Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The trouble with EPUB

I've decided to put out a free e-book compiled from the "read online" section of my website--it's going to be called "Video Game Hints, Tricks, and Cheats" and it should be available for download sometime next week. If all goes well, I'll be offering it in epub or pdf formats.

The experience of trying to generate an e-book, however, has gone a long way towards showing me why the publishing industry has shown such reluctance to get on board with this technology. epub, it turns out, is a very slippery standard. I've got the book to a state now where it looks excellent on the iPad...but much of the formatting doesn't want to show up on Adobe Digital Editions. (This is ironic, as I'm composing the thing in InDesign CS3, and following its byzantine formatting rules.) It may look completely different on the Sony Reader, too. The whole process of creating this document has involved hours and hours of mind-numbing troubleshooting and frustration...and if I buy CS5 in the coming months, I'm sure I'll have to unlearn everything I just taught myself, if I ever want to do this kind of thing again.

It occurs to me that, with print, you can choose among different papers, binding styles, cover materials, jacket designs...but in the end, what you have is a book, and it works exactly like all the other ones. The technology is simple, reliable, and universally accepted. It can adapt to any method of use. Wherever you bring it, it's the same thing. It's definitive.

The e-book, on the other hand, is going to look different everywhere. It is code--CSS and XHTML, specifically--and code is open to interpretation, depending upon where it lands. The Wikipedia Page for epub (or EPUB, as seems to be the preferred designation) lays out the problem: "One criticism of EPUB is that, while good for text-centric books, it may be unsuitable for publications which require precise layout or specialized formatting."

But...isn't layout part of a book? Isn't specialized formatting part of a book? A book is not just what the words say. It's how the words look on the page, and the feel of those pages. Apple's iPad addresses feel quite nicely--the way one page curls onto the next, the way you can see, very faintly, through the "paper." But those are the app's characteristics, not the work's. And ultimately the work has to take precedence.

I think this format has a ways to go before it feels mature, before it enables the technology to disappear and the story to move to the fore. My e-book, by contrast, will be ready soon, whatever twisted version of it happens to reach your inbox.

(the piece of book art shown above is by Georgia Russell.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Puttin' on a show

Well, it looks like this is YouTube embedding week. Last night, I went down to campus with a couple of friends to see the Flaming Lips. The Lips, by now, have become as famous for their entertaining onstage theatrics as they ever were for their music--and the band did not disappoint here in Ithaca, rolling out the streamers, balloons, confetti, disco dome, naked karate girl movies, hamster ball, and laser pointers that have brought them such renown.

Actually, they did disappoint some people--a few of my students today (I'm afraid I wasted about ten minutes of class time talking about the concert) expressed their underwhelmment at the hands of the Lips' neo-Vaudvillean onslaught. The show seemed corny and fake to them--one of them directed me to this video--

--as an illustration of what he doesn't like about Coyne & company. It's the word "gags" that bothered my student--he wanted spontaneity, and what he got was a bunch of tricks.

He's got a point. But what are creative writing classes about, if not learning a few tricks? The fact is, concertgoers (and, ultimately, readers) are aware that you're putting on a show, and that you have adopted certain techniques to amaze, amuse, and inform. A writer wants to express some of her idiosyncrasy, her unique take on things--but at the same time, she doesn't want to repulse you with the unformed gush of her unconscious. A writer trims, tweaks, emphasizes. She employs a few of the literary props she knows you're gonna like, in order to get you to appreciate the ideas that might otherwise put you off. The least compromising writers may have the most integrity, but, with a few exceptions, they're bound to have the fewest readers, too.

So you have to decide--do you want to play to a half-empty club, or do you want to fill a stadium? I remember the Lips when they could barely do the former, but I must say I have no problem with them managing the latter. Personally, I suspect that, as a writer, I'm more CBGB than Astrodome--but 20 years ago I would have said the same thing about the Lips. Giant laser hands, here I come!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Does technology matter?

I'm a vintage technology kind of guy--I spend a lot of my time fiddling around with mechanical cameras and old analogue synthesizers (or, for that matter, pianos, guitars, and drums). I like things that are tactile--tools that feel a certain way when I use them, and which give me certain results that, at least in part, are determined by the technology used to create them.

I used to think I felt the same way about reading and writing--but my recent appreciation for the iPad, and general acceptance of the ebook, are suggesting to me that the same doesn't apply for my experience of literature. Why should this be?

