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Literature/Language

Justin Young and Brian Bushwood, of the NSFWshow podcast, were intrigued by the success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. They were particularly impressed with how many books were selling well for no other reason, apparently, than that they looked Fifty Shades of Grey. So they decided to conduct an experiment — to find out whether an ebook could succeed simply by resembling Fifty Shades of Grey.

They came up with a title for their novel, The Diamond Club. They also sketched out a rough outline of a plot:

When Brianna Young discovers that Roman Dyle, the man she built a relationship and a multi–million dollar company with, has gotten married to another woman behind her back, she embarks on a journey to realize her dreams of professional and sexual revenge for everything she had endured at the hands of Roman.Brianna seeks her romance from The Diamond Club, an exotic gathering of the Bay Area's most attractive and interesting people, from angel investors and airline pilots to world–famous chefs and dubstep artists.

They singled out three qualities their novel would need to succeed:
  1. a cover that looked like 50 shades of grey
  2. lots and lots of sex
  3. characters with trendy jobs.
They attributed their novel to a fictitious author, Patricia Harkins-Bradley. But they enlisted the help of their readers to do the actual writing. In this way, none of the authors had read the entire book, and there was little cohesion between chapters. So they could guarantee that the novel wouldn't gain readers on the basis of its great writing.

Finally, and this was a key part of the experiment, they asked all their listeners to buy the book, priced at an affordable 99 cents, in order to push the book into the top 10% at iTunes. Their theory was that once the book broke into the top 10%, momentum would take over, and people (who weren't listeners of their podcast) would buy the book simply because other people were buying it.


It looks like their experiment has succeeded. The book has been hovering around in iTunes Top 10 List. It's also available for the nook and kindle. Reportedly, it's already earned Young and Bushwood close to $20,000.

Similar literary experiments have been conducted before. Back in 1968, Mike McGrady and his friends at Newsday first proved that a crowdsourced book could become a bestseller with their sex-filled novel, Naked Came the Stranger.

And even earlier, in 1956, deejay Jean Shepherd and his listeners proved that publicity alone could create demand for a (non-existent) book — I, Libertine.
Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Fri Aug 10, 2012
Comments (1)
'Quiz' is a relatively new word. It first came into use in the late 1700s, making it a little over 250 years old, and there's a curious story about how it came into being.

The tale goes that it emerged from a wager made in 1791 by Richard Daly, manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Daly bet his friends that within 48 hours he could make a nonsense word be spoken throughout Dublin — specifically, a word having no meaning nor derived from any known language. His friends took him up on the bet. So Daly sent out his employees to write the word "QUIZ" in chalk on doors, windows, and walls throughout Dublin. The appearance of this mysterious word became the talk of the town, allowing Daly to win his bet. And it caused the word 'quiz' to pass into popular usage.

There's a number of reasons to doubt this story. For one, it first appeared in print in 1835, 44 years after the event supposedly took place. The story took the form of one of those small blurbs of trivia that newspapers and magazines used to pad out their columns. It ran in a number of publications, such as the New York Mirror (May 2, 1835), The Mirror (Feb 21, 1835), and The London and Paris Observer (Feb 15, 1835). However, it's authorship wasn't attributed, or attributed only by initials, so we have no way of knowing how the author knew his information. Perhaps a newspaper editor simply made it up. (The most elaborate version of the story is found in Frank Thorpe Porter's Gleanings and Reminiscences, 1875. Porter doubtless embellished it.)


from the New York Mirror, May 2, 1835

Second, it's easy to find examples of the word 'quiz' used before 1791. Here's an example from the London Magazine, Nov 1783.

However, it's possible that Daly (or someone connected with the theater) did write the word "QUIZ" all over Dublin, but that this stunt had nothing to do with the word's origin. Back in the 1790s, Quiz didn't mean what it means today. It was a derogatory term meaning an oddball or eccentric. Or, as the London Magazine put it, "one who thinks, speaks, or acts differently from the rest of the world in general."

