Politics, Art, and the Practice of Writing: A Conversation with Orson Scott Card

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Who is Orson Scott Card? Until recently most people knew him as the author of Ender’s Game, a beloved modern science fiction classic. Prolific and highly decorated, Card has written in nearly every genre, from video game scripts to comic books to movie novelizations. Of late, however, Card’s opposition to gay marriage has led to widespread media excoriation and intense scrutiny of his politics, revisiting issues that have dogged him in the past.

In an effort to nuance current coverage of Card, I chose to ask him questions about writing and his identity as a writer. He provided detailed answers by e-mail — what follows is an edited version of his replies.

(My own discussion of the gay marriage controversy is here.)

1. The practice of writing

The Millions: What does your workspace look like?

Orson Scott Card: I’m in an attic room, with walls that quickly turn into slanting ceiling. Very little room for art on the walls, but books completely lining the walls up to where the ceiling starts. These are my research books — history, daily life, archeology, language, reference works. A few old things that I never use but haven’t had time to purge — old software disks that no machine could read now, outdated almanacs.

My desk is against the north gable. From my window I can see the top of the neighbor’s house, the tops of trees, the sky. Nothing too distracting. Doesn’t matter — the computers have plenty of distractions. Both the desktop in front of me and the laptop on a table behind me have constantly changing wallpaper that cycles through thousands of images I’ve collected over the years. My private art gallery.

All around me are stacked CDs I mean to rip one of these days, to join the thousands of MP3s already on my computer. (My first hard drive had ten megabytes — if MP3s had existed then, my computer would have held exactly two songs, plus the software to play them.) Art books and magazines I mean to scan. Old bits of hardware. Books I intend to review. And notes about things I need to do Right Now (some of them two or three years old). Chaos. But I can get to the keyboard, the mouse, the screen. I can work.

TM: What are the main problems with creative writing education today? How do you address those problems at your writing “boot camp”?

OSC: Such a long, long list. Pre-college creative writing seems to be a sort of group therapy — gush out your feelings and nobody can criticize them because you’re being “creative.” Nobody teaches you the bones of the language. Nobody teaches you forms. Imagine trying to learn to play violin if no one taught you pitch and fingering, if you never practiced. But that’s what we do to children.

Then they get to college, where the ones whose native language abilities survived the uselessness of primary and secondary education begin to think they might become writers. Then they become the captives of the elitists, who teach them to write in such a way that their work can only have meaning to those who do not so much read as decode. Their symbols are obvious because they’re the only thing going on. They “shock” their readers — but only if their readers are still living in 1915. They learn to be “experimental” in exactly the way the Modernists were experimental. They are all style, no substance; all code, no message. I hear them doing their readings and it makes me sad, because some of them really are talented, but if they ever get an audience, it will be because they did not follow what they were taught by their writing teachers.

Specifics? First person present tense — a convention that makes sense in French, which hates its preterite, but none in English, where our real present is present progressive: Not “I pick up the envelope from the table” but “I am picking up the envelope from the table.” Who could bear to read a story, let alone a novel, in the true present tense of natural spoken English? So we get stories written in this artificial, impossible voice. The voice we use for jokes and anecdotes — “A guy walks into a bar, see” — but not the voice we use for truth — “No, he really did.” As soon as we want to be believed, we move to the past tense. But our most pretentious fiction is in the language of jokes.

Regular readers generally know they’re being excluded when present tense is used for narrative. It’s a shibboleth for the overeducated, the true believers.

The sad thing is that because young readers don’t yet recognize the shibboleths, overtaught but underskilled writers of YA fiction often get away with first person present tense. It worked for Hunger Games because the story was so powerful; but the choice hampered the sequels. It’s simply not a natural narrative choice in English; most writers confess that they are faking it because they use pluperfect for the narrative past when the past of present-tense narrative is the simple preterite or present perfect.

TM: In your How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy you talk at length about the “wise reader.” In brief: What characterizes the wise reader and how can writers find one to critique their work?

