Monthly Archives: June 2008

Writes and wrongs

I first heard about literary agent Barbara Bauer through the good offices of the much-missed Miss Snark, whose post about Ms. Bauer and her various critics was, to put it mildly, not flattering to Ms. Bauer. The Monmouth County literary agent has now taken up Miss Snark’s challenge and filed a lawsuit against her Internet critics. Here’s the Star-Ledger’s recap:

If you believe her website, Barbara Bauer is a veteran literary agent who has helped get numerous books by award-winning authors published in multiple languages around the world.

If you believe other sites around the internet, Bauer is one of the industry’s “20 Worst Literary Agents,” charging her clients high fees for little work.

The Monmouth County literary agent says the websites, blogs and YouTube videos slamming her are ruining her reputation and cutting into her business. So she is suing a number of sources of online criticism in a case that has caught the attention of free-speech groups and online activists.

The ball apparently got rolling a couple of years ago when Writer Beware added Ms. Bauer to its 20 Worst Literary Agents list. Google her name and you’ll find plenty of complaints about her on various writers sites.

I’m happy to say I haven’t had any encounters with the agents on that list. But I can tell you this: You should never pay any reading fees or, for that matter, any sort of fees up front. Never. This is the rule from which all other rules follow.

An agent takes you on as a client because that agent sees a chance to sell your work, whether immediately or somewhere down the line after a bit more woodshedding. It’s a business arrangement, simple as that. If the “agent” tries to justify a reading fee by saying he has business costs, you tell him: Well gee, pal, so do I, but I’m willing to let you read my stuff for free. Which should be the last thing you ever say to him.

If the manuscript sells, you and the agent share in the benefits. If it doesn’t sell, you take to your bed for a few days and sob into your pillow, or go to a waterfront bar and pick a fight with the first stevedore you see. Whatever makes you feel better.

If you pay a reading fee up front, you are announcing that you are a pigeon looking for someone to take advantage of you. End of discussion. Case closed.     

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The circle is now closed

Devo, which started out with ironic celebrations of the corporate dominance of life, has now filed a lawsuit against attempted corporate dominance of their registered trademark head-schwag:

Devo is suing McDonald’s over New Wave Nigel, a toy that the fast food restaurant gives away with some Happy Meals. New Wave Nigel is part of an American Idol-related line of freebies based on various genres of music. From AAP:

“We are in the midst of suing them,” (Devo’s Jerry) Casale told AAP.

“This New Wave Nigel doll that they’ve created is just a complete Devo rip-off and the red hat is exactly the red hat that I designed, and it’s copyrighted and trademarked.

“They didn’t ask us anything. Plus, we don’t like McDonald’s, and we don’t like American Idol, so we’re doubly offended.”

In the old days, Devo would have seen something like this as validation. Guess they just had an uncontrollable urge. (Bird-dogged by Fred “Booji Boy” K.)  

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Writers’ rooms

The Guardian has a great series on the rooms writers work in. The one above is where Hanif Kureishi does his stuff:

I usually work in the morning, I try to start around seven and work until around midday and then I do other things. I’ve got several typewriters but you can’t get the ribbons. Computers are a mercy for writers, but they do encourage books that are too long. I write by hand first and then type it up. Writing with a fountain pen is a real pleasure and many writers are pen queens – you’d be surprised at how some of the toughest guys can’t wait to tell you about their new Mont Blanc.

A fountain pen? Whatever floats your boat, dude. You can have my PC when you pry my cold dead fingers from the keyboard.

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The unkindest cut of all

With any good history book, there are two questions. The first: What happened? Which is the whole point of reading the book. The second: Did this have to happen? Which is the question any historian worth his reading glasses leaves in his wake.

The most interesting thing about the Christianization of the Roman Empire, which in turn cemented its place as one of the world’s dominant religions, is that it was far from inevitable, and could have been turned back had thing happened a bit differently. If, for example, a late Roman emperor named Flavius Claudius Julianus had not met an untimely end, not even two years into his reign, during a campaign against the Persians. Though his predecessor Constantine had declared toleration for Christianity, Julian opposed the “Galileans,” mocked their doctrines and worked to restore pagan practices. Had his project not been halted by that spear-cut, the history of the Empire and the world would have been quite different.

