To Edit a Mockingbird

The controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is really heating up, with fresh commentary appearing daily. These essays are becoming increasingly esoteric, tacking away from the more prosaic whodunit investigations to the deeper realms of literary criticism. And for you history buffs, there’s even a piece comparing Atticus Finch’s moral ambiguity to that of Big Jim Folsom, liberal governor of Alabama (who completed his second term just a year before the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird), and another equating Finch to historian Francis Butler Simkins (“an emancipated critic of the old order”). Everyone, it would seem, wants a piece of the action.

I’m an editor, and my interest is primarily technical. If Watchman is an amateurish draft of what ultimately evolved into Mockingbird (Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at J. P. Lippincott, recalled, “[Go Set a Watchman] was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”), why offer it to the public in its embryonic form? Indeed, if Ms. Lee believed she had a solid companion piece to Mockingbird in Watchman, why had she forsaken it? Speculation abounds, but the evidence strongly suggests the author never had any intention of publishing the earlier manifestation of the classic; there is ample reason to believe the decision to go ahead with the project was merely the product of what one critic cynically calls “the Harper Lee industrial complex.”

I think the gravitational pull of this “lost” manuscript is its very existence. It’s something akin to the discovery of a demo tape recorded by a now-famous musician. Hearing the music in its seminal form provides the kind of intimate connection with the artist and his process that’s so coveted by diehard fans. Imagine stumbling upon a mislaid recording of the Beatles before the raw material was treated to George Martin’s sophisticated “editing” skills: fascinating, but of little intrinsic value. Yet even basement tapes can be turned into cash cows through shrewd marketing. Of course the publishers spin it as being the author’s call: “It was made clear to us that Harper Lee wanted it published as it was. We gave the book a very light copy edit,” the literary equivalent of a dusting off. Note the weasel words: “It was made clear to us”—not the declarative, “Harper Lee told us.” This is particularly troubling when you consider we’re talking about a frail octogenarian who is allegedly not entirely lucid.

Granted, a close reading of both volumes augmented by insights about the author’s relationship with her lawyer/sister, agent, and editor yields a glimpse of the internal workings of the old-school publishing process, and (one would hope) illuminates the need for a competent editor. But casting Go Set a Watchman out into the world to stand on its own without subjecting it to the gentle ministrations of a developmental editor is truly a shame. How important is the collaboration of a talented editor? Lee’s agent, Maurice Crain, stated unequivocally: “Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.”

Including the rough draft in a thorough biographical treatment of Harper Lee’s life and work (along the lines of the University of California Press’ monumental project, The Autobiography of Mark Twain) would have been a better use of the material. As it is, Go Set a Watchman is a fluke, a literary curio. It probably won’t resonate with fans of Mockingbird (and will more likely distress them), though lit profs will dissect it, analyze it, and juxtapose it to its famous sibling for generations to come.

I am not convinced this long-forgotten manuscript is some hidden gem, and I’m not alone. Surely, there was a reason it was shelved in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Is Go Set a Watchman a worthy contribution to Harper Lee’s legacy, or will it tarnish her reputation? Is it “a remarkable literary event,” a “masterpiece,” as HarperCollins proclaims, or a half-baked, tentative attempt at a novel that should never have seen the light of day?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

Nothing But A Breeze

Jesse Winchester, "Nothing But a Breeze"One day I’ll be old gray grandpa
All the pretty girls will call me “sir,”
Now, where they’re asking me how things are
Soon they’ll ask me how things were
Well, I don’t mind being an old gray grandpa
If you’ll be my gray grandma
But I suggest we go have our milk and cookies
In the shade of the old paw-paw

~ Jesse Winchester

 

 

What’s that? You never heard of Jesse Winchester? Here’s what Bob Dylan had to say about him: “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.” Winchester’s songs bore a whimsical elegance and an occasional touch of melancholy; his tunes were admired and covered by a wide variety of artists, from the Everly Brothers to Elvis Costello (whom he actually brought to tears)—and his soothing southern drawl served him well as a solo artist and front man for Jesse Winchester and the Rhythm Aces (the group went on to become the Amazing Rhythm Aces). Winchester was a pioneer of what we now call “roots music,” an eclectic and distinctly American genre.

Jesse was a gentle soul, a man of peaceful convictions who opted to emigrate to Canada when he received his draft notice in 1967. Thankfully, he was allowed back into the U.S. in 1977 when President Carter offered amnesty to those who had evaded the draft during the Vietnam conflict. Winchester relocated permanently to Virginia in 2002.

