Links: The time for novels, technology in universities, programming and writing, academia, and more

* Zoe Williams: No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead. Fortunately, people have been castigating fiction for as long as there has been fiction in any meaningful sense of the word.

* University of Virginia President Teresa “Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as ‘hybrids,’ replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.” Having both listened to my students talk about what intro-level courses are like at the University of Arizona and having experienced the distinctly not useful aspects of many of the intro-level courses at Clark University, I can’t see a huge problem with trying these ideas: at the moment, such courses appear to largely be a way of collecting tuition, rather than imparting real knowledge. Many of my students say intro math and science courses at the U of A are so bad that the students prefer taking them at community colleges, if possible, and the intro humanities courses are often “taught” in lecture halls with hundreds or more than a thousand students nominally taking them at once.

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* “The Frisson of Friction: An undergraduate tries a challenging introductory programming course.” I find this especially poignant, given what I do: “Last I checked, there are just over 100 users of my [Chrome] extension. This is far fewer than the number of people using the most popular extension (AdBlock, with 1,626,216 users at that point), but also far more than the number of people who usually read my papers (my TF, 1).”

* Margaret Atwood answers questions on Reddit.

* On Leaving Academia. Notice too the discussion on Hacker News, including perverse publication incentives.

* Sexual harassment is not like employee theft. Notice this: “There’s a trade-off between preventing unwanted advances and preventing wanted advances – and there’s no reason to choose a corner solution. Treating harassment complaints as seriously as employee theft complaints is simply bad for business. You might make a few puritan workers happy, but what about everybody else?”

I found this, from Tim Parks’s “Does Money Make Us Write Better?“, interesting:

When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

John Barth and William Goldman almost quit too. How many others have? I don’t want to be one of them. And I bet I can make more than £1,000, though I don’t know how long ago Parks began writing: adjusted for inflation, £1,000 might be a lot of money.

* Charter schools raise educational standards for vulnerable children.

Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction

There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:

I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]

No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.

I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.

The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.

As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).

We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.

This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.

Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.

If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.

Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).

Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.

Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.

Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.

Links: Publishing and publishers, bondage and love, the Sony RX100, the University of Washington, and more

* Penelope Trunk: How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway, which complements Philip Greenspun’s The book behind the book behind the book…. Notice this, from Greenspun: “Meanwhile, back on Earth: Dead trees publishers (1) don’t surf the Internet, (2) don’t read books, (3) don’t understand the value of a high Internet profile.” Of those, I think number three is less true, but while publishers understand this, they haven’t realized that writers are probably going to get most of the value from high Internet profiles. Notice what Trunk says: “So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them.”

* I know which one I’d choose, from today’s edition of highly improbable studies: “Facebook Sharing Comparable To Enjoyment From Sex, Food.”

* How Bondage Solves the Problem of Modern Love, on 50 Shades of Grey.

* A Tiny Camera to Rival the Pros: The Sony RX100.

* Class, not race, really divides America today—a point I’ve been making for a while.

* The camera you have with you; notice this:

Almost nothing I’ve shot since 2010 is usable.

The Rebel photos look decent. The 5D Mark II photos look great. But photos from the iPhone 4, and even from the 4S, don’t hold up. They look fine on a 3.5-inch screen, but they look terrible on my big desktop monitor and abysmal on the Retina MacBook Pro.

* United States: The Inevitable Empire. I would add a question mark to the end.

* Why do condos even exist? An important question I’d never considered as such.

* A Northwest Pipeline to Silicon Valley: The role of the University of Washington in Seattle tech.

It’s here: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Prisoner of Heaven

This came in the mail yesterday:

(It was actually released today, but books that are pre-ordered through Amazon have a nifty habit of showing up a day early.)

I finished it between some of the monumentally tedious readings for my PhD exams. Expect more later. The short version: the novel starts slower than The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and, despite the note that

The Prisoner of Heaven is part of a cycle of novels set in the literary universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books of which The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are the two first instalments. Although each work within the cycle presents an independent, self-contained tale, they are all connected through characters and storylines, creating thematic and narrative links.

the new novel depends substantially on its predecessors, either of which can be read independently much more easily than The Prisoner of Heaven.

The paper quality is also much worse than the previous hardcovers.

%d bloggers like this: