Friday, July 31, 2009

Homer nods

In preparation for a new project, I've been reading my way through an author's works and have finally come across a moment--all right, several moments--in which the most generous thing to say is that Homer was nodding at that point.

Are there any authors whose works are consistently even and excellent? Don't most authors have books excused with phrases like "She was going through a bad patch" or "She had to make some money with this one" or "If only she hadn't let Editor X get hold of it"?

Sometimes, if a work is flagrantly awful, we can excuse it in a different way: "It's a satire of a bad novel, see? That's why all the situations are so clichéd; it's an ironic take on that form."

I have a certain weakness for flawed books, if only because they show that the author is trying to do something different. I'm not exactly talking about bad fiction, which can be fun in a whole different way, but good fiction gone horribly wrong in some way, the kind that makes you want to knock on the author's tombstone and ask, "What were you thinking?"

So now I'm at the end of a novel whose main character is supposed to be a great figure and whose author has endowed him with what ought to be admirable attributes--and I can't stand him. Let me put it this way: I not only think he's a less-than-admirable person, but he's drawn poorly--his motivations make no sense, the foils that surround him are thinner than the paper they're printed on, and his actions are inconsistent. Oh, and the book, while well written generally, abounds in clichés like "piping hot," for which I have an irrational aversion from reading too many tray placemats describing the coffee at McDonald's over the years.

Maybe I'm just not getting it--always a possibility--but then again, maybe Homer is nodding here. Am I just asking too much? Are there any authors who haven't written a clunker from time to time?

(And please list some memorable clunkers in the comments!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Days in Slothland

I'll get back to posting soon, but I had to make a deal with Writing Self. Writing Self is apparently a shy forest creature easily distracted by the presence of the internet. In order to coax it from its hiding place, the internet has to be nowhere in range, but I've had visitors and so the internet couldn't be turned off during the day until today.

Writing Self still isn't back, but I'm hopeful that the lack of internet tomorrow will bring it back.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blogging the lost: motivation

I've been gone more than I've been home since the end of school, and throughout all these travels, I kept saying, "When I get home, I am going to have so much energy to write! All that's keeping me from it is being away."

You know where this is going, right? When I sat down to work today, it felt exactly like going back to the gym after lying in a hammock for a month doing nothing. All the bribes in the world (including a new chair!) couldn't make me pay attention to what I was supposed to be writing. The brain isn't a muscle, but if I'd taken a picture of it, it would have looked like the Before shot on a fitness infomercial.

Blogging the lost works for profgrrrl and others, so here it is: if you come across my lost motivation and will to work, send it my way, will you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

When is a book not a book?

From Pogue at the New York Times:
This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

The best part? In a plot development that would have any creative writing teacher saying "Can't you be a little less obvious in your symbolism?" the deleted book is (wait for it). . . 1984.

So you can't trust a Kindle edition, huh? Well, thank goodness for paper editions.

As the late Billy Mays might say, "BUT WAIT--THERE'S MORE."

Scribner's has just reissued Hemingway's A Moveable Feast in a "new and improved" version by Hemingway's grandson. The blurb at says that the original edition was cobbled together by Mary Hemingway out of fragments and doesn't represent Hemingway's intentions.

Not so fast, says A. E. Hotchner, a Hemingway friend who was there when Hemingway retrieved the notebooks that formed the basis for the work, discussed the work in progress, and ultimately read the manuscript on the way to delivering it to Scribner's: "When I was leaving for New York to give the manuscript to the editor of Life, Ernest also gave me the completed manuscript of the Paris book to give to Scribner’s president, Charles Scribner Jr. I recount this history of “A Moveable Feast” to demonstrate how involved Ernest was with it, and that the manuscript was not left in shards but was ready for publication."

It's hard not to think of this in terms of other works changed after the author's death: Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Lennon's demo versions of a song later issued as "Real Love," and even cartoons and movies from which embarrassing racial representations have been silently excised and sent down the memory hole. The thing is, though, that we have to make choices about these editions all the time when we order editions for our classes. Because they exist in physical form, both versions exist.

