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5.22.2011

Young Adult Fiction: is it really a "genre" that sells books?

Cover of "The Shadow of the Wind"Cover of The Shadow of the Wind
The publishing industry has always relied on "genre" as a marketing tool to push its wares, and among them, the most bizarre is YA.

How to reach out to Young Adults is of course a legitimate concern but lately, with Rowlands' winning Harry Potter series, everybody from literary agents to editors to publishers just drools about it. YA is growing fast. YA is where money is made. YA is the place to be. Even as an indie: look at Amanda Hocking and how she became a publishing wonder with her YA trilogy published on the Kindle.

So about six month ago, since everybody seemed so excited about it, I thought I should try to "break out" with a YA novel. But first I did some research to try and figure out what YA meant.

First surprise: YA is not a genre as such. It is a cross-cutting genre by definition: it means different things to different people. A YA novel can be a romance, a dystopian fantasy, a historical, a paranormal laden with vampires and werewolves, in short, just about anything, one, several or all of them together.

What makes all these sub-genres (also found in adult fiction) particularly YA? I dug in further and ...

Second surprise: nothing in particular, not even the age of the protagonist. Yet, that's what (according to Wikipedia and all the pundits) is precisely what defines YA: young adults are people between the age of 12 and 18. Thus, characters should be within that age bracket.

How pervasive this view is within the publishing industry was confirmed to me about a month ago in a conversation I had with a savvy literary agent. It was amazing. I was trying to pitch my newly-minted YA trilogy Fear of the Past - by newly minted, I mean I'd just rewritten it for the American market in English (it was originally published in Italian in 2007 and meant as a historical/paranormal romance for the adult market). She asked me the age of my protagonist, and I said my Tony was 19. She shuddered, I thought because he was male (a lot of agents are firm believers that female protags have more market value than male ones because more women than men read fiction). No, I was wrong. She shuddered because he was 19. "That's too old," she said, "for a YA Main Character".

I was astounded. Too old? How old should he be, I asked. "Not over 18", she replied with confidence, "especially if it's going to be a trilogy". Presumably that's because he's going to be older in the next two books, so if you start him at 18, he could be 20 or 22 by the time you finish. I opened my mouth to tell her that my time arc was much shorter than that, that this guy was on a self-quest that resolved itself in the course of a single year: by the end of the trilogy, he'd be just about one year older. Then I shut my mouth again.

What could I say? That some of the most successful  novelists who write for YA audiences in recent years have protagonists that are both young and old?

Actually, their characters begin young and then grow old - damn it, that's life! I won't go down the list, but look at Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's books, starting with that absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Wind, set in a dark, mysterious Barcelona touched by Gaudì craziness and a magical cemetery of Forgotten Books. How I love that book! And all the others he wrote...

I can't see where YA differs from great literature for so-called "adult" audiences. Recently, someone pointed out that Romeo and Juliet was a YA tale. Have you ever thought of Shakespeare as a YA author?! And classified as a YA only because his protags - especially Juliet - are so tender and young, in their teens...

What Carlos Ruiz Zafòn himself has to say about YA is extremely interesting. When asked what he thought were "the most important differences" when writing for adult readers and young adult readers, his answer was an eye-opener and I can't resist quoting him (you'll find the whole interview on his Amazon page):

I don't think they're that many differences, really. You just have to write the best possible story in the most efficient way you are capable of. It is all about the language, the style, the atmosphere, the characters, the plot, the images and textures… If anything, I believe that younger readers are even more demanding and sincere about their feelings about what they're reading, and you have to be honest, never condescending. I don't think younger readers are an ounce less smart than adult ones. I think they are able to understand anything intellectually but perhaps there are emotional elements that they have not experienced in their lives yet, although they will eventually. Because of this, I think it is important to include a perspective in the work that allows them to find an emotional core that they can relate to not just intellectually. Other than that, I think you should work as hard as you can for your audience, respect them and try to bring the best of your craft to the table. My own personal view is that there’s just good writing and bad writing. All other labels are, at least to me, irrelevant.

Do you think he's right? Are young readers more demanding? Do you agree when he says YA is not a genre as such, but only a matter of including "a perspective" that allows Young Adults to find "an emotional core that they can relate to".

Just let me add as a footnote: many people suspect that the Harry Potter series was as much of a success with adults as with young readers. That says something about YA, doesn't it? The best YA novels happen to be damn good stories well told - and a YA classification adds nothing to that. Or does it? What is your view?

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5.20.2011

Genre as a Marketing Tool: Does it really Work?

Barnstar of Harry PotterImage via WikipediaThe publishing industry is battered by the digital revolution - and in particular by the 99 cent e-book that blows to smithereens the economics of traditional publishing - yet everyone holds on to "genre" as the one, major, solid, reliable marketing tool.

Do you think that's reasonable? Do you really read in one single genre or are you like me, the genre-flitting kind, moving from paranormal to historical to romance to whatever, damn it, is a real GOOD story? Please take the poll (top of the right-hand side column) and let me know!

