Hitherto unappreciated opportunities and risks
In his online notebook, Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that book reviews can be far more revealing of the reviewers than of the subject of the review. (To read Taleb's original thoughts, follow the link in this para and scroll down to 'Wittgenstein's Ruler'. Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)
Writers, says Taleb, can suffer from the contagion effect: subsequent reviews will be likely to echo the tone of previous ones. However, Taleb believes that the web and the long-tail mechanism will counteract that. And writers now have a far greater weapon with which to fight back than that wimpy letter to the editor.
'If someone goes unfairly ad hominem into someone else's background, you go into his,' Taleb suggests. So, end of the writer-as-sitting-duck syndrome.
Says Taleb: 'This is my style of deterrence: overreact to what you find intellectually unfair beyond the tit-for-tat, or ignore completely -- and randomly. I wrote 11 years ago a review of a review of a book by my friend Victor Niederhoffer, which I found unfair, misdirected, and uninformed. The review is dead but my second-order review still crops up! Writers of reviews do not remember their work; hurt authors do.'
Crumbs. Makes you think a bit, dunnit?
Dr Taleb is particularly displeased by the distortions, which have appeared in print, of his own ideas, ideas which were expressed in Fooled by Randomness, which was reviewed here, and discussed in a whole series of posts, in 2004.
From my own modest experience of applying Taleb's ideas to the book trade (see On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile), I can testify that people do tend to misread what you are saying. Or, to put it perhaps more tactfully, it is very difficult to ensure that the reader always knows what you mean. In fact, in the case of some readers, it's impossible.
By the way: Dr Taleb's new book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is due out from Random House in April.
Following yesterday's comment of mine that, when preparing a book for printing, things invariably go worng, my son Jon points me to a new book which tries to explain why it happens, at least when computers are involved. It's all in the software code.
Jon also points me to a report in the South Korean press about modern versions of old fairy tales. Like, Snow White taking an axe to those vertically challenged friends of hers, and Gretel getting a bit sniffy with Hansel. An expert is worried. 'Elementary school students can't always distinguish fantasy from reality,' he says. Some pensioners have the same problem.
Oops. Seems I was wrong yesterday. Mark Twain was hanging out in the Hotel Chelsea long before the Algonquin crowd started meeting.
Patricia or Patty Marx seems to be attracting a great deal of attention. There's quite a funny interview with her mother in the Huffington Post, though it's a bastard to read because of the way it's laid out. (Link from Buzz, Balls & Hype, by the way.) And there is a four-part TV interview with her on LX.TV. Patty, it seems, discusses the definition of chick lit, her new novel, the early days of Saturday Night Live, the book-writing process, and the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field.
In Saturdays' Times, Nicholas Clee noted that Conn Iggulden has pulled off an unprecedented feat. He has hardback books at the top of both the UK besteller lists for fiction (Wolf of the Plains) and non-fiction (The Dangerous Book for Boys). The Sunday Times carried an interview with him.
Leonora Klein has written a book about Mr Pierrepoint, mentioned here recently as an efficient hangman, by contrast with the clueless ones in Iraq.
Bookslut led the way to a really interesting piece by Pulitzer prizewinner Chris Hedges about the radical Christian right and despair in suburban America. This is the best analysis of the mood and temper of America that I've read for along time. But it does, of course, provide a whole new set of things to worry about, if you're the worrying type.
Cory Doctorow has some marvellous advice about blogging. If you're smart enough to understand it. I'm not. (Link from Locus.)
Finally, sales at W.H. Smith (which sells books, among other things) are down 6 per cent, year on year. Some clue as to why this may have happened was provided in Monday's Times. A woman tried to buy some cigarettes at W.H. Smith in Cambridge. The shop assistant, a Muslim, refused to sell them because it was against her religion. A company spokesman said the customer should have realised that the assistant was Muslim and would not sell tobacco.