Prufrock

Is Rap Poetry?

The short answer is “no,” of course. To state the obvious, things can share certain attributes and not be the same sort of thing, and asking whether rap is poetry has always struck me as a useless question. Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one. So why make the comparison?

Well, as David Caplan points out in his intriguing Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford, 2014), it can be a way of both elevating (or highlighting, depending on your view) rap’s artistry and defending poetry against its apparent decline.

John McWhorter provides an example of this over at The Daily Beast. In “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap,” McWhorter argues that rap is poetry because:

It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?

The only reason it is not considered “real” poetry, McWhorter argues, channeling his inner Derrida, is that Western culture has long valued written language over speech:

The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”

Also, rap is often profane and can seem less serious.

David Caplan’s study focuses on detailing the literary elements of hip hop and rap, which is different from claiming that rap is poetry. I don’t want to review the book here, but Caplan does make a similar point to McWhorter in his introduction. Too often, Caplan writes, “critics treat the term ‘poetry’ as if it retains a stable definition across cultures, times periods, and genres. The history of poetics, however, records much more contestation than consensus.” Caplan goes on to cite Wordsworth’s remark that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and discusses poets who have taken issue with this statement as proof that poetry’s definition is unstable.

But while what counts as poetry changes over time and differs across cultures, Caplan is too quick to suggest that poetry has no stable generic characteristics. One important one—and one that distinguishes it from both hip-hop and rap—is that the musicality and typography of poetry reside in the words themselves alone. In both formal and free verse, the musicality of a poem, whether it is created by end-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, repetition or other forms of internal rhyming, does not exist external to the poem.

In hop-hop and rap, while some musicians are more talented than others, and while rap lyrics do possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the sampled music. Caplan provides a number of examples of rap lyrics, and some are rather good, but even the best don’t stand on their own as pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they were not written to do so. They were crafted to go with external rhythm and notes. So, it seems to me, the only sense in which rap is poetry is as incomplete poetry, which doesn’t do either rap or poetry any favors.

That said, it is interesting that poetry’s decline has taken place in a culture that is “rhyme-drenched,” as Caplan rightly notes. I am not a connoisseur of rap (I listen to little beyond standard white guy favorites—Rage against the Machine, Beastie Boys, Run DMC), but I have a number of friends who have a high view of rap’s artistry. Caplan, for one, makes a strong case that there is more to hip-hop in terms of artistry than is often granted, even if I think he oversells it. There is no such thing as high or low culture. There is interesting culture and boring culture. There are works of art that show great skill and those that don’t.

So by all means, defend hip-hop or rap or poetry, but let’s avoid defending them by association. Let the songs or poems speak for themselves.

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Michon’s Miniatures

Saint Columba of Iona, photo by Vegansoldier (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Columba of Iona, photo by Vegansoldier (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading new English translations of Pierre Michon’s prose fiction works Winter Mythologies and Abbots, and I am struck, again, by his great talent.

Michon, as one interviewer put it, is “an odd bird.” Born in 1945 and raised by his mother when his father abandoned the family two years after his birth, he studied literature at the university in Clermont-Ferrand, wrote but abandoned a thesis on Antonin Artaud, travelled around France with a theatre group for three years, and then spent ten years working small jobs around the country—a short stint in a hotel in Paris, a period teaching French—before deciding to take up writing. He moved back to his home region near Orléans, rented out a small, bleak studio on the side of the road, and wrote what would become his first book, Small Lives, a series of portraits of eight obscure or unknown figures from Michon’s life in Limousin. It was published in 1984 and won the Prix France Culture that same year.

Michon’s prose is alternatingly expansive and constrained. In Small Lives, his sentences can be long and playful. Winter Mythologies, however, is imagistic. Portraits of the lives of ancient and medieval saints and pagans are distilled down to a few poetic paragraphs. There is Saint Columba of Iona who kills for a rare Psalter, a daughter of the king of Paris who contracts leprosy, or a French bailiff who wants to write with “God’s power.”