The fact is, I had no trouble switching from writing on a note pad to writing on a typewriter to writing on a dedicated word processor to writing on a computer. Rhian and I are probably the last generation who will make this transition--our experience has spanned the entire history of writing technology, in just a handful of decades. And I think I'm a unique position to say that technology does not matter to writing the way it does to other forms of art.

Stories, I think, are not created with the hands, the way music and art are. They're created in the mind, and translated into print by whatever means are at hand. The tactile is important in photography, and even more (far more) in music--but in literature, it's little more than window dressing. We might be deeply invested in that window dressing (indeed, I still love pencils and note cards, and as I said in my iPad review, I will continue to adore the physical book), but in the long run it doesn't matter. Literature is an effort to connect two minds, the reader's and writer's, through language, the original tool, and the one that means the most to our shared humanity.

(And if this post sounds like something I've said before, honestly, it's just an excuse to share that seriously stupendous little YouTube clip. I believe the movie is the 1970 Merchant-Ivory picture Bombay Talkie, and the man and woman are Shashi Kapoor and Helen Jairag Richardson.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist

This is the funniest book I (RE, not JRL, thankyouverymuch) have read in years. Really! It's so funny it made me wonder why funny novels are so rare. Why can't novels be as funny as, say, Jon Stewart, or even David Sedaris?

How I Became A Famous Novelist is that funny. It's about a guy who decides to write a bestseller by imitating all the cliches in the books on the NYTimes list -- books like A Whiff of Gingham and Pecorino (life in a villa in Sicily), Nick Boyle's ShockBlade: Lynchpin (a thriller), and especially Kindness to Birds, a feel-good road-trip novel by his soon-to be-nemesis. It works! And then he finds himself turning into what he hated. Of course there is much opportunity for Hely to skewer the institutions and people that writers both love and hate, like publishers, and other writers. The story itself is just an over-the-top romp, but Hely manages to carry the antic energy almost to the end. Chapter after chapter, it keeps being funny.

Here are some of the rules that Pete Tarslaw, Hely's hero, distills from the bestseller list:
Rule 1: Abandon truth
Rule 4: Must include a murder
Rule 5: Must include a club, secrets/mysterious missions, characters whose lives change suddenly, suprising love affairs, women who've give up on love but who turn out to be beautiful
Rule 6: Evoke confusing sadness at the end
Rule 16: Include plant names

Oh, it's just so much fun. One wonders why this book -- which makes fun of almost every other book and writer in existence -- didn't get more attention. Then again, maybe it's obvious.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Baby's first rebellion

I wasn't an especially rebellious child--in fact, I was something of a goody-goody. I didn't misbehave in school, and adult approval meant a lot to me. (Needless to say, this would cause problems later in life--but that's another story.)

But any decent artist has got to rebel, somehow, and my rebellion happened, like most of my life, on the page. I must have been eight or nine, and I wrote a short story in which I used the following series of symbols to express a character's incredulity:


My teacher red-penned it. Not, she said, a valid punctuation mark.

Oh yeah?!!? I had just read it in a Peanuts cartoon. So it must be legit. Nope, it's not, said my teacher. I backed down, erased the two exclamation points and one of the question marks.

But in my mind, I knew I was right. "?!!?" expressed something I needed to express--intense, confused astonishment. Who was this teacher to tell me otherwise? I would remember this years later when a well-meaning copyeditor added about two thousand commas to my third novel, and I nearly tore holes in the paper STETting them back out again. If I say there's no comma, there ain't no goddam comma, Teach!

One of the first things I remember Rhian telling me about herself was that a teacher once told her there was no such word as "gamboling." Needless to say, I know a kindred soul when I meet one.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Reading on the iPad

What can I say, I bought an iPad. I'd planned on waiting for the early-adopter jitters to work themselves out, but then my college bookstore got them in stock, and, well...

In any event, as most of you have probably heard by now, this thing is just about perfect right out of the box. (One advantage of its being "just a big iPod Touch" is that its operating system, and general hardware scheme, are mature and user-tested.) It's not especially comfortable for writing (for that I'll stick with my laptop), but it is an ideal casual-computing device. It excels at video and photos (the photo-viewing app is spectacular, and my family has already enjoyed browsing pictures we haven't looked at in years), and is pretty good for internet as well. Its main use for me so far has been quick readings of student manuscripts, and responses to them via email, and this experience (after getting my email accounts squared away) has been smooth.

