Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Printerum est errare, vol. 2

This week, there's a neat Q&A with Philip B. Corbett, the deputy news editor of The New York Times, about questions of style and usage in the paper. Three things caught my attention:

1. The decline narrative is tempting! Corbett notices it, too. So the questions that come in about this decline all sound very similar, but they aren't really questions. They're observations in the form of questions, and they have a distinctive way of moving between the general and the particular--oh, there are so many particulars that it's imperative to generalize!

That above paragraph isn't a knock on the careful readers or on Corbett; it's just an observation about decline narratives. I know it because I'm obsessed with it. I spent a summer reading all the old issues of the Columbia Daily Spectator as a personal hairshirt assignment, and I was sure that we were making more mistakes than had ever been made in the history of newspaper. But we kind of were.

Then one night before I went in to proof-read, I picked up Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby, now one of my favorite albums, and something hit me. That line in "South Tacoma Way," "I can't comprehend the ways that I miss you / They come to light in my mistakes," isn't about newspapers at all (and maybe it's weird or sad that this is my frame of reference), but it put the decline narrative in perspective for me. That imagined past of higher standards and fewer mistakes is partly a nostalgia for a past that's either not real or isn't reconstructable. I still have that line taped to my desk.

This newsbrief from The Onion captured the second stage of the decline narrative for me.

2. George Orwell will show up in any contemporary discussion of political language, but the reference will be fuzzier than it was in 1984. It's like clockwork--like the clocks are striking thirteen.

This is the weirdest version I've seen of the Orwell imperative.

3. There are funny vestiges of the old technologies of print in the ways we think about style. Here's part of his answer to a question about the serial comma:
I haven't researched the question, but I suspect that journalists' aversion to the additional comma arose in the old days when setting type was laborious and expensive. If you already have an "and," why bother with a comma, too? The practice persists, from habit and perhaps from the sense that fewer commas make prose seem more direct and rapid — qualities we journalists prize in our writing.

And then in a later question he notes that people suggested that the Times save space in their newly narrower columns by eliminating titles such as Mr. and Dr. It wouldn't have worked, Corbett says, but it's funny to think that more than one person suggested it.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pan Tadeusz, epic poem of Poland

Pan Tadeusz ("Sir Thaddeus"), is the national epic poem of Poland. It was written by Adam Mickiewicz (whom Wikipedia calles a "poet, writer and philosopher") around 1798 but not printed until 1834, and reflects the topsy-turvy history of the region: the story takes place in a town in Lithuania, populated by ethnic Belorussians, among a Polish aristocracy, who curse the Russians who claim the land and praise the Bonapartists who have been trying to conquer it.

I recently read some of a translation by Kenneth Mackenzie and loved parts of it. (Epic poems are not known for their consistent quality.) Some of these are below.

Note that the titular hero of the poem is Tadeusz, whose name is pronounced something like "Tah-dah-yoosh".

The hunt, wherein hunters come across a castle:

Just then the huntsmen held their leashes strained,
All in their places motionless remained,
And each man to his neighbor silence signed,
While every eye towards the stone inclined,
Near which the Judge had seen the hare. He stands
With silent gestures signalling commands.
The others halt, while o'er the meadow wide
The Assessor and the Notary slowly ride.
Tadeusz, being nearer, past them went
And stood beside the Judge and watched intent.
'Twas hard for one long absent from the chase
To sight the hare in that gray, stony space.
The Judge was pointing where beneath a stone
With ears pricked up the cowering beast lay prone.
It met the huntsmen's gaze with crimson stare,
As if, bewitched and of its fate aware,
It could not turn its eyes away for dread,
Crouching beneath the stone as 'twere stone dead.
Meanwhile the dust draws nearer on the plain,
As Bobtail and fleet Falcon forward strain.
Then both at once the rivals shouted loud,
'At him!' and vanished in a dusty cloud.

While in pursuit the rival horsemen urged,
The Count from near the castle wood emerged.
That gentleman, it was well known to all,
For no appointment could be punctual.
He'd overslept again today, and cursed
His serving men as from the wood he burst,
The tails of his white coat spread in the wind,
His coat of English cut. His men behind
Wore little caps like mushrooms shining bright,
Short coats, top boots and pantaloons of white.
The servants who this style of costume wore
The name of jockeys in his palace bore.

This cavalcade is galloping to the leas,
When suddenly the Count the castle sees,
And checks his horse. Were these the walls he knew,
That in the dawn seemed beautiful and new?
He'd never seen them in the morning light,
And was astonished at the novel sight.
The tower that jutted from the mist seemed higher,
The sun had set the iron roof on fire,
The glass remaining in the window sashes
Shattered the sunlight into rainbow flashes.
A cloak of mist the lower floor concealed,
So that the cracks and gaps were not revealed.
Upon the wind the distant huntsmen's calls
Once and again were echoed by the walls.
You could have sworn the half-veiled battlements
Had been rebuilt and filled with residents.

