The Best Software Writing — Joel Spolsky

Well-written, insightful books on subjects I know nothing about often impart some lasting and surprising ideas. The biggest problem is finding them, since you don’t know they’re well-written or insightful till it’s too late. Pleasant surprises have abounded recently, one being The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood. Another comes from Joel Spolsky, who writes a popular blog on software called Joel on Software and edited The Best Software Writing I. In an industry where books age date so fast as to be almost pointless, like the hardware that runs software, one astonishing aspect is how The Best Software Writing, published in 2005 and composed of many essays written earlier, is still relevant and fascinating—and will probably be so for a long time yet.

Take Danah Boyd’s “Autistic Social Software,” which, like most of The Best Software Writing, explains how computers and people interact. It was published around 2004, which represented a societal turning point not widely recognized at the time, as virtually everyone my age hopped on what we now call “social networking sites.”* She observes that those sites weren’t very good because they’re not focused on users, even drawing a not entirely apt analogy similar to the one I made Science Fiction, literature, and the haters:

While many science fiction writers try to convey the nuances of human behavior, their emphasis is on the storyline, and they often convey the social issues around a technology as it affects that story. Building universal assumptions based on the limited scenarios set forth by sci-fi is problematic; doing so fails to capture the rich diversity of human behavior.

Her comments about science fiction are accurate regarding much, but not all of it, just like her comments about the focus of programmers on computers and their limitations, forcing us to adapt to them rather than vice-versa. The market has a knack for giving people what they want, however, and that focus is changing over time as iterative generations of software improve and people move to sites that work better. Boyd says, “[…] there is a value in understanding social life and figuring out how to interact with people on shared terms.” Right: and those who figure out what that means will be rewarded. I’m reminded of a programmer friend whose e-mail signature says “Computers aren’t the future; people are,” and I suspect he would approve of the lessons in this essay and larger book.

That’s a single example of how you take offline phenomenon—how people congregate—and apply it to an online context. Other essays reverse that dynamic. Clay Shirky’s “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” explains how online groups form and break apart in much the same fashion as offline groups. You could look at this in terms of clubs, families, countries or jobs, all of which have similar cohesive and destructive forces assailing them over different time periods. One thing the military has going for it is hundreds of years of experience in taking people and forcing them to work together toward a common goal. Many sports accomplish the same thing. But in both cases, the tasks—destroying things and killing people, moving a ball down a field—are narrow and well-defined compared to the wide-open field of artistic creation. Granted, both the military and sports have their wider, macro possibilities—what do we destroy and who do we kill and why? (this question is more often known as politics), or what rules should the game have and why?—but they’re not intrinsically undefined like software, or other forms of intellectual endeavor (Paul Graham wrote about this in Great Hackers.) The incentives are easier to get right. In software, like life, they’re not. Compensation becomes harder to get right when goals are less easily defined, which is a major subject in one essay and subsidiary in others. I wrote about it as applied to grant writing, using Spolsky as a launching pad, and if more people realized what he’s already discovered, we might not waste so much effort trying to reinvent the wheel or invent futile algorithms for what is inherently a tricky subject.

The Best Software Writing is, yes, about software, but it’s about more, including the future. Those interested in seeing it, and the inside of the most transformative industry of recent times, would do well to read it. It contains more thought than Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, a New York Times article published yesterday (read it, or the rest of the paragraph won’t make much sense). Why hasn’t the reporter figured done enough background research? I wish I could say. It contrasts with Shirky’s other article, “User as Group,” which demonstrates much of what’s right about the new mediums without questioning the medium’s utility—something that the New York Times article utterly misses. Furthermore, on the individual level, the individual is going to suffer the pain of insufficient literacy or numeracy in the form of inferior jobs and a less intense life. Many seem happy to make such trade-offs, and we go on telling them to eat their Wheaties. If they don’t, they won’t be able to write at the level of skill and detail in The Best Software Writing, which would make the world a poorer place, but those involved don’t seem to care as a group. Oh well. What harm not reading Spolsky or Fred Brooks will harm the individual, but it will also cause splash damage to others who have to work with them. To the extent reading online ameliorates those problems, as Shirky implies, we’ve made improvements. He, Spolsky, and Brooks who write about programming only to the extent you’re unwilling to see programming as a metaphor.

