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Grumpy Monday: Free information, bogus Gods, and HuffPo wastes more time.

December 5, 2011

Robert Levine: Delivering hard truths.

I woke up cheerful, but  a few minutes on the Internet took care of that. Stories about a white man’s search for God, how information “wants” to be free, and yet another utterly meaningless piece at HuffPo have soured my mood.

Let me start with Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times review of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, by Robert Levine.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

One of the governing maxims of the digital renaissance (or apocalypse, as I prefer to call it), is: “Information wants to be free.” To which I say there’s a more venerable maxim: “You get what you pay for.”

But Levine, a former editor of Billboard magazine, goes much farther: Tech companies like HuffPo, YouTube, and Google are “parasites,” sucking life out of the newspapers, movie companies and TV producers that actually pay to create our journalism and entertainment.

In other words, when media companies suffer, so do artists. Yeah, yeah, I know, supposedly we’re seeing the “democratization” of the arts and journalism but what’s really happening is more like mob rule. When everyone has a voice, then no one really does.

All creative products — from journalism to symphonies — are hand-made, and thus expensive to produce. Put the movie and TV production companies out of business and all you’ll see on YouTube are amateur videos and propaganda produced by business and government.

Just because you’re self-published doesn’t mean you can’t be pirated. See how much you hate copyright laws when your 99-cent digital novel is being reproduced and sold and you’re not getting any royalties.

This is back-to-the-future stuff. Thirty years ago, when I was a young magazine editor, freelance writers had finally won reasonable rights and protections after a long struggle. The bad old days of “write-for-hire” were vanquished, seemingly never to return. At least, not until the glories of the digital age.

Now almost everything is write-for-hire again, and most writers — if they can find work– labor in a sort of serfdom not seen since the 1950s. Some revolution that is.

Finally, that “information wants to be free” line comes from a 1984 speech by techno wizard Stewart Brand. Seldom does anyone quote the rest of it: “[I]nformation wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

I can only hope that Levine’s book, will “change the debate about the future of culture,” as the Times’ Rosen says. If not, then culture will be akin to what grows under the floorboards of a barn.

If outfits like HuffPo are “parasites,” they can also be monumental time wasters. In fairness, I do sometimes find worthwhile journalism and criticism at Arianna’s place. But more often I trip over sleazy, over-hyped stories that amount to nothing.

Consider this piece, aggregated (natch!) from Figment.com and titled “College Prep! Famous Authors Take the SAT!”

Okay, I bit. I did, expecting to be amused by some surprising result — the famous writers flunked! — or at least eating the spinach of some new information — the SAT tests are bogus!

The two writers, Loren McLaughlin and Scott Westerfield (first maybe we should define the word “famous”), were assigned essays that were then graded by a veteran SAT tester. The result: The professional writers produced excellent work that received top grades.

This is news? For this I wasted  several precious moments from the finite number allotted me? Moments I can never get back? Oh, and HuffPo brooks little criticism. I made a brief comment mocking the uselessness of the story and asking where I can apply for a temporal refund. That comment is nowhere to be seen. “Pending comments: Zero.”

You’d think any self-respecting publication would moderate comments for offensive language, racism, and other trollery, while welcoming impassioned criticism. But I suppose Arianna’s skin is too thin for that.

Finally, there’s this ridiculous NPR story about Eric Weiner’s new book Man Seeks God, which details his super-shallow globe-trotting search for genuine spirituality.

Some commentators rightly take Weiner to task as “an over privileged white person on a quest for spirituality Eat, Pray, Love style.” I guess if you’re too poor to visit Kathmandu  and (fail to) learn to meditate under your very own guru, then you’re doomed to a live without transcendence.

That’s actually not what irritates me about Weiner’s search for spirituality (he ends up with something he calls — kid you not — an “IKEA God”). No, it’s really about his search for a topic  to follow up his earlier bestseller, The Geography of Bliss.

Of the writing of bogus books by desperate writers there is no end. And like jellyfish in a sea devoid of sharks and turtles, they are going to multiply like crazy.

Word of the Year: ‘Tergiversate.’ Yeah, that’ll catch on.

December 2, 2011

No, I’ve never heard or read it, either. I can only assume the lexicographers at Dictionary.com are chained to  workstations in the bowels of a medieval castle somewhere and thus do not get out much.

“Tergiversate,” according to this HuffPo piece, is pronounced “ter-JIV-er-sate,” and means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.”

Greeaaaat. Just what we need, a big, ugly latinate word that means “flip-flop.”  What’s wrong with equivocate? It’s a slightly less ugly latinate word with the same meaning.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

And have you run into this word anywhere? HuffPo reports a single sighting (citing?), in the Times of London in August, where it was used “to describe the changing attitudes of stock markets.”

