Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Just so you know

Announcement to teachers: Young students in English 100 will not necessarily find funny the witty banter of Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell.

We're working on writing "Process Analysis" essays this week, and I found an old episode of This American Life that dealt with the theme of "How-To's." I listened to it over the weekend and thought it was terrific, figured it would be an intertaining diversion. More importantly, I wouldn't have to develop a full lesson plan.

Early in the episode, Ira is trying to teach Sarah how to drive a car. I knew I was doomed one minute in. One of my students, an intelligent and focused young scholar, squinted and looked at me very seriously. "I don't understand," she whispered. "Is it supposed to be funny?"

Well, if you have to ask...

Luckily, in the same program, Junot Diaz reads his "How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” This went over much better and sparked some interesting discussion.

This was a good education in audience. The segment was designed to appeal largely to listeners of This American Life and NPR in general. Inside jokes aren't funny when you're not on the inside. Oh, and I am an old man. I must remember this. Live and learn. That's part of the fun of teaching.

8 comments:

L said...

that's soooo funny.

Empire said...

I'm surpised the "critics" that decide the Pulitzer didn't award one to Junot Diaz for "How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” After all, they seem to like drivel.

Ric said...

You must find a way to be less angry. Dogging other writers isn't going to get any of us ahead.

nola said...

Teaching can be so much fun! I have so many wonderful "student" stories.

Empire said...

I'm not angry in the slightest. As a matter of fact, I'm in love with life. My relationship with my wife is great, money isn't really an issue, and I love what I'm doing. I simply call bullshit when I see it. When did that become so problematic? Seriously, don't you think praise is a touch too lavishly applied these days?

Ric said...

I'm glad that you and your wife are well. Please give her my best.

In terms of the way praise is given “these days,” I imagine it is fraught with all of the same problems that existed well before our time and that will persist long after we are gone.

In general, I don’t like the idea of writers insulting other writers in such wholesale and dismissive ways. I don’t think it is productive, and I don’t think it respects the work we do. There is also the issue of ethos, no? When the dismissals come from writers of lesser accomplishment (Yes, I’m sorry but this does include both me and you) it comes off sounding like sour grapes.

I have no problem with someone taking issue with a writer’s work, but calling something “drivel” with no specific support for such a thesis is, in my opinion, bringing the conversation to an unnecessarily low level. It’s reductive. It’s too easy.

You and I differ on a number of issues, and I certainly don’t expect us to resolve this one here, in a public forum (with upwards of 30 distinct visitors on some days!), where I am on the record as myself and you are shielded by your alias.

Until next time, I remain most affectionately yours,

Zaigon362

Empire said...

Ric,

Yes, our disagreements are deep indeed. I’m not sure it makes much sense to hash them out if the goal is to persuade one another of our viewpoints, since 1. I am right and 2. you are so stubborn. Kidding. But it might be fun to hash them out for the sake of clarity, that is, to know how our viewpoints differ from one another. To that end, I offer the following:

“In terms of the way praise is given “these days,” I imagine it is fraught with all of the same problems that existed well before our time and that will persist long after we are gone.”

This is the one issue that I think can’t really be debated, which is to say that I think you’re factually incorrect. Early American writing was routinely dismissed by both European and American critics of the time. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that American critics began even to see Early American literature as literature. My reading of 19th century literature criticism has led me to believe that harsh criticism was rather routine. In my mind, Twain ripping Cooper apart was par for the proverbial course. But nowadays, in this age of postmodern consumption, books have become products that need to be sold. It doesn’t matter if the blurbs are true because nobody expects them to be. For example:

San Francisco Examiner on T. C. Boyle’s If the River Was Whiskey: …one of America’s most supple and electric literary inventors, so talented that “he seems a plausible reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci.”

Luis Alberto Urrea on Robert Boswell: “Robert Boswell is the best young novelist working in America today.”

Portland Oregonion on Ron Carlson: “Carlson is one of the most accomplished short story writers in the nation.”

Julia Alvarez on Ana Castillo: “Ana Castillo is una storyteller de primera…”

San Jose Mercury News on Larry Brown: “Larry Brown is one of the great unsung heroes of American fiction…”

Marilynne Robinson on Oscar Casares: “Oscar Casares is an exceptional writer.”