Michon almost never invents his characters or his plots. “To invent is to clone,” he claims. “Libraries are full of ectoplasms, and I prefer ghosts. I raise the real dead—those of the archives.” He is a poet who writes in prose; a fictioneer of non-fiction.

He is also, as it turns out, an atheist who is fascinated with faith.

One of Michon’s accomplishments is his ability to put his finger on the paradox of faith without disparaging belief in God or sharing it himself. His characters, faithful to varying degrees, are often convinced of the reality of God, but regularly allow their devotion to be saddled with a desire for wealth, pleasure, or glory.

In Abbots, for example, he retells the story of Èble in ancient Gaul, who serves his bother and king, Guillaume Towhead, for many years before retiring to a remote monastery. His two besetting sins are “glory and female flesh,” and while away from court Èble finds a way to satisfying both of these. He transforms a bog next to the monastery into a field for the first—bringing order to “the Chaos and the Void”—and stealing brief moments with the wife of one of the local fishermen for the second. When Èble discovers that one of the other priests is also sleeping with the fisherman’s wife, he arranges for him to die in accident.

A less gifted writer might make Èble into a symbol of the Church’s hypocrisy. After all, he is a man who professes faith, and does indeed believe it, but who does not live according to its precepts.

But not Michon. Instead, Èble is an everyman. He shares our inescapable desire to devote ourselves to greater than ourselves and our intractable selfishness that always leaves us wanting more. After Èble has finished work on the bog, he goes to confession, not to repent of his sin, but to share his disappointment:

Èble remains silent for a long time, then he suddenly asks Hugues what glory is. He asks if it’s power. If it’s a name that echoes for centuries in the memory of men. If it’s for God alone, brilliant and brief, like the blue lighting bolt in the hut, or interminable and lost in the air, like reading, or like signing. If it’s fixed like the stars, or wayward like the sparks. If it’s pure. He asks if it can be mixed—with matter, with ambition, with the body of a living man. He asks derisively if draining twenty acres of land taken from the Chaos and the Void is glory.

For Michon, we cannot rid ourselves of our religious sentiment—no one can, including him. In an interview, he talks about going to Easter Mass with his daughter one Sunday:

I went to Easter Mass one day, and I took my daughter. She asked me: “What are you laughing at, Daddy?” I was crying! I understood what I saw there, these were robes inherited from ancient Assyria, incense thuribles that came straight from Egypt, and it was wonderful to tell myself, in this little thing here, Corpus Christi. And yet, when I returned from the Easter Mass, I re-read Ecce Homo with the same assent, the same enthusiasm.

While not believing in God per se, Michon identifies God with the beauty of language or “the Other.” “If I happen to encounter something that resembles a God, it is in those moments when I write.”

It’s an odd decision to accept the inescapability of belief in something like God, to even identify God with language (the Gospel of John refers to God as “Logos”), but refuse to believe in God because of Nietzsche.

It is also one that occasionally allows Michon, for all his nuances, to minimize evil itself. If Sylvain Maréchal is right that the person who “believes in God is obliged to believe in the devil,” then the atheist cannot, in good faith, believe in evil. The most he can believe in is pain, and Michon at times struggles with this limitation, which can move his stories towards the merely therapeutic. For example, Èble, the adulterous murderer, is welcomed into the afterlife by the welcoming image of his illegitimate daughter shortly after he dies in “the glory of the chant for the dying.” Everything, Michon seems to suggest, will be O.K.

Still, there are few contemporary writers of prose fiction that I’d rather read than Michon, and these new Yale translations are a pleasure.

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“Lost” Ayn Rand Novel To Be Published

According to Yahoo, Ayn Rand’s “lost” novel Ideal, which she wrote in 1934 (two years before We the Living), will be published in 2015 by Penguin Random House:

The Ayn Rand Institute is excited to announce the new publication of a lost Ayn Rand novel. Ayn Rand’s work Ideal, written in 1934, is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House in July of 2015 and will be paired with Rand’s play of the same name into a single volume. The introduction will be written by Rand’s designated heir, Leonard Peikoff.

