Archive for November 16th, 2007

A patient reader’s private conversations with books!

November 16, 2007

To peruse copies of books that Updike read with the intention of reviewing—including Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; Alice Munro’s Selected Stories; Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin; Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex; and many others—is to meet a reader who, in a most inarguable way, is a picture of thoroughness. The margins run with comments, even in appendices, even by footnotes. “I read slower than I write,” Updike wrote, rather amazingly, in 1975, suggesting that these annotative efforts represent a substantial investment of time. If criticism is, as Terry Eagleton has said, a way of “looking at meaning not as an object but as a practice,” then one can see in Updike’s review copies the humble, rudimentary motions of that practice. As often as not, his marginalia may be seen doing one of the most immediate jobs of criticism, which is to distinguish, however arbitrarily, good things from bad. And yet, in the main, Updike may be spied undertaking a more considered task: that of interrogation. The form of punctuation that predominates in his margins is the question mark. What one is witness to is a patient reader’s private conversation with a book.

That is Wyatt Mason in Harpers; link via Dwight Garner at Paper Cuts.

There is more in Mason’s piece like this rules for reviewers for example:

In Picked-up Pieces (1975), Updike’s second collection of essays, he lists his rules for reviewing:

  1. Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending….
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

All better literary criticism tends to abide by these rules as a matter of course. Dale Peck was ultimately easy to discredit as a voice of critical discernment not because of the severity of his pronouncements (his dismissals of Nabokov, Joyce, Faulkner, et al.) or even his showboating rudeness; rather, he courted his own dismissal through his increasing disinterest in crafting arguments that would plausibly substantiate, through textual evidence, his condemnations. Critical authority can only be earned, and Updike’s rules represent the very minimum, practical, practicable means by which one can go about building authority: with direct and responsible recourse to the books themselves.

It is a lengthy piece, but worth your time nonetheless. Take a look!

Cooking the book

November 16, 2007

We are not talking about account books, nor is the word cooking is figurative:

This annual report (for a Croatian food company) ships wrapped in foil, and needs to be baked in an oven in order to make the thermal-reactive ink illustrations show up.

After reading, can it also be eaten?

Technical writing: what makes it flow?

November 16, 2007

Tim at Mother Tongue Annoyances tells what works for him:

… I think that one of the main reasons why I enjoy technical writing so much (and, consequently, why I am so poor at creative writing) is that, as a man of Germanic heritage with a touch of OCD, I work better when I have some defined strictures in place around me.

As some of you doubtless already know, the business of technical writing normally requires that the author cleave to one or more style manuals that rigorously define acceptable use of the English language in a particular context. I’m cool with that.

When you add to that the fact that teaching runs in my blood, you (and I) can plainly see why my writing informative “stuff” is about as natural as…similes don’t fail me now…stink on a skunk. How’s that?

Personally, even with all strictures in place, I found technical writing to be demanding; I guess that is because the kind of technical stuff I write, my understanding actually improves with my attempts of writing, and so, the first few drafts are always very trying and highly unsatisfactory.

Discussions and reading at Google

November 16, 2007

Maud Newtons points to an YouTube video of a reading by Junot Diaz at Google, and also links to videos of several other authors including those by George Saunders, Alex Ross, and Neil Gaiman. Take a look!

Conservatives in higher education

November 16, 2007

Why didn’t this ever occur to me before?:

The study — “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates” — argues that the much debated minority status for conservatives in higher education may be the result of differing priorities of graduating college seniors of different political persuasions. The study presents evidence that conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals — at the point when college students decide whether to apply to graduate school — to value raising a family and having money. In contrast, liberals at that point in their lives are significantly more likely to value writing original works.

The piece also goes on to give suggestions to attract conservatives to academics:

In terms of suggestions, the paper argues both for family-friendly policies and for less politics in the classroom, expressing hope that the latter might attract more conservatives to the social sciences and humanities.

But the authors stress that — to the extent liberals and conservatives finishing colleges have different values — imbalances among college faculties may be permanent.

“Ideology represents far more than a collection of abstract political values,” they write. “Liberalism is more closely associated with a desire for excitement, an interest in creative outlets and an aversion to a structured work environment. Conservatives express greater interest in financial success and strong desires to raise families. From this perspective, the ideological imbalance that permeates much of academia may be somewhat intractable.”

Take a look!

Who is the real hero of War and peace?

November 16, 2007

According to Orlando Figes,

The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; it is his voice of truth.

And, Figes thinks that the latest translators have done justice to the language:

The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before.

The piece traces the story of different translations of War and Peace and how these translations follow or not-follow the original linguistic quirks of Tolstoy. Take a look!

Hat tip: Jenny for the pointer