the darkness at the end of the tunnel

October 24, 2009

September is a month of full moons, totally lunatic with classes starting up and a million things to do at work. (I’m department chair these days, am teaching a first term seminar, and I agreed to also serve for a year as the director of our faculty development program. Shoot me now.) I’ve had a couple of conferences to attend in the past month and always feel behind on the weekly column I’ve been writing for Library Journal’s Academic Newswire. So posting here and on my Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog has fallen by the wayside. But I want to share this . . .

I just got the cover art for my next book – and I love it. Minotaur asks for ideas, and I made up a web page with some images that seemed to fit. And they picked right up on it! This shot is one of Chicago’s many spooky and intriguing underpasses. And I’m happy it isn’t a picture of the Loop which is what almost appears on the covers of books set in Chicago (and is so not the Chicago I write about). I’m also highly tickled because it’s based on a CC-licensed photo I discovered on Flickr, not on the usual stock photography that appears (again and again) on book jackets. At the end of Open Access Week, this just feels so right.

The title, by the way, was inspired by a Leonard Cohen song, Anthem. There are a couple of lines that I particularly like that I used to introduce the book. I can’t quote them here because they are owned by Sony Music, and I had to pay a lot of money for the right to quote them. (This is sometimes jokingly referred to as “seeking permission” – as in “I just sought permission for a new Jaguar, and man it’s fun to drive. Too bad I had to remortgage my house.”) What really burned me was that not one penny went to Leonard Cohen. I wish he got at least some of it.

I’ve just started reading William Patry’s new book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, and as you can see, it’s getting me all stirred up.

smackdown! round 3

July 31, 2009

Round three: sharing is a little harder with a Kindle when your friend walks off with all of your Kindle books, not to mention the gadget itself. (Of course, this might actually be against the TOS – at least, that’s what libraries have heard from Amazon.)

The comments at Green Apple’s blog are taking the whole project very seriously – “you forgot about this” or “you aren’t fairly representing both sides.” Er, this isn’t a real competition. Go elsewhere for thoughtful, probing, even-handed reviews. This is all in fun – and if you think it’s a level playing field, the best joke in this episode is that the paper-and-ink book that brings tears to the loaner’s eyes is Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. On the Kindle, the best book ever – Bridges of Madison County.

No, we’re not going for dispassionate analysis here. Thank goodness.

local booksellers save the planet!

July 16, 2009

This is great! And oh so true.

media massages and social justice

May 22, 2009

Mayo Clinic researchers recently presented a study that compared the incidence and type of crime depicted on popular CSI television shows and CDC data. The results are not all that surprising, but they point out that there are real public health issues related to how we conceptualize risk.

When researchers compared the shows to the CDC data, they discovered the strongest misrepresentations were related to alcohol use, relationships, and race among perpetrators and victims. Previous studies of actual statistics have shown that both perpetrator and victim were often under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when the crime occurred, differing from what the shows portrayed. Also, CSI and CSI: Miami were more likely to have described the victim and the attacker as Caucasian, which is misrepresentative. Finally, according to the CDC data, homicide victims typically knew their assailant; however, the television series were more likely to have portrayed the perpetrator as a stranger. All of these findings were significantly different when compared to the data.

There are, of course, social justice issues involved as well as public health ones. If the only crime victims who we sympathize with are white, if we build up a fear of stranger violence and neglect intimate partner violence, if we forget that mastermind criminals are rare and drunks behaving stupidly are not, it influences what interventions and punishments we fund and how we conduct criminal justice in this country, which is often criminal but not always justice.

I’ve borrowed from the research of Joel Best, Philip Jenkins, and others to think about how anxiety is used in the formation of social issues (it’s something we also talk about in a course I teach) and how crime fiction reflects the manipulation of anxiety involved in claims-making in some interesting ways.

More about the study can be found here and on YouTube.

Hat tip to Free Range Kids.

why I blog

May 19, 2009

I’ve been neglecting this blog – with a great many writing projects all coming due, and other blogs that I contribute to clamoring more loudly, I’ve simply had no time – but Kerrie pointed me to this meme, started at State of Denmark (not a Scandinavian crime fiction reference, well unless you count all those murders in Hamlet) and it seems a chance to catch up and reflect a bit. Besides, it reminds me of the why I teach meme (inspired by the brilliant Dr. Crazy’s Why I Teach Literature) which was a nice chance for a lot of people to step back and reflect.