OSC: I warn my writing students not to submit their work to English majors, who are likely to be true believers in the anti-communication school of literature, unless they plan to do the opposite of whatever such readers suggest. Nor should they keep showing their work to the same writing group — after a year, you’ve learned everything they have to teach you, and you have nothing of value left to offer them.

Most such critiquers are like doctors who walk into the patient’s room, and without asking a question, glance at the sufferer and prescribe something in Latin and then move on.

The wise reader, on the other hand, prescribes nothing — ever. The wise reader merely reports to the writer on the experience of reading, which boils down to three questions: So what? Oh yeah? Huh?

When the wise reader catches her mind wandering, thinking about something else, she puts a line in the margin at the point in the text where she noticed she was thinking of something else. It means she lost interest — so what?

When the wise reader finds herself doubting — oh, would he really do that? — then she puts another mark in the margin. It means she cannot suspend her disbelief at this point — oh yeah?

When the wise reader finds herself confused, having to read a paragraph again, or look back through the text to see how she missed some fact now taken for granted (when did that happen?), then there is a flaw in clarity of narrative. Huh?

These boil down to belief, concern, and clarity — or, to help readers of the Pauline epistles remember it, faith, hope, and clarity. And the greatest of these, as Paul said, is clarity.

The wise reader then points out these marginal marks to the writer and says, Here I didn’t believe; there I was confused; in this spot I found I was thinking of grocery shopping. It is the writer’s job to figure out what in the text caused these poor responses, and then to figure out how to fix the problems. Foolish writers argue with the wise reader, pointing out how it’s perfectly clear, or this really happened once so it’s definitely believable, or how can you not care! Such writers don’t deserve a wise reader. The good writer thanks the wise reader and then reinvents the story so belief and concern are not lost, and edits the language so that the narrative is perfectly clear and never, never, never confusing.

2. The meaning of your work

TM: Some readers have understood the Ender saga and the Homecoming saga as “feminist.” Would you agree with that characterization?

OSC: As the child of a working mother, I thought of myself as feminist until the word took on a narrow political meaning that bore no relation to the reality of the human species. I have no program of “feminism,” though I do treat my female and male characters as equally human and equally interesting.

TM: In Xenocide, the godspoken on Path are actually victims of government genetic modification meant to control them. When I was young, I read this as a powerful critique of the origins of religious belief. Was that your intention? Are doubt and self-reflective questioning an important part of faith?

OSC: No one has any answers until they’ve asked the questions. No one knows anything until they have taken into account their own needs and drives and hungers, and those of the culture around them. What people often miss in Xenocide is that the young heroine responds to the drives built into her genes in order to control her by becoming obsessively and perfectly obedient to them. Not everyone responds that way. Even when we are genetically modified (and we all are; it simply is nature rather than government that usually does the modifying), our self is distinguished by what we choose to do about our drives and impulses, our weaknesses and strengths.

There is no human being without religion. I am amused by those who consider themselves post-religious, who sneer at religions or religious people. All they are really saying is, “What you believe is ‘religion’; what I believe is truth.” This is the way all fanatics think. And see how they behave, trying to silence those who don’t share their unbelief! We live in an age of inquisitions and puritanism, and the inquisitors and puritans all believe themselves to be “above” religion even as they try to enforce their ignorant faith using the power of the state.

All knowledge that we believe so firmly that we act upon it is faith, and almost none of it is based on our personal experience. We believe what others have told us, and consider “sane” those who agree with the people we agree with. I have watched with amusement, then sadness, as “education” has become indoctrination; as students are taught that conformity to a set of received ideas is the same as being “smart,” and nonconformity is “stupidity.” Yet it is those who receive these “smart” ideas without question who are most stupid. This kind of stupidity is common in religious communities; it is equally common in universities. So many idiotic ideas are believed without question — and without evidence — while anyone who questions them is ridiculed, their arguments answered with character assassination.