Jesse Winchester contracted esophageal cancer in 2011 and thought he’d whipped it, but it came back to claim him. He  passed away at his home in my own humble burg of Charlottesville as peacefully as he had lived. I will miss him. I still remember reviewing his “Nothing But A Breeze” lp for Cash Box magazine back in ’77—I loved it. To this day, whenever I get a little stressed out, I listen to Jesse teasingly reminding me that “it ain’t nothing but a breeze” and I smile and feel better. Thanks for the memories, Jesse.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Creative Nonfiction: The True Story of a Lone Literary Genre that Rescued Academic Authors from Obscurity, Enlightened the Masses, and Saved the World.

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 - Rijksmuseum

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 (Rijksmuseum)

In the orthodox liberal arts community, tenure-track professors are expected to teach courses while burnishing their scholarly bona fides through research and publishing efforts—the familiar “publish or perish” model. The soporific tomes churned out under this rubric are often arcane, heavily footnoted monographs relegated to “assigned reading” status; no one expects them to be bestsellers and they aren’t. With the legitimacy of liberal arts curricula being challenged daily and university presses being warned that they’ll have to start turning a profit or else, it seems obvious that the self-serving approach of scholarship for its own sake must be reconsidered.

Ironically, academic publishing could be its own salvation.

Rather than accepting an outdated publishing model as a necessary evil, scholars are increasingly choosing to write for a broader audience—the general public. They are exploring the potentially lucrative realm of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (a.k.a. literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of storytelling that presents actual events in a narrative style using techniques commonly applied to fiction writing (think: In Cold Blood, Angela’s Ashes, and A Midwife’s Tale). From an academic perspective, producing books that people actually enjoy reading yields a cascading torrent of positive outcomes: it helps educators build name recognition and strengthen their personal “brand” (and become better communicators in the process), brings prestige and a much-needed revenue stream to beleaguered university presses, and of course, makes knowledge more accessible to all, rather than rationing it out to the privileged few who can afford to shell out the inflated prices of textbooks and specialist journals. Further, successfully tapping the mainstream market makes a strong argument in favor of building and maintaining robust humanities and social sciences programs in our colleges and universities.

University press acquisition editors who once turned up their noses at such plebian literary efforts are beginning to see the potential of publishing titles that hold the promise of reaching a huge market (including digital versions for e-readers and tablets). The canny implementation of social media as an effective marketing tool also alters the calculus. Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing literary market in mainstream publishing, having eclipsed literary fiction. Do I have your attention now?

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I must stress that for all these benefits to materialize, scholar-authors have to craft compelling stories that resonate with readers beyond the confines of the classroom, the peer-reviewed journal, and the professional conference.

In a New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof cited Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, in explaining the institutional bias against popular nonfiction writing: “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” McCants said. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Writing for a general audience

In recent years, a handful of academics have bucked the establishment with varying degrees of success. Stephen Ambrose began publishing this type of crossover history in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until his 1992 publication of Band of Brothers that he managed to crack the bestseller lists. John Keegan, a military historian of impeccable academic credentials also penned gritty profiles of war and warriors that found an appreciative audience in the public sphere; his Face of Battle is considered a classic of the genre. Fellow history professor Michael Howard annointed Keegan  “at once the most readable and the most original of living historians.”

Proving that creative nonfiction techniques can breathe new life into a crowded field of historiography, Allen Guelzo recently added Gettysburg: The Last Invasion to the sprawling list of over 6,000 extant titles on the subject. His study, which bagged an impressive array of awards, received glowing reviews: Military History Quarterly called it “a stylish, comprehensive, and entertaining narrative.”

Ultimately, it took someone from outside the academy—a mere journalist—to make academicians really sit up and take notice. Having convinced a small publishing house to take on her lean work of creative nonfiction, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, veteran science writer Dava Sobel finally let the genie out of the bottle.

Sobel recounted a dramatic human-interest tale in a terse but accessible journalistic style that would make Hemingway proud. Liberated from academic jargon and the intrusion of hundreds of footnotes and references, Longitude proved to be a breath of fresh air for readers interested in the history of science but unwilling to wade into a dry, academic doorstop.

Much to the chagrin (and utter indignation) of the scientific community, Sobel’s little book sold like hotcakes. In fact, the thin volume was snatched up by Penguin and later optioned for a four-part docudrama starring Jeremy Irons. Could a conventional historical monograph have made such a splash?