An article in the Sporting Magazine (Dec 1794) indicates that to call someone a Quiz could also insultingly imply they were pedantic and rule-bound. It was a bit like calling someone a Nerd or a Square:

Now every young man who wishes to attain that for which he was sent by his friends to the university, namely improvement, is immediately denominated a Quiz, and is subject to the petty insults of every buck (a species of the human kind so called in Cambridge) he meets with. To avoid the stigma of being a Quiz, young men who have but moderate allowances plunge into expences, which make them for many years after miserable. To peruse any book of improvement is called Quizical; in short not to be extremely dissipated and extravagant is to be a Quiz.

When interpreted in this sense, the word seems appropriate as something that rambunctious young theater employees might have written as graffiti all over Dublin, as a way to make fun of the respectable residents of Dublin. But the word wasn't widely known (as indicated by the need for both the London Magazine and the Sporting Magazine to define the term for their readers), so the prank might have caused some confusion and led people to ask what the strange word meant.


Dublin's Theatre Royal

Of course, there's no evidence (such as contemporary newspaper accounts) to confirm that this prank ever occurred. So this is all pure speculation.

But if Richard Daly and his theater employees didn't coin the word Quiz, how did it originate? One theory, offered here by Stephen Fry, is that "it probably derives from the first question in the old grammar school Latin oral: 'Qui es?' or, 'Who are you?'"

The Oxford Dictionaries offers some further information:

'Quiz' was also used as a name for a kind of toy, something like a yo-yo, which was popular around 1790. The word is nevertheless hard to account for, and so is its later meaning of 'to question or interrogate'. This emerged in the mid-19th century and gave rise to the most common use of the term today, for a type of entertainment based on a test of a person's knowledge.

My 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its current meaning may come from its association with the word 'inquisitive,' which is a very old word, as old as the English language itself, having derived from the latin inquirire (to inquire).
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 10, 2012
Comments (0)
Brief Answer: No!

Longer Answer: If you do a search for the phrase, "The best things in life make you sweaty," you'll find quite a few sites (facebook and tumblr pages especially) attributing this quotation to Edgar Allan Poe. There's even a short article at the Richmond County Daily Journal which uses this supposed Poe quotation as its lead.

Of course, Poe never said this. Nor was it the kind of thing he would have said. I doubt Poe was a big fan of sweating. His greatest passions were writing and drinking. Neither of those activities make you sweat much.

I'm not sure where the quotation (and its attribution to Poe) originated. Nor am I sure whether the people posting it actually think Poe said it, or whether it's just a joke. If it's a joke, that suggests the people posting the quotation know enough about Poe's life to realize it's absurd. Is that a safe assumption to make? Probably not.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 12, 2012
Comments (5)
As I noted in my previous post, Mike McGrady, creator of the 1969 "Naked Came the Stranger" literary hoax, died recently. A little-known footnote to this hoax is that it inspired an x-rated movie in 1975. Here's the trailer for that movie. (It's pretty much safe for work.)

Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2012
Comments (0)
Mike McGrady was the mastermind behind the Naked Came the Stranger hoax of 1969. His aim was to show that any book with enough sex scenes, even if lacking in any other merit, could sell well. And the book he created to prove this point did sell well. Although its sales had a lot to do with the fact that McGrady's sister-in-law, the attractive Penelope Ashe, posed as its author. Which shows that the good looks of an author can definitely sell books. And, of course, the book sold even better once it was exposed as a hoax, demonstrating that there's no such thing as bad publicity.


Mike McGrady

Mike McGrady, Known for a Literary Hoax, Dies at 78
nytimes.com

Mike McGrady, a prizewinning reporter for Newsday who to his chagrin was best known as the mastermind of one of the juiciest literary hoaxes in America — the best-selling collaborative novel “Naked Came the Stranger,” whose publication in 1969 made “Peyton Place” look like a church picnic — died on Sunday in Shelton, Wash. He was 78 and lived in Lilliwaup, Wash. The cause was pneumonia, said Harvey Aronson, who with Mr. McGrady was a co-editor of the novel, written by 25 Newsday journalists in an era when newsrooms were arguably more relaxed and inarguably more bibulous.
Categories: Death, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2012
Comments (0)
Did he not intend to plagiarise, or did he not intend to get caught?