(Surely HuffPo means “attitudes toward stock markets?” Or perhaps, “attitudes of stock market traders?” Only sentient beings can have attitudes. Yikes! This subject is making me persnickety.)

Jay Schwartz, Dictionary.com’s Head of Content, defends this absurd selection of a word that you are most likely seeing here for the one and only time in your life, by telling HuffPo:

“We’re taking a stand on this choice….This word encompasses an sense of ‘flip flopping’ but it also implies a number of other complicating forces. Unlike ‘flip flop’, ‘tergiversate’ suggests a lack of intentionality – it’s a change in state more out of necessity, as new events happen at great speed, whether in the economy, politics or attitudes.”

Whatever. When has this ever been not the case? And yet we muddled through, I don’t know, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the entire Bush Administration, without resort to an ungainly archaic word.

The one thing tergiversate has going for it is its deep historical pedigree, which goes back to 1655 or thereabouts. But that’s it.

A Word of the Year should flow off the tongue, and it should immediately feel right. It should be almost onomatapoeic, with its sound at least cooperating with its meaning.

The sound of tergiversate cooperates with no meaning whatsoever. It’s like a scientific or medical or scholarly word, meant not to share meaning but to obscure it for the exclusive use of an in-group.

Like an indie film, it seems to lack enough beats — it needs another syllable or two to limber it up and let it flow from the front of the mouth.

I keep wanting to make it “tergiviscerate” — that scans better, doesn’t it? — which might be a word to describe what Barack Obama would do to Rick Perry in a presidential campaign debate (or Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain or even Mitt Romney, who, after all, is the reigning tergiversator-in-chief).

What’s more, a Word of the Year should be sexy and fun and fill a need we previously did not know existed. “Unfriend,” the 2009 WOTY chose by the Oxford Dictionary, fits most of these requirements. So does “locavore,” Oxford’s 2007 WOTY.

Of course, Merriam-Webster’s  2006 WOTY,  “truthiness” –invented by TV comedian Steven Colbert — meets all these standards. It is (or should be) the consensus pick as best coinage of the millennium.

As you can see, dictionary outfits compete to anoint their own publicity-generating WOTY, with the American Dialect Society joining the ones already mentioned. Two cheers for capitalism, I suppose.

But I find it especially disappointing Dictionary.com has botched this year’s job so badly. Since I moved most of my work life online, Dictionary.com has become my go-to word reference guide.

Yes, the two-volume Compact Oxford is over there on the floor by the bookcase, and the beloved American Heritage remains enthroned on its corner dictionary stand.

Who has time to leave the keyboard to look up a word? Dictionary.com meets my needs without compromising my writerly principles, chiefly because it not only provides definitions, it provides definitions for all the nuances and forms and connotations of a word.

And what’s more important, it supplies etymologies for each term. A dictionary without etymology is not worth the trees that died to create it. Or in this case, the carbon spewed into the atmosphere to power the Internet.

Finally, while I’m berating my new friends at Dictionary.com (and no, I’m not going to unfriend them), let me say that the best words in the language, the ones that have the most power, are the 15 percent that come from the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. The 85 percent of latinate words, foisted upon the language by the Frenchifiers who accompanied William the Conqueror, are to be avoided whenever possible.

Writers are aware of this– good ones, at least. I suppose it’s too much to expect lexicographers to know it, too. Writers are the race car drivers of language. Lexicographers are the auto mechanics.

David Milch gets his !@#$%^&* hands on Faulkner. Will literature survive?

December 1, 2011

Deadwood's Al Swearingin. McShane would have to change neither costume nor facial expression for Flem Snopes.

I can see it now: Ian McShane as Flem Snopes, scheming his way to prosperity and ruin, plus bare butts, copious poetic cussing, graphic violence, and the other niceties Milch bestowed upon a grateful nation in Deadwood and NYPD Blue.

Wow. When I think of it that way, maybe Milich isn’t such a bad fit for the Faulkner franchise after all. Which is not the same thing as saying that it’s a good idea to turn Faulkner’s dense, forbidding novels into movies and miniseries.

“I’m not, probably, the first person they would have thought of approaching them,” Milch told The New York Times yesterday, referring to the William Faulkner Literary Estate. “But a number of conversations were fruitful and here we are.”

Milch received a sweeping deal — the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories, according to the Washington Post – but he doesn’t get everything. Books already under contracted aren’t included. Among them: As I Lay Dying, which belongs to Renaissance man James Franco.