But what about books?

If you were thinking about buying a Kindle, you might want to reconsider. The iPad Kindle app exceeds it in pretty much every way except for reading in bright sunlight, and the iBooks app is even better looking (though the iBookstore, so far, contains little I want to read and is a pain in the ass to navigate). In the evening, with the screen brightness adjusted down to about 25%, I experienced no eyestrain, no more than when reading a paper book. The only thing I've actually bought (in the Kindle store) is a Lawrence Block story that is apparently unavailable anywhere in print, and the pages look great. The iPad is rather heavy and you might find that it slips around in your lap too easily; if so, get the rather ugly but very utilitarian grippy-feeling case that Apple sells--it will serve you well until a more elegant solution becomes available. Personally, I suspect I'm always going to prefer a real book. But I think that, for a lot of people, this is going to become their primary way of reading.

The one thing I am excited about, however, is something not many reviewers seem to have mentioned--magazines. For several months, I've been a subscriber to JPG, a photography publication whose print edition died of poverty, and which has reimagined itself as a pdf-only concern. I had downloaded all 20 issues, figuring that, some lonely day, I would get around to reading them on my laptop. But the iPad suddenly seemed a better bet. I picked up the $1 Goodreader app (it displays pdfs on the iPhone OS) and loaded in my JPGs via iTunes.

Holy moses! JPG looks incredible--and so, I suspect, will most art magazines. This platform, I think, is going to revolutionize the periodical business--it should single-handedly make electronic magazines, full-color magazines, commercially and aesthetically viable. This is great news, as a lot of fine special-interest magazines have bitten the dust in recent years, thanks to declining advertising revenues and increasing postal and printing costs. I realize that generating good editorial content is not cheap, but suddenly there seems to be some wiggle room in the previously claustrophobic and crap-heavy periodicals market. My book-buying dollars are likely to keep flowing towards my local bookstore, but magazines? I will be watching closely for new offerings in the niche markets that interest me. I suspect a lot of would-be editors are entertaining a lot of very interesting ideas this week.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

(What would have been) the stupidest thing in the world

Scrabble to allow proper nouns. I know this is all over the internet right now, but it's worth a quickie post: does Mattel really think that youngsters will be attracted to Scrabble because they will be allowed to to form SNOOPDOGG using all their tiles, plus letters already played in SLIPKNOT and LADYGAGA? You know, instead of jerking off on Chat Roulette or engaging in the ancient pleasures of glue sniffing or video game console modding. And where are people going to be playing this new Scrabble, at their Windows 8 party?

Mattel has clearly fallen on hard times. This is like suddenly realizing your beloved grandma isn't getting any action and forcing her to attend her wheelchair pilates class in a G-string and pasties.

Meanwhile, time marches on: stay tuned for my iPad as an e-reader review. As if you haven't already re-read The DaVinci Code on it, just for kicks.

EDIT: Damn! I mean, thank goodness!

Here's what's actually happening. Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, is introducing a game this summer called Scrabble Trickster. The game will include cards that allow players to spell words backward, use proper nouns, and steal letters from opponents, among other nontraditional moves. The game will not be available in North America, where rival toy company Hasbro owns Scrabble.

Well, I had a good rage on for half a day or so, anyway. Now that healthcare has passed, such passion is hard to come by, alas.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

All hail guerilla lit

So a few months ago a couple of guys named Nick and Zach asked me to write a 125-word short story that would, they said, be printed on 3'x3' stickers and pasted randomly around New York. I would be paid in copies. That would be pasted randomly around New York. Needless to say, I got right on it.

The 'zine, if you could even call it that, is named, horribly, Perineum, and the packet of short-short stickers I received arrived with an even more horrible line drawing of...uh...something. Something...postnatal. I think. It's hard to tell--it's kind of like a limited-edition goatse (NSFW) as drawn by Jim Woodring. In any event, disgusting or not, this is a very cool project, rendered all the more cool for having no apparent internet presence, no contact info, and no way of even telling who wrote the stories.

So in case you see the piece above stuck to the floor at Duane Reade, or wrapped around a suspension cable on the Manhattan Bridge, or affixed to the mayor's forehead, or pasted over Norman Mailer's face on the inside back flap of an ex-libris copy of Barbary Shore at the Strand, you can thank me, and the other eight writers who participated in this project. And Nick and Zach, of course.

