The death of literature part 11,274, from Saul Bellow

“From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, one of the most widely read authors of the early ’30s, taught that our old tired civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and to embrace mechanization and become engineers.”

That’s from Saul Bellow’s “Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letters” for the New York Times’ Writers on Writing collection. Fortunately he didn’t listen to the various Spenglers of his day. I often find it amusing to read the various predictions of literature’s demise, which have so frequently been trumpeted in the 20th Century and now the 21st; Orwell does a good job with the same theme in his collected essays.

Although being wrong in the past doesn’t necessarily equate to being wrong in the present, the poor track records of both religious apocalypse and the demise of reading tend to make me skeptical of new claims about either.

The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

I rather liked the eclectic material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times and its sequel; many of the short essays didn’t impart, but they fascinated because of the range of their concerns and how appropriately well written they were, whether about people who always ask authors where they get their ideas, or what kind of typewriter/computer/paper/pen they use, or the importance of avoiding cliché. The subjects stay with me even when I haven’t read the novels of the authors writing, and the collections stay with me because they’re often enough correct in their descriptions of problems if not always their conclusions that they made me evaluate writing anew. Yes, some specimens had apparently either been written for the money or because the author had nothing else to say, but at eight hundred or so words each they were easy enough to skip. Word limits also have the benefit of forcing the author to be concise, logorrhea being an occupational hazard for many.

Given that, I went into The Writer’s Notebook with sympathy in mind. Its contents have the benefits and drawbacks of length: Matthea Harvey’s “Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” is clever, but a sharp editor might have cut the section on what 2-D versus 3-D means. Her opening metaphor is clever but overly broad: “Trying to write about imaginary worlds is like breaking a thermometer in a classroom, then trying to collect the little balls of mercury that go shooting off under the desks, down the hallways.” Maybe: but I don’t get the impression that’s how Tolkien felt as he invented Middle-earth, as the myths of Lord of the Rings feel built and layered, rather than chased down. In my own world-building efforts, I don’t at all feel like I’m chasing mercury.

Despite the first sentence, Harvey’s essay works. Someone must have told many of these writers that you have to start with a bang even if its decibel level doesn’t correspond to accuracy. For example, Tom Grimes’ “There will be no Stories in Heaven” is about how fiction uses time, but his lead says, “To me, we read and write stories for a simple reason: we all die.” Good thing his first two words qualify all of what follows! Despite the off note at the beginning, his essay works, and so does Harvey’s; she shows that what one must do to build fantastic worlds is not so different from what one must do to build a “realistic” one. You need rules, size, and so forth; each of those subjects could be an essay unto themselves. When you’ve finished Harvey, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworld’s is the next logical step.

Elsewhere, Margot Livesey’s “Shakespeare for Writers” might be shallow for those who’ve read John Updike on the Bard, but it still examines Shakespeare from the structure standpoint much criticism leaves out by asking, for example, why so much of Shakespeare makes implausible leaps of character and plot yet gets away with it. As she writes:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the drug-induced affections of the lovers seem, in depth and passion, very similar to their real feelings. Motivation is often left out and provided, or not, by the actors and, of course, by the readers and viewers.

Why? The audience doesn’t have to ask the question, but the writer must, and maybe the real lesson, for the writer that language excuses all else; Livesey quotes some of the many, many examples of where Shakespeare nails speeches through elaborate, figurative language. The idea of language excusing all else brings me back to Henry James, since I didn’t love Portrait of a Lady because its plot was empty even if its language was vacuous. Shakespeare’s plots usually charge like cavalry. But they don’t overturn feelings, and they don’t override each characters’ interiority. Livesey’s essay explains how, and if I could summarize it, I would.