-p.64 of Mackenzie translation

A straggler tries to catch up to the hunt:
He started for the manor in this mood
Just as the huntsmen issued from the wood,
And, since he loved the chase, to join them sped,
All other notions banished from his head,
Past gate and yard and all along the fence,
Till stopping at a turn he looked round thence.
It was the kitchen garden. Row on row
Of fruit-trees give their shade to beds below.
A cabbage sits and bows her scrawny pate,
Musing upon her vegetable fate;
The slender bean entwines the carrot's tresses
And with a thousand eyes his love expresses;
Here hangs the golden tassel of the maize,
And there a bellied water-melon strays,
That rolling from his stem far off is found,
A stranger on the crimson beetroots' ground.
Each bed is girdled with a furrowed border,
Where hemp-plants stand on guard in serried order,
Like cypresses, all silent, green and tall.
Between their leaves no serpent dares to crawl,
And their strong smell serves to defend the bed,
Insects and caterpillars striking dead.
Beyond, the whitish poppy-plants arise;
It seems as if a swarm of butterflies
With fluttering wings has settled on their stems
And glitters with a rainbow flash of gems,
With so great brilliance do the poppies blaze;
And like the mood amid the starry maze
With flaming countenance the round sunflower
Pursues the westering sun from hour to hour.

-p.80 of Mackenzie translation

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Wed Oct 31, 06:58:00 AM:
I think Simon Schama talks about this poem in Landscape and Memory, might be worth a look if you're interested...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Literary rotisserie league?

I love Steven Johnson's blog post about's text stats. Johnson used to be a grad student in the English department at Columbia but left to write books that were not dissertations. I've always wanted to tell him what a huge influence his books have been on my English career--I often talk and write about issues he raised in Emergence and Everthing Bad is Good for You. This is my favorite essay he's written about how science fiction imagines robot intelligence. On his blog, he's graphed his own Readability index against titles by Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker--as well as Michel Foucault and Frederic Jameson. Here are two of his readings of the graph he plotted:
3. Check out Foucault and Jameson. They are literally on another planet. The top spot goes to Jameson's "Postmodernism" book which I read like scripture my first year of grad school: 53 words per sentence! Interestingly, most of the variation shows up in sentence length not in word complexity -- you often hear people complain about the impenetrable jargon of critical theory, but it looks here like the sentence length is as least as much of a culprit.

4. I would love to see some stats on dynamic range here: not just average sentence length, but how much the sentence lengths vary over the course of each book. One of the things I learned when I started writing in a less academic style (largely when I was doing FEED) is the importance of throwing in a very short sentence for emphasis at regular intervals. (Come to think of it, I may have learned this from reading Gladwell's early pieces in the New Yorker.)

I'll take the fourth part first: I would love to see a dynamic range study. That's something that I pay attention to in my own writing (although less so on this blog). Johnson jokingly proposes a literary rotisserie league to play with these text stats--in the fiction division, I'll take Joan Didion, you take Richard Powers, I'll take Amy Hempel, you take Raymond Carver.

Just Being Difficult: Academic Writing in the Public Arena by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb is a great collection of essays about how criticisms of bad writing in academic theory tend to follow predictable paths. Johnson obviously isn't doing that here--his interest is in how authors who write for a larger audience use long and short sentences--but the book is really good at situating "bad writing" in historical contexts. There's a good essay on Hume's style and another one that questions Martha Nussbaum's charges about Judith Butler's style.

These questions aren't new ones; I love Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) for its sheer weirdness of style, which he defends in his introduction:
My Reader sees, why I commit the Fault of περιαυτία (talking about himself), which appears in the mention of these Minute-passages, ‘tis to excuse whatever other Fault of Inaccuracy, or Inadvertency, may be discovered in an History, which hath been a sort of Rapsody, made up (like the Paper whereupon ‘tis written!) with many little Rags, torn from an Employment, multifarious enough to overwhelm one of my small capacities.

You can see him anticipate the criticisms of this "Rapsody" of names, books, Greek and Latin phrases, and puns in this paragraph:
It will not be so much a Surprise unto me, if I should live to see our Church-History vexed with the Anie-mad-versions of Calumnious Writers, as it would have been unto Virgil to read his Bucolicks reproached by the Antibucolica of a Nameless Scribbler, and his Aeneids travestied by the Aenediomastix or Carbilius. Or Herennius taking pains to make a collection of the Faults, and Faustinus of the Thefts, in his incomparable Composures. ... How should a Book, no better laboured than this of ours, escape Zoilian Outrages, when in all Ages, the most exquisite Works have been as much vilified, as Plato’s by Scaliger, and Aristotle’s by Lacantius?

And the criticisms looked familiar. Here's William Douglass writing in 1752 about Mather's intolerable errors, which he believes are a result of Mather's paying more attention to accumulating references inside sentences than to factual accuracy: Christi Magnalia contains “miserable jargon, loaded with many random learned quotations, school-boy exercises, roman-like legends, and barbarous rhimes. An indefinite number of more errors, the repetition of them would be confutation sufficient.” The ironic, but not unexpected, thing is that Douglass's sentences get long and confusing on their own as he tries to excoriate Mather: the thing he dislikes in his rival is the thing he struggles with himself. Neither one found this digressive style conducive to actually finishing their gigantic projects of compiling histories of early America.
Blogger person in chair on Mon Nov 05, 12:23:00 PM:
This is really funny-- I wrote a very similar blog comment on my site about this too! (I used to work at Feed before coming back to CU)...

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Musa and I were playing minimalist Hangman last fall and she stumped me with "metempsychosis."

"You picked 'metempsychosis' as your Hangman word?" I asked bitterly.

"Joyce!" she chirped. "Just like in Ulysses."

My eyes stinging with the hot tears of defeat, I started seeing the term everywhere. What struck me about the recurring references to the term was that I'd see it outside of a religious or philosophical context about the transmigration of souls; the word started showing up in a material sense of how literary productions get fragmented and reproduced in posterity. Indeed, it showed up in those same places where I'd see that everything is miscellaneous. If I had known about that very narrow but wonderful interpretation of metempsychosis, maybe I would have won the game. Oh, probably not.