“We are delighted to share this wonderful news,” said ARI executive director Yaron Brook. “How often does one get to announce the new publication of a novel by such an influential author eighty years after the book was written? It’s incredible to see that several decades after Rand’s death, her work and ideas are still fresh and alive in the culture.”

I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, but her earlier work is generally better than her later, massive novels.  Her best piece of fiction is the novella, Anthem, which she published in 1938. So maybe Ideal won’t be so bad. Maybe it will be terrible. Let’s hope, at least, that it’s short.

HT: Jordan Bloom

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Two French Poets on God

Instead of single epigram for this weekend, here are a selection of maxims from the French atheist, philosopher, and poet Sylvain Maréchal (1750-1803) and a short poem from Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

Maxims in French Lines (In the style of Publilius Syrus’s Sententiae)
Sylvan Maréchal

IV
A father, for his son, is the first of the Gods.
Un père, pour son fils, est le premier des Dieux.

XXII
The man who believes in God is no longer free.
L’homme, qui croit en Dieu, n’est plus indépendant

XXV
Love Virtue: the rest is arbitrary
Adore la Virtu: le reste est arbitraire

XXXIV
Whoever has a friend can get by without a God
Qui possède un ami, peut se passer d’un Dieu.

L
If at least we could have Gods without priests!
Si nous pouvions au moins avoir des Dieux sans prêtres!

LXVIII
It is far less risky to doubt than to believe.
On risque beaucoup moins de douter que de croire

 

Written at the Base of a Crucifix
Victor Hugo

You who cry, come to this God, because he cries.
You who suffer, come to him, because he heals.
You who tremble, come to him, because he smiles.
You who pass, come to him, because he remains.

Vous qui pleurez, venez à ce Dieu, car il pleure.
Vous qui souffrez, venez à lui, car il guérit.
Vous qui tremblez, venez à lui, car il sourit.
Vous qui passez, venez à lui, car il demeure.

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The Turing Test Gimmick

The Verge reports that a chatbot called Eugene Goostman has passed the Turing Test. Hosted by Reading University at the Royal Society in London, the “Turing Test 2014” asked 30 people to participate in five parallel conversations by text (one with a human, one with a computer program or chatbot) for five minutes each and judge whether they were communicating with a human or not. A third of the judges identified Goostman as a human, and so it is said to have passed the test.

For those unfamiliar with the Turing Test, in 1950, Alan Turing suggested that one way to answer the question of whether machines might be able to think is to test their ability to imitate human language. He called this the “imitation game”:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the “imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A”… We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

Turing predicted that in 50 years a person would have a 70% chance of accurately guessing whether he was speaking with a person or a machine:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers…to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

So what’s the problem with Eugene Goostman’s pass?

Some have suggested that telling judges that Goostman was a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine made it easier for the program to pass. Odd responses would more likely be chalked up to the program’s supposed age, foreignness or limited English. Others have argued that Goostman was not a computer but a chatbot, that the 30% pass mark is dubious, and that the Turing Test held in London is not the same as Turing’s “imitation game.” After all, in Turing’s rules for the imitation game, he gave no time limit and suggested that passing it meant the interrogator would choose “wrongly as often when the game is played” with a computer as when it is played “between a man and a woman.”

But the real problem is that the Turing Test is meaningless. It cannot test for intelligence or consciousness. It never has, and it never will.

In Turing’s original paper, he responds to a number of possible objections to his test—one by Geoffrey Jefferson. In a 1949 speech, Jefferson argued that a machine cannot be said to think until it “can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols.” Turing argues that for Jefferson the only way to know if a computer can think “is to be the machine and to feel oneself thinking.” It follows, then, that the only way to know if another person thinks is to be that very person. “I am sure,” Turing writes, “that Professor Jefferson does not wish to adopt the extreme and solipsist point of view.” In short, we judge intelligence or consciousness in humans or other beings using external signs. Jefferson’s objection is invalid, Turing claims, and his “imitation game” stands.