Yet traditional publishers rely on genre classification not only as a basic way to direct book distribution to the "right" shelves in bookstores - because that's what works best in the real world to ensure "discoverability" of a new title - but to track the size of the market. Everybody knows that romance is the biggest selling genre, it generated nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2009. That's where it's easiest for new writers to break in, that's where the biggest advances are paid (most of the time - but the advance question is another one that needs to be looked at: it has taken a tremendous beating with the digital revolution...).

Genre therefore is an easy-to-use marketing tool: it classifies books and places them in nice little boxes, giving a sense of order. And woe to writers whose works don't fit into a genre: their literary agent may kindly speak of "crossover genre" but s/he knows it means it's going to take twice the effort to sell such a book to publishers. Nobody likes people who rock the boat!

In short, genre makes life simple, it neatly divides up the readers in predictable segments. Thanks to genre, publishers (and literary agents) can track past performance of any given market and predict the future with a fair degree of confidence.

You come to them with a romance, sci-fi, thriller or what not, and they feel they know exactly where they're going with it.

Or do they?

It's easy to blast the publishing industry pointing to all the numerous occasions when a book suddenly made the NYT bestseller list and no one expected it, starting with Rowland's Harry Potter series, going on with the Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner and ending with Stieg Larsson...Nassim Taleb famously labelled such books as "black swans" - those unexpected events that occur on the low tail of the Bell curve and that statisticians can never predict (mainly because they can't tell you where you happen to be sitting on that Bell curve).

What do all these "unexpected" black swan bestsellers have in common? Adherence to the requirements/features of a given "genre"?

Not at all: they were hard-to-classify, "cross-over genres" at the time they came out. But they had one thing in common: they were all damn good STORIES.

So what made them so superlative?

Is it a question of "voice" (or what used to be called 40 years ago, "writing style") ? Yes, it matters but that's not the whole of it. You could even argue that the writing shows shortcomings. For example, Stieg Larsson's books can be overly long and plodding, and I'm sure you can think up all sorts of writing defects in bestsellers you've read...

So is it the plot, the suspense? Sure, the book has to be a "page-turner". But above all, in my view, a black swan bestseller brings something new on the table: it is always chock full of IDEAS - yes, ideas, things people had never thought of in that particular context. Take the Kite Runner: it opened up new vistas not only on the war in Afghanistan, but on war in general, and on cultural differences that in the end are no differences at all, but merely aspects of the human condition. And I could go on and on about what makes a story really GOOD: relevance to our lives, to the issues that matter to us, to our fears, to our hopes, to everything that makes us up as human beings. The closer to the human condition, the better.

So no wonder readers are titillated, happy!

Do you agree with this analysis? And if so, what should publishers do to improve a book's "discoverability"? Genre works up to a point but it is obviously nothing but a gross tool. Much more is needed, and maybe (what a frightening thought for traditional paper book-lovers), in the virtual world of publishing, you can twist genres so that they become cross-over genre monsters that encompass every possible choice. As Passive Guy so aptly pointed out and I quote him:
Amazon has just begun the process of creating a million genres with its categories – Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. We’re already beginning to see genre busters and there will be more. Look for Historical > Zombie > Arab > Arthurian > Cookbook

A million genres! Wow, what do you think of that?!
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5.16.2011

IMF Chief Arrested for Sexual Assault!

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director, Int...Image via Wikipedia
Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrested for attempted rape!

Here's a man who had everything. As the Chief of the IMF he had done what was universally asckowledged as a superb job of helping the world to navigate out of the Great Recession (though in my view we're not out of troubled waters quite yet).

As one of the major exponents of the French Socialist Party, he was ahead in the polls of all other candidates for the next presidential election in France (to be held in May 2012). He hadn't yet declared himself, but everybody expected that he would and that he'd be able to trounce Nicolas Sarkozy. People on the left were rubbing their hands in anticipation.

And then, this!

What amazes me is that a 62 year-old man could blow it all away like that. In a single moment of folly, bursting out naked from his bathroom (or so the press reports say). At 62 - and he does look all his years and more --, you'd expect a person to have acquired a certain degree of philosophy on such frivolous matters as one-stand sex. And he's undeniably an intelligent man, a capable economist (but then economists are not to be trusted: they never get a single prediction right!).

Why would he ever do this? Ok, maybe he didn't.. This could be all a conspiracy against him, and if you believe in conspiracies, go ahead (I don't).

But one thing is certain, innocent or not, his political future is gone, evaporated, kaput!

There's talk that people will occupy the centre of the political spectrum - maybe, maybe not. But there's one person likely to benefit for sure and that is Marine Le Pen, the head of the rightist National Front. And she wasted no time coming out with criticisms - the only French politician to do so at this point in time - but if the accusations against Strauss-Kahn turn out to be well-founded, just watch all the other politicians join in!. She charged him with "damaging" the image of France (!) - quite frankly, that is something I don't believe. Did Bill Clinton with his games with a pretty young thing in the Oval Office damage America's image? I don't think so.