Washington Irving takes up the idea in his essay "The Art of Book-Making" (from the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, serialized in 1819-1820). In the essay, Geoffrey Crayon finds a secret room in the British Library where he sees a motley crew of scholars, miscellanists, and critics manufacturing their books:
There was one dapper little gentleman in bright-colored clothes, with a chirping gossiping expression of countenance, who had all the appearance of an author on good terms with his bookseller. After considering him attentively, I recognized in him a diligent getter-up of miscellaneous works, which bustled off well with the trade. I was curious to see how he manufactured his wares. He made more stir and show of business than any of the others; dipping into various books, fluttering over the leaves of manuscripts, taking a morsel out of one, a morsel out of another, “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” The contents of his book seemed to be as heterogeneous as those of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. It was here a finger and there a thumb, toe of frog and blind worm’s sting, with his own gossip poured in like “baboon’s blood,” to make the medley “slab and good.”

After all, thought I, may not this pilfering disposition be implanted in authors for wise purposes? may it not be the way in which Providence has taken care that the seeds of knowledge and wisdom shall be preserved from age to age, in spite of the inevitable decay of the works in which they were first produced? We see that Nature has wisely, though whimsically provided for the conveyance of seeds from clime to clime, in the maws of certain birds; so that animals, which, in themselves, are little better than carrion, and apparently the lawless plunderers of the orchard and the corn-field, are, in fact, Nature’s carriers to disperse and perpetuate her blessings. In like manner, the beauties and fine thoughts of ancient and obsolete authors are caught up by these flights of predatory writers, and cast forth, again to flourish and bear fruit in a remote and distant tract of time. Many of their works, also, undergo a kind of metempsychosis, and spring up under new forms. What was formerly a ponderous history, revives in the shape of a romance-—an old legend changes into a modern play—and a sober philosophical treatise furnishes the body for a whole series of bouncing and sparkling essays. Thus it is in the clearing of our American woodlands; where we burn down a forest of stately pines, a progeny of dwarf oaks start up in their place; and we never see the prostrate trunk of a tree mouldering into soil, but it gives birth to a whole tribe of fungi.

Let us not then, lament over the decay and oblivion into which ancient writers descend; they do but submit to the great law of Nature, which declares that all sublunary shapes of matter shall be limited in their duration, but which decrees, also, that their element shall never perish. Generation after generation, both in animal and vegetable life, passes away, but the vital principle is transmitted to posterity, and the species continue to flourish. Thus, also, do authors beget authors, and having produced a numerous progeny, in a good old age they sleep with their fathers, that is to say, with the authors who preceded them—-and from whom they had stolen.

I love that passage so much, and it's even better to read it with another of Irving's Geoffrey Crayon essays, "The Mutability of Literature," a prose imitation of Chaucer's House of Fame. It's not just William Cowper who imagines a "forest of no meaning" in a print miscellany; Irving takes the metaphor even further in both essays, which are themselves collected in a miscellaneous sketch-book. "The Mutability of Literature" is worth it for the scene of the talking book who is indignant about being stored on a library shelf, away from the thrills of circulation:
“Sir,” said the little tome, ruffling his leaves and looking big, “I was written for all the world, not for the bookworms of an abbey. I was intended to circulate from hand to hand, like other great contemporary works; but here have I been clasped up for more than two centuries, and might have silently fallen a prey to these worms that are playing the very vengeance with my intestines, if you had not by chance given me an opportunity of uttering a few last words before I go to pieces.”

I found metempsychosis and another forest of no meaning in the prefatory material to Life and Errors of John Dunton (1705). Richard Freind, a colleague of Dunton's, wrote the introductory poem to the book:
The Press grows honest; and, in spite of fate,
Now teems a Birth that is legitimate:
Thy Book's thy own, so rare a Muse 'twas fit
Should not be garnish'd out with dead-men's wit,
Yet lives their Genius, in thee: true it is,
Arts have a kind of Metempsychosis;
But no perfection dwells within thy breast,
For thou has faults, and so have e'en the best.
The World's a Wood, in which all lose their way,
Though by a diff'rent path each goes astray.
Thy forty years did print, thee full of crimes,
But, as Repentance cleanses all thy lines,
We can't be angry that you went astray,
But thank those Errors made you miss your way:
For you, by fixing on a false delight,
Instruct; and by mistaking, set us right:
When life's departing stages we review,
The False things fright us, though they pleas'd when True.
Fantastic sins in dismal orders rise,
And with a real horror strike our eyes:
Thus, whilst we count the up-shot of our pains,
We curse the memory of what remains,
And gaze with terror on the slow-advancing scenes.
'Twas thus: but now the bugbear is no more,
We love to trace the imagin'd stages o'er,
And court the Spectre which we shunned before:
Directed by your nobler rules to cast,
And regulate the future by the past.