Denver Post on Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay: “It’s a crowd-wowing performance, one that pushes the author toward the top ranks of his generation of American writers.”

People on Donald Barthelme: “Donald Barthelme almost single-handedly has revived the genre of the short story and made it a fresh art form.”

Corriere della Sera (Italy) on Paul Auster: “Auster is one of the most inventive writers of his generation.”

William Kittredge on James Galvin’s The Meadow: “A masterpiece.”

Washington Post Book World on William Gass: “With Cartesian Sonata…William H. Gass adds another spray of glitter to his reputation as the finest prose stylist in America.”

Mirabella on Dave Eggers: “Dave Eggers is the best new writer in America, bar none…”

Ray Olson (Booklist) on Martin Espada: “[Espada] has foged a passionate, compelling, eminently readable poetry that makes him arguably the most important ‘minority’ U.S. poet since Langston Hughes.”

Washington Post Book World on Elizabeth Evans’ The Blue Hour: “[It…] is very much a Great American novel.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review on Jeffrey Eugenides: “He has emerged as the great American writer…”

The Baltimore Sun on Franzen’s The Corrections: “Brilliant.”

To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for many of the books mentioned above. But that kind of praise is ridiculous. Does anyone believe that Boyle should be compared to Da Vinci, that The Blue Hour is a great American novel, or that The Meadow is a masterpiece? Either North American literature is currently experiencing a literary Renaissance never before seen in the entire history of letters, or this praise is an example of a postmodern rhetoric that reflects how much of an industry writing has in fact become. And it’s not just blurbs either. I read about 200 literary journals a year, and the literature reviews are almost always positive.

“In general, I don’t like the idea of writers insulting other writers in such wholesale and dismissive ways. I don’t think it is productive, and I don’t think it respects the work we do.”

To be honest, I shouldn’t have called his work drivel. I was speaking off the cuff as I would at a bar, but I didn’t actually mean it. I actually respect his work, though again, I don’t believe it’s worthy of the many accolades he receives. But look, that’s true for 99.9% percent of the writers out there. In general, I’d like to see the cessation of all of these awards, including the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes, since they’re often not based solely (or even predominantly) on artistic merit.

The bigger disagreement, though, is your romantic sentiment about writing. Perhaps I’m reading into this with the perspective gathered from our previous conversations, but it smacks of martyrism. Is writing “work” or is it a bourgeois activity engaged in, at least currently, by a privileged class of people with too many degrees and an excess of free time on their hands? Unless you’re Herman Melville or Cormac McCarthy pre-All the Pretty Horses, I’m just buying into the whole “writing is such hard work” argument.

“There is also the issue of ethos, no? When the dismissals come from writers of lesser accomplishment (Yes, I’m sorry but this does include both me and you) it comes off sounding like sour grapes.”

To imply that I don’t have a right to criticize his work based on ethos is, at best, an ad hominem fallacy, and at worst, a cheap shot. There’s simply no way to become a better writer unless one critiques the work of other, more accomplished writers. If you actually believe otherwise, I expect you’ll never apply for and/or teach at an M.F.A. program since their craft courses do exactly this. To do so would be to act hypocritically.

“I have no problem with someone taking issue with a writer’s work, but calling something “drivel” with no specific support for such a thesis is, in my opinion, bringing the conversation to an unnecessarily low level. It’s reductive. It’s too easy.”

Do I have the right to criticize it or not? As for the “drivel” comment, see above. But also, let’s keep in mind that I said this in the comments section of a blog, not in a published essay. The expected level of analytical discourse within these two “genres” is not exactly equal. Furthermore, the comment was clearly a lighthearted attempt at teasing you a little bit, or so I thought. Maybe it didn’t come off that way.

“You and I differ on a number of issues, and I certainly don’t expect us to resolve this one here, in a public forum (with upwards of 30 distinct visitors on some days!), where I am on the record as myself and you are shielded by your alias.”

This strikes me as completely irrelevant, but if you think it is important:

I am, your friend, Seth Horton.

Ric said...