Not everything Milch cobbles together out of Faulkner’s corpus is sure to land on HBO, which has only first-look rights. Some adaptations may result in feature films, according to the Huffington Post.

Known for his success with NYPD Blue, Deadwood (and a spectacular failure with the mystic surfer drama John From Cincinnati), Milch does own literary chops.

Before Hollywood, he studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the oldest and most distinguished fine arts writing program in the nation. What’s more, his professors included Southern lit-luminaries Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, so he might have an inkling or two into Faulkner’s antiquarian Southern gothic sensibility.

A Q&A with the L.A. Times reveals Milch to be discursive, verbally flamboyant, and pompous — none of which disqualifies him from tackling Old Bill, who, especially in the novels, not only displays these same qualities but as if by magic somehow turns them into art.

Faulkner, in case you were nodding in college, won the 1949 Nobel Prize for a body of work that mixed modernistic, frequently stream-of-consciousness narrative with a lushly morbid sensibility in stories and novels set mostly in the Reconstruction South around his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, famously recast as Yoknapatawpha County.

Novels like the gloriously impenetrable The Sound and the Fury have been the bane of college students for three generations now, but Faulkner really has only one rival — Mark Twain — for the title of greatest American novelist. One of my English professors told me back in the 1970s that only Shakespeare had more scholarly papers and books written about his works than Faulkner.

Faulkner is also famous for the profound influence his work exerts on world literature, especially Latin America, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other imminent novelists credit him in part for inspiring the invention of Magical Realism.

But Faulkner has resisted film adaptation — even though, ironically, he toiled as a Hollywood hack himself, writing scripts for classic films such as The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, and To Have and Have Not — the only movie written by one Nobel Prize winner, based on a novel about another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway.

Many have tried to adapt Faulkner  — director Mark Rydell and star Steve McQueen made hash of The Reivers (1969), and it mostly goes downhill from there. I can think of only one film worth watching, The Long, Hot Summer, pieced together from bits of the stories Barn Burning and Spotted Horses and the novel the Hamlet.

Uh, the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward 1958 version, not the 1985 TV movie with Don Johnson and Cybil Shepherd. Did I even need to say that?

The question is whether what makes Faulkner great — the writing, more than the plots — can be translated successfully to the screen. How, for example, does a filmmaker convey the long stream-of-consciousness section from the novella The Bear? (Please, God, not a montage — anything but a montage!)

Milch is confident, telling the L.A. Times: “To me he seems enormously cinematic.”

No word yet on what Faulkner work will go before the cameras first. As a reader who favors the short stories over the novels (okay, I’m a philistine), and also one who was delighted to discover the hard-edged humor in some of Faulkner’s work, I’d like to suggest the story Spotted Horses.

My guess, though, is that Milich and HBO will go straight for the lurid melodrama of Sanctuary, in which a pretty but neurotic judge’s daughter, Temple Drake, (may I suggest Evan Rachel Wood?) is raped with a corn cob by an impotent gunsel. That is, after all, a story line that would have been right at home in Deadwood.

Even the greatest writers suffered rejection letters, but you won’t have to.

November 30, 2011

Was Jack Kerouac wounded by rejection?

Today we’re going to examine two artifacts of literary culture soon to be extinct: Rejection letters, specifically those received by famous authors, and private libraries, also belonging to famous authors.

Really, were the times veering elsewhere — were literary culture not crumbling before my very eyes –I would offer the 1968 rejection of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which you can find at Flavorwire,  as an encouragement to aspiring writers:

“The whole is so dry and airless,” writes a particularly obtuse editor, “so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, extraneous material.”

The Left Hand of Darkness went on to win the 1969 Nebula Award, the 1970 Hugo, and Le Guin herself is known today as one of the all-time greatest sci-fi writers.

These letters, reproduced in their original form, are valuable not only for what they tell us about the importance of persistence in the face of rejection. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into a literary world of just the day before yesterday that has all but utterly vanished.

For example, after writing to a Nabokov representative to reject Lolita in 1956 (“which you and I both know is impossible at least for us”), Blanche Knopf goes on to discuss other business:

“Will you please tell Renée that I had her charming letter. I have no news except that the Coco is holding his own. As soon as I know more, I will write. But it was enchanting of her to send me a line, and I am very grateful.  We have all been upset about this affair.”

I cannot suss out who “Renee” and “the Coco” might be (a dog, perhaps?), or what the “affair” refers to (please, something nice and lurid!), but I’d love to know. If someone with more knowledge of ’50s era publishing can fill in the blanks, we’d all be grateful.