The major fear articles like “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” express, I suspect, is that many people are getting along without books and stories. On a societal basis, this probably isn’t a good thing, since democracies depend on educated citizens with historical knowledge—but on a personal level, if you’re a mid-level account manager at some large company, how much does your familiarity with Tolstoy and Norman Rush really help or hurt you? On the other hand, if you want to be at the top of virtually any field, you need to read and understand the world. In software, that means books like The Best Software Writing, which, though it consists almost entirely of pieces that originally appeared online, is a physical, dead-tree book that I liked reading on paper far more than I would’ve on the screen, where I already spend entirely too much of my face time. I want what I find convenient, as do most people, and many of the essays point toward defining what that means. It’s got more about how fulfill human desires than most books, fiction or nonfiction. Volume II of The Best Software Writing might never appear. Given the strength of the first, I wish it would.

* I hope future readers find this strange phrase an anachronism showing how primitive we are, because it’s ugly and imprecise. If a phrase must be one, it at least shouldn’t be the other.

Problems of Perception

In Slate, Why Chris Anderson’s theory of the digital world might be all wrong appears:

In the 1960s, sociologist William McPhee argued that obscure cultural fare faced a further hardship in attracting an audience. McPhee said that for any product category—books, movies, songs—there are generally two kinds of customers: those who buy a lot and those who buy a little. Or, if you prefer, there are buffs, and there are boors. Boors flock to the popular stuff. The buffs, too, like what’s popular, but they’re more willing to try obscure fare. It would be a mistake, however, to consider buffs open-minded; if you’ve ever audited an undergrad film class, you understand that such people are often insufferably critical. Here’s the hitch, then: The customers who are most likely to try an obscure book, movie, or song are also the most likely to pan it.

This jibes my post about “entertainment” being an artistic metric:

Entertainment also seems to drift with experience: what I found entertaining at 12—like Robert Heinlein—I can’t or can barely read now, and what I like now—such as To The Lighthouse—I wouldn’t have accepted then. For me, entertainment involves novelty in language and content, and the more I read, the harder that becomes to achieve, and so for prolific readers (or, I suspect, watchers of movies), one has to search harder and harder for the genuinely novel. Demands grow higher, perhaps helping to open the supposed rift between high and low, or elite and mass, culture.

People who consume a lot of something, whether it’s food or a particular kind of art, become more discriminating in that subject. It ties in with a recent post on Freakonomics about wines; it features a hilarious anecdote about would-be oenophiles at the Harvard Society of Fellows that will ring true to academics, followed by a rigorous research study:

Their conclusion: fancy people with lots of training can tell cheap wine from expensive wine, but regular people cannot.

Wine isn’t the only area; in art, food, computers, economics, or whatever, those who are intensely involved develop stronger taste that is often at odds with those not so involved, leading experts to disdain the tastes of the masses, who can’t tell how canary yellow is different from sunflower yellow like a specialist. The taste of the masses isn’t so much bad as it is random. In books, you have natterers like me who deride the garbage on the bestseller lists and the extremely popular books of indifferent quality like Harry Potter. Although we have lots of justifications, especially if you read The New Yorker, to the average person who, if they read fiction gets perhaps reads a few books a year, the difference between Janet Evanovich and Ian McEwan isn’t obvious or important. They might have guides through reading blogs like this one or newspaper critics (to the extent any still exist), but probably not through direct observation. Instead, people without a great deal invested rely on others to make judgments, whether critical ones through expert reviewers or popularity ones through sales rankings and the like. Of myself, I wrote:

Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.

Many others, I suspect, are the same but don’t acknowledge it, or do so only inchoately. And so we have groups talking past each: academics and critics aghast at what people actually read and the silent majority who buy authors like brands and like crime thrillers.

Links: Penelope Fitzgerald, How Fiction Works, and blogger ethics

* The L.A. Times is cutting its stand-alone book review. Mark Sarvas covers the protest of its former editors. I wonder if there will be any newspaper book coverage worth reading outside of the New York Times.

* I’ve never wanted to read Penelope Fitzgerald, but after reading A.S. Byatt discussing her former colleague, I feel compelled to.

* Slate discusses James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and in doing so, succumbs to the problem of writing a summary that makes the book seem pale and flat when it is anything but. I wrote about such problems here (see more links in that post).

* The good news is that Salon has a much better review, which observes:

And as delightful as that sounds, I can’t help noticing what’s missing — namely, anything to do with story. This is no accident. Wood has always been impatient with what he calls “the essential juvenility of plot,” an attitude that comes through most clearly when he deigns to review genre writers. In “How Fiction Works,” he uses a not very representative sample from le Carré’s “Smiley’s People” to damn the whole school of “commercial realism,” its bloodless efficiency, its famished grammar of “intelligent, stable, transparent storytelling.” Even when he finds a genre writer he likes, he acts a bit like Gladstone among the whores. In a recent New Yorker review, for instance, he writes admiringly of Richard Price’s “Lush Life” but wonders why the author doesn’t “free himself from the tram track of the police procedural.”

