University woes

As someone who works at the university, I find these sentences personally relevant — and poignant.

University administrators have discovered that only in exceptional circumstances is the “success” of a classroom positively correlated with the academic excellence of its instructor. In fact, it’s more likely that the two are inversely correlated. The greater the instructor’s academic excellence, the more work she requires of students, the less “fun” they have (of the type I’m describing, at least—for some of us, real effort is fun), the poorer her student evaluations, the lower her subscriptions, and, therefore, the less “successful” her classes.

Source: “Pass, Fail” by Ron Srigley, published online here


Thoughts on gifted girls

Returning to one of my long-term interests, this time in the context of literature and analysis. This article has really struck a chord, personally and academically.

Academically, gifted girls are usually precocious readers. The National Association for Gifted Children’s (2006) position statement on early childhood states that characteristics of young gifted children include early reading skills and advanced vocabulary, and most of the gifted eminent adult women were precocious readers whose talent was nourished at an early age (Kerr, 1997). … Too often, gifted girls’ precocious reading is discounted as merely memorizing or decoding without comprehension …. Although early entrance to school is frowned on by many (Frey, 2005), research consistently shows that these accelerated children show advantages throughout their entire academic careers (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). When kindergarten entry policies are based on average boys’ readiness, tradition, or financial considerations, rather than on an individual child’s actual readiness, they are gendered practices.

Source: Barbara A Kerr, M. Alexandra Yuyk, and Christopher Read, “Gendered Practices in the Education of Gifted Girls and Boys” (Psychology in the Schools 49.7), 647–55.




On the beauty of the book and its endurance

In Smoke Proofs, Andrew Steeves offers a series of essays to ask critical questions about contemporary printing and publishing practices that most people in the industry take for granted. The essay “Why We Accept Shoddy Books” challenges literary publishers to think about how — and how badly — we deploy our limited financial resources in the making of cultural objects:

Strangely, the giant, profit-driven multinational publishers—those firms which are by their very structure and mandate most likely to become estranged from the literary and cultural values of the books they publish—tend to field more skilfully- and interestingly-made books than many of the grassroots, mission-driven and publicly-subsidized literary publishers. How is it that the multinationals can so easily outmanoeuvre the little presses, not only at the volume game where profit rules, but at the quality game as well?

Obviously, the multinationals have figured out that it’s easier to sell a book that looks nice, even if that beauty is only skin deep and fleeting. They have also figured out that they only need to spend trifling amounts of money on design and production to exceed the consumer’s much deflated expectations. And to that end, they tend to spend it on places where it is immediately visible to the consumer—on flashy covers and jackets—and less frequently on fundamentals like the line-by-line quality of the typesetting, better paper or sewn bindings. In effect, they bedazzle and tart-up their books and this passes for quality.

All the while, many small literary presses feel they must cut their design and production budgets to the bone in order to survive, employing poor papers and poorer binding and reproduction methods. As a result, a literary undertaking, such as the publication of a poetry book, too often shares the same production values as the small-town volunteer fire department’s audited financial statements.

Literary publishers cut corners not so they can maximize profit so much as to minimize loss, but I think this phenomenon results from a misunderstanding of their own role and responsibility as cultural institutions, and from a confusion about the true cost, value and function of good design. This confusion allows publishers to diminish the notion of ‘beauty’ to being a sort of luxury item which is deemed to be simply beyond our means. As we wrestle with questions of profit, quality and technology, we sometimes forget that the long-term survival and success of a text is closely tied to the quality of the physical artefact that will transmit it through time and space. (65–66)

In my work with publishers, and with one literary press in particular, I see this confusion at work regularly.

In the follow-up essay “The Fetish for Picture Jackets,” Steeves interrogates the bureaucratic mechanism of publishing grants and argues that in trying to make literary objects look like commercial (read mass-market) books to please grantors, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our culture and our future. Again, I see this disservice in my work with publishers, but never before have I considered the point as sharply as Steeves does.

Anyone interested in publishing, particularly literary publishing, could do worse than pay attention to this lovely book.

Andrew Steeves, Smoke Proofs (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2014).

On Socialism

Socialism is a badly misunderstood word. Does it refer to a concept, a philosophy, a political system, an insult? Here’s an excellent explanation of the basic premise of socialism, such that I could use with undergrads (and other people who need it).

In my view, the most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society. Socialists may not have agreed about the extent to which inequality can be eradicated or the means by which change can be effected, but no socialist would defend the current inequalities of wealth and power. In particular, socialists have maintained that, under capitalism, vast privileges and opportunities are derived from the hereditary ownership of capital and wealth at one end of the social scale, while a cycle of deprivation limits opportunities and influence at the other end. To varying extents, all socialists have therefore challenged the property relationships that are fundamental to capitalism, and have aspired to establish a society in which everyone has the possibility to seek fulfilment without facing barriers based on structural inequalities.

