paper trail

Amiri Baraka (1934–2014); big data on crowd-testing fiction; strange coalitions among writers in Cairo

Amiri Baraka

The provocative, award-winning poet, playwright, and political activist Amiri Baraka has died. Born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, he grew up in New Jersey and later became the state’s second poet laureate. In his long and eventful life, he was associated with the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, though he eventually broke with them both. He wrote beautifully about the blues and jazz and caused considerable controversy with his poem about 9/11, titled “Somebody Blew Up America.” He was 79 and had recently been suffering from an unknown illness.

Is crowd-testing fiction on the agenda for big data’s future? “There is an art (well, maybe a craft) to successful genre publishing, and much of it has been rooted in the intuition of editors and publishers about what readers want,” writes Salon’s Laura Miller. “New e-book subscription services like Oyster and Scribd...are well-suited to such readers. You can’t get The Goldfinch or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries...but you can gorge on a seemingly infinite array of erotic romances patterned after 50 Shades of Grey, many of them self-published by writers who are eager both to know what readers want and to give it to them.”

Ursula Lindsey of The Arabist reports on a chorus of uncomfortable questions in Cairo: Why is Sonallah Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s most respected avant-garde writers, defending police brutality? Why is Alaa al-Aswany, the best-selling novelist, siding with an army that has turned on its own people?

The Morning News has announced its tenth annual “tournament of books,” in which critics ranging from novelist Jami Attenberg to lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle will judge competitions between 16 finalists.

Adam Kirsch reviews Claudia Roth Pierpont's book about Philip Roth, who still hasn’t won the Nobel Prize but has seen his reputation shift “from bete noire to laureate.” She accepts his argument that "that to portray individual Jews as absurd or flawed ... does not constitute stereotyping a whole group": "He noted that people read Anna Karenina without concluding that adultery was a Russian trait; Madame Bovary did not lead readers to condemn the morals of French provincial women en masse. He was writing literature, not sociology or—Bellow’s helpful phrase—public relations.”

In a very short period of time, the TED talk has become almost disturbingly familiar as a cultural form. Now the backlash begins, as one writer calls it a recipe for civilizational disaster.