Lolita, of course, was published by Putnam in the United States in 1958, eventually selling 50 million copies (and counting) and becoming a consensus pick as one of the best novels of the century.

Other famous writers summarily rejected include Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter Matthiessen, and the film director Tim Burton.

Not all the letters strike me as harsh: “Our staff continues fully manned so I cannot hold out the hope of an editorial assignment, but I shall be glad to know that you have found a promising opening elsewhere,” Edward Weeks writes to Vonnegut.

Nor do I find all of the rejections unjust. At the risk of being judged a philistine, I find myself in sympathy with the Knopf editor who termed  On the Road “this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel [that] would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.”

Of course, it’s a beat masterpiece and all that, but when I tried to read it for the first time a mere three or four years ago, my initial enthusiasm wore down to nothing about half way through, when I began to suspect that the story amounted to nothing more than one damned thing after another.

By far the best rejection is of an early Gertrude Stein manuscript, spurned by publisher Arthur Fifield in a letter that spoofs Stein’s own. Dear Madam, he writes:

“I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”

Rejections of this — or any — type will soon become rarer and rarer until they cease to exist. Digital self-publishing makes it so easy for any writer to get any manuscript, no matter how awful, into publication — why would a writer subject himself or herself to the pains of rejection?

Thanks to the Kindle and the iPad and their innumerable imitators, personal libraries will also go the way of the dodo. I’ve so far held out, though more and more of my serious reader friends — and even writers — are succumbing to the siren call of the electronic book reading device thingy.

So let us bask vicariously in the glory of libraries maintained by famous writers, also from Flavorwire, ranging from Norman Mailer to Junot Diaz, Mark Twain to Agatha Christie, Gary Shteyngart to John Updike, Toni Morrison to Rudyard Kipling — 20 in all. Take a look and pick a favorite. I like this one, with John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and their daughter, Quintana Roo:

Is the Bible the most popular book ever, or merely the least read?

November 29, 2011

Don't take someone else's Word -- read it for yourself.

In his novel The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux’s brilliant but deranged protagonist, Allie Fox, believes the Bible contains vast stretches, like an unexplored continent, that have never been read.

I thought about Allie Fox while reading a Publishers Weekly item on scholar Douglas A. Knight and his new book, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us.

Take Job, for example. Everyone knows the story of Job — pawn in a wager between God and Satan, he suffers the loss of children, wealth, status, and on top of everything, is afflicted with boils.

Job endured his miseries with patience, right? That’s why the phrase “the patience of Job” is a well-worn cliche. Right?

Wrong! Here’s Knight on the matter: “People today think of Job as patient. He was not. That Job was only in two chapters. The rest of the book he was asking questions and demanding of God to give an account of why he is suffering when he did nothing wrong.”

So, okay, the Bible’s a tough slog and not as many of us tackle as we should, but anyone who does read, say, The Book of Job, will not be surprised by Knight’s revelations…right?

Wrong again! Even those reading the Bible, blinded by received wisdom, sometimes misunderstand some of the plainest passages.

For example, when I was growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church — and who puts more stock in the letter of the Word than Baptists? — I frequently heard preachers extolling Job’s patience from the pulpit.

Imagine my surprise when I finally got around to reading Job for myself, in my late teens or early 20s. I was astounded by what the text actually says. Job isn’t patient at all,  and while he might not quite curse God, he does grow indignant and impolite in his demand for a divine explanation for the injustice he suffers.

I was also impressed by the complicated, almost theatrical, structure of this ancient book, which put me in mind of the Greek tragedies — Antigone, Oedipus, The Trojan Women — which I had lately read in college English. This book was far richer, more complicated and textured, than the version I had been taught in Sunday School.

“Job gives us license to ask the hard questions. It gives us the freedom to go ahead and object,” says Knight.

Job is one of many biblical stories examined in The Meaning of the Bible, which is co-written by Amy-Jill Levine, another Vanderbilt professor. As Michael G. Mauldin, senior editor at HarperOne, says, the authors are not out to undermine anyone’s faith.

“Knight and Levine connect readers with a treasure trove of rich insights and information in accessible and engaging prose,” Mauldin says. “They are not writing for fellow scholars.”

Well, yeah, what else would he say? But my appetite is whetted. I can’t wait to get a copy.

 

 

 

Great Marley’s ghost! Was Charles Dickens a brazen plagiarist?

November 28, 2011

With plagiarism much in the news of late, I note with great interest a story detailing a little-known episode from the life of Dickens in which he was accused of plagiarizing a ghost story.