The ‘Sobel Effect’

The wild success of this unintimidating read drove academicians mad. One wrote a scathing journal article sarcastically titled, “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The amazing tale of how multitudes of popular writers pinched the best stories in the history of science and became rich and famous while historians languished in accustomed poverty and obscurity, and how this transformed the world. A reflection on a publishing phenomenon.” I’d provide a link, but of course the article was published in an exclusive subscription-only peer-reviewed professional journal of which I am not worthy. Just as “Remember the Alamo!” morphed from being a Mexican army taunt into a highly effective Anglo-republican battle cry, “The Sobel Effect” was soon being uttered by publishers to characterize a very desirable attribute indeed.

One academic science blog reflected, “It is not so much the scientists themselves as the science historians who object to this sort of writing. They are left wondering: why it is that they have spent their entire career in science and can barely sell one thousand copies of their book, while Sobel and company (who are mainly journalists and authors) can make the best seller list? Jealousy?”

Some academics dismiss such “simplistic” renderings of complex themes, arguing that serious scholarship cannot be presented to the lay public in a manner that does not compromise the underlying facts. Apparently, über-popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t get the memo.

Over the past decade, a number of historians have established themselves as superstars of the creative nonfiction medium—David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Civil War historian James McPherson, to name a few.

How to do it

In the wake of Dava Sobel’s enormous success, hopeful writers have struggled to replicate the phenomenon by attempting to reduce it to a formula (replete with impossibly long subtitles) with predictable results. There is no template for successfully mining this genre; it’s just so durned difficult to capture lightning in a bottle. Producing exceptional creative nonfiction calls for the scholar’s research chops and the narrative flair of the professional storyteller. Success requires a good deal of talent, deep subject knowledge, expository skill, and a crackerjack editor. In sum, it comes down to a good (true) story, well told.

Writing really meaty, commercially viable creative nonfiction has much in common with crafting a bestselling novel. Sadly, nonfiction writers—many of whom are recovering academics—are driving themselves to distraction trying to wrestle their thesis, dissertation, or pet research subject into an engaging narrative, because despite years of formal education, they were never taught to tell a good story.

Tips to get you started

When writing creative nonfiction, you must fight the urge to descend into “Great Man” hagiography, dumb-down the facts, or attempt to add color to the story when the stark reality is more compelling than the gilded lily could ever be.

Key traits of the creative nonfiction genre include

  • Appropriate POV—Exercise your creativity: the author can be an objective observer, a subjective witness, or even a participant in the action. Creative nonfiction is an ideal vehicle for memoir or relating the story of an “invisible” or disenfranchised person or group.
  • Narrative style—Creative nonfiction lends itself to clear, simple, descriptive language mercifully bereft of academic jargon and erudition. The prose serves the story, rather than being an impediment to it.
  • Character development, motivation, and pacing are key elements of creative nonfiction writing. This is where the storyteller’s art comes into play.
  • Flexibility of form—No need to follow a prescriptive structural model; rather, adapt form to content. Creative nonfiction can take the form of a book, essay, journal article, blog post, etc.
  • Above all, maintainenance of authenticity—History is subjective (read my post about this here), so it follows that creative nonfiction is equally a product of the storyteller’s interpretation of the “facts.” Your truth will always be more fascinating than fiction, so keep it real.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

 

David Byrne Predicts the End of the World

19th Nervous BreakdownIn a truly depresso screed in The Guardian, Renaissance man David Byrne laments the sad state of the music industry. If free or cheap digital streaming services are allowed to become our sole source of recorded music, as Byrne predicts, “the inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

Take that, Spotify!

David seems convinced that the music industry is being co-opted and monopolized by the insidious streaming delivery services, which in turn threaten artists’ livelihood, resulting in the total collapse of Western civilization. Perhaps he’s just in the grip of that dreaded Celtic melancholia, I don’t know.

In all seriousness, I can see where he’s coming from, and I share his concern and applaud his support of a vibrant, ethical musical scene—it’s good to see a successful artist paying it forward. But I think his highly charged rhetoric is a bit too strident. (For an alternate, but equally vehement, take on the Downfall of Music Thanks to Spotify, read veteran axeman Steve Lukather’s comments here.) As much as I respect David Byrne as an artist, I find it difficult to warm up to his apocalyptic vision of a future devoid of creativity.