1.  How long have you been blogging?

Since before I started using proper blog software. I created a blog-like page for my library’s website years ago. The html was criminally bad. It’s much easier now to share information with the community. In fact, I’m reminded that a student showed me Blogger many years ago; he’s now a seasoned faculty member at another academic library. He’s still teaching me things.

2.  Why did you start blogging?

The first foray was to replace an irregular library newsletter with a nimbler, more responsive means of providing information (and avoiding the huge headache of layout and creating content for a newsletter that was, frankly, one newsletter too many for most of its potential audience). Later I started  my personal blog for a similar reason: to replace another static web page that was tricky to update, one containing book reviews. THEN LibraryThing came along, so I started posting most of my reviews there, except for ones that I write for Mystery Scene and Reviewing the Evidence, so the blog morphed, as they do. (I had to look this up, because I couldn’t actually remember why I started my blog.)

3.  What have you found to be the benefits of blogging?

Since using it for quick easily-illustrated news from the library, I started blogging for ACRLog and began my own blog, then went slightly blog-mad. I now use blogs for all of my courses, very occasionally contribute to Free Exchange on Campus, try to contribute to a blog I started for students interested in the field of librarianship, and am using a blog to supplement a  faculty development program on my campus. Oh, and I have a fairly active Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, a way of updating a website on the topic that was a summer research project last year.  My own blog has evolved into a place where I can integrate the various strands of my life – librarian, academic, novelist, citizen. Another thing about blogging: since discovering FriendFeed I am finding it a wonderfully communal activity. (They also have a kicking widget that I just added to my professional CV. It so much less busy and frantic than most widgets.)

4.  How many times a week do you post an entry?

In my various blogs, probably two or three times.

5.  How many different blogs do you read on a regular basis?

Probably 20 or so daily. Maybe more. I know, it’s an addiction.

6.  Do you comment on other people’s blogs?

Just try and stop me.

7.  Do you keep track of how many visitors you have?  Is so, are you satisfied with your numbers?

No, I try not to pay attention. At my personal blog I’m mainly working things out that are bugging me. I’m not doing it for marketing purposes. The conflation of self-reflection and self-fashioning-as-self-promotion is one thing that I find both fascinating and disturbing abut blogs. Just because we can count visitors doesn’t mean we should. It’s a bit like equating your real social capital by how many “friends” you have at Facebook.

8.  Do you ever regret a post that you wrote?

Not so far.

9.  Do you think your audience has a true sense of who you are based on your blog?

Usually as a writer, I’m very concerned about audience, but in my personal blog, I mostly say what’s on my mind, for me as much as for anyone else. It’s a space for me to nibble away at things that I’m thinking about. That probably does give people a good idea of who I am – someone with strong political beliefs, a visceral aversion to mingling marketing with identity, a person who loves books and reading and is curious about the publishing world, a librarian with an anarchist streak – but I’m not doing it to tell the world who I am. I’m just putzing around.

10.  Do you blog under your real name?

Yes.  And under my real self, as well.

11.  Are there topics that you would never blog about?

I doubt I’d ever say anything personal about my family. If they have things they want to share with the world, that’s their option, but it’s not something I feel is my option. (This is why I would never write a memoir – too intrusive into the lives of people close to me. Also incredibly boring.) I also don’t blog about how to write or my path to publication or how to market books. There are plenty of other people who blog about that, and I have really nothing useful to say. My path to publication was sheer luck; I don’t really get marketing, and I’ve never taken a course on how to write fiction and wouldn’t presume that I know anything useful about it.

12.  What is the theme/topic of your blog?

My personal blog is, for me, a place to work out things that I’m thinking about. There’s something about the medium that is nicely informal and immediate, which is a change from the more academic or polished writing that I do elsewhere. I like the bracing logic of an academic argument, and I like writing fiction in someone else’s first person voice, but blogging is like having a conversation with a friend.

