Friday, January 22, 2010


The first quiz of the quarter indicates that my survey students nearly all studied and paid attention in class, although of course not to an equal degree. That's not to say they scored remarkably well, but it was clear that most of them had a pretty good grip on things even if many people got the Annunciation confused with the Visitation and that sort of thing.
I'm afraid, however, that most of them do not know much geography, despite my showing maps and pointing out where things are. This was glaringly obvious in the two most geographically oriented questions.
It was not so terrible in the case of the question of which Tuscan city-state, rival to Florence, was the home of the painter Duccio. While few people correctly filled in Siena, most of the answers were Italy-related: Venice, Rome, Assisi, Pisa, and Milan were popular choices. Not correct, but not bizarre. The answers Italy and Tuscany were more strange, indicating that those people weren't clear on the concept of a city-state versus a country or region. When I saw "Vienna" and "Bohemia," however, I was perturbed.
I suppose it was stupid of me to include a question (hey, I got these from the textbook publisher, and I tried to pick questions I thought my students could reasonably answer) that involved filling in the capital of Bohemia, home of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. But I was thinking that we did cover art from Bohemia, and that Prague is a famous city.
Well, I did give half credit to the person who put Karlštejn, because we examined the chapel and paintings there and it's just south of Prague. But nearly the whole class gave answers that included Constantinople, Dijon, "Broche" (I think this was a misspelling of Bruges), Cannes, Florence, Tuscany, Paris, "Crucia" (?), Avignon, and finally the Czech Republic.
This kind of thing makes me think I need to give map quizzes like we used to have in my 7th-grade geography class. The problem with that idea is that if they don't know where modern cities and countries are, it doesn't seem wise to confuse the issue too much with placement of the likes of Burgundy (capital: Dijon) and the Holy Roman Empire. I mean, I'll be content if they have a reasonable notion of these things and stop saying Paris and Constantinople were the capital of Bohemia.
It kind of reminds me of Neville Chamberlain's infamous 1938 remark about Czechoslovakia being a faraway land about which we know little.
On the plus side, most of my students seem clear on flying buttresses, rose windows, the purpose of the Palazzo Vecchia, and the fact that lead is used to hold stained glass windows together. This makes me happy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Off to a Good Start

Since a significant number of my students are art majors rather than art history, I'm trying to give some assignments that aren't purely writing-oriented. This quarter I'm trying one that looks very promising--the survey students (learning about Gothic to 1850) are designing cathedrals and a mosque. (We aren't covering Islamic art this quarter, but we did last quarter, and I didn't want the assignment to force them into a specific religious outlook.)
How does it work? Well, without going into too much detail, they're in groups of 3-5 (mostly 4) and have a combination of group and individual things to turn in. Each group was instructed to choose a style and period, a geographic location, and various other details. The groups have just turned in their preliminary proposals, which are subject to change and development, and these are pretty exciting. The majority are Gothic, since that's what we've covered in class thus far, but other periods have also been chosen--one Renaissance, three Baroque, and a Mughal mosque.
French Gothic "The outer layer will be in stone + many rose windows with stained glass to accompany it. The structure will be airy + will have a high Gothic vaulting system..."

French Gothic "Stone cathedral. Started 1185. Finished 1230. 130 ft tall. Not a pilgrimage church. At least 2 rose windows. Holds approx. 3,000-4,000."

"13th century Paris. We're going to focus on the Virgin Mary for all our interior design. Our church will feature many rose windows + an ornate alterpiece."

Italian Gothic "It isn't a pilgrimage church. The patron saint is undecided still. Saint Clare or Saint Francis are our options."

Late Gothic in Monaco "The church... has both French and Italian influences throughout its exterior and interior design due to its geographic location... There will be usage of flying buttresses and other common gothic elements..."

"13th-14th century Italian Gothic. This cathedral takes its inspirations from the Siena's Duomo. Since the Duomo was the highlight of construction around this time and was looking close to impossible to finish, some of Nicola Pisano's favorite workers moved on to smaller projects... In the design marble would be throughout. The cathedral would feel more open when walking through its structure. The façade would mimick some ideas of other cathedrals in the area. Silver and mosaics would be abundant."

Renaissance (this may need to change due to England and Ireland's particular versions for the Renaissance) "It will be in honor of St. Patrick who converted the Celts to Catholicism... This cathedral will house some relics from Saints and pieces of the original cross as well."

"The location of our cathedral is the city of Genoa, Italy. It is dedicated to St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)... It will be primarily in the baroque style, but as Genoa is a significant port city it may draw elements from other styles..."

A German baroque cathedral is also in the works.