The Writer’s Notebook continues a conversation about aesthetic form, meaning, and creation that’s lasted for centuries if not longer; they are a small effort to map an infinite space and discuss the fundamental choices writers must make: where to revise; whether one should organize a story around a “clock” or time period; how to use language; historical influence; and more. Some might not be finding new space so much as configuring what we already have. Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene” uses the terms “outfolding” and “infolding” to describe how a writer can primarily move forward by dialog and action or by interior thoughts, respectively, with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf as examples. The line isn’t perfectly clear, and the point about how things happen either within or outside a character has been made in various ways before, but I’d never seen it articulated so well.

Collectively, many essays from The Writer’s Notebook are also keeping an eye on one’s back, toward how history affects or should affect writers and how genre and literature aren’t as separate as they appear. None are so gauche as to come out and say either point, but it’s there, lurking beneath them, because for a writer, who cares if one is writing capital-L Literature? You’re always in pursuit of whatever works, and if works, maybe it is, or will become, Literature, which is fundamentally about stories, how we tell stories, and how we listen to them.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

I rather liked the eclectic material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times and its sequel; many of the short essays didn’t impart, but they fascinated because of the range of their concerns and how appropriately well written they were, whether about people who always ask authors where they get their ideas, or what kind of typewriter/computer/paper/pen they use, or the importance of avoiding cliché. The subjects stay with me even when I haven’t read the novels of the authors writing, and the collections stay with me because they’re often enough correct in their descriptions of problems if not always their conclusions that they made me evaluate writing anew. Yes, some specimens had apparently either been written for the money or because the author had nothing else to say, but at eight hundred or so words each they were easy enough to skip. Word limits also have the benefit of forcing the author to be concise, logorrhea being an occupational hazard for many.

Given that, I went into The Writer’s Notebook with sympathy in mind. Its contents have the benefits and drawbacks of length: Matthea Harvey’s “Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” is clever, but a sharp editor might have cut the section on what 2-D versus 3-D means. Her opening metaphor is clever but overly broad: “Trying to write about imaginary worlds is like breaking a thermometer in a classroom, then trying to collect the little balls of mercury that go shooting off under the desks, down the hallways.” Maybe: but I don’t get the impression that’s how Tolkien felt as he invented Middle-earth, as the myths of Lord of the Rings feel built and layered, rather than chased down. In my own world-building efforts, I don’t at all feel like I’m chasing mercury.

Despite the first sentence, Harvey’s essay works. Someone must have told many of these writers that you have to start with a bang even if its decibel level doesn’t correspond to accuracy. For example, Tom Grimes’ “There will be no Stories in Heaven” is about how fiction uses time, but his lead says, “To me, we read and write stories for a simple reason: we all die.” Good thing his first two words qualify all of what follows! Despite the off note at the beginning, his essay works, and so does Harvey’s; she shows that what one must do to build fantastic worlds is not so different from what one must do to build a “realistic” one. You need rules, size, and so forth; each of those subjects could be an essay unto themselves. When you’ve finished Harvey, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworld’s is the next logical step.

Elsewhere, Margot Livesey’s “Shakespeare for Writers” might be shallow for those who’ve read John Updike on the Bard, but it still examines Shakespeare from the structure standpoint much criticism leaves out by asking, for example, why so much of Shakespeare makes implausible leaps of character and plot yet gets away with it. As she writes:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the drug-induced affections of the lovers seem, in depth and passion, very similar to their real feelings. Motivation is often left out and provided, or not, by the actors and, of course, by the readers and viewers.

Why? The audience doesn’t have to ask the question, but the writer must, and maybe the real lesson, for the writer that language excuses all else; Livesey quotes some of the many, many examples of where Shakespeare nails speeches through elaborate, figurative language. The idea of language excusing all else brings me back to Henry James, since I didn’t love Portrait of a Lady because its plot was empty even if its language was vacuous. Shakespeare’s plots usually charge like cavalry. But they don’t overturn feelings, and they don’t override each characters’ interiority. Livesey’s essay explains how, and if I could summarize it, I would.

