“A Christmas Carol” turns 175

Lots of people took notice. 

Dickens, of course, wrote it to make money. He was in debt to his publisher and needed a hit. That’s how life works.

Here’s the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Was there anyone as good at beginning a novel as Dickens?

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Here’s a nice article about its covers through the years. The original cover was pretty meh:

Snow is general . . .

We’re in the middle of a blizzard hereabouts:

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So it’s a good time to read the last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead” (as if there were a bad time):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Amazon vs. Hachette — The Final Blog

Amazon and Hachette have finally settled.  Thank goodness.  The settlement appears to follow the outlines of Amazon’s recent agreement with Simon & Schuster — the publisher can set its own price for its ebooks, but they get better terms if the price is in the range Amazon likes.  This is exactly how it works with independent authors — we only get the lovely 70% royalty if we set our price between a dollar and $9.99.  Anything higher or lower, we only get 35%.

This all seems perfectly reasonable.  Clearly, Amazon wasn’t trying to put mainstream publishers out of business.  It wasn’t trying to destroy literature and “disappear” authors.  It was using its clout as a reseller to get ebook prices where it thought they ought to be, to maximize sales. Business as usual.

Hugh Howey sums it up:

Conflating our love of books with the virtuousness of those who package them is a very bad idea. Publishers belong to multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations. They need to make profits. They do this by pushing prices up on readers and pushing wages down on writers. I don’t blame them for that (though I do try to pressure them to be more fair to both parties).

The people I blame are those who should do their homework, understand this business better, and get on the right side of these debates. The real damage has been done by those who refuse to fight for the little guys; the real damage has been done by the parties who seem to think that publishers can do no wrong and that Amazon can do no right.

This includes the New York Times and many other traditional media outlets. It includes The Authors Guild and Authors United. By waging a PR campaign without understanding the issues (often stating things that were patently untrue), these parties caused severe damage and helped to prolong this negotiation. They aligned themselves with a party that has broken the law to raise prices and refuses to pay authors a decent digital royalty. I don’t think this damage is done intentionally or with malice but by simple ignorance.

The Old Manse

Like Walden Pond, the Old Manse in Concord, MA is another American literary shrine just minutes away from where I work.  I visited it decades ago, but a couple of weeks ago the entire company got to go there.

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Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the place.  Emerson wrote his essay “Nature” there; Hawthorne wrote the pieces he later collected in the book Mosses from an Old Manse.

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The main feature of the house for me (the only thing I remembered from my first visit decades ago) is the little messages and sayings that Sophia Hawthorne etched on the window panes with her diamond ring; these give me a shivery sense of stepping into her long-ago life.

The original garden was planted by Thoreau, and it’s still maintained:

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(The people handing out cider are new.)

The Old Manse overlooks Concord’s Old North Bridge.  If you happened to be hanging out there on April 19, 1775, you would have heard “the shot heard round the world.”  Here is Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn,” which he wrote for the dedication of the Battle monument there in 1837:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

That first stanza still packs a wallop, doesn’t it?

The novel was pretty much finished on Tuesday, and then . . .

. . . I woke up on Thursday with An Idea.  But that was OK — the Idea was limited to one section of the novel, and it wouldn’t require much rejiggering.

Then today I squinted at the novel from another angle, and that resulted in Another Idea.  This one would involve changing the motivation of a major character, with consequences through the story.

I think I need to follow up on both of these ideas.

But what will happen when I actually read through my draft?

John Steinbeck famously wrote The Grapes of Wrath in a few months.  Where did I go wrong?


Any Ian McEwan fans out there?

Ian McEwan is a superb writer, and his subject matter is the sort of thing I’m attracted to: murder, science, espionage, literature.  I’ve read most of his novels, and each one of them leaves me feeling dissatisfied for one reason or another.  The latest is called Sweet Tooth (bad title), which is kinda sorta an espionage novel set in the England of the 1970s.  I raced through it, but I was thoroughly annoyed by the end.  Here’s why:

  • Despite being set in England’s MI5 and filled with espionage types, the book is really light on plot.  Not much actually happens.
  • In reality, the focus turns out to be on a fairly uninteresting love triangle among three not very sympathetic people.
  • The novel ends with a post-modern twist.  (McEwan did something similar in Atonement.)  Time was I was very much in favor of post-modern twists.  My tastes have apparently changed, or maybe McEwan just didn’t pull this one off.  In this case, it just made me want to toss the completed book against the nearest wall.

The novel got lots of rave reviews from critics, but on Amazon it has a relatively modest 3.5 rating (by contrast, my novel Senator has, ahem, a 4.3 rating and Dover Beach a 4.1). Lots of people seem to share my reservations.

What I liked about the novel was its wonderfully detailed depiction of England in the 1970s. On the other hand, the couple of times McEwan wrote about something I’m familiar with, he got it wrong.  (No one “takes a legal degree from Harvard” — at least, not back then.)  Kinda shakes your confidence.

Literature and Empathy

Jerry Coyne has a post on a study published in Science about how reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic.  (He uses the word empathic, which looks to be the same thing, but the WordPress spellchecker objects to it.) Here is the New York Times writeup of the study, which uses empathetic.

[The study] found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Coyne finds the study unconvincing, as does Steven Pinker in a tweet. The significance levels aren’t all that high, and the empathy level is measured immediately after reading — there is nothing to suggest that the effect, if real, is permanent.  And one of the tests of empathy used — where you look at pictures of people and guess what emotions they are expressing — seems really unlikely to be affected by the kind of prose you just read.

The study offers the kind of results that English teachers and writers and fiction lovers will like.  Which provides plenty of reason to treat it with a bit of suspicion — it’s easy to be convinced by studies that prove what you already are sure is true.

But in any case, does it matter?  I suppose I’d like to be able to tell my kids that they should read good fiction because it will improve their emotional intelligence or social perception or whatever.  But even if it does no such thing, they ought to read good fiction because it will make their lives better.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.