crusoe"
  • "The Efficacious Errors of Elizabeth Bennett"
  • "The Catastrophic Errors of Eddie Pusrecks"
  •  "The Frightful Society of Winston Smith"
  • "The Fantastical Follies of Theseus and Hippolyta"
  • "The Plangent Becoming of the History Boys"
  • "The Strange Death of Gustav von Aschenbach"

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See also
"[Mundane Thing] in [Marginal Place]"

e.g. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2006); Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2010); The Cleaner of Chartres (2012); The Swallows of Kabul (2005); The Bookseller of Kabul (2004); The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2013); The Taliban Cricket Club (); A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (2013).


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What's the difference between Crime fiction, Mystery fiction, Horror fiction, and Thrillers?

In general, they're all about violence as the simplest and most scarily probable destabilising Event in life. In Thrillers, a powerful protagonist is set against even more powerful antagonists; in Horror, the protagonists are impotent. Further, you don't get closure from the event: either no explanation is given for the awful act, or a supernatural explanation is. Mystery is obvious, bound as it by certain strict rules mostly about the perpetrator ("Whodunnit?", "The red herring", "The brilliant insight", "The chase").

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"There are three problems afflicting contemporary poetry, each one serious enough to render the art irrelevant to the vast majority of intelligent readers in our time... 1) There is far too much poetry being written and published... 2) contemporary poetry is crippled by the fact that only one particular rhetorical mode is considered acceptable and prestigious. That mode is the confessional lyric... gaseous emotionalizing is identical with what we [now] call poetry... 3) Finally: the Portentous Hush... the tendency of contemporary verse to generate an air of highfalutin sanctity about itself, to pose before the reader as Something Of Great Importance, with capital letters... The real subject of such a poem is the celebration of its own heightened sensitivity... A literature that remains stuck in the rut of a single rhetorical mode, and that can offer nothing but emotional plangencies and hieratic posturing, ought to sink into tongueless oblivion."
- Joseph Salemi

Very few people read poetry. Let's see if we can hazard just how few:

In the UK, poetry is 0.2% of book sales (plummeting from, what, 30% in 1900?). [Poetry made £6.7m out of £3.3bn.] There are fewer people reading less, and older, poetry. That doesn't mean 0.2% of the population, for a number of confounding reasons. Let's get as much out of sales data as we can, though:
  • Total sales / average price per book: £6.7m / £9 = 740,000 books a year.
  • Total books / average books per reader: If you buy any, you'll buy a few, say 4 = 185,000 poetry readers.
  • Readers / total population: 0.19m / 62m Brits

    = 0.3% of people (buy) (mainstream publishers') poetry (new).

However, a 2009 report by the NEA found 8.3% of Americans claiming to have read a book of poems in 2009. We think ourselves a more poetic people than them, so what gives?
  1. Book-buying is highly concentrated. Lots of people buy 40 books a year, many more buy none.

  2. Perhaps the sales data captures little of the practice these days because poetry is even less commercial now.
    • Free stuff online. (Project Gutenberg and its like cover everything up to 1930 for free, , and blogs cover the amateurs and pre-professionals of the C21st Century.)
    • Running a small press is cheaper than ever.
    • Performance culture.

  3. This new bright grim picture is spoiled by the point that old poetry makes up 90% of the sales and no doubt as much of the online spoils, and that poetry readership has been falling throughout the C21st - when the online archives got big and should have revitalised things. 
How many then? Data fails. Closer to the 0.3% sales figure, anyway.

Why so few? Well, the standard line is to call people stupid, or to blame high school English for scaring all but the very weirdest kids away. Salemi's entertaining rant about poetry these days (2001) has something to it, though I suspect him of being a broken down grump. For the first time it's plausible that more people write poetry than read it.

But say also that few people have need of it. What rare need supposedly drives poetry reading? That of obscurity, ambiguity, and quasi-mystical inflation of experience, particularly emotion. For most people, negative capability is better known as speaking out your arse. For everyone else...


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Since poetry is so marginal, are writers who see their work as primarily or significantly ethical forced to leave it behind in pursuit of making an actual difference? In computer games, for instance?


(c) Winston Rowntree (2013)

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