Googlepage links, maybe (update: yes)

I was exicted to read a few weeks ago that Google has introduced a web page builder. I was too late to sign up, but I registered and was thrilled yesterday to receive an email from Google inviting me to try the Page Creator service, still in beta. I’ve created a couple of web pages already (and, inevitably, so has Jenny, though she finds the Google service pretty tame compared with Yahoo: Geocities, in which you can make your mouse track anything you like and generally do lots of "jumping up and down" (as I call them) things).

I’ve attempted to link to these pages in the right-hand nav bar of Petrona, but the links go to 404 errors. I don’t know if this is me or Google (as the function is still beta), and their help pages aren’t much help, as such pages rarely are.

So I’ll attempt to link to the pages from here, just to see if that works. If not, I’ll keep working on it: Clarke-Irving page and About Connotea Detective . (And, for luck, Jenny’s page.)

Note: the links don’t work (apart from the Page Creator link). I’ve sent the Google technical support people a help request, and will fix the links if I hear from them or if I otherwise have an inspiration.

Update: The links above now work, and the link to the main Clarke-Irving page in the sidebar now works, thanks to Dave Lull for the tips. The "About Connotea Detective" link in the sidebar is still being stubborn but I am working on it.)

Final update to this post: All working now.

Nostalgia already

The paucity of choice in Waterstones, etc, is a recurring theme, one with which I don’t entirely agree. But the downside has never been more clearly demonstrated to me than yesterday, when I popped in en route to an Iranian new year celebration (;-) ) to see if I could buy a book about blogs or blogging. Not a one (and not one in WHSmith either).

The reason for my attempt was because I had just read a book on the topic, The Weblog Handbook, by Rebecca Blood. It is a readable and interesting book, and one I recommend, but it was published as long ago as 2002. The famous but misattributed quote about Harold Wilson’s week being a long time in politics does not quite apply to blogging, but it was a revelation to read in this book that everyone with a blog knew each other (online), and that there were web directory sites for blogs that listed them all.

The principles of blogging so ably and clearly set out by Ms Blood still hold, but having read her book I was keen to fill in the gap to the present. I felt like an illegal alien in Waterstones. I am clearly a creature from another world now. (And have since hived off to planet Amazon where I will find what I need if it exists.)

Some words of wisdom from Ms Blood:

"Weblogs are not, as some people say, a new kind of journalism. Rather, they supplement traditional journalism by evaluating, augmenting and above all filtering the information churned out by journalists and the rest of the media machine every day. Mass media seeks to appeal to a wide audience; weblogs excel at creating targeted serendipity for their individual constituencies."

"….there are only three movitivations for keeping one [a weblog]: information sharing, reputation building, and personal expression."

"..each one, whatever its nature, provides for its readers an intimate portrait of its maintainer, a portrait drawn over time. Random observations, selected links, extended diatribes — accumulated, these elements resolve into a mosaic revealing a personality, a self."

"The Web has circumvented all the gatekeepers, and now everyone with a webpage has the means to reach an audience of like-minded individuals."

"Your goal is to attract a core audience of readers in tune with your way of seeing the world. Their number is irrelevant."

On webloggers: "I have found them to be, without exception, very nice individuals. Several of these have been webloggers with whom, politically, I could not disagree more strongly…..In each case we have met each other with great pleasure, our differences far, far outweighed by the things we have in common: a love for the weblog, the unwavering belief in the value of every individual’s opinion, and an absolute commitment to the right of each of us to publish our thoughts."

"Those who grumble at seeing the same site linked on a dozen weblogs rail against the most fundamental attribute of the Web itself — its ability to allow people to share information easily. And those who decry cross-blog talk have not yet understood the value of bringing a dozen lively minds to bear on the same subject."

Thank you, Rebecca Blood.

Literary culture

Taking advantage of a day’s holiday from work to catch up, I have read an interview with Gabriel Josipovici on Ready Steady Book, link kindly sent to me, with some excerpts, by Dave Lull.

