Week 35 Links: College life, sex scandals (these two are not linked, this time), student reflections, memoirs, coding, and more

* Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite, mostly overlook low-income students. File this under, “Seems obvious, nice to have proof.”

* From a student’s reflection memo: “Thank you for all your humor in class and thank you so much for not being boring because if you were I probably would have died.” Uh, you’re welcome?

* Penelope Trunk: “The Joys of Adult Sexting.”

* From the New Yorker, appropos of recent events: [. . . L]et’s also take a moment to remember nine women in politics who have caused ripples with their sexual exploits.

* The dying of the light, on why so many movies in theaters look like crap. This a) explains something I’ve noticed but never actually spoken about and b) should be mandatory reading for movie studio executives. He writes:

I began by asking if you notice, really notice, what a movie looks like. I have a feeling many people don’t. They buy their ticket, they get their popcorn and they obediently watch what is shown to them. But at some level there is a difference. They feel it in their guts. The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! — not a mediocre big-screen television.

I hadn’t—but I felt it in my guts.

* Tailor Made:

Anderson’s memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, has been called the Kitchen Confidential of the tailoring world, an insider’s look at the industry and one that exposes a certain amount of its foibles and eccentricity.

* Naked Binders sound appealing. Already ordered two; shipping is steep.

* Why GM Couldn’t Be Apple, According to a Former GM Exec. This is actually about creativity and corporate culture.

* The global war on drugs has failed.

* How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code.

* Helping Teachers Help Themselves. This seems like the kind of thing that will only work in a school system that is already functional.

NYT on point about memoirs and Seattle

Buying the paper version of the New York Times was an excellent decision, with “Book Lovers Ask, What’s Seattle’s Secret?” about Seattle’s supposed position as literary tastemaker:

In many ways, Ms. [Nancy] Pearl’s rise in the book world parallels Seattle’s rise in the publishing world. Though the big publishing houses are still ensconced in New York, the Seattle area is the home of Amazon, Starbucks and Costco, three companies that increasingly influence what America reads.

I’m not sure that I buy the premise of this article, though I do note that it implicitly argues that the success of the three companies might be harming what makes Seattle unusual in the first place:

Seattle’s literary seeds have been here for decades, with local authors, abundant writing courses and robust independent bookstores, according to J. A. Jance, the Seattle mystery author whose books have sold 15 million copies over the last 20 years. “Maybe it’s the rain, but Seattle has always been a reading town,” she said.

[…]

The flip side of the success of the big Seattle booksellers is the gradual decrease in the number of small independent stores, which have struggled as a result of a variety of factors.

(Bold added.)

Elsewhere, the little league tizzy over a faked memoir (see our comments here and, to a lesser extent, here) brings “A Bug’s Life. Really.“:

“‘The Metamorphosis’ — purported to be the fictional account of a man who turns into a large cockroach — is actually non-fiction,” according to a statement released by Mr. Kafka’s editor, who spoke only on the condition that he be identified as E.

[…]

Mr. Kafka’s publishers are now reviewing all his works of fiction — stories about singing mice, “hunger artists” and men on trial for crimes they’re not aware of having committed — to determine whether they too are true.

We’ve come to the point of observing the absurdity of memoirs through the absurdity of such standards applied to absurd fiction.

Novels, notoriety, and memoirs

Megan McArdle discusses contemporary literary culture in the context of yet another fake memoir that’s apparently famous but I’d never heard of prior to its notoriety:

I do think, though, that Matt has hit on something about our own time, though I’m not quite as down on contemporary fiction as he is. Since the modernists, all contemporary literary fiction–including narrative fiction–has focused less on certain aspects of telling a story. I understand that some cognitive scientists theorize that the reason we enjoy stories so much is that they activate the parts of our brain that deal with social cognition and learning. The reason that genre fiction, even though it is usually not a masterpiece of prose styling, can be so absorbing is that it provides this function. The fantasy of a space opera or a bodice-ripper is compelling because we’re imagining ourselves as the hero–imagining ourselves as a better, more interesting version of ourselves. We’re also exploring how we should/would act in certain (unlikely) situations; the novels that do best in these genres are the ones where the hero ultimately acts rightly, which is to say, producing the best result in some sense. This is possibly silly, even counterproductive–one sees women actually acting like heroines of romance novels, and wondering (though not in so many words) why men do not respond to them in the same way as in the book. But it’s a deep element of most peoples’ fantasy lives.

This is an itch that contemporary novels try very hard not to scratch. “The moral of the story . . . ” is an archaism.

So for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bodice ripper, memoir fills that space. Having neatly separated fact and fiction, we now read only “fact” as a way to learn about correct behavior, where a hundred years ago people were perfectly accustomed to taking moral or social lessons out of obvious fiction (from whence the term “morality play”). Memoir alone do we permit ourselves to read for the (now conscious) purpose of obtaining information about how human beings behave in other situations than ours.

My take: I’ve never been interested in memoirs because fiction and journalism are vastly more interesting than what a person did/has done, especially if that person hasn’t done something vital or important. Call this preference for something vaguely important an offshoot of the popes and princes school of history. My lack of interest in the memoir notwithstanding, the genre seems to be quite popular, and I suppose McArdle has as plausible an explanation about why this is as anyone.

But I’m not sure I buy the premises that McArdle’s piece is based on, which I’ll call the stultifying literary hypothesis theory or the literary/genre split theory. Neither, apparently, do some of McArdle’s colleagues. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from, as was discussed recently. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve seen all that many people highly invested in defending airless literary fiction; if I could find these strawmen who wield influence out of proportion to their size, I would love to meet them.

Furthermore, the biggest problem with these literary / genre distinctions is that different people have different wants, and the quality of writing itself cannot be measured by what “genre,” if any, a book belongs to. I hesitate to say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s true, and how a novel uses language to express itself is an important quality of what makes good fiction. What the fiction says is, I think, a separate issue that too often gets muddled in with how it is said.

That being said, I think the novel still has many places to go, and rumors of its death have been circulating such a long time that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still dying whenever I am. Being 24, I hope that won’t be for a while yet.

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