She also said "she wasn't surprised" given the way he "treats women". That is a more serious charge: back in 2008 there was a scandal with a pretty Hungarian economist, who had to leave the IMF. Add to that the fact that it all happened in a $3,000 room at the Sofitel in mid-town Manhattan, you have a pretty damning picture, even if the rape turns out to be (partly) an invention (after all, the woman could have agreed to his advances, how do we know that didn't happen?) .

The $3,000 room immediately brought up in the press other similar news about his luxurious apartment in Paris and a riyad in Marrakesh and his driving around in a Porsche.

If nothing else, here's a man in love with money and sex...Bizarre tastes for a Socialist!

What's your take on this?

   
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5.12.2011

To Self-publish or not Self-pub? That is the Question!

Question book-newImage via Wikipedia
Is self-publishing a viable alternative to publishing with a big publisher, say, one of the Big Six? For unpublished writers, otherwise known as newbies, that's the big question.

Any new writer worth his salt dreams of publishing in New York with one of the Big Six. But Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing wonder who's suddenly made it big in one single year winning a $4 million deal with St Martin's Press, has changed that dream forever.

Self-publishing has just about lost most of the stigma it ever had, and Barry Eisler, who walked away from a $500,000 deal with a legacy publisher to follow down the path of self-publishing has put the last nail on the coffin.

So self-publishing has become an acceptable option even for published authors, particularly mid-list authors (those that never made it big on the New York Times list of bestsellers but have reasonably satisfactory sales). Also big authors might (and do) find the idea of self-publishing their back list (all that stuff out of print) as rather appealing. Especially since they can get a lot more out of their royalties than from their publisher (Amazon gives them 70% if they keep their book price below $10 as opposed to 30% at the very best from their publisher - but usually a lot less than that). There's still the problem that the NY Times does not list self-published e-books, but no doubt that will change (especially after Amanda Hocking's splash that was so big that she outsold NYT bestsellers!).

Add the fact that publishers stubbornly stick to pricing models for e-books that are guaranteed to slow down sales. Consumers have heard that it's cheap to produce digital versions of books and can't understand why a Kindle version can cost as much and sometimes more than a paperback. In fact, everybody expects e-books to cost less than $10. And we all marvel at how Amanda Hocking made her fortune selling her books at 99 cents - an experience comforted by J.A.Konrath's clever "List experiment" (updates on his sales after each change in price).

Add also the fact that publishers' traditional distribution channels are fast disappearing - I mean the bookstores. With Border's bankruptcy, the writing is on the wall for all those bookstores that haven't gone digital. Of course, books are still distributed elsewhere, like Wal Mart and airports, but undeniably the channels are fewer. And surely lots of bookstores will rally and rise up to the challenge - but the downward trend is here.

Then, last but not least, a bizarre bit of news that has lately emerged: publishers, it seems, don't give fully reliable reports on royalty returns. That leaves one very, very uneasy. What, they keep money against the advance, and that's normal but they don't tell you exactly how much they make on e-sales? And apparently only use estimates? Could that really be so? One wonders and begins to lose trust. Who's lying and why? Who's telling the truth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't help the case for traditional publishers!

That's it, folks, self-publishing - particularly ebooks - is in, traditional publishing - mostly printed books - is out! But is that a reasonable conclusion? Does it mean that self-publishing is a viable option?

Let's count the ways.

Pro: You, the author, are in charge, you can publish right away, you don't have to wait all that ghastly time: one year to get an agent (if you're lucky - it can take a lot more!) plus two years for the agent to sell your book to a publisher (again if you're lucky) plus at least one more year to polish it up and get it out there in the bookstores, published at last! Add it up: 4 years on average. With e-books, you can get it out there in a matter of weeks or less - a little longer if you aim for a printed version of your book, but still out there a long, long time before you'll ever manage it going down the traditional publishing road.

Con:  being in charge of the actual publishing process, means you have to dip your hand (and be good at it!) into all sorts of demanding (and often boring!) procedures: (1) proof-reading, (2) editing, (3) cover design, (4) preparation of your docs for uploading on the various e-book publishing platforms (Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad etc) and printed versions (from Lulu to Smashwords); (5) keeping track of your activities as a publisher, including accounting files, tax files etc.

Yep, it's going to cost you time and money (not much if you're careful and do a lot yourself - but you have to be very, very careful or else you look like...a newbie!). All this turns you into a small business and that eats into your writing/creative time...Yikes, you didn't get into writing to become a businessman!

Pro: You are in charge of your own marketing too. Not distribution (thank God!): that's the business of Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc. But marketing is a tall order and only if you're particularly internet-savvy will this work out for you. You need a good online presence, a website cum blog, a Facebook page, lots of tweets on Twitters and lots of followers everywhere on the Internet. If you're comfortable with that, great. If not...But don't think that if you're published traditionally, the publisher will do this work for you. They don't and won't. They (and literary agents too) expect you to have an online presence and that means you need to have started your blog, FB comments and tweets etc long before you published your book.