But this is a rather weak reading of Jefferson’s (possible) objection. Jefferson is not suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to be that machine. Rather he is suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to observe evidence of human understanding or feeling in a machine. Until a machine is able to produce some seemingly spontaneous text or piece of music that expresses some unprogrammed idea or feeling that, on further investigation, shows both an understanding of the words used and an awareness of the feelings felt, it cannot be said to think.

Here’s the deal: Turing’s “imitation game” does not test for either of these. It does not test for evidence of understanding. It does not test for evidence of feeling. How could it when there is no theory for how consciousness could develop from metal, plastic and electricity?

The “imitation game,” rather, simply tests whether computer programmers can fool other people into thinking a program is a human. It’s a game that has become a gimmick to get funding or wildly overhyped press releases.

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Bookman Summer Reading

Over at The University Bookman, a couple of folks associated with TAC offer some summer reading suggestions. Our editor, Daniel McCarthy, will be reading R.G. Collingwood’s “elegant, brilliant little book,” The Idea of Nature, among other things. Eve Tushnet will dive into Japanese fiction, and I’ll be reading Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor (and about which I’ll have more to say later).

There are lots of other interesting suggestions.  Gregory Wolfe will be reading William Giraldi’s novel Busy Monsters and Thomas Bertonneau has his sights on a couple of medieval sagas.

Read the rest.

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Thin Skin at The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times Book Review posted Michael Kinsley’s negative but smart and entertaining review of Glenn Greenwald’s Snowden book, No Place to Hide. The review has apparently thrown readers into a tizzy—enough for The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to apologize for the review on Tuesday:

Book reviews are opinion pieces and — thanks to the principles of the First Amendment — Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” (I’ve never met Mr. Greenwald, though I’ve written about his work, as Mr. Kinsley notes.)

But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well. What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion? Picture Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps the Times reporter Neil Sheehan in jail; and think of all that Americans would still be in the dark about — from the C.I.A.’s black sites to the abuses of the Vietnam War to the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the widespread spying on ordinary Americans.

Yes, as Ms. Paul rightly noted to me, it’s true that a book review is not an editorial, and the two shouldn’t be confused. And she told me that she doesn’t believe that editing should ever change a reviewer’s point of view. But surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.

A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley’s piece didn’t meet that bar.

I’ve read the review, and agree with it or not, it is not “sneering,” it is not “inaccurate,” and it does not have “gaping holes” in its argument. The paragraph that readers complained about the most was one about the sticky problem of who decides what national secrets can be released to the public:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Here’s the context of that paragraph:

Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.

Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?

Through all the bombast, Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”

* * *

The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.

The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?

If this enough for the public editor to publicly scold review editor, Pamela Paul, and apologize to The Times’s readers, The Times has thinner skin than the class of 2014.

Adam Kirsch, commenting on the review and subsequent fiasco at The New Republic, writes that Kinsley did not make any errors of fact, so Sullivan’s “correction” makes no sense: “[H]e expresses an opinion that the freedom of the press is not unlimited, that it must eventually yield to a democratic government, which after all has the legitimacy conferred by a hundred million voters. This is not an error, it is an argument, and the response to it cannot be a correction, but only another better argument, if there is one to be made.”

