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Literary Criticism

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Wednesday News: HathiTrust wins against Author’s Guild, Kindle installment plan, book...

Fair Use Victory in HathiTrust Litigation – So this is the one about how the Author’s Guild sued the HathiTrust and lost. The HathiTrust — comprised of more than 80 academic and research institutions — created a digital library (the HathiTrust Digital Library) and then digitized more than ten million works for the Library. The Second Circuit ruled on two issues and did not rule on a third, and both of the issues they did rule on — full-text searchability and digital access for print-disabled readers — to be Fair Use. Go figure. The third, as yet unresolved, issue is related to the question of whether a library can print a replacement copy of a book that is otherwise unobtainable for a reasonable price.

Today’s decision is an important reaffirmation of the fair use doctrine’s role in enabling transformative uses of copyrighted works that enable the creation of new information-location tools and in the ability of libraries to serve the needs of their print disabled patrons. –The Berkeley Blog

Three Months in, Amazon’s Kindle Installment Plan is Here to Stay – Did you know that Amazon was offering an installment plan for Kindles? I sure didn’t. Apparently everything but the Fire is available for purchase in five payments, and the program has already been in place for three months.

It makes a lot of sense for Amazon to offer this program. Once they have maxed out their retail channel by selling to everyone who can pay full price, and lowered the price as much as they can via ad subsidies, the next logical step was to offer an installment plan and lower the purchase barrier another notch. And since Amazon handles their own payment processing, the actual cost (compared to having the stock sitting in a warehouse unsold) is minimal. –The Digital Reader

Absent Friends: Lean Years of Plenty – Katherine Mansfield was the fiction reviewer for The Athenaeum for about four years, between 1919 and her death in 1923. And for all of the complaints we have about genre fiction of today, trust that Mansfield made note of most of them almost a century ago. That’s right, dear readers, streams of literary dreck have been running unchecked through pens, typewriters, computers, and book presses for decades and decades, and authors have resented negative reviews. Seriously, though, it’s pretty amusing to see how little things have changed when it comes to complaints about writing quality and the value of critical reviews.

Public Opinion, garrulous, lying old nurse that she is, cries: ‘Yes! Great books, immortal books are being born every minute, each one more lusty than the last. Let him who is without sin among you cast the first criticism.’ It would be a superb, thrilling world if this were true! Or even if the moderate number of them were anything but little puppets, little make-believes, playthings on strings with the same stare and the same sawdust filling, just unlike enough to keep the attention distracted, but all like enough to do nothing more profound. After all, in these lean years of plenty how could it be otherwise? Not even the most hardened reader, at the rate books are written and read nowadays, could stand up against so many attacks upon his mind and heart, if it were. Reading, for the great majority—for the reading public—is not a passion but a pastime, and writing, for the vast number of modern authors, is a pastime and not a passion. –Open Letters Monthly

7 Highlights from a 19th Century Book of Sample Love Letters – Perhaps this 19th century advice on writing love letters should be filed under things not to include in your Romance novel. Among the examples (with helpful annotations):


He gets to the heart of the matter eventually, but it’s the opening paragraph that’s worth considering:

I shall be very happy if you are not altogether unacquainted with the name which is at the bottom of this letter, since that will prevent me the necessity of saying some things concerning myself, which had better be heard from others. Hoping that it may be so, I shall not trouble you on that head; but only say, that I have the honour to be of a family not mean, and not wholly without fortune.

I think that’s 19th century speak for “Do you know who I am?!” –Mental Floss

Thursday News: Critics and novelists; Asian American masculinity; Voltaire and the mathematician; and Science Fiction’s lament

Thursday News: Critics and novelists; Asian American masculinity; Voltaire and the...

Do Critics Make Good Novelists? – This week’s Bookends column — between Daniel Mendelsohn and Leslie Jamison — is a pretty interesting contemplation of the relationship between literary critic and novelist. Mendelsohn seems to suggest that critics are unsuited to writing fiction, while Jamison suggests that the prejudice against critics who also write fiction predetermines a certain narrow reading of their prose. Given the nature of the debate, its irony only adds to the terms, although I think Jamison has a better handle on that than Mendelsohn.

We seem to have more patience for the novelist who writes criticism (Henry James, Virginia Woolf) than for the critic who writes novels (Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling). This discrepancy suggests an implicit prejudice: The novelist who writes criticism is sending dispatches from inside the maelstrom — translating creativity into sense — while the critic who writes novels is learning to fly from a set of instructions, trying to conjure magic from recipes. The critic of the critic-novelist ratifies a certain Romantic notion of art: Creativity should rise from intuitive inspiration, not conceptual overdetermination. –New York Times

Books: Alex Tizon unearths “how to be a man” in new book on Asian masculinity – A really thoughtful piece by Joyce Chen on Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, which is itself an examination of Asian American masculinity from multiple perspectives — historical, cultural, national, artistic, etc. We talk so much about the construction of the feminine in Romance, but I think we tend to draw broader brush strokes when discussing constructions of masculinity, especially when race and sexuality are in play.

note: May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Exhibits, events, and other resources can be found here.

Tizon broaches topics ranging from stereotypes of physical inferiority to perceived submissiveness to issues of interracial dating (specifically, what has caused Asian American women to dismiss their male counterparts as simply not “man enough” to date seriously). What is particularly impressive is that what the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-cum-professor achieves in breadth, he just as effortlessly presents in depth.

One particularly noteworthy attribute of Tizon’s work is that he interweaves these various threads of history into today’s media tapestry, finding ties between ancient ethics and Asian Americans in the media today. In a chapter titled “Tiny Men on the Big Screen,” for instance, Tizon discusses how the lack of strong Asian American male leads in movies is a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” In other words, he is addressing the damaging, totalizing effects of omission. –Hyphen Magazine

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Female Mathematician – Although the real story had a somewhat sad ending — both for the relationship and the lady in question — this account of the long-term love affair between the philosopher Voltaire and the married mathematician Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet, is a wonderful example of an unconventional romantic relationship between two very brilliant, influential, and independent people. One of my biggest complaints about historical Romance is that it too often forces its heroines into narrow roles that do not reflect the complexity and range of real women through history. Certainly a woman like Émilie could serve as broad inspiration for a very interesting historical Romance.

She invited him to her house in the country. He moved in. (The Marquis was often away on military campaigns.) With the essential assistance of Émilie, Voltaire would publish Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a simplified guide to the famous scientist, which popularized his most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes. Voltaire sincerely recognized the intellectual debt he owed his lover. The frontispiece of the work shows the philosopher touched by the divine light light of Newton, reflected down to earth by a heavenly muse, Madame du Châtelet. –Brain Pickings

Heinlein, Hugos, and Hogwash – So here’s what I find ironic about articles like this one, in which Science Fiction is excoriated for its “political correctness:” these are the folks who claim they want the focus on the WORK, and yet they spend hundreds and hundreds of words talking about the POLITICS. Dude, if you want people to focus on the work, TALK ABOUT THE WORK.

Still, I think it’s pretty amusing that there are people who actually believe that SFF is now some kind of paen to liberalism.

Heinlein’s two most famous novels are Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The first challenges the orthodoxy of the Left as much as the second does that of the Right. But in his day, few science fiction readers were offended by his or anyone’s ideas. Science fiction was proud to be a literature of the new and startling. A spirit of intellectual fearlessness was paramount.

A darker time followed. The lamps of the intellect were put out one by one, first in society at large, then in literature, then in our little corner called science fiction. What we have now instead is a smothering fog of caution, of silence, of an unwillingness to speak for fear of offending the perpetually hypersensitive. –Intercollegiate Review