But with the Kindle, it's possible to make the whole book disappear even after you've bought it. If that can happen, it should also be possible to remove (wirelessly and silently) a version of a text that had been downloaded but had some flaws--typos, for example. I'm not saying that correcting flaws is a bad thing, but if that can happen, it's also possible to change other things about a text--remove a passage or term that appeared in the paper version but has been deemed too offensive for modern sensibilities, for example. The issue is that this can be done silently, without warning, even after we think we've ordered a stable edition for class.

Time and Hemingway scholars will sort out the issue of the "improved" paper edition of A Moveable Feast. One or the other will disappear, or both will be required. But the disappearing 1984 edition? Amazon says it won't ever disappear books from users' Kindles again for problems with a Kindle edition. Honest. No kidding. You can trust us, says Jeff Bezos. But I still think the whole issue of having a stable, authoritative edition just took not a small step, but a giant leap toward complexity.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Rules

Sisyphus has a good post up in the Lessons for Girls series about insisting on asking for help, part of a response to Historiann's post about mentoring. Sisyphus talks about her friend Brilliant Grad, who in addition to being brilliant has had a whole lot of other gifts heaped on him, in part because he meets people and "thinks about how they could help him," which she's too kind to call a utilitarian view of human relationships (so I'm saying it here).

Although this is in part a gender issue, it struck a chord with me because it's really a class issue, too. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the class dimensions of learning to get what you want, using the example of J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was able to talk his way out of attempting to poison his tutor) as an instance of a kind of social intelligence that's necessary if intellectual intelligence is to result in success. That social intelligence comes in part from class privilege, which teaches you that the world is there to serve you and also teaches you how to talk to people to get what you want. Remember Cher in Clueless, who was so proud to have argued her C grade up to an A? I don't condone that kind of grade-grubbing, of course, but the attitude she showed about shaping the world was exactly what Gladwell was talking about.

As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.

If you let the rage define you, you're stuck with that outlook forever, always blindsided and hemmed in by rules that may or may not have a good reason for existing. But if you use that rage, turn it into observation, and study what others privileged by class (or gender) are doing to remold the world to their advantage, you can learn from it. The most valuable thing anyone learns in this position is that there's a difference between the Official Rules and the Real Rules. If you're born with class privilege, you know this already. If you're not, you need to figure out where that gap lies and what its parameters are.

And you can pass it on. That's mentoring.

Update: Dr. Crazy has some good advice on this subject:Reassigned Time: Scripts for Getting Mentorship: Crazy's Version, as does Historiann.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In the end, I took three books: giant spiderkilling hardcover biography, which I reread; giant spiderkilling hardcover collection, in which I read some lesser-known pieces and made notes about them; and book I'm reviewing (which I finished). I also read some .pdf books that I'd downloaded from Google Books, Antonia Fraser's Faith and Treason about the Gunpowder Plot because it was already in the house in the Land with No Internets and most of John Berendt's City of Falling Angels (on the plane on the way back).

I didn't write a lot, but I did think a lot. I thought as I was taking almost-daily walks to one of the earlier settlements in that part of the country--5 miles round trip from the old house I was staying in. I also cooked, baked, washed immense piles of dishes three times a day, and did a lot of wash, the latter requiring that I fill the ancient, quirky washer using huge buckets of water, which has done wonders for my upper-body strength.

I shooed flocks of wild geese off the lawn early in the morning and went kayaking when the water calmed down as the sun was setting. That was usually when the heron flew out of the woods and made his way across the water to another set of trees.

Sometimes, instead of reading, I watched the rain pour down and listened to the thunder, or I tried to figure out the different eras of the wallpaper peeling away from the lath-and-plaster walls.

There was no television and no newspapers, so unless I was visiting relatives and someone mentioned the news, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't miss it a bit.

It was a nineteenth-century sort of trip, come to think of it. In terms of scholarship, it wasn't very productive at all, but it was very satisfying.