So yes, Xenocide is a critique of unquestioning faith — but not of “religion” as it is normally spoken of. Since “religion” is an artifact of all human communities, and there are no human beings without it, I am no more anti-religious than I am anti-oxygen. I only suggest that perhaps we will do better if we earn our beliefs by rigorous examination of our beliefs and a constant process of holding our belief in abeyance, acting on that which we believe to be true, but always ready to change our minds when better information is available.

TM: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission?

OSC: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects.

Every work of art is an attempt to create a community; any artist who claims to create only for himself is a liar, unless he never showed his work to another soul. Every work of art is mostly a reflection of the artist’s culture, unconsciously passed along because the artist has never thought the world could work any other way; yet every work of art, even the most conformist, is still different from any other’s work, and so it challenges the status quo to some degree, however minuscule.

I love to work in science fiction and fantasy because we deliberately rewrite the rules of reality. Sadly, of course, even in our field we tend to converge on consensus realities, as Bruce Sterling once pointed out before he himself joined a new consensus reality. So even we keep searching for new writers to re-envision the world around our characters. Yet even in the most relentlessly conformist of the just-like-every-other-post-modernist fiction, there are glimmers of individuality — even creative writing programs can’t stamp out every vestige of it, try as they might. Whether you are openly reinventing reality, you reinvent it; whether you are deliberately championing certain cultural values, you champion at least the ones you have not yet thought to question.

I have learned to trust my unconscious mind. In my many years at this trade, I have had a chance to see what many readers have found in all my stories, and I am sometimes astonished at the personal and cultural meanings they found in them. Yet I cannot, and would not wish to, challenge their readings as long as they conform to the text

3. Art and society

TM: Last year Christopher Tolkien decried the commercialization of his father’s work, saying that it has “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” You are a fan (albeit with some misgivings) of Peter Jackson’s films. Do you think commercialization can have a negative impact on art? Do you fear it with your own work?

OSC: Commercialization does not erase one word of the original work. Lord of the Rings is still available in its entirety — and with wonderful commentaries by superb scholars like Tom Shippey. All adaptations and translations will leave out or overemphasize things in ways that others will resent or regret; this is true when you translate LOTR into German or Japanese, just as when you translate it into film. I once adapted LOTR (with permission) into a public reading script, three hours per volume, and performed it once at NorWesCon in Seattle and again at MythCon at Pepperdine University. Perforce I left out things that others loved; I left in things that Peter Jackson left out of the movie. I think all my choices were right and where he differed with me, he was wrong. But his movie got made and showed us many wonderful things, even though he also added several foolish things and left out what I think of as the heart of the movie. He obviously considers my view wrong.

So what? The book is still there. Let’s remember that most people don’t read books. So the commercialization brings a translation of the story to an audience that would otherwise never receive it. Some of them will go on to read the book, which they might not otherwise have done. Most will not. But in our culture, though film is the highest-prestige medium (“That story was so good they oughta make it a movie!”), the text of the novel has the highest authority. Where the two disagree, nobody will ever say that the film shows what really happened; that will only be said of the book.

All readings, all viewing, all hearings of art are edited by the listener anyway. No two members of the audience receive or remember the same work. Yet with repetition we converge on the most authoritative source, which should be, and usually is, the original. Christopher Tolkien has nothing to fear. Commercialization is a symptom of success; it does not harm anyone’s ability to receive the original.

For that matter, even the written text of LOTR is an inferior way to receive it, because readers almost invariably skim over the songs and poems which were so important to Tolkien and which show so much of his mastery of language and cultures. So for me, the supreme way of receiving LOTR is the audiobook. It gives you every word of every song and poem, right along; you cannot easily skip it. It is the most complete way to experience Tolkien’s original. Yet one might also think of the audiobook as part of the commercialization of LOTR.

Ender’s Game is an unfilmable book. Yet it is being filmed. All such translations are inadequate. But the film, if it is a good film, and regardless of its degree of faithfulness to the book, will bring new readers to the book; they will then discover the authoritative version of the story. Some will prefer the movie. So what? That group would never have read the book without having seen the movie, so Ender’s Game will have lost no part of its natural audience.