Mosque in India "The main structure constructed entirely of marble sits upon a high plinth that can be reached from walk ways from the North, South, and West each leading to the three iwan, arch-shaped doorways... Four minarets frame the outer walls, one at each corner of the plinth... There is a fountain in the center of garden courtyard with paths leading to the Main dome area which begins just past the North-South axis..."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Publishing Industry Still Mostly Going to Hell

I've mostly been prepping courses over the last few weeks, although I wouldn't say that that was always where my mind was. But I don't think anyone really wants to hear more about course prep right now. (I'm not wrong about that, am I?) So instead I'd like to post portions of an interesting blog post on the publishing industry, which may not surprise or shock some of the writers of my acquaintance, but might disturb the rest of you.
Martin Shepard of Permanent Press, who blogs about books and publishing at The Cockeyed Pessimist, opens with some background from André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, which was published in 2000--ten years ago, which is to say that the events and trends Schiffrin described ought to be old news but unfortunately are not. As Shepard summarizes,
publishing changed, from the mid fifties when a plethora of small but prestigious houses that valued ideas and content as much as profit were transformed into five behemoths that by 2000 wound up sharing 80% of the market. The early acquisitions started innocently enough when the founders aged, fell ill, or died, as when Bennett Cerf at Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf in 1960 because of Knopf’s deteriorating health. With that merger, Random House did not even control 1% of the market. Nor was it very different when, a year later, Cerf acquired Pantheon, after Andre’s father—a co-founder of Pantheon—passed away and the other partners fell into disagreements. By then André was asked to join this growing conglomerate and, for the next 30 years, as a corporate insider, witnessed the changes.

In other words, the publishing world that people my age and older grew up with began to change in the 1960s, but few observers would have noticed that this was a trend until the 1970s or even the early 1980s.
More amalgamations followed which were then swallowed by even larger media corporations. Random House, taken over by RCA in 1965, was later sold to Si Newhouse, who demanded an increase in sales and circulation by appealing to a wider, more common audience. Newhouse arranged for Random House to pay Nancy Reagan a three million dollar advance for her memoir.

Why anyone in their right mind would want to read a ghost-written memoir by Nancy Reagan is beyond me, but this sort of celebrity book became more and more common, losing publishers millions of dollars since many of these books never earned enough to pay for their huge advances. Many authors, meanwhile, were getting advances in the low thousands (not millions) if they got advances at all. But people like Newhouse figured that the answer was to get even more celebrity titles, while (contradictorily) insisting that every book published should earn back its advance. (Here I could discourse on some of the ways bookstore chains and the Thor Power Tools court decision about warehousing inventory ensured that books would have trouble earning back advances, but that's another, though related, story.)
Random House was not, of course, the only house in pursuit of celebrities.

By 2000 Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, having purchased HarperCollins in 1987, went the same route. Commercial books were linked to Murdoch’s entertainment holdings and his conservative political beliefs. Harpers changed when the new non fiction lists, written by the likes of Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, and other figures who shared Murdoch’s conservative political beliefs, made their appearance.

Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, grew increasingly entertainment-industry driven when it was acquired by Viacom, owned by Paramount pictures. As Shepard observes,
By then the publishing world had largely rid itself of literary people from its golden age and replaced them with business men. Mass culture replaced literature and profit was paramount. Now every title was expected to make a significant contribution to both corporate overhead, profit, and growth leading everyone to seek the same “successful titles.”

Schiffrin said that by 2000, these corporate publishers had pretty much decided that if they couldn’t see themselves selling a base of 20,000 copies, it did not pay for them to take on a book. As he pointed out, when Pantheon introduced Franz Kafka to American audiences, it had a first printing of only 800 copies. As for Bertolt Brecht’s first work, only 600 copies were sold. In today’s market place, neither of these renowned writers would ever have seen the light of day in America.

Let's keep in mind that last time I was keeping close track of the industry, which was some years ago, first print runs for many books were in the 2000-5000 copy range. 600-800 was not usually regarded as cost-effective; 20,000 was pretty close to best-seller status.
Shepard notes that by 2009, publishers were not just acquiring celebrity books but had begun to devote entire imprints to popular culture, and quotes a HarperCollins press release:
HarperCollinsPublishers, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world, today announced the launch of It Books, a new popular culture imprint dedicated to entertainment, music, fashion, design, and sports. [...] "It Books will be a new way for us to reach readers like us--people with an endless appetite for pop culture, who live for music and film and art and fashion and the Internet," said Carrie Kania. "An It book should be fun. It should be interesting. It should be cool. It should look great."

Now, I'm not personally opposed to coverage of popular culture. I think it has its place, and moreover that interesting and intelligent things can be said about it. But I don't think it ought to take over the publishing world. Furthermore, I find the title of the HarperCollins imprint pretty funny. "So-and-So is an It," we used to say scathingly when I was in sixth grade. This was not so much intended as a gender comment as a suggestion that the person wasn't even animate. It's true that back in the 1920s, "It" referred to sex appeal, and Clara Bow was the "It" Girl, but I doubt many people will make that connection.
Well, Janet Maslin's first review of an It Book has prompted Martin Shepard to create The Donkey Awards, to be given critics for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book,” and the call is out for nominations (Maslin's review is the first nominee).
Novels of any sort are reviewed less and less often (we knew that, didn't we?), and especially literary novels, and most especially those from small presses that don't have the money to advertise in The New York Times. Shepard points out that you can spend $45,000 for a full-page color ad there--assuming, of course, that you have that kind of money to throw around, which most publishers focusing on literature (rather than pop culture and journalistic nonfiction) don't.
I like Shepard's comparison of the book reviews in The New York Times with the same paper's restaurant reviews. He says that while Culture Desk editor Jon Landman asserts they seek a balance between "popular" and more serious books,
so far this has not been in evidence. In their restaurant reviews, the Times covers the good ones—large as well as small. When it comes to cooking as an art form, their reviewers appreciate good taste. If they decided it was more important to cover the most popular eateries in this country, good taste would go out the window and they would be writing about Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box and IHOP.

You can read Shepard's full post at The Donkey Awards.