How the rise of veganism may tenderise fictional language



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A cheesy book.
Igor Normann/Shutterstock

Shareena Z. Hamzah, Swansea University

For countless generations, meat has been considered the single most important component of any meal. But meat is more than just a form of sustenance, it is the very king of all foods. It’s a source of societal power.

Historically, the resources required to obtain meat meant it was mainly the preserve of the upper classes, while the peasantry subsisted on a mostly vegetarian diet. As a result, the consumption of meat was associated with dominant power structures in society, its absence from the plate indicating disadvantaged groups, such as women and the poor. To control the supply of meat was to control the people.

In fiction, meat has long had a powerful role, too. As Jeanette Winterson, food writer and author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry, says, “Food, like language, is a basic everyday necessity. We need to communicate. We need to eat.”

It is not surprising that food metaphors, often meat-based, infuse our daily speech. There is invariably a gastronomically themed way of expressing almost any situation. Having money troubles? Then your goose is cooked if you don’t bring home the bacon.

Winterson – who sparked internet outrage a few years ago by catching and cooking a rabbit – is noted for her meaty metaphors. She uses meat as an important and recurring presence in her fiction. In her novel The Passion, the production, distribution, and consumption of meat symbolises the unequal forces at large in the Napoleonic era. The main female character, Villanelle, sells herself to Russian soldiers in order to have some of their scarce and valuable supply of meat. The female body is just another type of meat for these men and carnivorous desire leads to carnal pleasure. In contrast, Napoleon’s obsession with devouring meat symbolises his desire to conquer the world.

Time to devour a new edition.
Lapina/Shutterstock

Of course, Winterson is not the only writer who has shown in fiction that meat has meaning beyond its nutritional value. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf describes a beef stew that takes three days to make. This meal dominates the domestic setting and requires much effort from the cook, Matilda. When it is finally ready for the table, the hostess Mrs Ramsay’s first thought is she “must take great care … to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.” Despite all the female labour poured into the dish, the patriarchal mindset of the early 20th century is so powerfully ingrained that a man’s right to eat the best meat is unquestioned. Woolf may not be writing about an emperor conquering most of Europe, but the message is the same as Winterson’s: meat is power, meat is for men.

Out of the frying pan

In today’s reality, meat is repeatedly the subject of much socially and politically charged discussion, including about how the demand for meat is contributing to climate change and environmental degradation. Studies have indicated the negative effects of meat-eating on the human body. When concerns about animal welfare are added to the broth, the growth of vegetarianism and veganism threatens to dethrone meat from its position at the top of the food hierarchy.

Given that fiction often reflects on real world events and societal issues, it may very well be that down the line powerful meat metaphors are eschewed. While its unlikely we’ll start saying that someone has been overlooked like “chopped cabbage”, some shift in language is inevitable.

The increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through our consciousness to produce new modes of expression – after all, there’s more than one way to peel a potato. At the same time, metaphors involving meat could gain an increased intensity if the killing of animals for food becomes less socially acceptable. The image of “killing two birds with one stone” is, if anything, made more powerful by the animal-friendly alternative of “feeding two birds with one scone”. If veganism forces us to confront the realities of food’s origins, then this increased awareness will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and our literature.

However, that is not to say that meaty descriptions will be done away with immediately – after all, it can take language a long time to change. And who is to say that even those who choose a vegan or vegetarian diet even want to do away with the meaty descriptions? It is interesting to note that a range of vegetarian burgers have been made to “bleed” like real meat. Although the animal components of such foods are substituted, attempts are made to replicate the carnivorous experience. Beetroot blood suggests the symbolic power of meat may well carry into the age of veganism, in which case the idea of meat as power will also remain in literature for some time to come.The Conversation

Shareena Z. Hamzah, Postdoctoral Researcher, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Gerald Murnane’s Prime Minister’s Literary award is long overdue



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Gerald Murnane has long been recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers.
Ben Denham

Anthony Uhlmann, Western Sydney University

I first came to Border Districts through a brief description of it given to me by Gerald Murnane when I first met him three years ago. I thought he had told me that he did not think it was as complex as another work he wrote around the same time, A Million Windows.

I clearly misunderstood the insight Murnane was offering into this book, which he also claimed would be his last. The more I read and reflect on Border Districts, the more profound and difficult it becomes.

Murnane, who has long been recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers, has also long been neglected. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award is the first major award a book of his has received. The recognition is long overdue and just in time. It shows that there is still a place in Australian life for works of art that challenge us to think; that unapologetically ask us to think about what things, the things we live among and perceive, mean.

The novel is situated within a framing setting much like present day Goroke in the border districts of Victoria and South Australia where Murnane now lives. Within this frame, the narrator moves between scenes of a remembered life, using motifs and images to draw these fragments together.

In Border Districts, the narrator claims that the work he is writing is not a work of fiction; rather it is “a report of actual events and no sort of work of fiction”.

He continues:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

What comprise actual events, however, are the images that occur within the mind of the writer. In the passage just cited the narrator is imagining what it might be like to be within the mind of a long dead maiden “aunt” or cousin of a friend at whose house he stays when visiting the capital city of his state.

He imagines he might be sleeping in the room she slept in. He knows certain things about her, most tellingly, that she was being courted by a young man who went to fight in world war one and never returned. He pictures her associating images that concern a narrative of a possible life she might have led if her suitor had not died, if she had instead married him and moved with him to a farming district to work for a landowner.

The story he imagines would, in anyone else’s terminology, be called a fictional story, and yet the narrator insists that all of these image-events are actual. The heart of the matter is the feeling of understanding, or meaning, that is given to the reader. The narrator questions whether “feeling” is adequate to this process, and so uses the word “essence”.