I hadn’t heard of Mr Josipovici before (I hope that does not make me a Philistine), but he is a French writer who has spent most of his adult life in the UK. This last point is relevant becuase GJ is rather critical of the UK cultural scene; as he lives here, then that’s OK;-)

Much of the interview on Ready Steady Book is about GJ’s writing, old and new. The conversation takes a general turn:

"MT: In this country we tend to see literary novels as ‘heavy’ and popular fiction as ‘light’. Yet you have referred to the ‘lightness’ of The Iliad. What is this quality exactly? Are there modern novels that are light in this way?"

The first part of the response is one that Michael Allen would endorse:

"GJ: There may be two or three different issues here. I find contemporary works that take themselves terribly seriously a pain, as I’ve said. I’d much rather read a good thriller or a good comic novel than one that is bidding to become a Booker prize-winner (and often succeeding)."

GJ then goes on to say that (American, he says) thriller writers these days want to show that their work is important, which he calls a "disaster for their work". This is an intriguing view: which thriller writers can he mean, and why a disaster? (He doesn’t tell us.) The most famous and successful thriller at the moment remains the Da Vinci Code, and I don’t recall the author claiming it as important (though some religious organisations have erroneously taken it seriously, but that’s different). In my opinion, among the best current US thriller writers are the likes of Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, Philip Margolian, Robert Crais … I could go on (see Connotea Detective). My point is, I have not known them to take their work "seriously" in what they have written or said about their books. (Karin Slaughter in particular is great copy as an interviewee).

GJ’s examples of modern authors who write "light" novels are Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke. I am ashamed to say I have not read, or even heard of, many of these. I went through a phase of reading Kundera and enjoyed a few of his, though I found I’d had enough after a while. I read one Malamud ages ago (his most famous one, called "The Fixer") but do not remember much about it. Catch 22 (Heller) I found a bit of a curate’s egg (though was only a teenager when I read it, and knew nothing about the culture or events depicted). The rest I have not read. I admit I am not a literary intellectual, so do feel somewhat intimidated by this list of "light" reading. GJ also mentions Spark, Bellow, Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard. I’ve read a lot of Spark in the past, I read one or two Nabokovs and didn’t like them (probably did not "get" them — he seems a creepy kind of person to me but I know he is much admired), and have not read the others. I guess there is little hope for me, as these days I fear I would not now have the concentration to read these no doubt extremely clever books.

Another point GJ makes, as highlighted by Dave Lull, is about the paucity of British (literary) culture:

"MT: In the past you’ve said that, from your perspective, British culture appears to be "narrow, provincial and smug". How would you say this manifests itself when it comes to literature?"

"GJ: Coming to this culture from the outside I’m amazed at how mean and provincial it is. What do I mean by that? It’s difficult to put into words. It’s like a fog that has covered the British Isles and people go about in it and think that’s how the world is. Look at the bookshops. I lived in Paris for a few months two years ago, in the Montmartre area, not a particularly intellectual quarter, but there were four independent bookshops within five minutes walk of my flat. Their owners had run them for ten to twenty-five years and, while they of course had all the latest works, they also reflected the owners’ tastes. ‘Içi, moi je suis la reine’, one of them said to me one day. Here, every town you go to has the same dreary Waterstones with the same dreary books piled high on the tables, two for the price of one in some instances, supermarket style. I wonder if it is the first time in history that the line between fashion and culture has disappeared. Disappeared in the minds of the reading public, of literary editors, of prizegivers, even of writers themselves."

Well. And again, well! Of course GJ is right to observe the sad decline of the independent bookseller (someone has made a similar comment to my chick-lit posting immediately before this one). When I moved to Kingston 15 years ago, for example, there were 7 or 8 different bookshops in the town, now there are three, and yes they are Waterstones, Borders and WHSmith. But I don’t think this is symptomatic of any problem for the consumer of books (though of course it is for the independent booksellers). Although GJ sneers at the 3 for 2s (very fashionable to do that), Waterstones and Borders offer a large choice of standard books. And where they don’t, there is online. As has so often been said, Amazon offers any book you can think of, in or out of print, 24 hours a day. (Abe books and other online booksellers similar.) I have bought more books in the past 5 years from a huge range of small bookshops and individuals in the UK (and elsewhere) than I ever did before I got hooked on the Internet. The variety is unbelievable. One of my favourite blogs, admittedly not UK, reviews "a book a day", mostly obtained from the public library. Other bloggers do the same. (Doubtless non-bloggers too;-) )

That isn’t to say that independent bookshops aren’t great — they are. Whenever I am in a town where there is one — Keswick, Tenby, Chipping Norton — and have any time (and they are open), I go in and invariably buy some books that I hadn’t previously thought to buy. There are plenty in central London too, but I tend not to go there even though, technically, I live there. It is sad that these shops find it hard to compete. But GJ is wrong, I think, to imply that their absence signifies a literary desert.