I like the criticism but think it uses a bad example: the problem with Lush Life is that for all its artfulness, it makes the same point most modern thrillers do—the cops and crooks aren’t so different and the ways of the world don’t change much regardless of the side you’re on. That’s nice, but it’s been made about a thousand times before and is the central weakness of modern thrillers and one refreshing thing about Elmore Leonard, who doesn’t generally fall into this trap. I wrote these problems with Lush Life in my review of it.

* A question of blogger ethics: should one post e-mails without permission? In general I’d say no, unless one uses a short excerpt as an example of a general trend and it’s done anonymously. For example, in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, I quoted two literary agents but didn’t put their names or identifying information about them in the post. In a follow-up post, I paraphrased what some e-mailers said. But I would never post an e-mail with someone’s name without permission because I think it violates their expectation for reasonable privacy. If they wanted to write in a public place, comments are open, and to dash that expectation isn’t fair.

The only exception to this is egregious behavior—for example, threats to sue, gross cruelty or crudity, and the like might merit an exception to this general policy. With luck I’ll never have to do so, but reserving the possibility seems prudent.

(Hat tip Books Inq.)

Barney’s Version — Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version isn’t always clear or pretty, whether he’s portraying himself, his friends, his quasi-loves—whether Barney genuinely loved anyone aside from himself is uncertain, with claims otherwise of dubious merit—and his enemies. These categories blend into one another with alarming and realistic regularity. The novel is also seriously fun rather than funnily serious, in the tradition of excessive, bombastic, narcissistic personalities too eccentric for politics but otherwise cut out for that field, like the narrators of Martin Amis’ Money and many of Saul Bellow’s novels, but most notable Seize the Day and Herzog.

Social impropriety binds those characters together and is abundant in Barney’s Version. In a rare moment, Barney Charnofsky is “Bingeing on respectability, I was not determined to prove to Clara’s ghost that I could play the nice middle-class Jewish boy better than she had ever dreamed.” He fails, and trying to prove anything to a ghost is ridiculous, but I love the inversion of the typical mode of bingeing as negative, recalling Richard Feynman’s comment, “So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility […] It’s made me a very happy man ever since.”

One character says to Barney, “Now will you please be quiet and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” He doesn’t, of course, since he’s spent his entire life making an exhibition of himself, perhaps explaining the irritation verging on envy that he feels toward a successful acquittance. Barney says of him, “But, after all these years as a flunk, my old friend and latter-day nemesis has acquired a small but vociferous following, CanLit apparatchiks to the fore.” I wonder what he would think of me becoming such an apparatchik by way of coming to Barney’s Version through the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?. Nonetheless, publicity, however minor, on my part gives Barney more of a chance to make an exhibit of himself.

He doesn’t do so in a simple manner, either. Chapter four begins by saying, “What follows appears to be yet another digression.” The whole novel is a digression—this post mimics its structure—which makes a certain amount of sense because most people’s entire lives are one long digression, or a series of them, and the narrative cohesion usually given to them by biography and the like is more an effort to impose order on chaos, like selecting a line to fit to a series of data points regardless of whether the line has any meaning.* For such a novel to work, it must nonetheless tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even if those elements aren’t in their usual order, and Barney’s Version succeeds as a novel despite and because of its narrator’s protestations.

We’re also not sure when to trust Barney, especially because a would-be editor keeps inserting footnotes. Elsewhere, Miriam, the perhaps love of Barney’s life, says “I believe you,” when Barney denies killing his somewhat friend who might’ve slept with his second wife and might’ve been set-up to do so by Barney himself as a way of getting Barney a divorce (got all that?). He says, ” ‘I’ll be out of here in a week,’ […] hoping that saying it aloud would render it true.” Many of his hopes are improbably rendered true, and his belief in his own belief is somewhat perplexing. As for Miriam, believing a liar might also not be a great idea, but then Miriam might not know Barney’s a liar, or she merely expressing optimism to a man she doubts. It’s not clear what. A lot of Barney’s Version is humorously unclear. In other words, you get a lot of narrative play and epistemological complexity among your laughs. If there’s a better way to get said fiber, I’m not sure of it, and I like mine with sugar much more than vinegar. Life, after all, is pretty funny, and seeing that reflected in books is a relief. Mild offense sometimes blends into hilarious social commentary, as when lawyers are “[…] perhaps mollified because parents of the accused had promised to endow a chair of visible-minority social studies at the college.” That could be a line from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. Later, we find in Barney’s Version:

I don’t hold with shamans, witch doctors, or psychiatrists. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Dickens understood more about the human condition than ever occurred to any of you.