Hungary's president steps down after plagiarism scandal
telegraph.co.uk

Last week Semmelweis University revoked Mr Schmitt's doctorate after a special committee concluded he had copied "word for word" large chunks of his 1992 thesis on Olympic history. In parliament the 69-year-old president reiterated claims he made on Friday that had not intended to plagiarise and that examiners should have raised any problems with his thesis at the time...

(Thanks, Joe!)
Categories: Literature/Language, Politics
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 03, 2012
Comments (1)
In my article about the origin of April Fool's Day, which I wrote a few years ago, I noted that the first explicit reference to April 1st being a day for pranks can be found in a poem written in late-medieval Dutch (around 1561) by Eduard De Dene. The title of the poem is "Refereyn vp verzendekens dach / Twelck den eersten April te zyne plach." Marco Langbroek kindly translated this for me as: "Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April."

But it recently occurred to me that although I knew about the poem, and had the title translated, I had never seen the full text of the poem itself. And in fact, I don't believe the poem has ever been translated into English. To me, this seems like a glaring omission in our knowledge of the history of April Fool's Day.

So I've tracked down the poem, which originally appeared in De Dene's work Testament Rhetoricael. I found it on the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. I've copied it below, but the version on the dbnl includes a few extra footnotes.

I'm hoping the internet can do its magic and help me get this poem translated. Any Dutch speakers out there? Marco? I'm guessing the language in the poem may be a bit of a challenge even for native Dutch speakers.

Categories: April Fools Day, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Mar 15, 2012
Comments (12)
QR Markham, author of the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets, has been accused of plagiarism, as people identify multiple passages in his book that originally appeared elsewhere (such as in books by Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum). The publisher (Little, Brown) has recalled all copies of his book. And it turns out that a Huffington Post article written by Markham also used the words of someone else. So Huffington Post removed all articles by him. In other words, things aren't going well for Markham.

But what makes this case strange is an article in the New Yorker by Macy Halford, speculating that Markham (which is the pen name of Quentin Rowan) deliberately used other people's words in his novel in order to make an artistic statement — both to comment on the lack of originality in the spy genre and to turn his own readers into detectives:

If Rowan is trying to comment upon the spy genre—on how it is both tired and endlessly renewable, on how we as readers of the genre want nothing but to be astonished again and again by the same old thing—then he has done a bang-up job. If he wants to comment on our current notions of discovery, to turn us all into armchair detectives, Googling here and there and everywhere to solve the puzzle, he is a genius.

But Halford acknowledges that if this was Markham's intention, then he was far too clever for his own good, because he shot himself in the foot. Who's going to publish him after this?

This isn't the first time that apologists for a literary hoaxer have argued that the hoaxer's actions should be viewed charitably, as some kind of artistic statement about writing and the creative process. For instance, during the JT LeRoy case, defenders of Laura Albert (who manipulated readers into believing that LeRoy was a real person) made a similar argument, suggesting that Albert was an artistic genius, not a con artist.

The argument speaks to the strange morality that differentiates hoaxes from frauds (or lies). We condemn liars for taking advantage of people's trust. But hoaxes have traditionally been viewed as a special kind of lie — ones in which we forgive the liar and instead blame their victims for being too gullible. So when someone gets caught perpetrating a sensational act of deception, there's often a debate about whether their act should be interpreted as a simple lie or a forgivable hoax.

Such debates usually boil down to two key considerations: Did the hoaxer/liar leave a lot of clues about their intention? (That is, did they make the lie or theft kind of obvious?) And did they profit financially from the act?

