Links for April 28

  • The Times Online has an essay about modern classics editions:
  • Today we have heaps of choice and plenty of publishers telling us what we should be reading. As the Oxford World’s Classics series is relaunched this month, its rivals include Penguin and Vintage, as well as enterprises from smaller presses such as Everyman, Wordsworth and Oneworld.

    The present “classics” industry dates back at least to 1906, when Joseph Dent hit on the idea of publishing 1,000 titles by the “best authors” at the (relatively) cheap price of one shilling. This was the Everyman Library. At the beginning of the 20th century there were many new “common readers” as a result of the Elementary Education Act passed in the 1870, and they wanted to own their books. Add to that the establishment of English Literature as a subject in the universities and you had the magic equation – readers wanting books, professors wanting to pontificate on what to read, and booksellers wanting to sell.

If that’s not enough classics for you, they have one more but less interesting piece.

I admit that I’m a fan of the classics genre, as I said in a post about the dubious winners of those tedious year-end prizes. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been reading To The Lighthouse (more on that shortly, as well as a post on James Wood’s How Fiction Works); Woolf’s novel is one of those that makes me sit up and go “Ah! This is the real thing.”

  • Not long ago the New York Times ran a great essay called It’s Not You, It’s Your Books, and that topic arose independently of the article at a party last night. This week, Rachel Donadio strikes again with You’re an Author? Me Too!:

    It’s well established that Americans are reading fewer books than they used to. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn’t read a book in the previous year — a state of affairs that has prompted much soul-searching by anyone with an affection for (or business interest in) turning pages. But even as more people choose the phantasmagoria of the screen over the contemplative pleasures of the page, there’s a parallel phenomenon sweeping the country: collective graphomania.

    In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work. The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”

  • Riots, Terrorism etc (no complaints about the punctuation—it’s from the London Review of Books) isn’t except for the lede: “‘Important’ is a cant word in book reviewing: it usually means something like ‘slightly above average’, or ‘I was at university with her,’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read it so I’m giving a quote instead.’ Very occasionally it might be stretched to mean ‘a book likely to be referred to in the future by other people who write about the same subject’.” Alas, the rest of it appears to be on the subject of how the British newspaper industry is doing as poorly as the American one. See here for more on the subject.
  • For pure amusement, check out What is the polite word for “pimp”? in Language Log. The title makes sense in the context of the article, and I won’t give away the joke here.

Life

“What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.”

—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice in terms of tone and content: both take a jaunty look at a squeamish area and then use their investigation as a launching point for examining society, politics, gender roles, and history.

To be fair, the last part of that sentence is overly grandiose, but it’s nonetheless accurate, and many of the positive comments I wrote about The Book of Vice could easily be transposed to Bonk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon pairs the two with its buy-both-and-get-more-money-off-the-combo-package feature. The difference are important, however; if Bonk has a thesis, it is that science has long used its objectivity cloak to elude societal retribution and social backlash, with varying levels of success that have nonetheless increased over the years. Furthermore, much of this inquiry ends up saying more about the scientists and society than it does about sex itself. Roach says:

When I began this book, I harbored a naïve fantasy that I would find a team of scientists working to discover the secret to amazing, mind-rippling sex. They would report to work late a night in a windowless, hi-tech laboratory and have unplaceable accents and penetrating stares.

More often she found rather pedestrian researchers concerned with knowledge and funding to pursue that knowledge in an attempt to bring sex out of myth, religion, and superstition. Her main heroes, to the extent Bonk has heroes, are early sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who make an early appearance on page 23—”Foreplay” is the chapter heading that would normally be “Introduction”—and we’re still learning about them on page 299—”Persons studied in pairs.” To quote Roach again:

I learned about the project in a New York Times health column. Jane Brody had described the book and its conclusions the week it came out. The subheads the paper had supplied were vague and coy: “Persons Studied in Pairs,” said one. It was like writing up the Million Man March under the headline “Persons Walking in a Group.” In a sentence at the end of a paragraph describing study protocols, Brody notes simply: “Some were assigned partners.” The casual reader, alighting here, might have mistaken the column for a piece about square dancing. I immediately tracked down a copy of the book.

Roach likes to castigate the euphemisms and other covers frequently employed by journalists and others, as she does here, while also laughing at the science-y jargon of experts. This gives her prose the slangy style of your friend at a Sunday morning brunch or a comedian at a club the Saturday night before. She can play for the high end of science and the low-end of slapstick. Still, she’s obviously on the side of the researchers and others working toward openness:

But let’s give Masters and Johnson their due. And while we’re at it, Alfred Kinsey and Robert Latou Dickinson and Old Dad and everyone else in these pages. The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe, or well-paid undertaking. Study by study, the gains may seem small and occasionally silly, but the aggregation of all that has been learned, the lurching tango of academe and popular culture, has led us to a happier place. Hats and pants off to you all.