And instead of trying to quash Kinsley’s review in the guise of the newspaper’s supposedly ”high standards,” The Times should thank Pamela Paul for featuring this debate in its pages:

What we have here, in other words, is an example of the very thing everyone complains is usually missing in public life: a substantive debate about important issues. It’s impossible to read Kinsley on Greenwald, and then Greenwald on Kinsley on Greenwald, without acknowledging that both of them have made serious and thought-provoking points. Kinsley is surely correct that the press cannot have unlimited freedom to publish any government secret. What would we say about a journalist who published American battle plans, or the location of nuclear weapons silos, or the identity of undercover agents? Just as Kinsley said, someone has to decide where to draw the curtain of secrecy, without worrying that any individual with an Internet connection can poke holes in it. Yet Greenwald is also convincing when he writes that, were we to leave such decisions entirely up to the government, we would be left in the dark about all kinds of wrongdoing that could not survive public exposure. Here is a genuine conflict of values, and the side one takes depends on one’s view of the dangers of anarchy versus the dangers of tyranny.

If there is one undeniable winner in this affair, it is The New York Times Book Review (to which, full disclosure, I am a regular contributor). Its editor, Pamela Paul, made a match of reviewer and subject that resulted not just in a witty and engaging review, but in a serious intellectual discussion, one that has taken fire beyond the pages of the Book Review itself and brought public attention to a significant issue. That’s just what book reviewing is supposed to do.

It is bizarre, then, that the Times’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Kinsley’s review as if it were some kind of journalistic malfeasance.

Not just bizarre, dumb.

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Amazon Responds to Reader Complaints in Hachette Dispute

GalleyCat reports that Amazon, which is in a pricing dispute with Hachette and has delayed delivery of Hachette titles or made them unavailable, has responded to reader complaints in a Kindle forum. On Hachette titles unavailable for pre-order:

We are currently buying less (print) inventory and “safety stock” on titles from the publisher, Hachette, than we ordinarily do, and are no longer taking pre-orders on titles whose publication dates are in the future. Instead, customers can order new titles when their publication date arrives. For titles with no stock on hand, customers can still place an order at which time we order the inventory from Hachette — availability on those titles is dependent on how long it takes Hachette to fill the orders we place. Once the inventory arrives, we ship it to the customer promptly. These changes are related to the contract and terms between Hachette and Amazon.

On the dispute:

Negotiating with suppliers for equitable terms and making stocking and assortment decisions based on those terms is one of a bookseller’s, or any retailer’s, most important jobs. Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer. It’s reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly. A retailer can feature a supplier’s items in its advertising and promotional circulars, “stack it high” in the front of the store, keep small quantities on hand in the back aisle, or not carry the item at all, and bookstores and other retailers do these every day. When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers. Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term.

And on the effect the dispute has had on Hachette authors:

We also take seriously the impact it has when, however infrequently, such a business interruption affects authors. We’ve offered to Hachette to fund 50% of an author pool – to be allocated by Hachette – to mitigate the impact of this dispute on author royalties, if Hachette funds the other 50%. We did this with the publisher Macmillan some years ago. We hope Hachette takes us up on it.

Hachette responds:

Authors, with whom we at Hachette have been partners for nearly two centuries, engage in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.  In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment, and connection.  By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good.  They are not.

We will spare no effort to resume normal business relations with Amazon—which has been a great partner for years—but under terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them, at the same time that it recognizes Amazon’s importance as a retailer and innovator.

 

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The Art of Writing Well

F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons
F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fortnightly Review has put together a nice dossier on the French writer Remy de Gourmont, a contemporary of Alfred Jarry who influenced both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Gourmont’s most important critical work is The Problem of Style (1902)—a response to Antoine Albalat’s The Art of Writing in Twenty Lessons (1899), which, like many writing manuals, proposes to teach readers how to write well by providing annotated examples of good prose and poetry, lists of clichés to avoid, and so forth.

The context of Gourmont’s Problème is important. Albalat had argued that style is entirely the result of imitating writers of “taste”: “One should always have in front of oneself,” Albalat writes, “the great classical models. One should obsess over their thought, their form, their style…And ask, following Longinus: How would Homer have said this?”