Dunton's Life and Errors is part autobiography, part religious confession, and a large part digression. It's a strange book by a strange guy: Dunton planned six hundred literary projects but never finished all of them, and you can see Swift's satire on this type of over-projection in the apparatus to A Tale of a Tub. Dunton and his friends published the Athenian Mercury, a miscellaneous periodical of answers to reader questions and proposals for more literary projects--this is a good essay on Dunton and the age of projectors and here is part of Daniel Defoe's Essay on Projects. Dunton had a prodigious obsession with all the things print could do for writers--his plans came not from the sureness that something like "The Art of Living Incognito" should be written, but rather from the idea that it could be written, and thus he should publish "a thousand letters on as many uncommon subjects." "The Art of Living Incognito" (1700) is difficult to follow because it's so miscellaneous; he calls the jumble of ideas "maggots" in his brain:
For seeing I have a Thousand Magots swarming in my Brain (for this Art of Incognito will consist just of that Number of Subjects) I'm willing now that the World may see the Magots of my own begetting: for, as Randolph says,---If I a Poem leave, that Poem is my Son---which I don't speak out of Ostentation, but that the World may see, after Printing so many Magots of others writing, I'm now (by Imitation) become one my self.

All over the place--in Freind's lines about "dead-men's wit," in Defoe's admonishment that a true projector "picks no one's pocket," in Dunton's worry above about imitation--you see these late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century projectors worrying about taking ideas from other people. J. Paul Hunter has a good section on Dunton in Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century Fiction in which he notes that Dunton's projector compulsion indicates "not only his own increasingly fragile grasp on reality, but also a context in which audiences became progressively more difficult to surprise and impress. If some of his writing projects now seem hilarious and born only a novelty-for-novelty's-sake mentality, they also imply a readership increasingly jaded by claims of originality and innovation yet insistent on knowing the latest modes and fashions."

A century later, in "The Art of Book-Making" and "The Mutability of Literature," Irving shows that when everyone is concerned with over-production and proliferation of printed material, of course one would be hyper-sensitive about plagiarism and the instability of authorship. Dunton, Defoe, and Swift (and then later on Laurence Sterne and Irving) are fascinating to look at for the ways they play around with the idea of the metempsychosis of the author (and editor) even as they're worrying about it. The miscellaneous nature of their projects allows--or even compels--them to generate prodigiously, like mushrooms or maggots.

The 1818 edition of The Life and Errors of John Dunton has a good introduction about Dunton's many projects, including his weird travel-ramble, A Voyage Round the World with Don Kainophilus. Don Kainophilus makes the key connection between miscellany and metempsychosis. The second paragraph (after a lot of funny, weird prefatory material) reads:
But not to mount the Argument above my Readers Head, lest I should crack both that and my own---Let it suffice, that my Soul for ought I know, has been Rambling the best part of this 6000 Years, if those are in the right on't who hold the Praeexistence, and that all Souls were made at once.

I showed it to one of my friends, who asked, "Why did he say he was going to do 24 volumes and then only finish three?" Because he was a projector! The introduction contains a footnote from Isaac Disraeli about Dunton's odd book:
This rhapsody is noticeable for its extreme rarity, and for two elegant pieces of poetry, which, if John's own, entitle him to a higher degree of praise than he has been usually thought to merit. It is obscurely noticed in his "Life and Errors;" but the Anagram of the Author's name prefixed to a copy of verses declares him. It has a frontispiece, which is a large folding cut, with 24 circles, exhibiting the Author's adventures. --To this Work was prefixed Panegyrical Verses, "by the Wits of both Universities," who, however, offer no evidence of their residence or quality; and may suspected to be Wits of the University of Grub-street. One of these wretched panegyricks tells us that "the Author's name, when anagrammatised, is hid unto none," by which John Dunton would, and would not, conceal himself. ... He seems to have projected a series of what he calls "The Cock-rambles of all my Four and Twenty Volumes," but his Readers, probably deserted him at the third. Kainophilus, as he calls himself, "signifies a Lover of News, not any thing of Kain, as if I were a-kin to him." It is a low rhapsody; but it bears a particular feature, a certain whimsical style, which he affects to call his own, set off with frequent dashes, and occasionally a banter on false erudition. These cannot be shewn without extracts, I would not add an idle accusation to the already injured genius of Sterne; but I am inclined to think he might have caught up his project of writing Tristram's life, in "twenty-four Cock-rambling" volumes; have seized on the whim of Dunton's style; have condescended even to copy out his brakes and dashes. But Sterne could not have borrowed wit or genius from so low a scribbler. --The elegant pieces of poetry were certainly never composed by Dunton, whose mind had no elegance, and whose rhymes are doggerel. On a rapid inspection, I have detected him transcribing from Francis Osborn and Cowley,
without acknowledgement; and several excellent passages, which may be discovered amidst the incoherent mass, could not have been written by one who never attained the slightest arts of composition. He affects, however, to consider himself as "a great Original" in what he calls "this hop-stride-and-jump round the World;" and says "So great a glory do I esteem it to be the Author of these Works, that I cannot, without great injury to myself and justice, that every one should own them, who have nothing to do with them; the fellow at Rome who pretended to Virgil's Verses. But I need take no other way to refute these plagiaries than Virgil himself did, requiring the tally to his Vos non Vobis. Let any man write on at the rate this is already written, and I will grant he is the Author of this book, that before, and all the rest to the end of the Chapter. No; there is such a sort of a Whim in the Style, something so like myself, so incomprehensible (not because it is nonsense), that whoever throws but half an eye on that and me together, will swear 'twas spit out of the mouth of Kainophilus."