Markham pretty much strikes out on both considerations. So I doubt he's going to be remembered as a rogue literary genius.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 14, 2011
Comments (4)
There's a new hoax-related book out that sounds interesting: The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adore Floupette and a Secret History of Australian Poetry by David Brooks. From the Sydney Morning Herald review:
At the heart of the book is the famous Australian hoax, the Ern Malley affair, in which two young, still-forming poets, McAuley and Stewart, fabricated the raw, working-class identity Ern Malley, only to have him die tragically young, leaving behind his book of experimental poems, The Darkening Ecliptic (1944).
Equally - and this is where the detective work really kicks in - the book is also about a late- 19th-century literary hoax that produced the wonderfully foppish Adore Floupette, ''poet of the decadent school … with nothing but scorn for the public''. Floupette, whose voice ''could be heard from one end of the cafe to the other'', reciting the ''ternaries that he had composed over dinner: 'I would love to be gaga/With my heart adrift/On the syringa flower.'
'''Gaga!' came from one of the ladies who until then had kept the profoundest silence. 'But my poor dear, you are already.'''
It's Brooks's achievement to compel us into considering the (improbable, possible) links between these two hoaxes.
I'm not sure if it's being published anywhere but Australia, though this won't be an issue if you're willing to pay international shipping.
Categories: Books, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Oct 24, 2011
Comments (4)
Serbian media reported Thursday that one of their own countrymen, writer Dobrica Cosic, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, he hadn't. Soon after, the Swedish Academy announced the real winner: Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.

The Serbian media reported Cosic as the winner because they had all received an email, seeming to come from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, announcing Cosic as the winner. The email linked to a website, nobelprizeliterature.org, that seemed to confirm Cosic as the winner. However, both the email and the site were fakes. (link)

Apparently Cosic is a strong Serbian nationalist. The Economist describes him as, "the intellectual godfather of the Serbian nationalism which played such a decisive role, not just in the destruction of Yugoslavia but in the military drive to create a greater Serbia from its ashes." According to the Montreal Gazette, Cosic writes, "lengthy tomes about the suffering of the Serbs through the ages." The hoax was perpetrated by some people who don't like him. Its basic purpose was to annoy him. The group, describing themselves as a "non-profit, self-organized group of web activists," have now posted this explanation on the site:

The purpose of our activity is to bring to the attention of the Serbian public dangerous influence of the writer Dobrica Cosic, who has been, again this year, proclaimed by some as a serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dobrica Cosic, author and public political figure, active for decades, always close to the highest political power and those who exercise it, from the Communist Party of former SFRY, inspirators of their manifest of Serbian nationalism, infamous Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of sciences, former president of the Milosevic's wartime SR Yugoslavia, to present alliance with reactionary and most dangerous Serbian pseudo-democratic circles in the new era.

We have registered the domain of this obviously hoax site on the 5th October 2011, as a symbolic reminder of that day eleven years ago, when Serbia missed a historic opportunity to create a different and better world. Today again, Serbia turns to war, terror and deadly kitsch of the nineties, violence towards diversity, nationalist conservatism and dishonest orthodoxy. We believe the political activity of Dobrica Cosic is still deeply intertwined with this hazardous value system, which does not cease to threaten us all.

Terrible consequences of decades of Mr. Cosic's political, literary and public activity are felt to this day, both by his own country and throughout the region.

Dobrica Cosic is not a recipient of the Nobel Prize, although the general public in Serbia, and he himself, believed he is for 15 full minutes.

We find some solace in that fact.
Categories: Journalism, Literature/Language, Politics
Posted by Alex on Thu Oct 06, 2011
Comments (0)
The news from Italy is that Silvio Berlusconi has been engaging in some wild "Bunga Bunga" parties. Or so says a 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer who attended one of these parties. No one is really sure what a Bunga Bunga party entails, except that Berlusconi apparently learned the practice from Muammar Kaddafi, and it has something to do with sex.

On Slate.com, Brian Palmer explores the mystery of just what Bunga Bunga might be. The leading theory is that it derives from an old joke in which some western explorers are caught by a primitive tribe and offered a choice between Death or Bunga Bunga. I've actually heard this joke before. The punchline is that when an explorer chooses death, after realizing Bunga Bunga involves some kind of awful sexual torture, he's told that it will be "Death by Bunga Bunga." At least, that's the version I heard. On Slate, Palmer tells a slightly different version.

Anyway, there's a hoax connection here, because "Bunga Bunga" also happens to be the phrase uttered by Horace de Vere Cole and his accomplices while hoaxing the British Navy in 1910 during the Dreadnought hoax.
Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 17, 2010
Comments (15)
The BBC reports that Welsh-language road signs mysteriously appeared on the Longthorpe Parkway in Cambridgeshire. They suspect it was the work of a practical joker. Presumably a Welsh practical joker.
Categories: Literature/Language, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri May 29, 2009
Comments (2)
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