Gourmont will have none of this:

No. This is absurd…One should ask oneself [rather]: How do I feel this, how do I see this? And ignore the Greeks, the Romans, the Classics, and the Romantics. When he is writing, a writer should not concern himself with either his masters or his style. If he sees, if he feels, if he says something, it will either be interesting or not, beautiful or mediocre, but he must take a chance. But to try and trick the ignorant or the stupid by cunningly using a few famous lines? It’s dirty work and a stupid attitude! Style is feeling, seeing thinking, and nothing more.

Albalat’s Art of Writing is, at times, overly simplistic, and Gourmont is right to skewer his advice to mindlessly imitate Homer. But Gourmont’s response also goes too far in associating style with personal experience. This obscures what writers gain by reading others and the importance of looking not only inward, but outward. As T.S. Eliot put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is, in part, a response to Gourmont, “if the only form of tradition… consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” But the poet “must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen…the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past.”

Furthermore, Gourmont’s emphasis on the individuality of style in one of the many selections excerpted at Fortnightly leads him to make a false distinction between two kinds of writers and readers:

The writer with an abstract style is almost always a sentimentalist, at least a sensitive. The artist-writer is hardly ever sentimental and very rarely a sensitive; that is to say, he incorporates all his sensibility in his style, and has very little left for life and the profound passions. The one takes a ready-made phrase or writes a facile phrase wherein, deceived by his own emotion, he thinks there is an emotive value; the other takes words which are merely handfuls, constructs the limbs of his work and erects a statue which whether beautiful or ugly, heavy or winged, will yet keep in its attitude some of the life which animated the hands by which it was moulded. Nevertheless the vulgar will feel more emotion from the banal phrase than from the original phrase; and this will be the counterproof: to the reader who draws his emotions from the very substance of what he reads is opposed the reader who only feels what he reads to the extent that he can apply it to his own life, to his griefs, to his hopes. He who enjoys the literary beauty of a sermon by Bossuet cannot be touched by it religiously, and he who weeps for the death of Ophelia has no aesthetic sense. These two parallel categories of writers and readers constitute the two great types of cultivated humanity. In spite of shades and over-lappings, no understanding is possible between them; they despise each other, for they do not understand each other. Their animosity extends in two wide, sometimes subterranean, streams throughout literary history.

There’s something to Gourmont’s view that abstraction, which includes jargon and clichés, and sentimentality go hand in hand. Abstract words are vague and capable of evoking an emotion that may or may not be warranted in a particular context or circumstance. Sentimentality is a feeling that is inconsonant with the event that produced it.

Gourmont is wrong, however, that readers who weep “for the death of Ophelia” have “no aesthetic sense” and that those who are touched by the beauty of a sermon can learn no dogma from it. This is silly and makes imaginative writing the domain of specialists whose interest in it is merely technical. If “for ‘the intellectual’ everything is in the manner in which the subject is treated,” as Gourmont states, God save us from intellectuals.

Throughout Problème, Gourmont refuses to distinguish between style and thought—one is the other. Again, there is something to this. Good writing, he states, is “irrefutable.” At the same time, “Nothing perishes more quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigorous thought.”

But, again, he goes too far when he writes that “style and thought are the same.” This wrongly elevates originality (which is almost always what Gourmont means by “style”) to a degree that in practice diminishes the importance of truth and emotion in a work of art. Gourmont could care less about truth. “Truth tyrannizes,” he writes, “doubt liberates.” But, contra Gourmont’s self-defeating praise of it, doubt has proven just as tyrannical in art and literature as any number of other false truths. Nothing, it sometimes seems, can be expressed today in certain circles with authentic feeling without the risk of being labeled simplistic or naïve.

Furthermore, Gourmont’s principles of originality and doubt are just as susceptible to being gamed as Albalat’s classical ones are. If writers who imitate Albalat’s classical style can dupe readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile by an allusion here or a turn of phrase there, they can also, following Gourmont’s creed of originality, trick readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile because it seems new or shocking. While Gourmont argues, as noted above, that “style unsupported by…vigorous thought” perishes quickly, the problem is as long as the thinking remains squishy, the ashes of bad writing will continue to give birth to bad writing.