The Writer’s Notebook continues a conversation about aesthetic form, meaning, and creation that’s lasted for centuries if not longer; they are a small effort to map an infinite space and discuss the fundamental choices writers must make: where to revise; whether one should organize a story around a “clock” or time period; how to use language; historical influence; and more. Some might not be finding new space so much as configuring what we already have. Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene” uses the terms “outfolding” and “infolding” to describe how a writer can primarily move forward by dialog and action or by interior thoughts, respectively, with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf as examples. The line isn’t perfectly clear, and the point about how things happen either within or outside a character has been made in various ways before, but I’d never seen it articulated so well.

Collectively, many essays from The Writer’s Notebook are also keeping an eye on one’s back, toward how history affects or should affect writers and how genre and literature aren’t as separate as they appear. None are so gauche as to come out and say either point, but it’s there, lurking beneath them, because for a writer, who cares if one is writing capital-L Literature? You’re always in pursuit of whatever works, and if works, maybe it is, or will become, Literature, which is fundamentally about stories, how we tell stories, and how we listen to them.

January links: Distraction, reading, routine, and more

* I wrote a lot about distraction in this post, and now Cory Doctorow—the same one who wears a red cape and blogs from high-altitude balloons—has written another of these articles. I’m going call them a genre. Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! in The Atlantic might be part of it.

* The Daily Routines of Interesting People, courtesy of Mental Floss. Most of them are writers of some sort. You can find similar material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.

(I don’t remember where I picked up the link, but someone deserves a hat tip.)

* By way of the New York Times’ idea blog, a write up in New Scientist says Victorian literature might function in ways that demonstrate or reinforce positive social behavior:

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society.

Literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way”, says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

[…]

The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.

I wonder how the writing of, say, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis or Elmore Leonard would fit that theory. Maybe they’re showing us what not to do.

* Speculative Fiction and criticism is a nice complement to Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, my post on a topic that, I’m now starting to realize, is constantly discussed anew as though it hasn’t been analyzed before.

* The New Yorker has a simpering article about The Village Voice and its history. Although it’s not clear that the Voice did much to change journalism or is important beyond a New Yorker’s myopic vision, there are a few amusing pieces worth quoting:

Wolf considered his editorial policy as philosophy. “The Village Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Village Voice Reader,” in 1962.

[…]

Since devaluing authority is one of the things journalism does, this [habit of internecine warfare among Voice writers] amounted to using the methods of journalism against the pretensions of mainstream journalism.

The same descriptions are frequently applied to bloggers.

* Another reason not to like the Kindle, this one from Philip Greenspun:

My Amazon Kindle is just slightly past its one year anniversary and showing signs of very ill health. Half of the pixels on the screen are stuck following a light knock. I called Amazon and they’re happy to fix it… for $180 plus $7 in shipping (free if you’re a Prime member). The Kindle is more fragile than a laptop computer but less likely to be pampered given that you use it in all the situations where you’d use a book.

I may have to rethink my enthusiasm for the electronic book. Realistically the way that people handle books, the Kindle is not going to last more than one year. That means you’re spending $360 for the initial purchase and $187 every year for hardware repairs. Some of the Kindle editions of books are edging their way up towards $20 […]

See my reasons here.

* Read Jason Fisher’s excellent post on The Imaginative and the Imaginary: Northrop Frye and Tolkien. Pay special attention to the second comment, which is from Glen Robert Gill.

* The Wall Street Journal asks, Blockbuster or Bust? about the incentives behind mega-advances in the publishing and other media industries (merely calling them industries feels dirty, but I guess everyone else does it, which makes it okay). Compare this to my recent post on how the Publishing Industry’s Gloom is Readers’ Gain and Why are so many awful movies so awful

* In the post on the publishing industry linked to above, I also linked to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading, which is so good that I will point to it again here. See too Ann Patchett’s The Triumph of the Readers: The markets may be down, but fiction is on the rise in the Wall Street Journal. I agree with this sentence: “I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read.” Later, she says “Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug.”)