Decrying the commercialization of a successful work of art is like famous actors complaining about the annoyances of fame. The annoyances are real enough, but they are also a symptom of success. Which would you rather have? Less annoyance and less success? Or the greater success with the greater annoyance?

TM: You’ve long been interested in video games and have even written for some. Recently you expressed frustration with the unreflective and poorly researched blaming of violent video games for social ills. Is there any kind of art you do think is dangerous?

OSC: All art both affirms and critiques the artist’s culture and community, whether she intends either outcome or not. Art that negates the strengths of a good community is bad; but art that negates the strengths of a bad community would be good. It gets very complicated, and few people are able to agree on the goodness or badness of any long list of attributes of a culture, or their relative weight. We might say, yes, this that you attack is bad, but not as bad as that, which you do not mention. As if every artist should observe the same things, and share the same values!

Yet that is precisely what many people insist on. They are sure that art they do not like causes harm, while art they enjoy is harmless. They are always partly wrong and partly right. But which part, and to what degree?

We promote freedom of speech and expression precisely so that we can openly disagree about what our culture should be and should value. We vote by admitting certain works to our memory and insisting that our friends also read, listen to, or look at it. Works that are beloved by many have a proportionate effect on the culture; works that are loved by fewer, but with greater intensity, may have an equal or greater effect. It is impossible to measure.

A work may indeed be dangerous, but the counter is not often to censor it, it is to offer an alternative. Yet puritans of one stripe or another invariably insist on censorship. Just as the Puritans of Political Correctness ban any speech by their opponents on most American university campuses merely because they do not agree with them, so also the Puritans of anti-violence would ban videogames merely because they do not enjoy them.

In fact we have actual data about the effects of videogames; even the most harmful are relatively harmless, in terms of any direct cause and effect on real-world violence. Pornography, on the other hand, has been proven to be a rehearsal for real-world acting-out of the scripts thus depicted. Yet the very people who would ban videogames are often the ones most insistent on protecting the freedom of pornographers. Research makes no difference to them; actual facts rarely influence people’s visceral decisions.

My problem is that I understand the arguments for and against censorship. There are things that I believe damage society — pornography among them — but I’m not absolutely sure that I’m right, or that a ban, if once instituted, would be limited to what I would call “pornography.” Once we admit censorship, the definition of the thing censored will always be expanded to include unintended objects.

It is best, in a free society, if one view never absolutely prevails. In a perpetual struggle between freedom and protection, and between this and that set of values, we have our best likelihood of achieving reasonable balances. Alas that we live in a time when no group can stay in business while accepting reasonable balances. You only get donations for extreme positions.

We’d be better off if, instead of banning censorship, we constantly argued about the definitions of what is or is not censorable, with the boundary constantly shifting back and forth. It is when the boundary is moved all the way to one extreme and stays there that we are endangered.

But that is only my opinion. I might be wrong. So even in my absolutely correct moderation I am not sure that I ought to prevail…

TM: According to your website, our society is becoming less free in matters of speech, press, and religion. You also say “art which is destructive of the values of a decent society is deserving of no special privilege or protection.” Should a society interested in free speech also protect art that it considers destructive?

OSC: It’s in the definition of a “decent society” that the monster hides.

That said, I think it’s more than slightly ridiculous to put “art” on a pedestal as if it existed above the realm of ordinary commerce and conversation. Freedom of the press and of speech and of belief are vital to a free society, for political reasons. But art?

What makes the whole argument ludicrous is that the very people who would protect works that some consider obscene, are perfectly happy to ban works that they consider to be racist. Everybody seems to accept censorship — they just disagree about the list of people-never-to-be-offended. Most people who champion the use of “fuck” would crucify you for saying “nigger” — they are no more in favor of “free speech” than those who believe the reverse, or who would ban both. And those who would ban neither invariably have their own private list of forbidden words. If we did not have such a list locked away in our brains, how would Tourette’s Syndrome even be possible?