All this is the reason this new biography of Julian — Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World — will probably cause me to shove aside my summertime reference reading:

The battle that Julian picked—Christianity—was fought by the era’s greatest and most articulate thinkers. When the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in 313, he let loose a philosophy that was to pervade every aspect of political, social, cultural, and, of course, religious life right up to modern times. But that is all with the benefit of hindsight. Christianity did not become the official winner until seventeen years after Julian’s death. When Julian took the purple, the battle against Christianity was by no means over. The Christians were not a unified organization, splintered as they were into numerous groups; indeed, much of the empire was still pagan.

At a time when neither pagan nor Christian ideologies reigned supreme, the state of your soul was arguably the single most important issue of the day. Few were short of opinions on the last Roman emperor to oppose Christianity—seen most trenchantly in the way that he is still best known as the “Apostate,” the one who renounced Christianity—and it is of little surprise that both pagan and Christian apologists comment extensively on his reign, in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian. For most writers then, as now, Julian is either monster or saint. He was just as Napoleon was to the Italian poet Manzoni: “an object of undying hatred and incomparable love.”

When news of his death broke, one of the emperor’s closest friends wailed: “Gone is the glory of good. The company of the wicked and the licentious is uplifted. . . . Now the broad path, the great doors lie wide open for the doers of evil to attack the just. The walls are down.” At the same time, a former fellow student from the university in Athens trumpeted the death of “the dragon, the apostate, the great mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and mediated much unrighteousness against Heaven.” It is a cry that is as exultant as it is pitiless.

I was introduced to Julian through Gore Vidal’s novel, which remains my favorite among Vidal’s books. Vidal’s fiction can be a chilly affair, but his obvious admiration for the apostate emperor (and his scathing contempt for Christianity) warms every page. Julian was a prolific writer, and a good chunk of his work has survived, giving any researcher plenty of material to use. Vidal makes good use of it, along with the squabblings of two rhetoricians, Priscus and Libanus, who want to use the posthumous release of Julian’s works to fuel a last-ditch effort to unseat Christianity. This provides the novel with a surprisingly poignant conclusion.

I’ve just heard about an alternate-history fantasy novel that depicts a world in which Julian successfully re-paganized the Empire. Maybe I’ll read that one during my vacation as well.

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Good news for the weekend

The Earth is not about to be consumed by microscopic black holes and strangelets.

Well, probably not.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Say hello

Let’s have a nice warm blogospheric welcome for writer and editor Nicholas DiGiovanni — newspaperman, bon vivant, founder of the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival and sundry other accomplishments that can’t be named until the statute of limitations runs out. Nick’s got himself a spanking-new blog, and in his first post he manages to evoke Lao Tzu, Stevie Wonder, James Thurber and The Monotones. Drop by and say hello to the man. His site joins my list of Blogbuds, and I’ll be a frequent visitor.

That toothsome summer

Ari reminds us all that something enormously important to pop culture and weather patterns in the Milky Way galaxy took place on June 20 of 1975. Of course I’m referring to the release of Jaws.

I didn’t get to see Jaws when it opened. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could even get into a theater to see it. Remember, sprouts, this was the pre-multiplex era when many theaters had only recently been split into two-screeners, and it was common for successful movies to stay in a theater for a few months. So I guess it must have been mid- to late-July when I managed to wedge myself into a screening at the Hyway Theater (which I’m happy to see still exists). By that point Jaws had had so much impact that Universal Pictures took out a two-page spread in the Sunday Times showing all the newspaper editorial cartoons that had played off the movie’s poster. The show was literally sold out — I got the very last ticket to be sold. the joint was packed.

Up until that night, whenever I’d seen a movie in a theater, the audience had served either as an irritant or a neutral presence. Jaws was my first theater experience in which the audience became a single entity, a great big nerve ending that Steven Spielberg played with virtuoso flair. When Chrissie met her fate out by the buoy, we all hissed through our teeth as the tension wound tighter and tighter. When the mayor erupted in rage at the way the Amity billboard had been vandalized, we all shouted with laughter. When Ben Gardner’s head came through the bottom of the boat, we all jumped. To this day I’m sure the entire building rose a foot into the air and came back down without any of us noticing.

(Dances With Mermaids, the older daughter, got her first look at Jaws a year ago. She still says, “You saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out? Wow!” the way somebody might say, “You helped Julius Caesar change the wheels on his chariot?”)