Con: Don't count traditional publishers out quite yet. They have a major card to play: they are the gatekeepers of literary taste. In terms of marketing, they might do a lot less for you than they used to do in the past, before the digital revolution and before the (still on-going) recession: less book presentation in prestigious locations, less book signing events, less conferences etc But they still can give you something an indie/self-published author is at pains to get: critiques from top-notch reviewers and support in major prize-winning competitions.

That's at the heart of traditional publishers' literary gatekeeper role. That's what helps readers distinguish the "good reads" from the bad. Indeed, publishers are well aware of this and at least three of the Big Six have recently tried to regain the upper hand in this area: they've established Bookish, a new website that sounds a little like it's out to compete against Amazon et al. This has drawn guffaws from bloggers who know how foolhardy it would be for an upstart to compete against Amazon's distribution power - and surely it would be if the sole purpose was to sell their books through that site. But my reading of Bookish is that it's main purpose is to inform readers about authors and their books and even direct them to distribution/sales channels.

In other words, publishers are back into their gatekeeping role, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And expect them to keep doing this, it's their one big chance to survive the digital revolution! Don't think good reviews make no difference, they certainly do! Remember that when you go on, say Kindle, your book is competing against another...one million titles! And that could easily double over the next couple of years, if not sooner. A day will come when there will be more titles out there than readers (I hope not!)...

So what should a writer do? For published authors with a good following, there is no question that it makes economic sense to self-publish their back list. For a newbie? I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Personally, I've opted for a Solomonic solution: a little bit of both, hedging my bets.

I'll keep looking to publish my latest book (it's women's fiction) with a traditional publisher, while I'll try the self-publishing road with a trilogy that is totally different, aimed at Yound Adults. Based on a romance I wrote a few years ago (which came out in Italian, Un Amore Dimenticato), it's called Fear of the Past. It's about Tony, an American computer whiz kid who travels on a self-quest to Sicily, the homeland of his father, and runs into the ghosts of his ancestors waiting for Judgment Day in an abandoned palazzo. In book One, Forget the Past, Tony learns about love when he meets the Duchess of Floridia (a real historical character who married the King of Naples in 1814). In Book Two, Reclaim the Present, he learns how his family's fortune collapsed, after centuries of prosperity. In Book Three, Remember the Future, he tries his hand at making his own money against all odds, including a group of ruthless Russian hackers.

How about you? If you have come up with ideas and solutions to this conundrum we are all facing as writers, I would love to hear about it! And get your advice!


QuestionsImage by elycefeliz via Flickr


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5.10.2011

War in the Middle East: Libya yes, Syria no, Yemen forget it!

Violence!Violence Image by Rickydavid via Flickr
Western intervention in the Arab Spring is a study in ambiguity.

War in Libya? Yes. Qaddafi is an obvious bloodthirsty villain, worse than Saddam Hussein, opening fire on his own people, using them as human shields, murdering the sick and wounded, women and children. Besides, Libya is just across Italy and Southern Europe - too close for comfort to allow it to go to the dogs. Libya has to be controlled for everyone's happiness across Europe. And Germany's no at the UN Security Council vote on Libya - which led to the establishment of the no-fly zone for humanitarian reasons (to defend the rebels) and NATO intervention - did not help Ms. Merkel and her Foreign Affairs Minister Westerwelle: they have both lost consensus in Germany and their political future is, to say the least (especially in Westerwelle's case) uncertain.

War on Syria? No, Assad is too powerful, his army too well-equipped, his country too central to stability and balance in the region. So the talk at the UN and elsewhere (and measures taken) is all about sanctions and investigations in the killings (that's UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon's suggestion).

War on Yemen? Forget it! Too peripheral, too mountainous, too tribal and while its president Saleh (in office since 1978) is a good ally for the West, the country is basically Saudi Arabia's problem: it's sitting in its courtyard.

Is the Western policy in all this clever? No, as I said, it reflects ambiguities (many of these tyrants used to be allies against muslim/terrorist extremism) and more than that: it reflects deep uncertainties.

Nobody knows how the Arab Spring will play out. Everybody hopes democracy together with a healthy respect for human rights will settle in.

But there are some early signs of trouble in Egypt that are extremely worrying. With the collapse of Mubarak's police and his forcefully imposed "stability" on the country, sectarianism is rearing its ugly head. Last Sunday sectarian violence left at least 11 people dead (6 Christians and 5 Muslims), 220 people wounded (including 65 struck by bullets) and two churches in flame in Cairo after a night of violence. Egypt's Coptic Christian minority of some 10 million people (10 percent of the population) is at bay, apparently increasingly threatened by bearded Salafis. These are people who adhere to an ascetic form of Muslim fundamentalism and tend to be highly militant. Whether such people will end up controlling the situation is anybody's guess.

