Encouragement – Pass it On

August 10, 2009

I’ve written before about how a good friend of mine encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing a book.  Two days ago, I had the opportunity to do the same for someone else.

This person is a friend who is a gifted but very private poet, who has shared her work with me over the past several years. Her poems are intensely personal – but bearing the mark of the best writing – they are also universal. The reader can relate – either because she herself has experienced some of the same situations, the same emotions, or just is given insight into what that must be like, from that writer’s perspective.

This friend told me – at first with great assertion – then quickly changing to fear and uncertainty – “I’ve decided I’m going to publish.”  I was thrilled. I had believed for a long time that her poems would find a ready audience, and that they should be shared.

Like my other friend from several years back, I was able to tell this friend, now, to “Go for it! You deserve this. It is important. You can do it. And yes, you (and your writing) are good enough!”

It was a privilege and an honor. And I cannot wait to see where this journey is going to take her. She is a strong woman, and a talented writer, whom I admire very much. I’m so lucky to be able to call her my friend – and luckier still to be in a place where I can give her encouragement  in this endeavor. Just like someone else did for me a few years ago. It changed my life.

© writingreading, 2009

Web 2.0’s role in economic crisis

May 11, 2009

I think the pundits have it all wrong. It wasn’t just the bad mortgages that brought about the seizure and near-collapse in the US. economic system. It was – and is – Web 2.0.

Yup. That’s the conclusion I’m drawing, after reading The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen (link to newer edition). As you can tell by the title of this earlier edition, Keen’s premise is not really an economic one, though it is about what he sees as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our nation and culture brought about by Web 2.0.

What he points out – in a book that was published in 2007 – a year before the big economic meltdown – is that the free and freewheeling nature of Web 2.0 means that  anyone can create content. That means the death of the “expert” – which in turn, is really the death of many many experts. And entire industries.

Let’s look at the media. The massive layoffs and closures of large city newspapers, to a great extent, can be attributed to the growth of online media. To cite one example from Keen: Craigslist, which at the time of Keen’s writing, employed just 22 people, is essentially a free online classified ad service. But Keen points out – it is not free. It has cost us all. Each “free” ad takes money away from a local newspaper, and eventually, it takes away jobs. A San Francisco Chronicle VP believes Craigslist single-handedly depletes the Chronicle and other Bay newspapers of $50 million a year. Multiply that across the country for all the other large and small cities, consider that advertising revenue is a major part of the income needed for newspaper operations, and it is easy to see the domino effect of just one website – and a mere 22 people – upon the economy. In 2006, nearly 18,000 people lost jobs in print journalism.

And that is only one example. Granted, I’m not “blaming” Craigslist, nor do I dare to propose or suggest that it is single-handedly responsible for all of those job losses. That would be ridiculous. The point that Keen makes, is that job losses in the “real world” are not being replaced with job creation in Web 2.0. The 22 people of Craigslist stand in for thousands of people who worked in advertising at newspapers all throughout the country. Because ad revenues are down, that creates layoffs in the news department. And on it goes.

The example can be multiplied across any of the media formats – TV, radio, bookstores. Increasingly, these industries are losing jobs at a frantic pace. And “replaced” by virtual megastores, like Amazon.com, or user content like You Tube. User content sites like You Tube, obviously, won’t hire as many people as the movie industry in Hollywood or the news and cable stations throughout the country.

It’s easy to say “so what” if newspapers fail, or the millionaire Hollywood big shots and movie stars feel a little economic pinch. But all of these industries are made up of many many ordinary people. From the “go-fer” on the sound stage to the subscription order taker at the newspaper and many many others. Their jobs – if they still have them – remain at risk.

Keen worries that the proliferation of content by amateurs (I include myself in that group) not only “dumbs down” our culture, but may in fact threaten our democracy itself. Who, Keen asks, will do the hard-hitting and important investigative journalism that brought about Watergate, or any of the other major important news stories that help maintain and uphold the Constitution? Does any single blogger have the clout, skills, knowledge or power to do this? It is only businesses and industries that have this capacity.

I don’t entirely hold to all of Keen’s premises, but I do believe that much of what he writes about the economic consequences of Web 2.0 is very real – with frightening consequences.

Keen’s book now is available in a new edition, which I haven’t read, but it looks like it could provide some additional insights, judging from the subtitle, which explicitly includes the economy as one consequence of Web 2.0.

© writingreading, 2009

Fact, Fiction, or something in between?

August 3, 2008

It’s odd how recently, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered a number of things that have blurred the line between Fact and Fiction. I’ve encountered them often enough, that it seems like it is one of those “themes,” – where the universe is trying to tell me something – and like always, I’m pretty clueless about what that might be.

For starters, of course, there’s my writing group. There, the line between the two is deliberately blurred, with such intent that it is a ground rule. “Everything is assumed to be fiction” – even if it is not. Even if the author herself proclaims it to be fact. We still treat it as fiction. This is one area where I am used to the lines being blurred, and am comfortable with it that way. It serves its purpose within the group, and we all agree on the same “rules.” It works.

However, other things have popped up lately. A book that appears to be a WWII memoir – but when you read the fine print in the introduction, the author advises “treat this book as fiction.” The fact that there are photographs, battle reports, and other things which lend an air of authenticity to it make the author’s statement even more jolting. So – perhaps the maps and scenes shown are not of the fighting in France after all. Maybe they are from an Armed Forces Day mock battle instead. Who knows? This blurring in this particular case was alarming to me, because unless the reader slows down to take the time to read the disclaimer at the beginning, the book could easily pass as fact. And, to be truthful, it does seem like much of the book is factual, maybe even 80%. But because there is no clear “THIS CHAPTER IS FICTION” or “THIS CHAPTER IS FACT” notice, one never knows where the line is, so everything is suspect.