My theory is that in Paris and in other cities in mainland Europe, independent booksellers have a better time of it because the Internet has not caught on there to the extent that it has in this island nation, and becuase English is not the first language. Online retail in mainland European languages does exist, but on a much smaller scale than English. I think if GJ waits a few years he will see things change. I am not saying this is a good thing, but I think it may happen. (And I think he’s probably right that the standard of literary debate in the media is higher in parts of mainland Europe and South America than it is in parts of the USA and UK.)

GJ talks about sameness of literary prizes, and so on: I am sure he is right to imply a level of product placement and commercialism, from what one reads. But is he aware of the blog world, and the absolutely first-class standard of literary comments and debate that exists, on books old and new? He fails to acknowledge it.

So I think GJ is incorrect to say: "English literary culture, in sharp contrast to the musical and fine arts culture, has retreated into a safe little Englander mentality, imagining that merely by writing ‘about’ great events and deep subjects you are producing great and deep works of literature."

I think it is still there, just as it always was. It may not be the literary "club" of London publishers and authors he no doubt is attacking (another fashionable activity). But I wonder if he is aware of how many book groups exist – -I know of several locally, among parents of school-age children. Informal, unnoticed by anyone but themselves, yet there for the love of reading. Is the "Richard and Judy" book club beneath the notice of GJ? (It is modelled on Oprah, I believe.) I don’t watch R&J but the books they select are promoted in the dreaded Waterstones et al. I have bought quite a few for my teenage daughter, as she moves into adult reading, and she’s enjoyed them, and found that they have raised questions for her to consider. I don’t think the R&J selections are "safe choices" from well-known authors, but are quite individualistic, on the whole.

There is another aspect to GJ’s comments, but which I am not going to discuss now as this post is too long, and I am currently cooking someone’s tea, doing a load of washing and have to collect a child from somewhere. Such is the fractured life of the "attempted intelligent" person with domestic responsibilities. Petrona will have to retire for the moment.

My message to GJ is: in a culture dominated by instant, digestible media, I am constantly impressed by the variety of reading and thinking done by the people I encounter in daily life. Most of whom are completely unaware of literary prizes and the "scratch my back" nature (we are told) of book publishing. There is hope for us yet!

Note: I see that Ready Steady Book does not have a comments facility 😉

Frank Wilson said…

Many years ago, Maxine, I reviewed Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman. I called it the longest 89-page novel I had ever read.

7:09 PM

Maxine said…

You give me hope, Frank!

7:21 PM

Saturday books part 2 (final)

I intended to write two postings yesterday about the Times Saturday books section, but only got as far as the first. Here’s the second.

The other item in the paper that interested me was a piece about "chick-lit", specifically a review of two books, one by Kathy Lette and the other by Gigi Levangle. As might be expected, I am not a fan of the chick-lit genre, and yes I have read some of it, not particularly being aware that I was embarking on a formula read before starting out. I don’t much like the books I have read, for example the first of what became the "Shopaholic" series, because they seem to take part in some alternative universe where the heroine is charmingly ditzy but somehow manages to make a billion bucks by accident before her boss discovers her silly mistake, which she made because she forgot she left her baby on the train or was busy applying her mascara at the time — you get the picture. The last one I read (being unaware in advance it was going to be chick-lit) was "The Ivy Chronicles", about someone in New York whose husband left her, so to regain her Manhattan lifestyle she set up as an agent to get 3-year olds into private school (or something). Despite being penniless she instantly finds a great apartment above a delicatessan shop with saintly owner, has a best friend for all emergencies, on-tap babysitting, lending gold Rolls-Royce, etc etc. So the problem with the genre is that you can tell on page 1 (ish) what is going to happen, and the deus-ex-machina plot devices remove any dramatic tension — which renders actually reading the book rather pointless.