I hope not, but then I'm a born optimist. What's your view?


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5.05.2011

Publishing: What makes a Blockbuster?

P Harry PotterHarry Potter LightiningImage via Wikipedia
What turns a book into a blockbuster? 

The chances for a blockbuster are remote, more like Nassim Taleb's "black swan", swooping in unannounced out of a clear blue sky. 

Yet, history overtime and recent history as well, is filled with striking examples. Take a look at the classics: Shakespeare and Dante, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, were best sellers in their days. People flocked to Shakespeare's play, drawing Queen Elizabeth I 's attention. Bocaccio read on street corners Dante's poems that were in vernacular Italian and not Latin: an absolute novelty at the time. Both Dickens and Balzac were first read in installments in cheap papers. 

Closer to us, Rowling's Harry Potter took the planet by surprise - and to think that the ms was turned down by all major publishers and was eventually published by a small press. Ditto for Stieg Larsson's trilogy. Who would have bet on a Swedish noir filled with political and social considerations? Nobody: too exotic, too narrow, too highbrow, too weird. Yet it was a world-wide success. Same with Brown's Da Vinci Code: twenty years ago, it would have been considered a highly dangerous ms dragging the Vatican in mud. Or consider the extaordinary case of Twilight: vampires and romance for young adults were considered a no-no until Stephanie Meyers' ms turned into a blockbuster, proving everybody wrong on that one.


So what's the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code?


Or, if you prefer, what makes a blockbuster what it is? We all know a blockbuster is essentially a "good story". But what makes a story good? The $64,000 question! A question every agent and publisher would love to have answered.  The publishing industry loves to classify books by "genres" - it's historical, you know: it began with blockbusters in a particular kind of story, thus laying the basis for "genre" classification. For example, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte for Romance, Agatha Christie for murder mysteries, Tolkien for Historical Fantasy, Azimov for Science Fiction etc.   I tried to take a poll asking readers whether they read exclusively in a given genre or moved about. Check the poll on my blog: you'll see it's up on the right-hand-side corner...Unfortunately, so far too few people took it for me to put it to scientific use! But please vote if you have a minute, and I'll use the results in a later post. It is already beginning to show something that makes some sense: it would seem that a minority of people (about a third) read exclusively in a given genre. Most people like to change genre or flit about. I certainly do.

So I'm going to try to come up with an answer without the help of the poll. First, let's get a few concepts out of the way. We all know that "genre" is basically a marketing instrument. Your book "fits" into a genre, it responds to certain prerequisites. And they can be very restrictive in terms of length (number of words), pace, story and character "arc": for example, you can't have a "romance" that doesn't have a female POV and a satisfying "she" and "he" embrace at the end. Every genre has its characteristic features like a cooking recipe, and if your book departs from them, woe on you, your book shall fail, the way a watercress soup made with sugar would.

Once a book "fits" a genre, everybody is reassured: it has a given, known "market" - i.e. based on past selling history of similar books, it will sell so many copies in such and such area/audience etc. Gives publishers a feeling of security. And, icing on the cake, it simplifies everybody's life: bookstores know where to shelve the book and Amazon where to stick it in its ebooks classification system. The genre defines the audience the book is aimed at, and therefore it becomes a lot easier to promote in the "right" places...

If this was all "genres" were about - a help in marketing - it might be okay. But the concept is often carried too far, and "crossover genres" or books that don't fit anywhere will often end up in the so-called "literary" genre, considered unanimously to be a difficult market with next-to-no sales (except for the occasional "black swan"). Or more simply it will be thrown straight into the thrash bin. A pity, because, as must be obvious to any rational human being, pushing everything into the thrash bin because it doesn't fit into a pre-conceived category, means that the publishing industry is at risk of freezing up. And by-passing some real gems.

Why have we gotten to this point? Partly because the publishing industry is so big nowadays and so many millions of new titles are published every year that there is an obvious need to approach the situation with a minimum of rational categories. To try to make sense of it all and push off stuff that causes confusion. Nobody likes a mess. 

But, and now I'm getting to my point, it would almost seem like people in the publishing industry are convinced that readers are tied to a given genre and don't move on, nor try anything different. My question is: are they really?  Considering how nothing bores people more than monotony - the same soup served over and over again - this is really surprising and flies counter to everything we know about human psychology. People want change! They crave for something new, different, innovative.


Come to think of it: that's precisely the quality of every blockbuster. They've broken new ground, they've served up a watercress soup with...yes, with sugar, why not? That would be different, right? Back in the late 1950s - early 1960s, I remember the sudden success of the "Nouvelle Vague" in French fiction : these were novels without any plot at all. They rejected reliance on past forms of the novel, feeling that readers had been subjected to a dictatorial plot-line and that had to change. So the writing just went on and on, meandering Proust-like, for 300 pages and more of slow-moving description of living though, say, a dinner party. The exact reverse of pace and suspense. Yet, for a while, those books sold like hot cakes, and they had a lasting effect on the cinema, with notable results in the hands of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol.