At a time when you can download books while sitting in the bathtub, it's nice that somebody is providing the kind of literature you need to go tramping around the city to find. Here's to the inaccessible, confusing, obscure, and slightly revolting!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The (un)importance of originality

Rhian made a joke this afternoon--a song parody, actually. And then wondered aloud if anybody had already made this particular parody.

Five seconds on Google told us what we already knew--that if you just made a clever pun, you are approximately the five hundered thousandth living American to think of it. If present-day technology has told us anything, it's that there really is nothing new under the sun. If you've come up with something good, you can bet it's been thought of before. If you can think of something disgusting, guaranteed, somebody has done it, and is probably doing it right now. It can lead one to think that we are not all that different from, say, our chickens, who, while they are sort of distinctive from one another, are basically just chickens--they do the same kind of thing all day long, they seek out their own kind, and the world around them is terrifying and incomprehensible.

That said, there's a good way to interpret this news. And that is that, if we are inherently, inalienably unoriginal, then, ipso facto, it doesn't matter if we're original or not. What does this mean for the writer? If you get inspired to write, say, a poem about rain, or a short story about infidelity, or an essay about your grandma, don't be deterred by the fact that ten million others before you have done the same thing.

Because the only originality that matters is the kind you have no control over--the imprint of your particular personality. We're not like the chickens after all--it may be a cliché to be human, but it isn't a cliché to be a particular human. Indeed, the mark of a great artist is the willingness to embrace the ways in which they are different--to identify and cultivate their own strangeness.

In other words, it's the singer, not the song. Which come to think of it isn't the most original thing in the world to say.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why I hate April Fool's Day

As I usually do on April Fool's Day, I'm going to spend the day far away from other people--probably taking long walks and reading novels. It really is the holiday I despise the most. People are sometimes surprised when I tell them this--I am hardly humorless; if my mouth is open, a wisecrack or stupid song is usually coming out of it. But there's a big difference between a joke and a prank.

I've already fallen for one this year. There's a photographer named Jeff Ascough, quite famous in the business--he is considered one of the top wedding photographers around, makes very good money, and is a product tester for Canon. He started twittering the other day about a new camera he was testing--a highly advanced digital rangefinder.

To fill you in--rangefinders were a type of camera popular in the forties, fifties, and sixties; by and large, they were replaced by SLRs (the current dominant camera type) in the 1970's. But certain photo nerds (myself among them) love these elegant old machines, and desperately hope for an affordable digital version on which to mount our collection of still-useful but obsolete old lenses. The only one currently manufactured is from Leica, the upscale German camera company, and it costs around $7000. So most enthusiasts have to either keep shooting film, pony up for a used (but still expensive) discontinued digital model, or just sit around and hope a Leica competitor will bring out a new one.

Well, Ascough strung the internet along for a couple days, rendering the online camera nerd community delirious with excitement, and then revealed that it was a joke. Or rather, should I say, a prank. In response to the flood of angry email he received late yesterday, Ascough wrote:

I am fully aware that a lot of people have absolutely no sense of humour, and that some have chastised me for actually having a sense of humour, but alas that is really their problem and not mine.

Actually, no--it is his problem. To the hopeful camera nerd, Ascough's prank isn't funny--it's the internet equivalent of the captain of the football team knocking the books out of your arms in the hallway. It's a bit of smug bullying, like most April Fool's pranks--and as usual the victim is accused of having no sense of humor for not enjoying getting his glasses smashed underfoot.

If you think that my own childhood experiences have rendered me slightly sensitive to this dynamic, you're right. But here's the larger justification for my feelings--the April Fool's prank is a mockery of credulity. And credulity is a virtue, not a fault--especially for a writer. The writer has to go around with his heart and mind wide open. He has to believe that the world is filled with amazing possibilities. Conversely, the artist--indeed, the person--who approaches the world with suspicion and mistrust, who is careful never to be fooled, is sacrificing a little bit of his soul every day.

Anyway, denizens of the internet, enjoy your fake news stories and iPad parodies. I'll be lurking off the grid until the coast is clear. And if you call me to tell me I've won a MacArthur, or the Pulitzer, or that Obama was photographed reading Castle on Air Force One, I will never speak to you again.