13.  Do you have more than one blog?  If so, why?

Mine are all for different purposes. Students seem to like the course blogs, at least being able to find the readings and syllabus in one place and not having to find that packet of paper handed out on the first day – and it’s kind of  neat way to create an open course. That’s why mine are licensed under Creative Commons. Sharing is good.

book publishing is broken, exhibit B stroke 2

April 12, 2009

That running man really gets around! Curtesy of Karen Meek’s Euro Crime blog – here he is running from Switch – after much other running around . . .



And there’s more! How far would you go to protect the ones you love? Only one man can unearth the heretic’s treasure – and he’s the last defense against the world’s deadliest threat. I’d run too. I mean, jeez – look at all the other times he’s been the only man on earth to save us all from bones, dust, sins, and God.

Funny thing is – everyone is so up in arms about copyright. Oh noes! what if things are copied? why, why, we’ll have the end of culture as we know it! Replication! Our creative life blood will drain into the valley of bones and turn to dust. Because God tells us it’s a sin. Piracy!

So instead we settle for what money can buy – the same freakin’ images over and over and over and over . . . because you see locking it up means you can sell it over and over and over, and that’s all good, right? Don’t look at any of those Creative Commons-licensed images! Those aren’t for sale, so they must not be worth anything. Besides, everyone knows a running man is the right image for every thriller.

Yup. I feel so much better about our culture now.

social capitalism

April 4, 2009

As I was just saying . . .

There’s a blurred line in social networks between communicating and selling.  And Leonie Margaret Rutherford has that borderland nicely nailed in a new article in First Monday, “Industries, Artists, Friends and Fans: Marketing Young Adult Fictions Online.” The abstract:

The Internet has facilitated the coming together of formerly more separated youth taste cultures, such that literary, screen and graphic fandoms now more readily overlap. Media industries have invested in online strategies which create an ongoing relationship between producers and consumers of entertainment media texts. Using the Internet marketing campaign for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga as a case study, the paper examines the role of the publishing industry in marketing popular teen literary fiction through online channels in ways that often disguise promotional intent.

Fan culture and Web 2.0 are often described as being places where cultural hierarchies are disrupted and tastes are actively shaped by diverse audiences who gravitate to niches. Anita Elberse has challenged Chris Anderson’s claim that the “long tail” of niche items will win out in a world where audiences can make their own choices among a myriad of options. Elberse’s research suggests that digital buzz actually compounds the blockbuster effect. And Rutherford’s research shows how this works. As she puts it,”[o]stensibly democratic networks of online youth sociability exist in a complex and complicit relationship with the processes of global media industries.”

She quotes  from a Publisher’s Weekly story in which a publicist at Scholastic said, baldly, “part of the trick to marketing books to teens online is that the most effective results seem to come from the coverage that appears most organic, viral and uncommercial in nature.” Appears. In other words, when you sell something, do your best to make it look as if you’re just another fan, raving about a positive experience.

As the quote from Scholastic’s publicist illustrates, the lines between user–generated fan sociability, and industry–generated social marketing are blurred. Such overlaps demonstrate the informational circuit of what Nigel Thrift calls “knowing capitalism”. Audiences/users gain information about narrative remediations and consumer opportunities related to their interests, while publishers and media industries garner data about their audience base. Through user feedback, publishing and media industry stakeholders are able to make projections about the viability of merchandising or cross–platform products associated with their literary or screen media properties.

Rutherford points out that genre fiction, particularly women’s romance fiction, has traditionally built on a strong connection between fans and producers of fiction. But the marketing aimed at youth also is intended as recruitment for a future market by going after the youth demographic and building the kinds of loyal relationships previously developed between women readers and romance publishers. But there’s also another key element: “The marketing of young adult fictions has also increasingly been aligned with the cult of celebrity.” Meyers built her own website so she could align her image with fans and identify as a storyteller, a geek, one of them. But the feedback loop between the author and the fans and the fictional world builds a committed customer base. “The author, the series and its characters have become celebrity commodities, fuelled by Internet communities of interest, an intersecting, cross–media stardom.”