This triumphalism might be misplaced—what would the Wall Street Journal editorial page say to such a paragraph?—but if you look past the humor scrim you’ll see that Roach does have a point, and she also ensures that anyone who tries to refute her in a serious tone will come off looking like a stodgy minister at a dance. Furthermore, Roach seems cognizant of her own place in the historical march toward making people comfortable talking about sex openly, and the future might take as dim a view of her as we take of Victorian sex manuals. And I’m not sure what Foucault would think of Roach’s approach to sexual discourse, particularly regarding its examination of history.

But with luck the future will forgive her and still laugh, since a large part of Bonk, like The Book of Vice, is really just using sex to comment on other or abstract ideas; as one researcher says, “You think you know a lot until you start to ask some really basic questions, and you realize you know nothing.” I’ve heard English and computer science professors make similar remarks, whether about the meaning of the capital-N Novel or whether P = NP; in the case of Bonk, the quote just happens to be on the subject of whether women’s orgasms help with sperm transport and conception. In Roach’s, uh, hands, the question launches a historical disquisition on the quest to discover the answer, which, while amusing, also gives the opportunity to realize that we’re probably living in an era where the dominant beliefs about sex, gender, and the like will appear ridiculous someday. While I mentioned triumphalism before, I should also that Roach is triumphant about progress, both normatively and scientifically, and that is a conclusion I can’t help but agreeing with, especially when it’s presented in such an excellent package.

Media myopia and the New Yorker

A month ago, the New Yorker published an article called “Out of Print” that shows the collective problems of the newspaper and larger media industries, which has been a regular topic in the industry itself, online, and elsewhere. I’m not one of these awful “bloggers will replace the media” types, chiefly for what, as the article says, “[...] the parasitical relationship that virtually all Internet news sites and blog commentators enjoy with newspapers.” You might notice that I’m linking to a magazine.

Still, I sent this letter to the editor, which went unpublished:

That “Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and . . . their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago” shows the industry’s collective myopia in the face of rapid technological evolution (“Out of Print,” March 31st). As a high school senior in 2001 – 2002, I was the co-editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and seriously considered picking colleges based on their journalism programs, but even then it was obvious to me that the Internet would make journalism at best a tenuous career choice. From my perspective, the pace of change was entirely imaginable, and I shifted my academic priorities because of it.

Now I write a book blog. Although it is not professionally edited, it is one of many blogs supplementing or supplanting traditional book review sections that have been heavily cut by newspapers. My life is a microcosm of the problems being experienced by traditional print media.

Normally I like to hear about typos and amend them silently. But if there’s one in this particular blockquote—be silent! It’s too late!

Harry, Revised — Mark Sarvas

Mark SarvasHarry, Revised confounds virtually every criticism I want to throw at it: the callowness of its protagonist, Harry, is more than addressed by its end. The narrative point of view shifts quickly, but that became an aspect of the novel’s internal rhythm. Harry’s friend, Max, is a too-typical sidekick, but Harry and I were the ones fooled when Max announces his plan to move, justifying it by saying: “Thing is, I ask myself, and don’t take this wrong, is what did our friendship really amount to?” It’s a question emblematic of Harry’s dilemmas—most of which are self-imposed—because it’s really a question that asks, “What do you really amount to?”

After these issues have been dealt with, the positive aspects of Harry, Revised, remain: it’s a funny novel that often made me smile at, more often than with, Harry. The wonderful metaphors perk up with wonderful regularity, as when Harry’s dead wife, Anna picks men “out of the field of suitors blackening her front porch like a swarm of death and dung beetles,” or, a slightly more sober note, “[t]ime has lost its shape for [Harry] these days, feeling increasingly like a monochrome jigsaw puzzle.” Such descriptions are reserved for people, however; little is said about the setting of L.A., what Wilshire Boulevard feels like, or how Harry can be a doctor, as his profession seems more window dressing than central aspect of his character. Given the anonymity of L.A., however, it might be appropriate that the land itself is a mere conduit for the plot.

Harry, Revised begins with the newly found object of Harry’s affections, a tattooed 22-year-old waitress named Molly who seems an improbable fit for Harry. Then again, it’s hard to imagine who a probable fit for him would be, including his dead wife, Anna, a woman whose improbable love for Harry is equally improbably, and yet believably, explained. Her first reappearance in a time-shift is jarring—have we just entered a Henry James-esque world of ghosts?—but she is more appealing than her husband in the tradition of Julie in Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Even when the impending revelations about her that you know are coming arrive, she’s still the better person. The time shifts never confuse after the first one, though such devices can be occasionally disorienting. As a narrative game, they’re enjoyable and enhance rather than distract from the novel’s overall effect.