Where I find the whole argument becomes offensive is when artists demand public funding for work that is deliberately offensive to taxpayers. Take your artistic freedom as you can — but pay for it yourself. When you expect the public to pay for it with money taken by threat of force, you are demanding that your art become a sort of established religion; and to oppose public funding for your art is not censorship; it is not even like censorship. When you take money from a sponsor, you surrender your freedom; if you want the freedom to be offensive, don’t dip into the pockets of unwilling people who are not free to resist your taking.

Less Mo Yan, More Ah Cheng

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So the Swedes got you interested in Chinese literature, and then you tried to read Mo Yan or Gao Xingjian. I have to admit, I agree with John Updike that Mo Yan’s novels are unlikely to “crack the heart” of most American readers — they certainly didn’t crack mine. And if you’re anything like me, trekking through Gao’s Soul Mountain required oxygen tanks and Sherpas.

Turning away from Nobel laureates hasn’t helped. My experience of reading Wang Anyi’s highly acclaimed Song of Everlasting Sorrow was captured perfectly by the title of her book. Even the novels of New York Times darling Yu Hua, whose non-fiction is a pleasure, fall somewhat flat for me (though Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of To Live is fantastic).

As a professor who has occasion to assign contemporary Chinese literature, this is particularly frustrating. It’s hard for me to teach fiction when I don’t love it. I love Lu Xun’s satirical short stories, but they were all published before 1940. Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars is satirical and contemporary, but he’s no Lu Xun, and comparing him with Kafka feels like a bit of a stretch. The list goes on: fans of Chinese literature all have their personal favorites, and none of them have ever resonated with me. (Ha Jin is cheating.)

Why is this? Mo Yan’s translator Howard Goldblatt offers an indirect explanation: “I’ll never get into the heart and mind of a Chinese writer. I have a friend in Colorado who’s a French professor. He’s French. He can go to France and be French. I couldn’t do that in China. I’m more outgoing than most Chinese. My worldview is different.” After two years of living in China I felt the same way, and it makes sense that the impenetrability of Chinese people and culture should have a literary analogue.

Enter Ah Cheng. Born in 1949, he was seven when his father, an academic and film theorist, was sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.” (Father and son would later collaborate on The Art of Cinema, drawing on sources ranging from Hegel to Chan Buddhism.) He was nine when the Great Famine swept through China, eventually killing tens of millions. And when he was 19, he numbered among those young urban Chinese forced to live in the countryside, the better to purge their counter-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies.

After various relocations Ah Cheng eventually ended up in a mountain village, where he worked with locals clear-cutting a forest to make room for rubber trees. (The project was a complete failure.) This experience forms the basis of his 1985 novella The King of Trees, which, along with The King of Chess and The King of Children, cemented his reputation in China as a literary master.

While critics usually mention the Daoist themes in The King of Chess, it is The King of Trees that engages most explicitly with the Zhuangzi, a foundational Daoist text and a favorite of Ah Cheng’s father. The Zhuangzi tells a number of parables about useless trees (one of which I abbreviate here):
Carpenter Shi was traveling in Qi when he came upon a tree over a hundred arm spans around, so large that thousands of oxen could shade themselves beneath it. It overstretched the surrounding hills, its lowest branches hundreds of feet from the ground, at least a dozen of which could have been hollowed out to make ships. It was surrounded by marveling sightseers, but the carpenter walked past it without a second look.

When his apprentice finally got tired of admiring it, he caught up with Carpenter Shi and said, “Since taking up my axe to follow you, Master, I have never seen a tree of such fine material as this! And yet, you don’t even deign to look twice at it or pause beneath it. Why?”