Same As It Ever Was

His primary concern is that while record labels are raking in profits by licensing material to Spotify (a streaming music service), they are tossing mere crumbs to their artists. Byrne cites some truly horrific figures to prove his point: “Daft Punk’s song of the summer, ‘Get Lucky,’ reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don’t have massive international summer hits?”

I’ve been a working musician without a “massive international summer hit” (or as Little Feat put it: “I did my time in that rodeo, it’s been so long and I’ve got nothin’ to show”), so I feel qualified to respond. They’ll do what they’ve always done: carry on. They’ll keep humpin’ it (and if they’re smart, they won’t quit their day jobs). Maybe they’ll “make it,” maybe they won’t. Even commercially successful artists ride a wicked bell curve—and most ultimately find themselves playing the club circuit and county fairs to pay the rent.

Such is life. If you had wanted a six-figure income and matching retirement portfolio, you should have listened to your mother and become a doctor, lawyer, day trader, or computer programmer (preferably with a top-secret clearance). You chose to be an artist. The stereotype of the “starving artist” is firmly grounded in fact and it’s nothing new. As Byrne surely knows, it’s the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was… .”

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

SpotifyAs I see it, Byrne’s argument is based on a false premise. He believes Spotify (or some other streaming music service) will evolve into an Amazon-like behemoth and become the go-to source for music, thereby nullifying the sale of CDs and other forms of paid content (“streaming looks to be the future of music consumption”). His seemingly logical conclusion is dire: “In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year.”

That’s a very big “if.” It’s the second time he’s trotted out this fatalistic prognosis (“That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income.” [emphasis mine]), and like the chorus in a song, he’ll hammer it home a couple more times before he’s through, just to be sure you got the message. But there’s a major flaw in his reasoning: clear-eyed, serious, working musicians don’t expect to make a decent living off of their airplay or CD sales alone—they gig to supplement their income, and yes, some even hold down jobs to bring home the bacon. In the Real World, you do what you’ve got to do.

Byrne’s projected omnipotence of Spotify is also questionable. Truth is, we just don’t know. The digital marketplace is an extremely volatile shape-shifting beast—today’s innovation is tomorrow’s fish wrap.

The World Keep On Turnin’

As I have said before (and will no doubt have cause to say again), we are currently engaged in the most profound cultural shift since Gutenberg gave us moveable type. Digital technology (the juju that powers the internet) is fundamentally altering the humanities—how we learn and communicate and tell our story—and that certainly includes music. As we’re now in the throes of the digital revolution, it is simply impossible to divine where this cultural metamorphosis will lead. But rest assured, in a decade’s time we’ll laugh at our crude conception of the digital possibilities back in 2013. As my friend David Diggs (musician/producer/arranger/A&R man and IT maven) quipped, “The Xerox machine was supposed to destroy the publishing industry. We all know that in reality it was the Kindle that did that.”

We needn’t fear the future; rather, we should embrace it and get involved in shaping it.

In the current climate, streaming services have supplanted radio as the primary means of showcasing new talent; they offer the kind of exposure that major label flacks could only dream about back in the day. It is now possible to tap social media to make a song go viral—or crowdsource a revolution to depose a tyrant. Pretty potent stuff. To his credit, Byrne allows that some aspiring artists and smaller indie labels view Spotify as a useful promotional tool, a way to get their music out to a broad—indeed, global—audience. That’s one helluva lot of PR for the money (i.e., free).

So remind me: How much revenue did artists accrue from radio play in the 1970s? How much did they receive in album royalties? For every Led Zeppelin, there were thousands of struggling unknown artists. Back in ’77, when Talking Heads released their first LP, very few bands could have survived on their royalties alone. And without supporting their releases with heavy touring schedules, there wouldn’t have been any royalties to worry about. Making a living playing music is a business. You need exposure to build a tribe.

So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

When vinyl was king, the record industry revolved around a sophisticated system of payola and favors (you scratch my back…). Your record label bought ad packages in the trades to insure that you got positive reviews and positioning on the charts (“with a bullet”). Then they used those metrics (and more money and favors) to strong-arm radio programmers into giving your single heavy rotation on their playlist to coincide with their marketing campaign. All of this was linked to carefully mapped-out tour dates to guarantee exposure to the right markets at the right time—it was an intricately choreographed ballet. I was working in the business end of the industry at the time and saw this firsthand.

Mick Ralphs & Me

Mick Ralphs (Bad Company) & Aden Nichols (editor-in-chief, Performance magazine), Dallas, ca. 1976

But that was the 20th-century analog business model. Today, aspiring artists can harness technology to produce high-quality digital recordings (and supporting videos) relatively inexpensively and market them via the internet—much as indie authors are learning to do.