I’d actually been looking forward to the movie before the word got out. I was enough of a shark freak that when the original novel by Peter Benchley came out, I sprang for a hardcover copy. It was not a god read. I may have been an ignorant high school kid at the time, but I knew the creak of sclerotic Bestseller Writing when I heard it. All those subplots: the Mafia, Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, bleah. Nevertheless, the power of the idea was such that the book carried you along, right up to that supremely unsatisfactory Moby-Dick type ending.  

The film was directed the way the novel should have written: smart, quick on its feet, frequently quite funny and, best of all, unpredictable. Too many horror movies — and Jaws is, at bottom, a balls-to-the-wall monster movie — fall into a pattern of setup and payoff so predictable that you can set your watch to them. Not this movie. Jaws always had a joker up its sleeve. When the shocks came on, they usually went waaaay further than anyone expected — that scene with the Kittner boy is just plain mean. When the laughs came on, you were grateful for the chance to relax — which of course, meant you were about to get creamed by some new scare.

Even at the time, though, I could appreciate just how good Jaws looked as a movie. The trailer above reminded me of the scene in which Brody pages through books on sharks, and Spielberg has his cameraman light the shot so that the gory pages flicker across the lenses of Brophy’s glasses. or the way the appearance of the ocean changes in response to the story’s needs. When Chrissie runs down the beach, the water is flat and opaque, the perfect hiding place for a predator. As soon as she’s beyond the reach of help, the point of view changes and the water is now a shadowy trap in which the predator sees everything while the prey sees nothing. It’s still startling to think that this was only Spielberg’s second feature, and one made under extremely demanding conditions at that. I’ve had my problems with Spielberg’s work in the past, and his growth as an artist has been erratic, but right from the start his craftsmanship and technical expertise were beyond question.

One of the greatest things about Jaws as a film was the way it left people feeling gassed. The tension and release, always delivered in the most unexpected way, was exhilarating. You walked out of the theater jangling and charged up. For weeks afterward, whenever you encountered somebody who’d seen the flick, you automatically fell into reminiscences of some great moment. For a movie with so many intensely scary passages, Jaws was a remarkably benign movie. It plumbed some of the darkest terrors imaginable — the fear of being eaten, of dying horribly only a few yards from safety — and yet it left you feeling cleansed and caffeinated at the same time. Quite a trick. I went home from the Hyway Theater feeling lighter than air, chuckling and grinning as my legs moved twice as fast as normal. It’s a rare kind of movie that can send its viewers off with that kind of feeling.

The summer of 1975 was loaded with artistic discoveries for me. I’d just become a Bob Dylan fan, and 1975 was a great time to be following Dylan: the year started with Blood on the Tracks, the summer peaked with the official release of the Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured New England that fall and Desire appeared like magic after the New Year. Patti Smith’s debut came out a little before Christmas, and I was just starting to hear about something called punk rock I was inhaling books and music at a rapid clip, working my way through Hemingway and Hesse, and in the middle of it all there was Jaws. A great memory, and for that I have to thank Steven Spielberg.            

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Wallace-and-Gromitology

Britain fearlessly advances the frontiers of science:

Not content with their usual figures and algebra, scientists have discovered a mathematical formula for creating the perfect cheese sandwich.

Sensory analysts at Bristol University have devised an equation into which diners follow factors such as how much mayonnaise or pickle to put in the sandwich and the ideal cheese thickness to go with the relish.

The formula, which includes nine algebraic variables, has been used to create an online calculator, which can be seen at http://www.cheddarometer.com.

The formula (detailed below) is the result of a study by senior research fellow Geoff Nute and his team at the university’s Sensory & Consumer Group in the Division of Farm Animal Science.

Using human assessors and complex measuring devices, the group claims to have ‘mapped’ the flavour profile of hundreds of samples of Cheddar to determine the tastiest thickness for each type of filling.

There’ll always be an England.

First try at your last words

Would you like an advance reading copy of the U.K. edition of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book? Of course you do. All you have to do is come up with the epitaph for your own tombstone. People with conventional senses of humor may find this a little off-putting.

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Blue Monday

After a hiatus, Blue Monday returns with a Sonny Landreth two-fer. Here he is at last year’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, doing some pretty incredible fretwork on “Uberesso,” featured on From the Reach:

Not too bad, eh? Here’s another tune from the same festival, “Port of Calling,” which you can find on Grant Street:

If you want to know more, visit the man’s Web site.

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