Which is all very thought-provoking. This research does seem to describe the mechanisms by which audiences cooperate with and are coopted by marketers in making blockbusters, which in turn gives audiences a sense that they are participating in something really, really big. Which, of course, means niches are all very well but it’s not where the cool kids want to be seen.

The attention economy, like our economy, apparently has a widening gap between the rich and the rest. And on the Internet, nobody knows you’re an advertisement.

prayers for sanity

April 4, 2009

Alternate titles for Denis Lehane’s books if they were chapters in an autobiography:

  • No Blog Before the War
  • Celebrity, Don’t Take My Hand
  • Sacred: My Privacy
  • Write, Baby, Write
  • Prayers for Time to Do it Right

I’m not sure which item in Ali Karim’s interview with Dennis Lehane made me happier: that bringing Angie and Patrick back wasn’t a hangover-induced rash promise made to fans at the Muskego Public Library, or that Denis Lehane has no website, no blog, no Facebook page, no presence on Twitter, and no desire to spend his time promoting himself. He wants to write. That’s his job. Being Denis Lehane the Famous Author is neither his job nor his ambition. All that focus on creating and maintaining a public persona gets in the way of what he wants to, which is write.

Thank god for a breath of sanity.

I was thinking about this the other day after watching a documentary on a punk record store in London that began to distribute DIY albums that nobody else would have produced or distributed, then became a label, and ultimately another corporation. But in the beginning there was the idea of a DIY alternative, one that spoke truth to power and created radical music totally, radically outside the power structure of commercial entertainment.

While some small publishers are doing that, I haven’t seen a similar motive behind most of the self-publishing wave. Most people who self-publish are doing so in the hopes that they will make it just like the celebrity authors – that they will skirt around the barriers and go straight to readers who will find these books just as good or better than books from major houses and then, if things really go well, they’ll get a huge advance from one of the big houses. DIY is everywhere these days – but most of it’s not alternative the way zines were/are – because there’s still near-total buy-in to the commercial fever-dream that corporate entertainment hath wrought. In fact, most of social networking is essentially a form of self-advertising. Marketing, identity, and creativity have morphed into creative self-advertising.

What is up with this?

People build stuff on Second Life so that they can get into real estate that isn’t real. Real money, totally unreal goods. It’s weirdly inverse to the DIY punk ethos and yet a perfect metaphor for our times. Can’t afford all the shit you’re supposed to want because other people have it and you’re told you should have it to be a real, live person? Let’s pretend with credit cards. Can’t be a famous author? Make you sure you have the website, the blog, the book trailer, the twitter account, and it’s just like being famous. Cut out the middleman and become your own corporate shill.

I think it’s terrific that people have such an urge to be creative that they write, they make films, they make music, and they share it. But there’s a strange unwillingness to examine the consumerist definition of success and all the unhealthy self-fashioning that surrounds our current wave of creativity. And somehow our alternative channels that enable sharing of creative work are all designed around the same exhausted idea that marketing is ultimately what human communication is for.  And if we have nothing to sell, we can always sell ourselves.

things found on the Internet when I should have been working, no. 3

March 19, 2009

Via BoingBoing, the Boston Globe offers a photographic Odyssey of the world recession. The crowds of job seekers, piles of unsold goods, and vacant building sites tell the story.

These photos include a crowd lined up to apply for too-few jobs . . .

And discarded newspaper racks from San Francisco.

twin piques

March 3, 2009

Strange how RSS will put two things together.

A new Pew report says 1 out 31 Americans are in prison, on probation, or on parole.  The expense of having nearly a third 3% of our population (math meltdown! – it’s still a lot)  in the”corrections” system is going to make states rethink a few things when the money’s not there. And high time, too. Americans are not so much more criminally minded than other people in the world – we’re just good at providing simple answers to complicated questions. (We have a quarter of the world’s prisoners though only 5% of the world’s population.)

At the same time, several reports are coming out of the you-couldn’t-write-this-in-fiction behavior of the Bush administration. Lately, it’s the CIA destroying interrogation tapes and approving military action in the US without any of that Bill of Rights hassle that law enforcement has to mess with. Since my outrage-o-meter broke several years ago, this is just sort of … numbing.

Makes me wonder about the phrase “criminal justice.”


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