If Spotify proves to be an unsustainable model (and I suspect it will), it won’t survive. As novel business models emerge and mature, wise musicians will align themselves with professionals to handle their management, booking, promo, and sales—folks who know how to navigate the new digital landscape. But again, we really can’t predict what the music industry will look like in a decade; we only know that it will be something we wouldn’t recognize today.

No matter what the biz evolves into, one thing is certain—there will always be a market for good music crafted by talented artists. But here’s the catch: If you’re doing your art to get rich or become famous, you will most likely fail. If, on the other hand, you’re doing it because you can’t help yourself, because you can’t even imagine not doing it, then what does it matter?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Can History Be True?

“Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Napoleon a Dit“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” This pithy maxim is generally credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who had plenty of experience manipulating the historical record. Ironically, I have not been able to satisfactorily link this quotation directly to the Little Corporal—the earliest reference I can find is Ralph Waldo Emerson citing it in his famous essay, “History” (1837).

And therein lies the rub: This dubious attribution has been repeated often enough for nearly two centuries to gain credence (a Google search returned 1,140,000 hits). And as repetition leads to consensus, consensus rationalizes validation. All the more so in the Information Age, in which an anonymous “editor” can submit material to Wikipedia, which (universal warnings notwithstanding) has become the go-to reference for Everyman. So hearsay becomes fact by default. Never mind that even if such a declaration was traceable to its original source, its meaning is contingent upon its context.

History is a malleable commodity, indeed. So much for Ranke’s objective historicism!

History is more than a series of data points

Still, the thrust of this aphorism should not be dismissed out of hand. Despite the well-meaning efforts of cliometricians and practitioners of the new social history to infuse the study of the past with the scientific certitude of Big Data and sociological methodology, history obstinately refuses to be reduced to mathematical formulæ and statistical tabulations. “The operations of life, whether private or publick admit no such laws,” counseled Samuel Johnson. “The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.”

Historical evidence takes many forms: from intimate personal correspondence to authoritative institutional documents; from anecdotal tribal traditions to carefully collected and curated oral histories; from graphic images on hillsides, standing stones, cave walls, illuminated manuscripts, and websites to sound recordings on a variety of media; and of course, there are those three-dimensional artifacts… . Each with its own hidden agenda. Collectively this body of evidence is capable of yielding some understanding of the essence of an individual subject or group at a specific moment in time, but none of its component parts are value-neutral.

The relativist would say that every scrap of evidence collected by even the most fastidious historian, regardless of provenance, is subject to interpretation—the highly subjective filter of human agency. If that is so, history will always be more art than science, a unique species of literature, or as Emerson framed it, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Whatever your philosophy, it’s hard to argue with E. H. Carr’s commonsense pronouncement: “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.” The writing of history is truly an interdisciplinary form of composition.

Putting the “human” in humanities

History is the record of an event or events instigated, experienced, related, and recorded by people. Some were lettered, others illiterate; some were eyewitnesses, others had their backs turned at the crucial moment; some were well-intentioned reporters, while others were just looking for a free beer. No social forces—be they economic, political, religious, technological, ideological, or military—can exist without the involvement of human beings; flesh and blood, gristle and bone. And the relationship is a symbiotic one: Real people, from serf to lord, are the fulcrum upon which these inanimate forces exert their powerful influence and vice-versa.

Commenting on the profound value of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Thomas Carlyle reminded us, “the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” (I trust we can forgive Carlyle his quaint chauvinism—we are all a product of our times.)

But academic history is presumed to be nonfiction (even if it falls within the genre of creative, or narrative, nonfiction), so to maintain a sense of verisimiltude it must be predicated on thorough research and data collection in as many of the evidentiary fields as possible. Clio (whom Herbert Butterfield affectionately called “that old reprobate”) must be courted with deference and respect. Yet when the research phase is complete, these cumulative facts reveal nothing in and of themselves; the past is unconcerned with the present.

A historian must weigh every word, every fragmentary artifact, and paint a convincing portrait of her subject based on the subjective selection, arrangement, and interpretation of these data. Any randomly chosen group of impeccably credentialed, conscientious scholars can analyze an identical assemblage of primary data and produce wildly divergent readings of the same historical “truth.” None are necessarily right or wrong—they just reflect different points of view, as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The problem is articulately expessed by comedian Steven Wright when he deadpans, “How do you know if it’s bad jazz?”