So, what do you think is the true nature of a blockbuster? And how should the publishing industry equip itself to look for them?

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5.03.2011

Bin Laden Dead: A Victory or More Terror to Come?

Osama bin Laden Killed; ID Confirmed by DNA Te...Bin Laden ID confirmed by DNA testing...


President Obama has announced it, the news are all over Internet: bin Laden has been killed and buried at sea.

Understandably, to avoid any political complications, Americans did not want to catch him alive. Big moment for America. A symbolic victory.

Mission accomplished?

Yes, insofar as it goes. But the blogosphere is already abuzz with news of people doubting that he is really dead. Next there will be cries for revenge. Al-Qaeda will get started again on yet another round of terroristic killings. Actually, many Americans expect this, starting with Leon Panetta, the current CIA Director.

So, yes, I'm pleased America has achieved its goal of decapitating al-Qaeda. But will it slow down Islamic integralism and the more extreme forms of violence?

Quite frankly, I don't think so. Since al-Qaeda is a highly fragmented organization, with lots of terrorist cells sprinkled here and there, cutting off its head is not likely to affect its effectiveness.

On the other hand, the situation facing al-Qaeda hasn't changed significantly in recent years: it hasn't been playing a noticeable role in the on-going "Arab Spring" movements - not even in Yemen where it is supposedly very active. Not only that, but it appears that Osama bin Laden  had already lost - or was losing - public support in Muslim countries, according to a recent Pew research. Moreover, while he was a charismatic leader to his al Qaeda followers, no doubt about it, he had, it seemed, passed over effective leadership to various people in his entourage. The fact that the house he lived in was devoid of any internet and phone connections is ample proof that he was no longer a day-to-day military chief.

Does all this spell the end for al-Qaeda? Not really. The killing of bin Laden could give al-Qaeda some cards to play, reviving the more extreme, violent fringes of terrorism. There could be "lone wolves" ready to act, just about anywhere.

What do you think will happen?
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5.01.2011

How would you write about the Frankenstein monster?

A portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster, using p...Frankenstein Portrait Image via Wikipedia

Some literary themes never die, and one of them is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster. To think she was just a sweet 18 when she dreamt up this horror! It's been visited many times and most recently by  Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London this spring. But what I wanted to talk about was Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein that I just finished. I found it a very interesting revisit of the Frankenstein theme, even though I can see Andrew Motion may have had some good reasons to bash it when it came out in 2008 (click here the UK Guardian).

But I think it is largely undeserved criticism. It is still a very good read and a remarkable reconstruction of a kind of gothic early 19th century English that puts you straignt into a dark, ghoulish mood. Peter Ackroyd has had te bright idea of setting up Victor Frankenstein as a real person and writing from his point of view.

He imagines Frankenstein as a mad scientist born in Switzerland and a personal friend of Shelley's. This is a bizarre man Shelley's wife Mary might have met. Ackroyd recounts the travels of the three with Byron to Lake Geneva in 1816. We are shown Victor Frankenstein, who is Swiss, acting as a guide for the group and leading them through a frightening storm on the lake and an ill-fated tour of a ghost-ridden castle. Ackroyd leaves us to surmise that these events inspired Mary Shelley to conceive her famous monster.

What I personally didn't like in this book is the way it slows down in the middle: one keeps expecting Victor Frankenstein's creature (a corpse he has electrified, natch) to somehow haunt our travellers through their trip in continental Europe, but that doesn't happen. Instead, we are offered insights into the complex relationship between Byron and Shelley, while Mary helplessly watches on the sideline. This is all very interesting, but a little too intellectual perhaps, and certainly not scary stuff. A bit of a letdown for horror fans!

Mind you, this kind of slowdown seems to happen to a lot of novels these days... oh woe to us, writers! It is so hard to keep up the pace through a book. In a perverse way, I would argue one could learn a lot from reading Ackroyd's book - I mean in terms of story-telling techniques and how to keep up the pace.

Speaking of story-telling: one might also have expected more about what is the true meaning of Shelley's Frankenstein story. Just glance at the article I listed below which pulls together the various meaning of Frankenstein for modern-day readers. Amazing! There are about a dozen different takes on what the monster means, from a warning on the dangers of failing to raise children properly to the dire consequences of circumventing maternity in the birth process (!). Add to this the surprising fact that I mentioned above: this terrifying monster - the greatest of all literature - was invented by an 18 year-old girl, living her first love with the poet of her dreams...Shelley must have been a hard man to live with!