So the charges of who's lifting passages from whom is difficult to untangle: Dunton is accused of taking from others, but Sterne is accused of taking from him. Disraeli was not the first to note the similarities between Dunton's work and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. In 1762, one of Sterne's rivals re-published Dunton's Don Kainophilus as The Life, Travels, and Adventures of Christopher Wagstaff, Gentleman and Grandfather to Tristram Shandy with the clear purpose of showing, as the eighteenth-century editor put it, "that Shandeism (or something very like it) had an existence in this kingdom long before a late well known publication." The multiple sources of Tristram Shandy are well known, but what fascinated me was that this 1762 book would make the case for plagiarism by saying that the source was Tristram's rambling, dash-and-typography-obsessed grandfather--metempsychosis in action once again. The first line of Christopher Wagstaff is lovely for its joy at experimenting with conventions of writing: "A book is a thing that has no determined magnitude."

(Incidentally, one sees metempsychosis yet again in the mind-blowing Michael Winterbottom version of Tristram Shandy, in which there are a few jokes about the same actors from 24-Hour Party People showing up on the set of the film-within-a-film.)

Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature is a very funny book to dip through, and this online edition is really great. Here's a passage from Disraeli's essay on antiquarians:
The very existence Of OLDYS’S MANUSCRIPTS continues to be of an ambiguous nature, referred to, quoted, and transcribed; we cannot always turn to the originals. These masses of curious knowledge, dispersed or lost, have enriched an after-race, who have often picked up the spoil and claimed the victory, but it was OLDYS who had fought the battle!

OLDYS affords one more example how life is often closed amidst discoveries and acquisitions. The literary antiquary, when he has attempted to embody his multiplied inquiries, and to finish his scattered designs, has found that the LABOR ABSQUE LABORE, “the labour void of labour,” as the inscription on the library of Florence finely describes the researches of literature, has dissolved his days in the voluptuousness of his curiosity; and that too often, like the hunter in the heat of the chase, while he disdained the prey which lay before him, he was still stretching onwards to catch the fugitive!

Transvolat in medio posita, et fugientia captat.
Blogger Jeff'y on Fri Oct 26, 02:36:00 PM:
An underground radio personality in Infinite Jest uses the nom de, umm, air of "Madame Psychosis". Just FYI.
Blogger Alice on Fri Oct 26, 10:03:00 PM:
I'm teaching a David Foster Wallace essay in my class for the next month ("Tense Present," about grammar and usage). The students picked it from a set I gave them. Little did they know that I'd interrupt class with my own digressions on the funny David Lynch essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, admonitions that they may not finish Infinite Jest if they start it, and tales of my dad's insistent claims that IJ is the best American novel ever written, even better than Moby Dick. Assignment #1: pick a place where DFW's style illuminates his argument, and pick a place where DFW's style may detract from his argument by being annoying or digressive. The class discussion about that subject was great!
Blogger James Welsch on Fri Nov 23, 04:38:00 PM:
There's a strange unfinished John Donne epic about Metempsychosis, worth reading, which follows Eve's apple as it is reborn up thru an evolutionary ascension, until it links with Cain, agriculture & civilization.

Here's a passage where the soul, now an ape, dallies with one of Adam's daughters:


It quickened next a toyfull Ape, and so
Gamesome it was, that it might freely goe
From tent to tent, and with the children play,
His organs now so like theirs hee doth finde,
That why he cannot laugh, and speake his minde,
He wonders. Much with all, most he doth stay
With Adams fift daughter Siphatecia
Doth gaze on her, and, where she passeth, passe,
Gathers her fruits, and tumbles on the grasse,
And wisest of that kinde, the first true lover was.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Eddie Vedder and the economy of prestige

James English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value is the only academic book I know of with an epigram from Eddie Vedder: "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything" (his 1996 Grammy acceptance speech for "Spin the Black Circle").

English's book is worth reading every year at Nobel Prize, National Book Award, and Academy Award seasons because he so spot-on in analyzing small and large controversies that recur year after year as though the awards happened in art vacuums (or, more to the point, art cesspools where any award is viewed cynically and opportunistically). English's point is that we argue over who deserves an award because we're unsure what the awards are measuring--art or cultural prestige, or both. Louis Menand wrote a good review of the book when it came out in 2005. As usual, it's fascinating to read this year's discussions of the Nobel prizes for Doris Lessing and Al Gore with English's book: consider how low-key Lessing was about the award, Harold Bloom's grumpy criticism of the prize being more political than deserved, Gore's publicity compared with his co-recipients', the politicization of the prize (this is a great column from Paul Krugman).

Here's English on why the criticisms of the prize sound similar year after year and why they hold up the economy of the prize's prestige, even as they attempt to knock it down:
It is thus no exaggeration to say that antiprize rhetoric is part of the discursive apparatus of prizes themselves, produced by those whom they enlist as their own agents and serving interests that those agents share with sponsors and administrators. Apart from being a means of derivative consecration for journalist-critics (since members of this faction often receive the symbolically subsidiary but structurally primary honor of being asked to serve as nominators or judges), prizes have traditionally been useful in providing regular occasions for such critics to rehearse Enlightenment pieties about 'pure' art and 'authentic' forms of greatness or genius, and thereby to align themselves with 'higher' values, or more symbolically potent forms of capital, than those which dominate the (scandalously impure) prize economy as well as the journalistic field itself. Such rehearsals do nothing to discredit the cultural prize, and in fact serve as a crucial support for it inasmuch as they help to keep aloft the collective belief or make-belief in artistic value as such, in the disinterested judgment of taste, the hierarchy of value or prestige that is not a homology of social hierarchies, nor a euphemized form of social violence. Like the mid-century magazine profiles of 'great writers on vacation' memorably described by Roland Barthes in Mythologies, the journalistic coverage of prizes has served by its very emphasis on the banal, the social, the petty side of cultural life--the bickering or cheating, the insider deals, what is often referred to as the 'politics' of arts and letters--to reinforce belief in the higher, apolitical, 'intrinsically different' nature of artists and artistic value. The prize has depended on this collective belief, since its own currency, however tainted or debased, is understood to derive from this other and purer form, which stands in relation to the economy of cultural prestige as gold did to the cash economy in the days of the gold standard--perfectly magical guarantor of an imperfectly magical system.