This is not meant to be a deconstuctionist diatribe; rather, I am suggesting that as historians, we belong to an exclusive club. We are the progeny of the bards and the shanachie—keepers of the flame. We are the storytellers…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Elusive J.J. Cale

J.J. Cale - Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

J.J. Cale – Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

Last week we lost a true American original.

A rare talent who never sought fame (though he never shunned fortune), J.J. Cale was the pure manifestation of “laid back.” While on tour opening for Traffic, he reportedly told Shelter Records exec Denny Cordell, “Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.”

His rootsy blending of country and blues with a dash of rockabilly and a leavening of jazz yielded a new genre dubbed the “Tulsa Sound.” Of course he would never have taken credit for such a thing—he often said, “I’m just a songwriter and guitarist.” Yet Cale influenced and was hugely respected by many famous musicians, most notably Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally” is a virtual paean to Cale’s influence on Clapton’s evolving sound). When the iconic rock star was asked, “What living person do you most admire?” he responded without hesitation, “J.J. Cale.”

Cale was a master of understatement, indisputably proving that less is more. In a world rife with self-indulgent musical excess—overproduction, synthesizers, and digital sleight of hand—J.J. Cale penned and delivered tunes of bald-faced honesty, simplicity, and authenticity. All he really needed was a good axe, a Fender Champ, a few veteran session men, and a vintage Airstream—he was “Travelin’ Light.”

He was also a consummate craftsman; Cale always knew exactly what kind of groove he wanted a tune to have, and when he heard it, he quit messing with it. His recordings have a raw quality that sounds like they were cut in a single take—which is not far from the truth. Often, when a soloist would urge, “Let’s do that again, I can do better,” Cale would drawl, “No you can’t. That’s it, we’re done.” Spartan arrangements and his sleepy, breathy delivery drew you in and made you listen a bit more closely to his introspective story-songs. This was no accident, Cale was indeed a troubadour and he knew what he was about: “Let’s keep it simple so people can understand it.” Every word was carefully chosen, every note had its place. No fat, no fluff—just lean. How’d he do that?

While I was at the helm of Performance magazine (a trade pub for the touring talent industry), Cale was launching a rare tour in support of his definitive “Troubadour” album (featuring his anthem, “Cocaine,” which emerged as a signature hit for Clapton a year later). Since he was famous for being not famous, I opted to run a full-page head shot on the cover with the bold slug, “The Elusive J.J. Cale” (he would not have a photo of himself on the front cover of an album for another seven years).

But as luck would have it, his near-legendary anonymity was safe. The printers somehow managed to overlook stripping in the photo, so the cover was entirely blank save that not-so-revealing caption. Cale’s management thought we’d done it on purpose and approved! When I had the opportunity to explain what had actually happened to J.J., he cracked up. That suited him just fine, he said…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Typography: Best Practices

type catalogReadability is—or certainly should be—a major consideration for web designers, and readability is predicated on good typography. Even though content editors aren’t designers per se, they are often called upon to collaborate closely with designers and/or to critique websites for overall usability. In smaller operations, they may assume some or all of the layout tasks. So it’s a good idea for web editors to develop a working knowledge of basic web design and the role of typography in great design and readability/usability.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Smashing magazine conducted its first survey of web typography back in 2009. Advances in responsive design, evolving browsing habits, and the explosion of mobile devices with a plethora of form factors led the editors to revisit the project.

The updated survey was recently published as “Typographic Design Patterns and Current Practices (2013).” It’s detailed content is worthy of your consideration, but I’ll share some of the highlights to give you an idea of what they found:

  • Serif fonts have eclipsed sans serif families in popularity for headlines as well as body copy (though it’s apparently still considered acceptable to combine the two for emphasis or contrast between titles, subheads, body copy, sidebars, etc.).
  • The most commonly employed headline fonts are Georgia, Arial, and Chapparal Pro (but the majority of websites surveyed still incorporate lesser-known fonts to some extent).
  • The most common body copy fonts—no surprises here—are Georgia, Arial, and Helvetica (poor old Times Roman has been put out to pasture).
  • Headline font sizes typically range from 29 to 32 pixels.
  • Body copy font sizes flucuate between 14 and 16 pixels.
  • Characters per line average from 75 to 90 (though 55 to 75 is actually more optimal).
  • Body text is pretty universally set on a left alignment, hyphenation is verboten, and links are predictably underscored and/or highlighted with bold face or a bright or contrasting color (occasionally only on hover).