Usually the third in that opening series isn’t placed with the other two, but the structure is an effective way to express Barney’s low opinion of someone trying to help him. Fortunately, the psychiatrist doesn’t take much offense, as Barney has low opinions of many people, places, and professions, as well as, at times, himself. He also demonstrates obvious allusions in a novel filled with them, some subtle and some not, and his ability to go from hockey to Shakespeare and back impresses. Speaking of hockey, at one point a long-winded girlfriend causes him to start reading about sport in lieu of her, a feeling I remember well, as when I found myself in such a similar low-signal-to-noise-ratio circumstance, the New Yorker was my outlet of preference, causing a roommate to remark once, “I could tell you were on the phone with her because normally I hear you talking.”

I’m tempted to go on about Barney’s Version—there’s a murder plot, an unreliably unreliable narrator, jokes from fading memory, an intrusive editor, family squabbles, drinking problems/solutions, none of which have been fully discussed in this sketch of a sketch—and the more I consider it, the more I realize its easily missed depth and the more I’m inclined to recommend it, given its paradoxical ability to be both light and heavy at the same time, like a character who’s finally reconciled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Barney’s Version has the magic of a novel that wiggles out of description with such finesse that I barely realize what’s happened, and I’m not reading about the world, but Barney’s version of it.

* Alain de Botton’s fabulous Kiss & Tell is the most successful mockery of biography I’ve read. It also comes with the sanction of the American lit apparatchiks, who put it on my senior year AP English test.

The Portrait of a Lady — Henry James

In the preface to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James preempts the criticism around which I would otherwise base this review: ” ‘To arrive at these things is to arrive at my “story,” ‘ [Ivan Turgenieff] said, ‘and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having “story” enough.’ ”

I agree with those unnamed critics.

James may have subconsciously addressed this issue as he wrote or revised the novel; in the fifth chapter of volume I, a guy wanting to impress Isabel—the “Lady” of the title—and his mother worry about their respective impressions on her. Ralph says, “That sounds rather dry—even allowing her the choice of the two countries.” A few paragraphs later, his mother says, “Do you mean by that that I’m a bore. I don’t think she finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I think I greatly amuse her.” If you’re concerned about being dry or boring, there’s a reasonably high chance that you are, and Ralph’s mother, in defending herself from charges of being boring, could also be implicitly be defending the novel itself from charges of being boring. Alas: if it isn’t boring, I’m not clever enough to realize it.

To the extent The Portrait of a Lady has a plot, it turns on marriage, and though I appreciate that institution’s importance to James’ time, I wrote about its contemporary problems as a driver of modern fiction in the third paragraph of this post on Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. It’s hard to get as excited about it as the characters in The Portrait of a Lady do. Furthermore, I’m sure the novel was relatively progressive and frank for its time, but now it seems reserved and euphemistic. The painful thing about describing its macro flaws is how spectacular and virtuosic many descriptions are. One in particular stood out: “Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.” Note the word “perhaps:” James is a master at depicting ambiguity, perhaps explaining why The Turn of the Screw is so exquisite in its depiction of the maybe ghosts, giving such creeping horror and power that I was compelled to keep reading it as if I were the one at the whip of an apparition—or insane. The Portrait of a Lady, however, is too still and reserved, too much like a portrait and containing too little narrative force to keep me attached, despite how often perfect turns of phrase appear in the context of characters who have not done enough to deserve them. There are enough aphorisms for months of daily quotes, but not enough sinew holding them together.

On the other hand, it may be that nineteenth century fiction demands the acceptance or acknowledgement of a set of conventions and writing practices, and I haven’t cultivated the skill to read it. Of pre-1900 writers, Melville is the only novelist who really chiseled a place in my imagination. The others I tend to read only if I have to, and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t change my outlook. It’s also possible that, as William Blake said according to the unreliable source Barney’s Version, “… that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak Men […] That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.”

Life: Barney's Version

“Count your blessings. Readers don’t have to wait until the end volume three before I’m even born. Something else. It doesn’t take me six pages to cross a field, as it would if this had been written by Thomas Hardy. I rein in my metaphors, unlike John Updike. I am admirably succinct when it comes to descriptive passages, unlike P. D. James, a writer I happen to admire. A P. D. James character can enter a room with dynamite news, but it is not to be revealed until we have learned the color and material of the drapes, the pedigree of the carpet, the shade of the wallpaper, the quality and content of the pictures, the number and design of the chairs, whether the side tables are bona fide antiques, acquired in Pimlico, or copycat from Heal’s. P. D. James is not only gifted, but obviously a real baleboosteh, or châtelaine. She is also endearing, which is not my problem, and brings me to yet another digression. Or character flaw acknowledged.”

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version

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