My favorite part of the book is English's chapter on alternative responses to prizes (including Irwin Corey's odd acceptance of the 1974 National Book Award for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and the debate about Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize). Morrison's Beloved did not win the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award when it was nominated in 1987-88. In response, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and others wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review calling Morrison's missing out on these prizes "oversight and harmful whimsy." After Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Christopher Hitchens, among others, criticized Jordan's letter and insisted that Morrison's Pulitzer was tainted because others had campaigned for it. English's point is not that Morrison did not "deserve" her prize; in fact, he's more interested in how people collapsed a more interesting discussion about, say, the historical particularities of a prize in a particular year, into claims about deservedness and artistic merit. English writes of Hitchens' polemic:
In effect, his rhetoric of scandal, for all its prize-bashing bluster, serves to redirect a genuinely deviant or critical intervention, a contemporary departure from the old scheme of art versus money, art versus politics, onto the established paths of the modern ideology of art. What Morrison and her supporters did was to recognize and critique the prize for what it is--a thoroughly social economic, and (racist) political instrument--and to credit it with real, even potentially decisive power in determining long-term literary valuations, and to make an open and candid bid for it as such, leveraging their own forms of social and symbolic capital toward that end. From the standpoint of the prize, this is playing the game rather too knowingly and too explicitly, laying out the various interests and stakes and balance sheets, and publicly proposing a 'deal.' But ostensible prize-bashers such as Hitchens can be counted on to scold the interloper and lead her back to her proper place above or beyond or outside the proverbial backrooms where literary value is so scandalously manufactured by committee--that is, by groups of merely human agents.

Hitchens writes these pieces every single year. Here's the one on Lessing (who deserves it, he says) and here's the one on Harold Pinter (who doesn't). It's like a press-the-button kind of writing from him.

Really, my favorite responses to these awards are the "oh, this is my favorite of her books" comments--comments that take up the generosity of the award and repay it with enthusiasm, reconsideration, or something else unexpected. Jenny Davidson's long post about reading Lessing at the library is a good example. I'll recommend English's book and say that it was amazing to read it right after I finished J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, one of the most frustrating and rewarding books I've read in a long time. The main character is an author who's just been awarded a major literary prize and who reflects on writing, being interviewed, the future of the novel, what to say and what not to say at speeches, and a million other things. Here's the maddening last paragraph of her acceptance speech--a paragraph that reminds me a lot of Lessing's bemused reaction to her Nobel:
"There is every reason, then, for me to feel less than certain about myself as I stand before you. Despite this splendid award, for which I am deeply grateful, despite the promise it makes that, gathered into the illustrious company of those who have won it before me, I am beyond time's envious grasp, we all know, if we are being realistic, that it is only a matter of time before the books which you honour, and with whose genesis I have had something to do, will cease to be read and eventually cease to be read and eventually cease to be remembered. And properly so. There must be some limit to the burden of remembering that we impose on our children and grandchildren. They will have a world of their own, of which we should be less and less part. Thank you."
Blogger Ben on Sat Oct 15, 05:21:00 PM:
Just went back and read this. I'm fascinated by that idea that criticism of award decisions that holds them up to the Aristotelean artistic ideal actually serve to legitimize and glorify the award itself. A bravura digest of the issue, Alice!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Solomon mines

George W. Bush is generally thought to have cruised his way through Yale, skipping the books and racking up Cs. Not so, according to a friend of a friend of a friend, who (if he does exist) knew Bush at Yale and attests that Bush worked his ass of for those Cs.

It's with that is mind that I indulge a little schadenfreude that Alice and I share. It seems that not only does NY Times Magazine interview columnist Deborah Solomon produce lousy reporting, but that reporting is the result of dishonest cutting, pasting and after-the-fact question writing intended to improve on the actual interviews!

Big mistake doing this with people who are not only 1) famous and 2) opinionated, but also 3) alive (just ask Simon Schama, who gets away with some very creative nonfiction because Rembrandt is 340 years removed from being able to protest). Jayson Blair and Patricia Williams got caught, and their subjects managed to complain even though they didn't even exist!

From public editor Clark Hoyt's column today:

In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review in 2005, Solomon said: “Feel free to mix the pieces of this interview around, which is what I do.”

“Is there a general protocol on that?” her questioner asked.

“There’s no Q. and A. protocol,” Solomon replied. “You can write the manual.” Solomon told me she was joking.

In fact, there is a protocol, and “Questions For” isn’t living up to it. The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage says that readers have a right to assume that every word in quotation marks is what was actually said. “Questions For” does not use quotations marks but is presented as a transcript. The manual also says ellipses should be used to signal omissions in transcripts, and that “The Times does not ‘clean up’ quotations.”

[NY Times Magazine editor Gerald] Marzorati told me, “this is an entertainment, not a newsmaker interview on ‘Meet the Press.’” But that does not relieve it of the obligation to live up to The Times’s standards or offer an explanation when it deviates from them.