The angle taken in the Times last Saturday is that chick-lit has now come of age. The Kathy Lette book is given as an example. I have never read a KL book, but I know of her becuase she has a knack with titles ("Foetal Attraction", etc). Her latest is called "How to Kill your Husband (and other handy hints)." Not too enticing, and not even a witty title, but I read on.

The point made by Sarah Vine, the reviewer, is that the chick-lit heroines have, 10 years later, become like Bridget Jones: older, fatter, managing jobs, children and so on. These two new books are said to break ground by showing how these "ex heroine, now married with two kids" characters cope when their husbands run off with the new generation of ditzy, mascara-applying… get the picture — the is tale told from the wronged woman side instead of the gay young thing side.

All sounds pretty missable, but for the reviewer’s comments about the books. (Or book as it turns out.) "Lette crystallises all the pitfalls facing the modern working couple: work tensions……sexual tensions….. — and more darkly, what becomes of two people who have lost all respect for each other." Well, OK, but that isn’t exactly an original literary theme. (Madame Bovary, anyone?) Vine goes on to say "But what really makes Lette such a pro is that, as well as insight, she provides her reader with that rarest of things, a good plot. Fundamentally, this is a well-constructed, tightly written thriller." Hmmm, I’m mildly interested, now.

I should note that the other book reviewed by Vine seems to be exactly like every other chick-lit book, so the premise of the reviewer is not borne out. In fact, why package the review as chick-lit "growing up" when the sample size is one? (Rhetorical question.)

A note on pricing: once again, Amazon (UK) has the book in hard cover at a crazy price: 6 pounds and 49 pence. The list price, quoted on Amazon and in the Times, is 12.99, or 11.69 if you buy it from the Times. I wonder if Amazon scans all currently reviewed books and sells them cheap for a set time, as it knows there will be a demand? Something is going on, anyway — half price is a whacking discount. (The book isn’t part of any special Amazon promotion so far as I can see.) Maybe it is just competition with Tesco.

Another note: on Amazon you can see the cover of the book, which is the usual pink chick-lit cover with cartoon characters and girly writing. In a bookshop I would walk past such a book on display without even looking at it. Even if Sarah Vine thinks the book is "chick-lit grown up", the publisher does not seem to agree: or perhaps it is just going for the known market irrespective of content. Or perhaps the content isn’t really "grown up". Is it worth finding out? (Rhetorical question again.)

equiano said…

Amazon of course sells things in such vast quantities that they carry the same kind of clout with publishers as Waterstones in terms of wheedling discounts out of them. While this is delightful for us as customers, it is deadly for your local lovely independent bookstore which really just cannot possibly compete…

4:11 PM

Newspapers in Trouble?

TCS Daily – Newspapers in Trouble?: "Paper is just an increasingly obsolete delivery platform. It’s expensive, and on the way out. Get rid of it, or start a new ‘paper’ without it. "

So says Glenn Reynolds. He’s probably right: publishers of newspapers, magazines and journals will probably increasingly move away from paper products. Mr Reynolds hopes, optimistically, that publishers will invest more in journalists, and in more flexibility — getting said journalists to photograph, use video clips, etc. (I suspect the publishers will be more interested in profit margins, as has been demonstrated to date, but I’m a bit of a cynic.)

With e-book functionality still not at breaktrhough yet — Sony’s product came in for some stick recently— I guess those of us who like to read their newspapers (accent on the "paper") on the way to work in the morning are saved for a few years yet. But it is sad. I read a lot online and work all day online in some form or other. I love the Internet, the Web and email (well, email is a curse as well as a blessing, to be honest). I am by no means a luddite, but "I love paper" — there, I’ve written it.

I hate the thought of having to read everything in e-form, and I don’t believe all the many people who say soon(ish) I won’t be able to tell the difference between an e-reader and paper. I think e-reading will require a compromise on the part of the (human) reader, not to mention demanding yet further adaptation of the visual system beyond that which it was designed for. I will miss that particular type of browsing that is possible when reading a paper product, which is rather different from online browsing (or e-browsing as I suppose I should call it).

Economics will out, eventually, and newspapers will die, I suppose, as everyone says they will. I for one will be very sad when that day happens.