I encountered a similar situation maybe a month or so ago, as well. This time it was a made-up Civil War diary. Again, interspersed throughout were quotes from reliable historical sources, such as the Official Records and other works, and what also were probably legitimate excerpts from actual historical letters. Still, and again, the author said near the beginning, “I have fictionalized Joe’s (whatever the soldier’s name was) thoughts and feelings based upon my readings of what others wrote at the time.” or something like that. As one who reads and researches in Civil War history all of the time, not only did I feel cheated, but I had to dismiss in its entirety the entire book. That was truly disappointing, because until I had it in my hands where I could read and look at it closely, it had initially appeared to be a very valuable resource to my research. Instead, it was a waste of time, and I had to consider the entire work as totally unreliable.

I read mostly history, so that’s where I’ve encountered this situation the most, lately, although there have even been things in my casual reading where the line between fact and fiction has been deliberately questioned or blurred. As it relates to history, I’m not sure why people feel the need to insert fictionalization into situations where the “real” story has its own significance and worthiness. Someone writing about their own experiences during WWII, or an ancestor’s letters from the Civil War? What’s wrong with that? Is not the fact that the individuals served and wrote about their experiences sufficient? Why feel the need to embellish?

Perhaps such hybrid works are entertaining to read. Maybe they have their appeal to people who read W.E.B. Griffin or other historical novelists. But for someone who is looking for “true” accounts of historic events, they are worthless, since the reader never knows what is fact or what is fiction.

Remember a while back the outcry over the “fake” memoir by James Frey? And why was there such an uproar? Because it was embellished, more fiction than fact.

Just as we have the term “docu-drama” in TV, when a true story is taken and embellished for “dramatic effect” – so too, do we need a new term for these written works which mixup the previously separate worlds of non-fiction and fiction. Perhaps the terms “factual fiction” or maybe more accurately, “fictional fact” might be in order.

I am grateful, however, that at least the first two authors that I mentioned had the courtesy to inform their readers that fiction had entered their stories, though one had to read the front matter closely to catch this distinction. Mr. Frey, in contrast, did not admit his fictionalization until he was exposed. So it seems there are varying degrees even to this matter.

Reader beware. What passes for truth – or even one individual’s perception of the truth – may be nothing but a fabrication.

© writingreading, 2008

Bibliographies – In Danger of Extinction?

May 25, 2008

I was shocked, dismayed, and disappointed when I recently read a couple of non-fiction historical works – complete with footnotes and written by very well respected scholars – which did not have bibliographies.

I don’t understand why a publisher would omit about 20 pages of truly useful material. Maybe to people who don’t do research, who are just interested in sales of product and economizing, those extra 20-30 pages of academic details are just fluff, icing on the cake, and we’re all trying to be on a low-fat diet. But bibliographies, along with footnotes – are the bread and butter of academic research!

Sure, the footnotes are still there, and are in their own way invaluable – but bibliographies serve a different function. Footnotes help you find the specifics – like the individual newspaper article where X is reported, or the court case that set up Y, or the letter home from soldier Z who told his wife about what he saw at Shiloh.

But bibliographies paint the broader picture. What resources – especially books, some of which might be somewhat obscure – did the author use to inform the broader context and background of their topic? Perhaps there is not a single quotation or reference to a particular book (which would be documented in a footnote), but nevertheless that book’s theoretical background or overall perspective on a subject was invaluable in the way the author approched her subject.

I’ve also found bibliographies particularly important in my own research. If I know I’m going to be making a trip to Indiana, for example, and scholar A cites several collections of materials at the Indiana Historical Society on a certain subject, I can target those materials for my research when I go there. Having a bibliography puts all references to collections at a particular institution together in one place. I don’t have to search through pages and pages of footnotes to compile my own list of “what sources did they use from Indiana?” This, for me, is the most critical and vital purpose of bibliographies. I cannot state this forcefully enough: Bibliographies are an essential tool for furthering scholarly research and inquiries!

What I believe publishers may not realize is that the bibliography may not be nearly as important to the author of a work, as it is to the work’s readers. Maybe I’ve just finished a great book, and I want to read more on the subject. A bibliography enables me to do that.

That being said, a bibliography is still extremely important to the author as well. As a hypothetical author, I would fight tooth and nail to get a bibliography included in my book. I’ve done far too much work and research to have half of my toil omitted by completely ignoring sources that I have consulted, though I may not have quoted them.

It seems also that a bibliography is a good, open method for me as a scholarly writer to inform others about sources that I may have unconsciously drawn upon. Perhaps I pick up and use a phrase or perspective in my work that I “absorbed through osmosis” in my various background reading. A bibliography would cite that source. Without the bibliography, I might be in danger of having the appearance that that catchy concept was my own – instead of someone else’s, though hopefully I would be conscientious enough to avoid this pitfall.

I don’t know how prevalent this practice of omitting bibliographies has become. My recent experience is based upon two books put out by Alfred A. Knopf, by two very highly respected scholars: My Face Is Black Is True by Mary Frances Berry (more on this one, later) and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. I don’t know if other publishers are following this trend, or if Knopf is the only one to throw out the bibliography with the bath water.

But I find it a sad day for academic and scholarly publishing – even when done by more popular presses, as opposed to university presses – when the bibliography seems headed the way of the dodo bird, towards extinction.

©2008 writingreading