The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates' reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan's] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan's] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

DSLRs, smartphones, and point-n-shoots

Pictures taken with smartphone cameras almost outnumber standalone digital cameras. A couple thoughts:

1) More people probably have phones with them than regular digital cameras, so the “photographer base” is probably much larger. For more statistical anomalies, see C|Net’s take. Moral: it’s easy to lie / mislead with statistics!

2) People who have standalone digital cameras, especially dSLRs, probably take more pictures than people without; so I would guess a larger number of pictures are taken by a smaller number of people in that case. I would tend to guess they also take better pictures: not because of some magical quality dSLRs possess, but because people who know a lot about photography are more likely to buy better cameras.

3) Separate from the article, I have never seen a greater number of dSLRs than I did in NYC. Tourists, I guess? I never conspicuously hauled mine around. I wonder which city would qualify as “most photographed in the world;” perhaps Flickr or Facebook’s data hordes could answer. I would guess Tokyo or London.

4) Smartphones are clearly reaching (and, in some cases, have already reached) the “good enough” stage that so much consumer technology eventually does. I wouldn’t trade a Canon s100 or t2i for a phone camera, but in decent lighting the iPhone 4 and 4s do produce nice results. Note that interchangeable lens camera sales are up, probably because the Internet makes pictures more valuable for amateurs because of the possibility of sharing and perceived status gain.

5) The photographer still makes the camera more than vice-versa.

6) For any kind of composed shooting, a tripod will do more than anything except decent lighting, whether natural or studio.

7) Life is uncomposed, and capturing life might demand the same.

8) What am I missing?

Late December Links: Sleep deficits, narrative power, tea, iPads, bikes, pubic hair, and more

* Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer. This should be obvious, and medical residency directors ought to read it.

* “[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence.” Can you guess the context? It’s actually about poetry, but it fits literary fiction too and my feelings about so much lit fic.

* Tea: Not Just for Girls; I find this intriguing, since I am a guy:

My customers are about 60% male, and men make up the majority of attendance at my tea tastings. Why guys? I think guys are fascinated by the history and culture of tea, and view tea as a hobby — seeking out the best of the best, matching tea with tea ware, using ancient steeping methods.

* Charlie Stross: Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing. But he’d like to. And I’d like to. I don’t own an iPad primarily because it looks like a media consumption device, and while I read and watch a fair bit of “media,” I want to focus more on the production side of things most of the time.

* Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. It’s amazing to me not only how little we know, but how little we know how little we know (read that twice).

* Jurors Need to Know That They Can Say No; “The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know.”

* This Bike Could Save Your Life: An Infographic On The Massive Benefits Of Bicycling.

* The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct? To me this reads like old news, like a lot of the reporting “old” people do on “young” people. I wonder when I join the old people reporting instead of the young people, with their shocking, new-fangled ways, being reported on.

* David Henderson’s “Occupy Monterey” talks are fascinating in part because they reveal the basic economic illiteracy of much of his audience. There are three parts, all at the link; some of the comments shouted from people in the audience remind me of things I’ve heard peers and profs say in English departments.

* The No-Brainer Issue of the Year: Let High-Skill Immigrants Stay:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2.

* Get Ready for Manufacturing’s Big Comeback; “As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance.”

Humor as an antidote to frustration, from Christopher Hitchens

I think of Christopher Hitchens more along the lines of Katha Pollitt, who “want[s] to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish.” And she does. Still, Hitchens was sometimes spectacularly right, as in this introduction to Arguably: Essays:

The people who must never have power are the humorless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity. Since an essential element in the American idea is its variety, I have tried to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest. All of the above might apply to the subject of my little essay on the art and science of the blowjob, for example [....]

Be almost as wary of the humorless as you are of the people who pride themselves on humor.

The frustrations of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape

I started Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape in the hope that it would cover sexuality and sexual dynamics thoroughly. It didn’t, mostly because few of its writers know anything about evolutionary biology / psychology, game theory, incentives, or economics. Instead, they offer unmoored political polemics about how people should act, or how culture operates. Few of the writers discuss how incentives shape behavior or how the choices made by individuals do, in the aggregate, form culture itself.

Yes Means Yes feels like descriptions of the physical world before Newton formulated his laws. The major exception is Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” because she has a sense of how we’ve gotten to an equilibrium that explains why a lot of women are unhappy because many of the guys they sleep with treat them like dirt afterwards (and, often, before), while a lot of men are unhappy because they find sexual success linked to domineering behavior. She says:

Any attempts to critique men for being sexually aggressive, or to critique women to fulfilling the role of sexual object, will have a very limited effect. These tactics, after all, fail to address the crucial issue of demand. So long as heterosexual women are attracted to men who act like aggressors, and heterosexual men are attracted to women who act like objects, people will continue to fulfill those roles.

Serano at least understands the problem and the forces at work. Most of the rest of the writers don’t, rendering the book not worth reading. One could understand a book like this in, say, the 1960s, before a lot of contemporary research in numerous venues on subjects relating to sexuality. But Yes Means Yes was published in 2008.

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