Content marketing editor Tom Mangan registers his frustration with the “roll yer own” approach to digital typography that yields control to the end-user: “What drives me crazy is that font usage is more of a suggestion than a command. Every browser displays it differently and [an] individual user can override my type choices.”

There was also a lacuna in the article: it doesn’t even mention the concept of negative space in relation to type. Mangan opines, “I would bet the true keys to legibility lie in character and line spacing—if you get that right, it should stay that way (pretty much) no matter which font the user is actually using.”

The judicious application of white space is near and dear to the hearts of all graphic designers, since text and negative space are really just opposite sides of the same coin—and both are graphic elements. I was taught to view white space as the yin to text’s yang; the two engage in a sort of graphic dance, each bringing out the best in the other. Marcella Drula-Johnston, head honcho of the Spectrum Creative design atelier in Fairfax, Virginia, wistfully intones, “White space seems almost neglected these days. Andi [her associate] and I have both noticed the lack of thought or intent regarding kerning or tracking in most contemporary design as well.”

But the lack of respect for good typography and the appropriate use of “text-free zones” predates the Internet. As a young in-house editor for Petersen Publishing (Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo, and many other newsstand titans), I was sworn to embrace Pete Petersen’s dictum, “If God had wanted there to be white space, He wouldn’t have created type!”

Oh, dear…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 6/4/13

Mary Rose cutaway

Mary Rose Museum“Britain’s Pompeii”: Looking like the love child of an old sailing ship and a flying saucer, the Mary Rose Museum made its debut in Portsmouth last Friday. The unique facility houses an equally unique historical artifact: the hull of the ill-fated Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet. The ship sunk under mysterious circumstances during an engagement with an invading French armada in The Solent in 1545.

maryrosedogA veritable Tudor time capsule, the Mary Rose offered up a wealth of amazingly well-preserved artifacts. The treasure trove comprises clothing, personal items, longbows and arrows, musical instruments (including the only extant example of a still shawm, a medieval ancestor of the oboe—you can listen to a sound clip here), the master carpenter’s and barber-surgeon’s sea chests (with a full complement of the tools of their trades)—even the skeleton of the ship’s dog (a whippet-terrier cross) and one of the rats he no doubt terrorized.

Remains of nearly half of the 400-man crew (all but 35 went down with the ship) were recovered, 97 of which were near-complete skeletons. Of these, seven were selected to serve as models for facial reconstruction, utilizing techniques employed by criminal forensic artists (view a fascinating video of the process here). Tentative occupational identifications were determined by location of the remains (see diagram above) and forensic analysis of the bones.

Wikipedia has a very thorough entry covering the ship itself as well as the recovery operations. Finally, you should take the time to watch this 45-minute documentary, “Ghosts of the Mary Rose”; it offers a new and highly plausible hypothesis for the ship’s untimely demise:

Rockin’ the cosmos: I recently profiled a fella who made music in outer space; this week I’ll introduce you to some folks who make music from space itself. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a grad student performing an internship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She’s working on a project that uses a process called sonification to translate data drawn from X-rays emitted by the EX Hydrae star system into sound patterns. The researcher can manipulate pitch, volume, and rhythm to produce something akin to music.

One day a colleague, Gerhard Sonnert—who also happens to be a bass player—noticed that the sound patterns Diaz-Merced was generating were reminiscent of a common Afro-Cuban rhythm called a clave. Enlisting the aid of his cousin, Volkmar Studtrucker (a professional composer), the pair wrangled the cosmic waves into musical compositions in a variety of genres. They’ve even released an album: “X-Ray Hydra.” Now that’s what I call avant-garde!

Network mad as hell“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoot & Leaves fame) advocates a subversive “no tolerance” approach to punctuation errors in signage—she’s even depicted in her author’s portrait poised before an offending sign with marker in hand and a mischievous grin plastered across her mug. But balaclavas notwithstanding, one would hope Truss didn’t intend to encourage “grammar terrorists” like Leonard Burdek.

Borrowing a dash of indignation from Howard Beale in the movie Network, Burdek waltzed into the reception area of the State of Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and declared that he had intended to blow up the sign outside because it was missing the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘and.’ To reinforce his point, he then sat a pressure cooker with wires hanging out of it on the counter.