Elsewhere Gourmont writes:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer’s capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated.

While this may have been necessary over a hundred years ago, it’s terrible advice for our self-absorbed, rule-breaking, originality-obsessed age.

There is no formula for writing well, no one, unchanging definition of good writing, and no such thing as pure originality. In my own limited experience, reading well has been important (reading all of Derrida—yes, all, at least at the time—nearly ruined my prose), but it probably was not as important as writing often and allowing editors and colleagues I trust to rip an essay or article to shreds. The latter is essential—at least for aspiring nonfiction writers. Writers who refuse to submit their work to others for criticism almost always remain failed writers.

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Getting Rid of Tolerance

Over at The Chronicle Review, Suzanna Danuta Walters has a piece on gay rights and tolerance that shows, if nothing else, how fighting for gay rights has become a religion–and a particularly extreme one–to some folks:

In truth, I couldn’t have imagined the world we live in now—some of us, that is, here in America. The changes have been well documented. In media, Orange Is the New Black reigns, and queers increasingly pop up in everyday dramas and award-winning comedies. In politics, more gays and lesbians are in local and national office, and antidiscrimination laws are de rigueur for the Fortune 500 and some municipalities. In our private lives, earnest heterosexuals declare their support for gay rights and their fondness for their gay friends, neighbors, family members. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed, and marriage equality seems to have won the day, prompting more than one blogger to note that it’s fashionable to support gay marriage.

I could go on. But that story is oft told. A familiar narrative of inevitable progress, it wraps us in a warm blanket of American exceptionalism. Pundits and pollsters declare, with more unanimity than is typical in political prognostications, that the end of homophobia is just around the corner. Breathless tales of the triumph of tolerance and self-satisfied encomiums on our post-gay new world dominate our national discourse, with dissenting voices to be found only on the wary queer left and the furious Christian right. For most, marriage + military inclusion + a few queers on TV = rainbow nirvana.

But it isn’t, Walters argues. The problem is that we still allow religious individuals to think that homosexuality is wrong. As a culture we encourage these folks to “tolerate” homosexuality, but, Walters writes, “the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with.” And since there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, the only right response is acceptance:

Tolerance is not just a low bar; it actively undercuts robust integration and social belonging by allowing the warp and woof of anti-gay animus to go unchallenged. Tolerance allows us to celebrate (hysterically) the coming out of macho professional athletes as a triumphant sign of liberation rather than a sad commentary on the persistence of the closet and the hold of masculinist ideals. Tolerance allows religious “objections” to queer lives to remain in place, even as it claims that a civilized society leaves its homos alone. Tolerance pushes for marriage equality and simultaneously assures anxious allies that it won’t change their marriages or their lives.

Tolerance allows “anti-gay animus to go unchallenged”? Really? In reality, what it does is allow folks who disagree with Walters to voice that disagreement—something she seems unable to stomach—so she proposes we get rid of tolerance itself.

This is the way of religious extremism. There is nothing wrong with holding that my beliefs are true and yours are false, or even that people who disagree with me are willfully, irrationally, satanically, espousing a lie. Where things start to go south is when I demand that others recant or suffer the consequences because their disbelief is an offense to the great deity. Danuta does not quite take this very last step (she does call for religious objectors to drop all objections), but once tolerance has been thrown out, what’s to stop her, or anyone else, from punishing us “stubborn” gay deniers?

What’s interesting, too, is that she also argues against the idea (and rightly so in my view) that homosexuality is genetically determined, which makes the link between this particular strand of gay rights advocacy and religion even stronger. Homosexuality should be accepted not because it is a genetic predisposition but because, well, it is right and good. While she writes that “Difference…makes a difference,” what she actually argues for is a nation united in its love of gayness—a true “rainbow nirvana” where all differences are allowed, except one.

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