At least it wasn’t the much-loved apparition of Jacob Marley that gets the action going in A Christmas Carol. That one, apparently, Dickens made up all by himself.

The Guardian, reporting on a British Library exhibit celebrating the 2012 bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, says a now-forgotten artist and writer named Thomas Heaphy “bitterly” (bitterly, I say!), complained that the great author had stolen plot details from a story scheduled to appear months in the future.

Heaphy insisted that Dickens must have seen his story at the printer’s, appropriated its salient details, and rushed his tale into an issue of Dickens’ own magazine, All the Year Round, in 1861.

Both stories featured a beautiful young woman who asked an artist if he could paint her picture from memory. The painter says yes, but a traditional sitting would be better. Turns out, the young lady is fatally indisposed, being already dead, and wants the memory picture to console her grieving father.

Dickens’ version “is hardly his finest effort,” notes the Guardian, which doesn’t even bother sharing the title. In fact, as anyone knows who has enjoyed Les Standiford’s popular biography, The Man Who Invented Christmas, the Dickens work we remember today is but of a fraction of his output.

For example, Dickens wrote three full-length sequels to A Christmas Carol, all of which sold well during his lifetime, none of which is read today (for good reason).

Dickens was also fascinated by ghosts from childhood, although the Guardian says he usually placed a “rational” explanation in his stories, and his magazine frequently outraged spiritualists and mediums by printing exposes of their fakery.

Confronted with Heaphy’s accusations, Dickens admitted the similarities between the two stories, but insisted it must be the result of an uncanny coincidence.

“Everything connected with it,” Dickens wrote, “is amazing; but conceive this – the portrait painter had been engaged to write it elsewhere as a story for next Christmas and not unnaturally supposed when he saw himself anticipated in All the Year Round that there had been treachery at his printers.”

So — did Dickens steal a story from a lesser writer? While it’s not unimaginable, outright theft seems unlikely. After all, Dickens was a towering talent with a fertile capacity for invention.

On the other hand, Dickens explanation — what a coincidence! Really! — seems equally unlikely, though also not impossible. After all, as Hemingway said, there’s no such thing as an original idea.

What do you think? Is Dickens innocent, the incident merely an astonishing coincidence? Or did a famous and successful author, perhaps facing a crushing deadline, prey on the work of an infinitely less powerful writer?

 

 

 

Anne McCaffrey busted open the “boys-only” club of science fiction.

November 25, 2011

Anne McCaffrey with her 2005 Nebula Grand Master award.

Anne McCaffrey, the beloved science-fiction writer who died at 85 on Wednesday, will be remembered as the avatar of strong female characters long before J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins.

An American, McCaffrey died of a stroke at her home in Ireland, according to an obit in the Guardian. She wrote almost 100 books in a career that began in 1967 “with Restoree, which she described as a ‘jab’ at the way women were portrayed in science fiction.”

She was by far best known and best loved for the Dragonriders of Pern series, which she began later that same year and continued until the latest entry, Dragon’s Time came out last summer.

The series pioneered the notion of dragons as good guys,  and of a telepathic connection between humans and animals (lifted whole cloth by Christopher Paolini for his Estragon series).

McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo and a Nebula award. Bestselling fantasy author Brian Hunt said that sci-fi can still feel like “a boys-only club.” McCaffrey, he said, is “up there with Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Jack Williamson.” She was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2005.

In an appreciation, the Guardian’s Alison Flood notes that, dragon’s aside, McCaffrey always insisted she wrote sci-fi, not fantasy: “Fantasy usually contains some form of magic,” McCaffrey declared on her website. “I stick to Newtonian logic.”

McCaffrey was Flood’s adolescent reading obsession — an obsession she apparently shared with many other young women.

In an appreciation at NPR.com Rose Fox calls McCaffrey’s work in the ’60s and ’70s “revolutionary” for showing that women can be “real protagonists” in science fiction.

‘Women can be protagonists—real protagonists, who really do things!” exults Fox. “Women who are pregnant can keep right on working and being active!”

This proto-feminist revelation, combined with the escapism McCaffrey’s books provide, proved a potent combination for readers, some of whom, Fox says, grew up to be writers themselves.

“Before there was a Katniss Everdeen — or even a Hermione Granger — there were Menolly and Killashandra Ree,” Fox writes, referring to characters from Pern and the YA Crystal Singer trilogy.

Since 2003 McCaffrey had been collaborating with her son, Todd, with a final Pern book scheduled for publication next year.

In any case, McCaffrey leaves a legacy, both for science fiction and for young women. She showed once and for all that girls want to fly in the realm of the imagination, too.

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