The narrative is unusual in other ways: a third-person genuinely omniscient narrator isn’t found much in modern fiction but is deployed to strong effect here. The present tense is more commonly employed but nonetheless not an everyday occurrence, especially in conjunction with the omniscient narrator, who describes Harry at the beginning—and maybe could describe him at the end—as having “always found it easier to deny, to disavow, and to disengage.” Or is this the free indirect speech much described James Wood, a Sarvas favorite? I’m not sure here: that last word, “disengage,” makes me think the narrator speaks, but perhaps this is also something Harry thinks about himself.

No minor characters are more than flat, which is fine when they’re often so well described: a mortician “was of a type equally at home purveying coffins and caskets or plots of Florida real estate.” Notice the resonance of “at home” followed by the mention of real estate, combined with the idea of caskets or the earth being a final resting home. Two pages later, a theme about Anna gets picked up that is becomes steadily more woven into the narrative: “Fondness-as-finance was the lingua franca of the Weldt family.” The repeated alliteration of the “f” sound brings us through the sentence and the latin phrase that might otherwise be awkward, its “franca” rolling into the “fondness” idea and “family.” Harry himself is perhaps too often described as average, as when “[h]e can’t bear the prospect of the face he knows all too well in all its ordinariness,” but even if Harry is ordinary, his journey is not. Later, “Having, as always, no strong preferences, Harry selects one of the few bottles that’s already open.”

These description make Harry sound unappetizing, and he is, but in yet another example of confounding expectations he’s also likable, perhaps because he recognizes his own failings and tries to surmount them in ways that aren’t going to make him a jerk, which would be the most obvious way to do so. He’s endearing despite occasional repulsiveness (lying, sleeping with prostitutes while married). Again, I have to return to the greatest novelty and the magic of Harry, Revised, which comes from this and from its ability to evade the flaws I want to cite but that just aren’t important.

For example, Harry’s scheme to woo Molly is straight out of high school, or the mind of an emotionally immature man—the two have some overlap—and its implausibility is both irritating and necessary. Clearly Harry is unfamiliar with ladder theory, Neil Strauss’ The Game, or the rest of the caddish, shallow books that, although they are caddish and shallow, nonetheless do impart some useful framework for thinking about and attracting woman. Good buddies of the sort Harry evidently lacks can serve the same function. Hell, even Slate runs stories on the dating market and, implicitly, how it can be manipulated. Instead of evaluating the wisdom of his approach, Harry shows the disadvantages of doing things his way through problems ranging from expense to (in)effectiveness. I diagnose Harry in clinical or economic terms, but his real problems are spiritual and emotional, and at times I marveled at his inability to perceive his own state, like when “[his] thoughts careen and collide in his brain but not amount of effort can move his lips,” or, a few paragraphs later, “The empty words pop like lightbulbs falling to the floor.” There Sarvas is the perfect simile again, the words shattered, no longer illuminating thought but leaving it in darkness. The “splitting” or breaking theme starts with Harry’s last name—rent, and not, I suspect, in the sense of an apartment—and continues as Harry’s life falls apart and is, perhaps, reforged.

The word “perhaps” is important there. As we learn, “Harry doesn’t like this [end of The Count of Monte Cristo], hadn’t reckoned on ambiguity. He likes happy endings, and he wants to see heroes get their due and villains get their just deserts.” As this implies, the ending is not entirely happy. Although I won’t give it away, the end reminds me of T.C. Boyle in the way he likes ending on unexpected, orthogonal vectors that must seem maddening to those who, like Harry, want to see justice meted out—whatever that means. Yet in a world of ambiguity and novels that reflect said ambiguity, discovering who the heroes and villains are and what just deserts means can be vastly harder than dealing those deserts. Yet the shattering of Harry’s complacency is necessary so he can rebuild some new kind of worldview separate from the one be began with; as the subhead to Chapter Thirteen says, “In which our hero begins to put the pieces together.” These chapter summaries are also intentionally archaic, like the ones in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Like the third-person omniscient narrator, however, they come to fit the story and end up concealing more than they reveal: How does Harry put the pieces back together? And does he really? Does Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage become something of a hero or overcome his cowardice and guilt? I’m not sure, and midway through the novel neither is Harry, as when he wonders: “It feels incomplete, this shard of self-knowledge [...]“. Self-knowledge is a terrible and wonderful thing to behold. I’m not sure you’ll find completion in Harry, Revised, but I am sure that’s not a bad thing.


As mentioned previously, Sarvas will be at the University Bookstore on May 8 at 7:00 p.m.

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