Monday, October 24, 2011

"the illusion of validity" and the Primacy of Story

What does a Nobel Laureate in Economics have to say that every author needs to hear?
A lot.
I've just returned from a week of working with a group of writers struggling with their stories. Each of them is a strong writer, each has a compelling story to tell, and each is pushing to a new level in his or her writing. My wife, the novelist Carolyn Coman, and I did our best to support them in their efforts. When I got home I discovered this op-ed piece, "Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence" (October 19, 2011), in The New York Times by Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. His new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is coming out this month and will be read, I am sure, by many money managers on Wall Street. However, I'm inclined to think that it would be worthwhile for writers to dip into it, if the excerpt I read is representative of what he has to say. Here are a few quotes worth pondering.
 … We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.
… Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.
… people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing.
Kahneman’s point is that money-managers make up stories and make financial decisions based on them, not on data. Moreover, when the data is shown to them, they ignore it in the face of the “stories” they have concocted. In effect, story trumps reality, even when the stakes are high, i.e. money. This is bad news for people who put their savings in the hands of money managers, but it is wonderful news for authors.
Kahneman insists that we are hard-wired to believe coherent stories, “even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.” This should make every author writing fiction rejoice!

Another great thinker, who was ineligible for the Nobel Prize, spoke about coherent stories. Aristotle, in his Poetics (ca. 350 B.C.E), wrote,  “There is [an] art which imitates by means of language alone [that] has hitherto been without a name.” Aristotle’s nameless art—one of many reasons I named my company namelos—is what we call fiction and Aristotle’s discussion is a primer for everyone who attempts to write a coherent story
This will be the first of several pieces examining the earliest document of literary criticism in the western world and its immediate and direct relevance to writers today. This may sound painfully academic, but it has been the basis of my editorial approach for decades and has helped a great many writers find their way through the labyrinth of plotting a novel. 
To be continued.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What up?

I took four months off from blogging and, for those of you trying to maintain a blog and despairing, I'm here to say, take a break. It may not be the right thing to do, but it's the best thing to do. You can blog on schedule with nothing to say, because you're supposed to keep the channel open, or you can blog when you have something to say, and let the channel go neutral in the interim. I vote for the latter.

Here's what I have to say four months later.

The summer was lovely and bizarre. Anyone who denies climate change needs to go outside, dig in the dirt, mow the lawn, weed the garden, and look up periodically. Repeat until light dawns on marble head.

Our raspberry patch presented unforeseen challenges and delights. Challenges: I have a whole new appreciation of weeds. They will inherit the earth! And, sad to say, they are very close to the ground which requires a posture I am less and less inclined to assume. We spent two weeks in the early summer and two weeks in the late summer weeding. It is a zen occupation, but, I hasten to say, not all zen occupations are equal. BTAIM, we got raspberries galore, more raspberries than you can imagine (unless you are a raspberry farmer). Here is a recipe for joy: pour two glasses of Prosecco (the other one for someone you really like), wander out to the raspberry patch and pick, carefully, three perfectly fresh raspberries for each glass and drop them in. Sit in the early evening light and sip as you watch the dragonflies dart about. I'm not sure which is better, raspberry-flavored wine, or wine-flavored raspberries. Bliss!

Now, how about those Boston Red Sox! Never mind.

I guess that just leaves publishing and ebooks. The "news" is fraught with a wide array of gambits being made by authors, agents, and publishers. Some seem, to me, really smart. Others are obvious. And a few, make me think we'll soon have company out here on the lunatic fringe—to them I say "Hail fellow! Welcome." I'll just talk about the smart ones. I think HarperCollins making a large portion of their backlist available for local print-on-demand via the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) in bookstores is the single most intelligent and potentially business-saving (for publishers and bookstores) initiative I've seen to date by one of the big six publishers. For those of you who haven't thought it through, print-on-demand is a manifestation of the ebook revolution. The book is delivered electronically, just to a different machine, not an e-reader, but an e-printer, if you get my drift. What I call the revolution is about delivery, i.e. distribution, not about final form. More and more of us are happy on screens, but a lot of readers still want ink-on-paper in the codex form. The most important aspect of all of this is availability of content to the customer where/when/how they want it, at a price they are willing to pay. Some will point out that there aren't that many EBMs around. True, and there weren't that many e-readers around a few years ago. Hold your breath: there will be more around when you exhale. Another smart move, neither the first or the only of its kind, is the Perseus Group's new Argo Navis Publishing Service, a platform for authors to self-publish. It's disappointing to me that at launch this service is offered only to agents, not authors, but that will change, even if Perseus isn't the one to change it. The smartness comes from a serious player realizing that trying to hold off the self-publishing/re-publishing wave is foolish, and, instead, offering an array of services a publisher provides for its own books at a viable price, i.e. 70% goes to the author/self-publisher, rather than the usual and unacceptable 25%, or even the unusual 50% offered by few. Don't misunderstand me: a flock of businesses offer these services—and more and more agents are cobbling together resources to do it themselves—but none makes as much sense or has the credibility of Perseus, long known as a purveyor of independent voices. That matters, even though the publisher is not attaching its name to the books. As for Perseus it is a very smart move, they have just leveraged their resources to create a new revenue stream. Nicely done. I expect that soon many will follow the lead of HarperCollins and Perseus.

Finally, Steve Jobs died at 56. A great loss. He changed the world. Who knows what he might have gone on to accomplish. Ave atque valle!