... Now, I believe, if they want to preserve the illusion of a conversation, they should publish with each column a brief description of the editing standards: the order of questions may be changed, information may be added for clarity, and the transcript has been boiled down without indicating where material has been removed.

If such a disclaimer destroys the illusion, maybe “Questions For” needs to be rethought.

I strongly agree. There are talented interviewers out there who would love Solomon's job but insist on honest reporting. They shouldn't be punished because of Solomon and the Times Magazine's low standards.
Blogger Alice on Thu Oct 18, 06:07:00 PM:
OK, I've noted on this blog how much I dislike the "Questions for" feature in the NY Times Magazine, but I think Solomon isn't totally wrong about there being no set method for Q&A. She's just not up-front about what choices she makes in her editing of the feature. Her now-exposed method of inserting her own pithy remarks after the fact isolates the very thing that bothers me the most about those columns--that they seem to be more about Solomon and less about her interview subjects. It's weird how the subjects all start to sound the same (defensive) when they're put through Solomon's method.

But there are interesting alternatives to the verbatim Q&A. I'm thinking of Jenny Davidson's Believer about Toni Schlesinger's columns for the Village Voice:

"Schlesinger’s capturing of patterns of speech, and more precisely the particulars that conjure character, has more obvious associations with the playwright’s work (she has had a number of stage pieces performed in New York and elsewhere), or even with biography. When we spoke, I had just been reading the Life of Johnson, and I was struck by a certain similarity between the problems posed by Schlesinger’s and Boswell’s reportorial techniques. Boswell usually went home after an evening spent with Johnson and wrote detailed notes about what had passed between them (assuming he was not too drunk to remember and/or stay awake), which he would later use to reconstitute the scenes for the biography, but his adeptness at impersonating Johnson’s manner in turn sometimes casts doubt on the authenticity of the conversations he documents. Because Shelter mostly represents conversation rather than monologue of the 'as told to' variety, Schlesinger’s own voice—charming, wayward, somewhat loopy—sounds at unpredictable moments as well. The divine paradox of the Schlesinger style lies in the way it mates the interviewer’s customary self-effacement with the wild egotistical workings of imagination."
Blogger Ben on Thu Oct 18, 06:27:00 PM:
Davidson captures what I love about Schlesinger's interviews, and I think (hope!) that this is the *opposite* of what Solomon's interviews do for me. Schlesinger's reportorial voice is either her real one (with verbatim words), or it's an incredible simulation of a real one; part of what's compelling about it is that it feels raw and unpredictable (see Davidson's well-chosen adjectives) and not stagy or proud. I dislike Solomon's writing mostly because her voice is so stuffy and baselessly arrogant, but also because, I suspect, she edits her interviews to make her voice *more* so. I don't know for sure, but I bet she'd sound more likeable--off-balance, unpredictable, surprised--if her interviews were transcribed verbatim.

My test for journalistic ethics could be, if I had done the reporting, would I wish the truth had gone the way the piece implies, rather than the exact way it went? If I would, then I think the journalist probably doing something wrong. A cough or a boring digression wouldn't bother me -- who cares if it's omitted? But inserting my own witty banter, and rearranging comments to create the appearance of rapport -- those are things I'd wish had happened at the time. There may be no set method for Q&A--or for most of reporting's many murky situations, for that matter--but on some level any writer who does what Solomon did knows she is dishonestly manipulating a story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Marmalade words

Lately, I've been writing many e-mails to my friends about my admiration for Errol Morris's work (Brette and I saw him speak at the New Yorker festival with Philip Gourevitch, and I'll post on that soon--needless to say, it was extraordinary), and I always laugh a little when I type out the description of my favorite of Morris's films, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: "it's a documentary about four strange obsessions: robots, lion taming, naked mole rats, and topiary gardening." I'm nearly certain I've never typed out "naked mole rats" or "topiary gardening" in any other context, but now the words are everywhere. Actually, I probably have written naked mole rats in an account about the World of Darkness, my favorite Bronx zoo exhibit. Some days I try to figure out how many Statistically Improbable Phrases (to use Amazon parlance) I type out--of course, such self-consciousness ends up being circular because you can't very well try to achieve statistical improbability, right?

I call these moments Marmalade Words, after a passage from Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle--which has a neat redesigned book cover and an introduction from Jonathan Lethem--about the narrator's self-protection strategy:
"I decided I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word--melody--in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe.
I was deciding on my seocond magic word, which I thought might very well be Gloucester. It was strong, and I thought it would do, although Unlce Julian might take it into his head to say almost anything and no word was truly safe when Uncle Julian was talking.
I thoguht of using digitalis as my third magic word, but it was too easy for someone to say, and at last I decided on Pegasus.
(I can read that she's eating jam, but I never get to say the word marmalade.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

If you're into evil, you're a friend of mine

Back in August, I read Christian Jungerson's The Exception in one sitting because I was so caught up in it. I think the plot and character development go off the rails in the last part of the book, but that's part of the fun of reading it all at once--the crazy stuff wouldn't be tolerable in more reasonable doses.