Burdek claimed his home-brewed bomb misfired because there were so many grammatical errors in the online instructions he had trouble deciphering them. This decline in literacy should concern the organization responsible for certifying teachers, the mad bomber allegedly informed the shocked receptionist and her boss. He beat a hasty retreat when they dialed 911, but was soon arrested without incident (hey, he’s a grammar geek, not the Boston Marathon wingnuts). The “explosive device” was found to be fake and the whole affair a stunt to get attention and make a point. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Technology + words = art! I’d like to wrap up by calling your attention to a wonderful photographic study of the evolution of the typewriter by Vincze Mi Klós. Beginning with the first patent for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” in 1714, the portfolio continues on through the electronic Brother WP-1 in the mid-1980s. Would you believe that the first electric typewriter made its appearance in 1870? Steampunk aficionados, prepare to drool!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/25/13

things come apartTechnology and culture embodied in art: Since we’ve still got a few days of Bike Month left, I thought I’d share some velo-centric goodness with y’all. To kick things off, get a load of photographer Todd McLellan’s wild photo of a dissected vintage road bike. This image, taken from the artist’s “Disassembly Series,” is just one of many quotidian items rendered as objets d’art that McLellan says, “have, are, or will be in our everyday lives.” The complete study is now available as a coffee table book called Things Come Apart.

Bike helmets work! Well, there’s a shock. I’ve addressed this issue before, and I’m gobsmacked that it takes a well-funded scientific study to conclude that you’ll protect your eggshell-like brain bucket by wearing a helmet. I’m equally appalled when I see a cyclist riding sans helmet—a transgression occasionally compounded by a helmet dangling from the handlebars. D’oh!

Some folks believe that commuting by bike is dangerous and are petrified of experiencing a Close Encounter of the Automobile Kind, but that seemingly rational fear has been proven fallacious. Still, when New York City announced its plan to launch a bike-share program, skeptics insisted that it would be unsafe, due to the automotive congestion (and the notorious recklessness of the cabbies of Gotham).

Mayor Bloomberg caved, so while it is apparently perfectly sensible to legislate the volume of sugary drinks New Yorkers can consume to protect them from diabetes, protecting his constituents’ heads from brain damage would be compromising their personal freedom. Go figure.

A recent piece on NPR reinforced the conclusion that cycle vs. automobile collisions are rare, but cycling crashes (with other bikes, pedestrians, or potholes) are in fact quite common. In any case, a helmet will protect your noggin. It’s just—sorry—a no-brainer. And counterintuitively, the report concludes, “the more people bike, the safer it may become.” Just wear yer dang helmet, people…

Silent spring of (18)62: You might think we’ve pretty much squeezed all the life out of the Civil War, but as Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln revealed, there are always new perspectives to be illuminated. As a Civil War historian myself, I was fascinated to learn that two academics have discovered another way to put old wine in new bottles. Timothy Silver and Judkin Browning, professors at Appalachian State University, received a $100,000 research fellowship to co-author an environmental history of the Late Unpleasantness.

The peripatetic migration of men and animals during the war years was largely contingent upon weather patterns, and the environmental impact of those movements on the local populace and the nation-at-large has yet to be the subject of academic scrutiny. For example, Silver believes that weather, rather than strategy or tactics, resulted in the termination of McClellan’s “On to Richmond” campaign. The environmental historian speculates, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation,” and therefore, no fodder for another Spielberg epic. Interesting theory, but there are a couple of pretty big “ifs” in there.

HhHH cvrMetonymic magic: “me·ton·y·my (noun) : a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.” So says Merriam-Webster. While the media is all atwitter with the announcement of the billion-dollar deal involving the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo! (who concocts these silly names?), I was, perversely perhaps, more entertained by James Fallows’s treatise on this obscure linguistic construct.

Fallows shares his readers’ comments regarding the subtleties that escaped elucidation in the dictionary definition. There are some colorful examples given to illustrate the point, my favorite being, “Calling [Karl] Rove ‘Turd Blossom’ is metaphor – he’s not actually a flower. Calling him ‘the Brain’ or ‘Bush’s Brain’ is metonymy – he is famous for his use of his brain.” To put a finer point on it, I suspect this particular metonym was a play on the German epithet, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (abbreviated as “HHhH”), which translates to: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful novel by the same name—check it out).

This may seem like so much pedantry to the average reader, but you’re not “average,” are you? Language matters. The proper use of our rather rich language is what separates the men from the boys in the world of intelligent, clear messaging (it’s just a figure of speech, so please don’t label me a “sexist pig”—that would be a metaphor, not a metonym).

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.