Fragments into patterns

The narrator of Border Districts speaks of the images with which meaning is created as fragments that are drawn together as a kaleidoscope draws together its fragments of colour.

The narrator sees his mind as drawing together these fragments into patterns, which then become meaningful to him, and this includes beliefs that once gave his life meaning, which he no longer believes in:

He might have begun to understand that even the images that he claimed no longer to believe in — even these were necessary for his salvation, even if they were not more than evidence of his need for saving imagery.

“Saving imagery” might mean “imagery that relates to salvation” or it might mean “imagery that is preserved”.

While unfashionable to do so, then, Murnane charges fiction with a heavy responsibility and claims immense value for it. Fiction needs to preserve or guard images that give our lives a sense of meaning.The Conversation

Anthony Uhlmann, Director, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction


The links below are to articles reporting on the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, including the shortlist and winner. The chronology of articles runs from top to bottom.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/sep/26/novel-senses-of-new-the-2018-goldsmiths-prize-for-fiction-shortlist
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/14/robin-robertson-wins-goldsmiths-prize-innovative-fiction-long-take
https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-prize/

What big data can tell us about how a book becomes a best-seller



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Factors ranging from the timing of a book’s release to its subject matter can determine whether it will crack the vaunted list.
Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com

Albert-László Barabási, Northeastern University

The average American reads 12 or 13 books a year, but with over 3 million books in print, the choices they face are staggering.

Despite the introduction of 100,000 new titles each year, only a tiny fraction of these attract a large enough readership to make The New York Times best-seller list.

Which raises the questions: How does a book become a best-seller, and which types of books are more likely to make the list?

I’m a data scientist. Recently, with help of Burcu Yucesoy, a postdoc in my lab, I put the reading habits of Americans under our data microscope.

We did so by analyzing the sales patterns of the 2,468 fiction and 2,025 nonfiction titles that made The New York Times best-seller list for hardcovers during the last decade.

Real lives, imaginary action

The first thing the data reminded me is just how few books in my favorite category, science, become best-sellers – a paltry 1.1 percent. Science books compete for a spot on the nonfiction list with everything from business to history, sports to religion.

Yet, on the whole, hardcovers in these categories don’t fly off the shelves, either.

Which nonfiction titles do? Memoir and biographies, with almost half of the 2,025 nonfiction best-sellers falling into this category.

Then we examined the fiction list. Much of the press focuses on literary fiction – books we see debated by critics, lauded as important and culturally relevant, and eventually taught in schools.

But in the past decade, only 800 books categorized as literary fiction made the best-seller list. Most best-sellers – 67 percent of all fiction titles – represent plot-driven genres like mystery or romance or the kind of thrillers that Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler write.

Action sells – there’s no surprise there.

But it was unexpected the degree to which only a handful of authors repeatedly appear: Eight-five percent of best-selling novelists have landed multiple books on the list. Mystery and thriller novelist James Patterson, for example, had 51 books on the best-seller list in the period we explored.

James Patterson has sold over 100 million copies of his book, grossing more than US$1 billion in sales.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

By contrast, only 14 percent of nonfiction authors had more than one best-selling book. Perhaps this is because the genre often requires expertise on a specific subject matter. If an author primarily writes about football, or neuroscience, or even her own life, it’s difficult to generate 10 books on the topic.

A universal sales curve

Publishers eagerly slap “New York Times Bestseller” stickers on each book that appears on the list’s 15 slots.

A quarter of those, however, have only a cameo appearance, briefly grabbing a spot at the bottom of the list and dropping out after a single week. Only 37 percent have some staying power and spend more than four weeks on the best-seller list. Even fewer – 8 percent – attain the number one spot.

Some rare exceptions can lease out a spot for years: “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett lingered on the fiction list for an astonishing 131 weeks, while Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” stayed on the nonfiction list for a record 203 weeks.

One big misconception is that you have to write a mega-seller to make the list. The majority of titles on The New York Times best-seller list only sell between 10,000 and 100,000 copies in their first year. “The Slippery Year,” a 2009 memoir by Melanie Gideon, made the list with a yearly sale of fewer than 5,000 copies.

How is this possible?

Our data set shows that just about your only chance of making the list is right after your publication date.

That’s because book sales, we discovered, follow a universal sales curve – there’s a single mathematical formula that captures the weekly sales of all books. And that sales curve has a prominent peak right after the release, meaning you sell the most copies during the first weeks after your book’s release. Fiction sales almost always peak within the first two to six weeks; for nonfiction, the peak can come any time during the first 15 weeks.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/A6uG3/1/

While you might assume that there would be overlooked books that build their audiences slowly and eventually make it onto the hallowed list, there really aren’t.

It’s all about the timing

In other words, what happens during a brief window of time can foretell a book’s success.

For this reason, the timing of the release matters a great deal, especially since the threshold to reach the list varies throughout the year.

In February or March, selling a few thousand copies can land a book on the best-seller list; in December – when sales skyrocket during the holidays – selling 10,000 copies a week might not guarantee a book a spot.

So when should authors publish?

It depends on their circumstances. If they lack a strong fan base, and their hope is to simply make it onto the best-seller list, it’s best to aim for February or March.

At the same time, appearing on The New York Times best-seller list doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a book will sell more copies. Research shows that appearing on the list tends to boost sales only for unknown authors, and the effect disappears after one to three weeks.

So for well-known authors or celebrities who already have built-in fan bases, appearing on the best-seller list might not matter as much. Instead, they’ll likely want to maximize sales – in which case, it’s best to publish in late October: The release will coincide with peak sales in December, when bookstores are packed with Christmas shoppers.

The good news is that if you’re like me – and have written several books that didn’t end up as best-sellers – you still have a chance to break through: Our analysis shows that only 14 percent of novelists made the list with their first book.The Conversation

Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science, Northeastern University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.