The book is about four women who work at the Danish Center for Genocide Studies, an organization that collects and publishes information about historical and current genocides. Two of the women, Iben and Malene, are close friends from college. Camilla, the administrative assistant, has a hidden past. Anne-Lise, the librarian, is jealous of the three other women for getting to sit together in one room of the office, and she feels that Malene and Iben actively exclude her from the workday conversations. When two of the employees receive personalized death threats, the office relationships begin to unravel. The book is really good at showing the small jealousies in friendships and the way that people can unconsciously misinterpret interactions in order to believe the worst about someone. What started as personal slights--both real and imagined--snowball into vicious rumor-mongering, paranoia, violence, and mental breakdown. The novel sets up a loaded question about the comparison between large-scale evil and smaller, interpersonal acts of evil. The problem of comparing those two scales is resolved in some questionable plot twists, and the author resorts to an overused trick to explain some character development problems. So I think it's an excellent book for two-thirds, and it's clumsier at the end. (Here's a compendium of reviews from the Complete Review.)

For its sinister office setting and its character development, the book reminded me of Shirley Jackson's neglected novel The Bird's Nest, which, though a little silly and dated in some parts, is still a cool book. The novel's set-up also reminded me of Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, my favorite book when I was a teenager. That book is a marvel for its subtle details that point toward a terrifying resolution. Here's an early description of the main character of The Bird's Nest:
Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest, as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth's desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth's personal equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that it was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that they began to slip at about the same time.

Back to The Exception: you don't read 500+-page novels all at once without some sort of speed-reading method. Or at least I don't. I skim parts that don't interest me, and I don't tend to read every word on a page unless the writing is striking for some reason. I've been speed-reading since I was little, so sometimes I don't notice what I'm skimming. For some reason, The Exception brought those skimming practices into high relief.

In the novel, Iben writes articles for the Center's journal about topics relating to genocide. The articles, it seems at first, are rather conventional. That is, the subject matter is gravely serious, but Iben, at least to my mind, is a dry writer who relies mostly on summary, generalization, and rhetorical questions. Some reviewers on Amazon have praised these articles, but I had a difficult time believing that they were supposed to be original, groundbreaking work about Serbia, the Milgram experiment, and the psychology of evil. So I started skimming them, especially the Milgram one--more on that later in the post.

I don't think it will give too much away to say that I started to pay much more attention to the articles later in the book, and when I finished it I realized that there were some valuable clues and hints there. I was interested in how the articles at first seem to have a sort of reifying effect in establishing the novel's themes, but they become increasingly unreliable and destabilizing as all of the characters become implicated in the breakdown of sanity and order.

I got really frustrated with the novel's article about the Milgram experiments because it seemed to take those experiments at face value, and I remain skeptical about some of the ways that work gets used as an uncomplicated lens on too many subjects. (Here's Ben's entry about new thoughts on the experiments.) I mentioned this concern to a friend who was also reading Jungerson's novel, and she pointed me to an interesting article from Granta (2000) about reconsiderations of Milgram. Here's an excerpt from Ian Parker's "Obedience," which wonders whether the experiments have had a single meaning superimposed onto them, when there may be more than one way to consider how the participants responded to their instructions:
And there is Milgram's problem: he devised an intensely powerful piece of tragicomic laboratory theatre, and then had to smuggle it into the faculty of social science. His most famous work--which had something to say about trust, embarrassment, low-level sadism, willingness to please, exaggerated post-war respect for scientific research, the sleepy, heavy-lidded pleasure of being asked to take part, and perhaps, too, the desire of a rather awkward young academic to secure attention and respect--had to pass itself off as an event with a single, steady meaning. And that disguise has not always been convincing. It's odd to hear Arthur G. Miller--one of the world's leading Milgram scholars--acknowledge that there have been times when he has wondered, just for a moment, if the experiments perhaps mean nothing at all.

But the faculty of social psychology is not ready to let Milgram go. And there may be a new way to rescue the experiments from their ungainly ambiguity. This is the route taken by Professors Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett (at Stanford and the University of Michigan, respectively), whose recent synthesis of social psychological thinking aims to give the subject new power. According to Professor Ross, the experiments may be 'performance,' but they still have social psychological news to deliver. If that is true, then we can do something that the late professor was not always able to do himself: we can make a kind of reconciliation between the artist and the scientist in Stanley Milgram.

Ross and Nisbett find a seat for Stanley Milgram at social psychology's high table. They do this slyly, by taking the idea of obedience--Milgram's big idea--and putting it quietly to one side. When Ross teaches Milgram at Stanford, he makes a point of giving his students detailed instructions on how to prepare for the classes--instructions he knows will be thoroughly ignored. He is then able to stand in front of his students and examine their disobedience. 'I asked you to do something that's good for you rather than bad for you,' he tells them. 'And I'm a legitimate authority rather than an illegitimate one, and I actually have power that the Milgram experimenter doesn't have. And yet you didn't obey. So the study can't just be about obedience.' What it is primarily about, Ross tells his students--and it may be about other things too--is the extreme power of a situation that has been built without obvious escape routes.
According to Ross and Nisbett (who are saying something that Milgram surely knew, but something he allowed to become obscured), the Obedience Experiments point us towards a great social psychological truth, perhaps the great truth, which is this: people tend to do things because of where they are, not who they are, and we are slow to see it. We look for character traits to explain a person's actions--he is clever, shy, generous, arrogant--and we stubbornly underestimate the influence of the situation, the way things happened to be at that moment. So, if circumstances had been even only subtly different (if she hadn't been running late; if he'd been told the film was a comedy), the behaviour would have been radically different. Under certain controlled circumstances, then, people can be induced to behave unkindly: to that extent, Milgram may have something to say about a kind of destructive obedience. ...