The “University of Google”

An interesting article appeared just this morning in The Economic Times —interesting and particularly appropriate for the primary election season that is evolving here in the States, as well as for writers. In the article, "Google, Wikipedia are white bread for young minds," the author raises attention to a trend that is also increasingly appearing in the business of editing: "Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments."

The quote comes from Tara Brabazon, a professor of eighteen years at the University of Brighton. While not slamming Google or Wikipedia, she does draw attention to a trend of individuals taking everything they read at face value, without questioning or performing additional research to justify accuracy or authenticity. She also addresses the additional concern that easy access to information has dulled our senses of curiosity; but that’s another story for another day.

So, how does this trend relate to the primary season? Well, just in the past few days, I’ve received forwarded e-mails and spam that are total fabrications and intentional lies that question the background and integrity of specific candidates—and the messages are perfect examples of the problems with poor research. Their content is created and circulated to mislead readers and fuel the rumor mills that surround candidates. One of the e-mails went so far as to cite Snopes.com (an urban legends and rumor mill investigation Web site) in support of its claim; however, if a reader had taken the time to check even that one reference, he or she would have discovered that Snopes says the exact opposite. Further investigation would have revealed the true facts at other Web sites. But, why bother to do that extra work? The information is on the Internet, so it must be true, right? In that case, let’s forward it to another round of readers!

Moving on, then, how does the trend relate to the business of editing? Well, because authors are growing increasingly lethargic in checking their facts, as evidenced above. Granted, it is the job of an editor to fact-check and verify information; but if a story line is rooted in bad research, I can’t do much to help. It’s back to the drawing board for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a staunch supporter of Wikipedia. And, I probably use DogPile and the Internet to research more than the average person. But, over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to questioning practically any source of information. Even in the print world, an author has the right to insert his or her own interpretation of the facts, and any process allows the possibility of a mistake being introduced—so any information has the potential to be "tainted" or wrong and should be verified in additional sources. (Yes, even Britannica online or the Oxford resources!)

Which brings us back to Professor Brabazon’s suggestion that no source or resource should be taken at face value. The lesson is to reference Wikipedia and google (or Dogpile) Web sites to your heart’s content; but, verify the facts and make sure you’ve done your homework before you cite anything as gospel truth.

Thank you; the soapbox is closed for the day!

New Best of Young American Novelists list announced

Granta magazine has just published its second Best of Young American Novelists list. The first list in 1996 helped launch the careers of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Chris Offutt (The Good Brother and a variety of Kentucky-oriented memoirs), Stewart O’Nan (Snow Angels and A World Away), David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains), Mona Simpson (Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, and A Regular Guy), Melanie Rae Thon (Meteors in August, Sweet Hearts, and Iona Moon), Sherman Alexie (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and a forthcoming young adult novel—The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Allen Kurzweil (A Case of Curiosities, A Grand Complication, and the “Leon” series of children’s books), Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones), and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides). The new list contains the names of another crop of rising authors (under the age of 35), who were culled from nearly two hundred original submissions.

An interesting description of the judging process is available as part of the introduction to the list (at the above link), but an interview on NPR with Granta editor Ian Jack and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books in San Francisco also shares some information about how the twenty-one authors were chosen. Judging criteria included the basic evaluations of story and language but also some author talents: the ability to persuade readers that the novel’s world is “believable,” the ability to interpret existing information in a new way or to teach new ideas, and the ability to enable readers to experience pleasure as they read.

Begun in 1889 as the as the student literary and political journal at Cambridge University, Granta magazine was reborn in 1979. The London-based magazine is currently published four times each year to showcase, according to the corporate Web site, “new writing—fiction, personal history, reportage and inquiring journalism—[as well as occasional] documentary photograph[s].” Excerpts of each author’s works make up the Spring 2007 issue (No. 97), which is available for single purchase.

Audio from National Book Awards ceremony

Several recordings from the November 2006 National Book Awards sessions in New York City are now available online. The recordings can be downloaded in MP3 format or played through a Web browser (using that method, I would suggest choosing “Play in Popup” so you can continue doing other work while listening).  Among the podcast recordings are five sets of nominated authors reading from their nominated works and the acceptance speeches that the winning authors made after being named at the ceremony.  (My only complaint about this collection is that the sessions are recorded in their entirety, instead of being excerpted by author, but that’s not a big deal as long as you have the time—most sessions are twenty to thirty minutes long.)

The goal of the National Book Awards is to increase the popularity of reading and to enhance awareness of exceptional books written by American authors in four genres: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Lists of nominees and the annual award winners from 1950 to the present are available at the National Book Awards Web site, www.NationalBookAward.org.

Access to the podcasts is through a site hosted by BookExpo America (BEA).  BEA is the largest annual exhibition of materials published in English in the world. The podcasts are produced by the same publishers who bring us the weekly series of author interviews, discussions, and readings known as Authors on Tour (which is sponsored by the Tattered Cover Book Stores in Colorado).