And yes, another very important point: the summer of 1816 when Shelley and his wife Mary travelled to the continent with Byron was the time Europe was suddenly plunged in a terrifying climate change caused by the explosion of  Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia. It was the biggest volcanic explosion ever: it sent stuff up 30 km in the atmosphere, changing the earth's climate for decades, plunging it in a cold wave that caused untold deaths in Europe from hunger, because there never was a summer that year. It rained incessantly and no crops grew in the unseasonal cold temperatures. There were extraordinary colours in the sky - unusually bright red and yellow sunsets - and those were the colours that inspired Turner. And the strange feeling of impending doom and masses of hunger-stricken individuals, dying left and right, both terrified and fascinated Mary Shelley, probably leading her to the creation of her Frankenstein.

Of course, if the volcano - and that ghastly "non-summer" of 1816 -  inspired Mary, then Ackroyd's novel is left with no legs to stand on. Which is perhaps why the strangeness of that summer is largely downplayed in the novel. And that I think is a real pity, it would have made his book so much more interesting...Which goes to show that if you're into historical stuff you better do your research very carefully! And why couldn't the turn in weather have affected both Victor Frankenstein in Ackroyd's novel and Mary Shelley in real life in the same way? That would have given the book an interesting twist!

Bottomline, Peter Ackroyd did a pretty good job revisiting the Frankenstein theme but there was perhaps space to do an even better job. Did you read Ackroyd's book? Did you like it?

Given half a chance (and the time!), how would you write about the Frankenstein monster?


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4.27.2011

Nuclear Energy: Yes or No?

Image of a nuclear explosionNuclear ExplosionImage via Wikipedia
With the Fukushima disaster, the 25-years commemoration of Chernobyl yesterday and Berlusconi announcement that Italy will buy nuclear plants from France's AREVA, the question of nuclear energy has come to the fore like never before. And by the way, Berlusconi's annoucement flies in the face of his own government decision a week ago to shelve nuclear plans and scrap the referendum asking Italian citizens whether they want it or not. Thus Berlusconi goes ahead without even bothering with the referendum!

Clearly France that has bet on nuclear energy, with most of its energy needs coming from AREVA nuclear plants, wants not just Italy but the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world to follow suit. India has just agreed with Areva to build the biggest nuclear plant ever. And Italy is poorly placed to resist French demands, when Berlusconi gives up on just about everything, most notably on the Shengen Treaty...

Before the Italians - or anyone else for that matter - start buying French nuclear plants, they would be well advised to WAIT and SEE how the Chinese are doing with their new type of nuclear plants. I blogged about this before (click here) but I want to draw your attention to this again.

It's very important that we be all aware of what is really going on: every nuclear plant producer, Chinese included, are trying to foist on the rest of the world a nuclear technology that is supposedly "proven" (because it's been around for 50 years) but still highly dangerous.  While AREVA claims it is focussed on ensuring nuclear safety and using a "third" and "fourth" and maybe "fifth generation" technology, there is no reason why we should believe them.

How is nuclear energy dangerous?  It's a very complex matter, but let's try to make it simple. We all know it's dangerous in two fundamental ways: with the so-called "proven" rods-based technology, accidents can easily happen as we have seen with the Japanese desperately battling at Fukushima. Once a nuclear reaction has started inside a reactor, it is very, very difficult to stop. The other aspect is disposal of nuclear material after the plants have run their course. In the long-run, this is probably the greater danger. With thousands of nuclear plants on this planet likely to pop up in the near future (there are over 500 now), I really don't know how anybody thinks that the disposal problem is solved.

Now, back in the 1960s and 70s, there had been several experiments in Germany, the US and elsewhere, with a different approach, not using rods but uranium-enriched "pebbles" coated with protective graphite. For various complex reasons (economic and political), the experiments were abandoned before an actual "test" nuclear plant using "pebbles" had been built. As I write, the Chinese have decided to pick up on those experiments and build a couple of new plants using this technology, whose main advantages are (1) easier control over nuclear accidents because the "pebbles" that are smaller and less prone to radio-activity than rods ; (2) easier disposal with a much shorter "life".

I am no expert and I am simplifying the arguments, but the point should be clear. We should follow the UN Secretary General's five-point call for a moratorium on nuclear energy, until we realize clearly what we are getting into. And we should let the Chinese finish their experiment with their "pebbles" nuclear plants before we decide to go ahead.

That means waiting 3 to 5 years: isn't worth the wait to save the planet and the human race?  
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4.26.2011

EUROPE AT THE HANDS OF SARKOZY AND MERKEL...CAN IT SURVIVE?

Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...Image via Wikipedia


Much of the construction of Europe had been in the hands of France and Germany until Sarkozy and Merkel erupted on the scene. These are two politicians more interested in their own political fortune than in the idea of a United Europe.  I should say the ideal of a United Europe that was born after World War II: a brave attempt to prevent once and for all the return of the wars that devasted the continent and pushed Europe to the rank of a third-rate power, behind America and the Soviet Union.