Compare that to Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, my post from June 2008:

Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of [Alan Moore’s] Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

There are shades of Orwell too. Here’s Patchett:

It’s true, as a source of entertainment reading ranks somewhere between cheap and free, depending on where you get your books. A movie can give you two hours of entertainment, but a book can go on for days or even weeks.

And here’s Orwell in 1942:

Reading is one of the cheapest and least wasteful recreations in existence. An edition of tens of thousands of copies of a book does not use up as much paper or labour as a single day’s issue of one newspaper, and each copy the book may pass through hundreds of hands before it goes back to the pulping mill.

* Reason #1041 why I dislike Tucson: no authors come here because the city’s literary culture is insufficient to draw them. One might think a town with a major university would do better, but, alas, it does not. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book tour for The Invention of Air doesn’t include Tucson—but Johnson will be in Seattle, L.A. and Portland.

* As long as I’m beating up Tucson, notice this post from Nigel Beale regarding the United States’ most literate cities. Minneapolis/St. Paul dominate, Seattle is number two, and Tucson doesn’t make the top 10. But at 32, it does beat Los Angeles (56) and Phoenix (57), although I would take literary L.A. over Tucson for the better bookstores if nothing else.

* PCWorld writes “Inside the World’s Greatest Keyboard” concerning the IBM Model M. I wrote about the Unicomp Customizer here; it’s a version of the Model M that’s still manufactured.

* I’ve linked to Paul Graham’s essay on Philosophy several times, but now someone has written an excellent post disagreeing.

* From Kate’s Book Blog quoting “What is Style?”:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs.

* Although politics don’t interest me much, this seems so insightful regarding the Middle East as to deserve a link:

IV. As a consequence of the above three trends, major political issues of importance to the people of this region are increasingly inconsequential to most people and powers around the world. The electoral politics of the Metn region in Lebanon, the tribal politics of Gaza, the human rights conditions in Syria and Morocco, and the forty years of Moammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya are issues that no longer occupy any serious time or thought among leaders in the world’s most powerful countries, regardless of whether we accept that or not.

The worst ramifications of the Middle East’s dysfunctions — terrorism, illegal migration, ethnic strife, corruption, police states, and assorted atrocities perpetuated by both state and private actors — are only occasional irritants for the rest of the world, not pressing strategic threats. We have marginalized ourselves as serious players on the global political stage, and now assume the role of nagging annoyances and miscreants.

Indeed: and the pity is that too few seem to realize this.

(Hat tip Jeffrey Goldberg. Incidentally, his piece Why Israel Feels Threatened is worth reading too.)

* The Wall Street Journal discusses Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. See my analysis of the novel here.

A new metric for writerly accomplishment

Perhaps this is really an old metric, but if so, it’s new to me because I noticed it today and am not aware of having read about it elsewhere. I suspect that the amount of carpal tunnel-style pain in my hands at the end of the day might be correlated with the amount of writing done. Although I have one of the world’s best computer workspaces, enough keyboard pounding will eventually make the bridge between my thumbs and fingers ache. I’ve learned to use both thumbs to hit the spacebar key, but even so, I favor the right, and it correspondingly bothers me more.

Aside from flattering my inner masochist, the “pain metric” has advantages over other measurement systems like word/page count or time spent (see Writers on Writing from the New York Times for thoughts on those methods) because it considers all that rewriting time as equivalent to new work. This metric also can’t be fulfilled by staring out the window all day. I suppose surfing the Internet might be a confounding factor, but I often disconnect distraction when I have real things to do, and so it shouldn’t provide too much interference.

The major project I’m working on isn’t for blog consumption, and it helps explain why posting has become weekly instead of closer to daily. Should it come to fruition, expect to hear more, and if not, then I guess this post, appropriately regarding pain, will be the primary marker of its existence.

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