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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Friday, October 1, 2010 2:22 pm
Weeklings: Virginia Quarterly Review, E-books
Posted by: Keir Graff

Much of the media coverage of the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s managing editor, was downright sensationalistic, teasing out allegations that he may have been driven to it by the bullying of his boss, editor Ted Genoways. Now, in Slate, Emily Bazelon’s “Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review” offers a more nuanced and balanced exploration of what really happened. Isn’t that always the way? Simplistic, knee-jerk speculation feeds the news cycle and then is balanced, months later, by meaningful journalism. Hopefully, the people (like me) whose attentions were piqued by the “dysfunction in the ivory tower” spin will take the time to read this much-needed corrective.

Something about this story keeps making me think of Harry Dolan’s book Bad Things Happen, where, indeed, bad things happen, mostly centered around a sort of literary crime journal called Gray Streets, published in that den of iniquity known as Ann Arbor, Michigan. At first, I thought it was the name “Ted Genoways,” which I could have sworn was also the name of a character in Dolan’s book. (After turning some pages, and finding a lot of excellent names, including David Loogan and Elizabeth Waishkey, I believe I may have been thinking of Nathan Hideaway.)

But there’s more to it than that. Dolan’s Gray Streets is a pretty improbable publication, at least the way it’s presented, but it’s an irresistible combination of two things a lot of people love to read about: publishing and academia, especially imagined versions of both. There’s a whole subgenre of academic satire, of course (see our “Read-alikes: The Groves of Academe” for a few) and more than a few tales set in publishing, too (John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over comes to mind). What’s our fascination with those settings? Do we really find them so farcical, or do we simply suffer from envy? Wishing we lolled about in the groves of academe, we rub our hands with glee when it’s revealed that all is not ivy green within. There’s the s-word again: schadenfreude.

Anyway, enough rambling. In the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg wrote about the worrying economics of e-books (“Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books“)

Much as cheap digital-music downloads have meant that fewer bands can earn a living from record-company deals, fewer literary authors will be able to support themselves as e-books win acceptance, publishers and agents say.

This is likely to be more of a problem for the next generation of writers than today’s, however (“Survey: Children Like E-Books, Parents Not So Much,” by Hillel Italie). And, queries this parent, when did “not so much” become worthy of a headline?

Children are ready to try e-books, with some thinking that a bigger selection of electronic texts would make reading for fun even more fun, according to a new study. But a solid majority of parents aren’t planning to join the digital revolution.

Finally, Christopher Mims amplifies on the agency of adoption (“The Death of the Book Has Been Greatly Exaggerated“), making a couple of excellent points:

And as for the death-by-2015 predictions of Negroponte, it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow. The reason is simple: unlike the move from CDs to MP3s, there is no easy way to convert our existing stock of books to e-readers. And unlike the move from records and tapes to CDs, it’s not immediately clear that an ebook is in all respects better than what it succeeds.

And:

Books have a kind of usability that, for most people, isn’t about to be trumped by bourgeoisie concerns about portability: They are the only auto-playing, backwards-compatible to the dawn of the English language, entirely self-contained medium we have left.

I’m not an anti-e-book reactionary, but this gets at the heart of my hesitation to climb on the bandwagon. When MP3s replaced CDs, I was able to rip my CDs and add all those albums to my MP3 library, which is portable over a number of devices. Not only can I not stuff my shelves and shelves of paper books into an e-reader, the e-books I would buy on an e-reader could well remain stuck in that device until its eventual obsolescence required me to reaquire them again. Until the latter issue is satisfactorily resolved, I will remain an e-dabbler and an e-dilettante.


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