Politicians have changed, and people with vision, the likes of Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman, the founding fathers of Europe, are no longer around. Now the new generations have no direct knowledge of either those politicians or those wars - and, alas, no empathy: to them, it's all past stuff, buried in the history books. The young are concerned about employment, about making money, about building the good life for themselves - and who can blame them in these recessionary times?  Even older people have stopped being concerned about Europe. Savvy politicians like Merkel and Sarkozy have been quick to latch on to the new zeitgeist. Their political future depends on it: they are both facing re-election. Neither is willing to defend the European idea, it would cost them too much in terms of votes.

Or so they think.

Edvard Grieg caricatureMusic for the Pigs Image by Bergen Public Library via Flickr

If you believe I'm exaggerating, just look at the recent news: the bailout of Greece first, and then Ireland and now Portugal. A scandal! Every time the Germans dragged their feet, until (in Greece's case) it reached the point of near-collapse for the Euro. And for the moment, nobody's rushing to save Portugal, and everybody's saying things are getting worse in Greece (but austerity programs famously make matters worse). The Germans don't want to pay for the "sins" of their "profligate" Euro partners. They have forgotten, or pretend to ignore that Southern Europe's economic woes has its source - or at least one major source - in Germany's insistence on establishing the Euro as an exact replica of the Deutsche Mark. I'm sure those of you among my readers who lived through the introduction of the Euro in Southern Europe in 2000 will remember how we all suddenly felt poorer. The Euro caused an immediate loss of income for the average consumer (particularly pensioners and fixed-income earners), while giving intermediaries (distributors of consumer goods and services of all kinds, from restaurants to fish market stalls) an unexpected boost, as they played on everybody's confusion about the real value of the new money. That did not happen to Germany, and so far Germany has been the real winner from the introduction of the Euro.

It's simple: before the Euro's introduction, Germany had a small trade deficit; now it has a huge surplus. This is not an opinion of mine, it's a statistical fact: Thanks to the Euro, German exports have remained highly competitive and that's why they've soared.  If those exports had been priced in Deutsche Mark, they would have been hard to sell because the Deutsche Mark would have risen. But the Euro hasn't risen, so prices for German exports were  kept down. And if the Euro didn't rise, that was because of the other (ailing) Euro-partner economies...

It would be about time that Germany consider repaying the moral debt it has incurred with its Euro-partners. Instead the Germans have invented a "carrot and stick" approach: they will help rescue the Euro, provided all 17 euro-partners commit themselves to "more fiscal rigor". We'll help you, ya, if you tighten your belts! That, of course, is easy to say when you yourself have a roaring economy and no belt-tightening to do...

Or consider another recent event:  the wave of illegal immigrants that has flooded Italy, over 25,000 since January 2011. What could Italy do? They came in by the boatload, some of them sinking and losing their lives. Should one shoot them? Put them back in boats and push them out to sea? Of course not. A minimum sense of decency and Christian charity require that something constructive be done. Not easy, and an expensive proposition, no matter what solutions one might come up with: short-term (for example, find job openings suitable for immigrants and not in competition with Europeans) and long-term (invest in new industries in the immigrants' home countries in order to create jobs for them).

Confronted with such a problem, you'd think the European Commission would make constructive proposals. But no, nothing has come out of Brussels except for references to European rules etc. Because naturally, the European structures in Brussels have no solutions to offer, even though the immigration problem is nothing new. All we have is Frontex, a very small and essentially negative start, based on the idea of "border security management" - read: control and rejection of immigrants.

Making matters worse, France, instead of helping Italy, has flatly refused to sort this problem out, beyond of course the usual assurances of helping Italy patrol the seas etc. It has even done worse: it has threatened to suspend the treaty of Schengen - not exactly a perfect arrangement since to cross borders in Europe you still need a passport, but nevertheless a start with the removal of customs barriers. France's refusal is something close to a moral scandal: it simply ignores that it is the natural target destination for most of the immigrants since they are Tunisians, speak French and often have family in France. No surprise considering Tunisia is an ex-colony of France and its middle class has been brought up in the French language and values of freedom, fraternity and equality.

Today Sarkozy met Berlusconi in Rome to discuss the immigration question (and a few others, like the French "hostile" Lactalis OPA on the Italian Parmalat). The results of that meeting have been just as expected: our great politicians have agreed to ask Brussels to "reform Schengen". Sarkozy told reporters with a straight face: "We want Schengen to survive, but to survive it must be reformed." Reformed? It is already quite insufficient as it is (imagine how Americans would feel if to travel from New York to Connecticut they had to take their passport). But now, as Berlusconi added, under "exceptional circumstances", the Schengen treaty can be "suspended" - all in the name of the "rule of law"...

Ha, where is freedom, where is equality, where is fraternity, WHERE IS EUROPE?

My only hope is that a new generation will wake up to values other than making money...

How do you feel about this? Are Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi right? Shouldn't these "exceptional circumstances" be the reason to move forward on Europe rather than backwards? Shouldn't we work on creating common policies to deal with immigration and budget deficits rather than dismantling the few European structures we have?

To tell you the truth, I'm indignant!


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