My dear unmasked friend, (and anyone else privy to this tempest in a tea kettle)

You make some interesting points. A couple I agree with. Some I would like to dispute. In response to others, I'd like to qualify my previous statements.

I do not think writing is "hard work." Hard work is hard work. Writing is for cream puffs who think they actually have something valuable and new to say. If the world’s logistics and hard work were suddenly turned over to the writers, chaos would reign. All of the points you make about the romanticizing of the writer’s struggle are, I think, true.

I do think writing is often frustrating and lonely work. I do think that one can put a lot of time and mental energy into a project that may never be seen by others. I don't like the "struggling writer" persona either. Hopefully, I made fun of it a little in that earlier Flamingo post. I am, however, aware of certain sacrifices that I’ve made to do the modest work I’ve done. And there were a hell of a lot of years spent on it. Honestly, I would want to fight some guy who called it “drivel.” I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean really fight.

Wouldn’t this be true in almost any occupation? If I were a bricklayer...oh, never mind that. I am a teacher, and I don't like it when teachers talk down other teachers, especially when their evidence isn't complete. Maybe it's just a general preference of mine. I prefer respect as a general rule. When it’s time to criticize or challenge, I think the criticism should be open, direct, and specific.

“Is writing “work” or is it a bourgeois activity engaged in, at least currently, by a privileged class of people with too many degrees and an excess of free time on their hands?”

Are these two choices mutually exclusive?

You’ve Diaz’s work? Do you know much about his life? He wasn’t, to my understanding, part of a privileged bourgeois class when he began writing. A reason to be more appreciative of his success, no? You can argue that he is certainly part of this described class now, and that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once a writer’s work is appreciated that writer gets pulled out of his or her subaltern status. They become part of the establishment.


“To imply that I don’t have a right to criticize his work based on ethos is, at best, an ad hominem fallacy, and at worst, a cheap shot.”

I love it when people evoke one of the terms from the fallacious reasoning chapter of the textbook, as if that settles it, stops the opponent in his tracks. Damn, I’m being fallacious. To question your ethos is, by its nature, ad hominem? God you’re a stupid idiot! (I kid; I kid.) Do you have a right to criticize anyone you want? Yes, absolutely. Have you achieved the stature to refer justifiably to the man’s sincere efforts as “Drivel”? I say, no. Let’s be clear. I never attacked your right to criticize. I questioned the specific criticism you made. You’ve conceded the point on the “drivel” comment, which was the entire basis for my complaint.

Yes, this is the ‘comments’ section of a blog post, much different from a published essay. But there are also different kinds of blogs, addressed to different audiences and calling for different rhetorical choices. This one has my name attached to it and is read by a variety of people. They don’t all know that by criticizing Diaz you are lightly making fun of me. (I didn’t know this either). It’s not just a few anonymous buddies making wisecracks at each other. If you think that the distinction I’m making smacks of humorless self importance, I’ll gladly concede that point.

“There’s simply no way to become a better writer unless one critiques the work of other, more accomplished writers. If you actually believe otherwise, I expect you’ll never apply for and/or teach at an M.F.A. program since their craft courses do exactly this. To do so would be to act hypocritically.”

I’m actually not sure what my future career will look like, Seth. We’ll have to see. Again, it’s the manner of criticism that I’m responding to, not the right to criticize.

As to the proliferation of undue praise today, I’ll grant you that point, which you made—by the way—with an extensive list of illustrations. Nice work. You’ve convinced me. At the same time, I expect most of your examples were blurbs from the actual books covers, which will always be more excessive.

I think you identify a trend though. Everyone is called brilliant today. Every book is a masterpiece. Such a climate makes it really hard for those of us who are actually changing the world through language.

Just for fun, I grabbed a couple of well known endorsements from the nineteenth century. But these are exceptions, one might say. These people really were great writers. These were masterpieces. Well, they weren’t until someone said they were?


Here’s Melville reviewing Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse. In this same essay he compares Hawthorne to Shakespeare and determines that Hawthorne exceeds the former in genius.

“But there is no man, in whom humor and love, like mountain peaks, soar to such a rapt height, as to receive the irradiations of the upper skies; --there is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet.”

Here’s Emerson on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

“I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.”


Until next time I remain, tentatively, your affectionate friend.

Ric