Later the writer explains that, in his view, socialism is a distinct product of nineteenth-century industrial society, although ideas that socialists can identify with occur earlier in history. He points specifically to the Marxist mode of analysis as the underpinning of “socialism” in the modern sense, a point with which I completely agree. The whole book is tight and focussed — not a word wasted. Excellent.

Michael Newman, Socialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp 2–3.

A willing subject

If you are an editor, a grammarian, or just someone who enjoys the quirks of the English language, you’re sure to like Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. I was happily surprised by the great good humour and the tidy fusion of editing memoir and language instruction. Kudos, Ms Norris!

There is no way a single sentence could sum up the many delights of this book, yet one lovely clause keeps ringing through my memory:

Parentheses often act like giant commas, and commas like tiny parentheses. (p. 103)

Graceful, yes? A nice use of rhetorical schemes, without being ostentatious, and a fine, compact observation. The book is full of such gems. Such a pleasure!

Source: Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015).

Real readers will understand

This excerpt comes from an urban fantasy series about libriomancers, people who are able to use books to produce magic. It expresses, in a tidy rhetorical figure, a feeling I’ve always had about books and reading but never been able to articulate.

I had said before that all stories were magic. It had never occurred to me that all magic was stories.

Jim C. Hines, Unbound (New York: Daw Books, 2014), p. 229

Who knew, Hugo?

I was astonished to learn the following about Victor Hugo (1802–1885), author of Les misérables (1862) and many other texts.

[Hugo’s] love affair with Juliette, though discreet, was another of the worst kept secrets in Paris. By the time the item went public, Victor and Adèle had agreed upon a discreet open marriage, exactly as his own parents had, a thoroughly contemporary arrangement. She slipped off through the escalier dérobé to see Sainte-Beuve and Victor left the front door to meet Juliette — and others.

The Hugo myth has it that whereas he naturally betrayed Adèle, his wife, while of course still loving her for eternity, he was faithful to Juliette, his muse and true love for fifty years. The day Juliette died, the story goes, he retired his quills, pining for the rest of his days. The reality is more interesting and inspiring to Parisians in its dark convolutions: half of Victor’s soul went to his wife, the other half plus his heart and loins to his mistress. Why just one mistress? What could be better than multiple mistresses, multiple lives, and secret staircases everywhere?

Hugo’s astonishingly Technicolor existence is never shown in the movies because it is too racy. His was a life of glory, uxorious devotion and serial adultery, fame, treachery, admirable heroism, enduring priapism, towering talent, altruism, narcissism and conspicuous consumption alternated with hair-raising escapes, exile, discomfort, and genuine danger. If you were allowed only one romantic French hero, the outside bearded sphinx Hugo would be a fine choice.

Hugo might indeed be my romantic French hero!

Source: David Downie, A Passion for Paris (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

Scarcity and abundance re book marketing

Last year I heard Richard Nash speak about publishing and learning to manage abundance. Several times in my teaching this year, I have quoted his memorable comment “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” The excerpt below, from Giles Clark and Angus Phillips,  amplifies Nash’s idea and sets it into the specific relationships among publishers, authors, and readers.

However, scarcity is still present and comes in different guises, especially in respect of the resources needed to publish. Readers and institutional buyers have limits on their purchasing power. There are also and importantly individual limits on the amount of time available to read, be it a novel or a scientific paper, versus competing media and activities: time is a scarce commodity. Good authors who people want to read are scarce, whether their writings are paid for by readers or available for free. From a publisher’s standpoint, it costs money to find, select and buy such authors. It takes resources to develop the author’s work for market needs, and to produce the book in whatever formats the content is published. The marginal cost of a digital file may be close to zero, yet there is still a cost to the publisher to create a book and then distribute it through channels to market that are controlled and charged for by others. The sales and marketing costs to capture readers’ attention, to help them discover books, do not disappear in the transition from print to digital publishing.

In a world of abundance, the publishers offer a vital service in selecting authors and developing their content to meet readers’ needs. They manage the authors’ brands and focus readers on the books they have selected. That service is worth paying for when time is scarce. (20–21)

This is a key point for me when I’m teaching book editing: until students have worked in the business as publishing professionals, it’s difficult for them to understand how abundance works against consumers and how scarcity works in consumers’ favour. And Clark and Phillips add an important additional consideration: the scarcity of time. Very well observed!

Source: Giles Clark and Angus Phillips, Inside Book Publishing (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

Regarding editorial efficiency

The Eleventh Time-Saving Tip:

… make all trivial decisions as soon as possible and keep all vital decisions as late as possible. The magazine, on paper and on digital, is now ‘plastic’ until it is fixed. (124)

This advice certainly applies to magazine editing, but also to editing in general. Editors need to think carefully about how to use our limited resource of time, particularly today, when digital workflows and leaner staffing mean that we have to work smarter than we did in the past.

Source: David Stam and Andrew Scott, Inside Magazine Publishing (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).