Carpenter Shi said, “Stop! Say no more! This is worthless lumber! As a ship it would soon sink, as a coffin it would soon rot, as a tool it would soon break, as a door it would leak sap, as a pillar it would bring infestation. This is a talentless, worthless tree. It is precisely because it is so useless that it has lived so long.”
The King of Trees is a brilliant send-up of the Zhuangzi’s parable. In modern China uselessness is no guarantor of longevity; like Ah Cheng himself, the protagonist of The King of Trees joins a team of Educated Youth on a government mission to chop down all the useless trees and replace them with useful ones. For the most part locals are willing to help, but there is one giant tree, the King of Trees, that no one wants to touch.

This sacred tree has its romantic hero-defender, a gnarled peasant named Knotty Xiao. But notwithstanding the novella’s setting, Xiao’s eventual confrontation with the team leader is not merely about the Cultural Revolution. Their conflict speaks to all of us, pointing out theistic tendencies in environmentalism and the difficulties of arguing against utility:
Knotty kept his eyes lowered. “This tree has to be spared. Even if the rest of them fall, this one will stand as witness.”

“Witness to what?”

“Witness to the work of the Supreme God in Heaven!”

Li Li burst out laughing. “Man will triumph over Heaven. Did the gods bring the land under cultivation? No, man did, to feed himself. Did the gods forge iron? No, man did, to make tools and transform nature, including your Supreme God in Heaven of course.”
Xiao is an ambiguous hero, however, harsh with his son and proud of his military service for the Party. Like the Zhuangzi, Ah Cheng isn’t in the business of offering easy answers. After all, easy answers are the stock-in-trade of propaganda, and propaganda makes for lousy fiction.

I think I like Ah Cheng because he is crazy, and crazy people transcend the cultures that produce them. Even Chinese interviewers find him obstinate and mysterious. When asked about the movie The Go Master, for which he wrote the script, Ah Cheng replied that he hadn’t seen it. When confronted by Western criticism of Chinese fiction he defends the critics’ right to say what they want. Like a Daoist sage he rejects the possibility of making a living as a professor. Some more illustrative quotes:
“Art arises from witchcraft. It has no religious faith; it’s good at dispelling all that.”

“The experiences of the first world were assimilated into the second world, and they can be easily absorbed by the third world. China has made a big mistake in sending so many exchange students to study in the US. We really can learn much more from the second world than from the west.”

“Don’t call me an author. If you call me an author, you’re calling me a beggar.

Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there’d be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality.”
(Sources here and here.)

After producing his trilogy of novellas, Ah Cheng moved to the U.S. in 1988 to work as a house-painter. He returned to China in the 90s and lives there still, in the countryside near Beijing. If we take him seriously, his current occupation is driving a small car from place to place “taking on jobs,” though he has also worked as a screenwriter (credits include The Go Master and Springtime in a Small Town).

There isn’t much of Ah Cheng’s work available in translation. New Directions rereleased Bonnie McDougall’s translation of the three novellas in 2010, which edition includes an illuminating afterword and analysis. A number of his short stories were also translated for Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts. Their dark simplicity is reminiscent of fairy tales — in “Chimney Smoke” the narrator mentions Hans Christian Andersen, who is clearly an influence. But despite Ah Cheng’s fondness for witchcraft and fairy tales, it is his plainspoken descriptions of everyday life that are most impressive:
Wang Shulin bought two pairs of cloth shoes each year: one unlined, the other lined with cotton. The former he wore from April to November, the latter from November to March.

Since the unlined pair had to last longer, he needed to be extra careful, so he went barefoot when it rained, carrying his shoes in his hand. Rain was really hard on shoes. Letting the shoes soak in rainwater and washing them with water were different, even though in both cases they came in contact with water. The logic behind this was over Wang Shulin’s head, but he knew he’d better not let his shoes soak in rainwater.
I encourage everyone to take a walk in Ah Cheng’s Chinese shoes: they are so well crafted that you’ll forget, for a moment, their country of origin.

God-born Devil’s S**t: Unleashing the Essence of Self-Help Books in Three Simple Steps

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1. Step One: Admit You Have a Problem

Last month, New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote a lukewarm review of two “philosophical” self-help books, the first installments in a series edited by Alain de Botton called The School of Life. Towards the beginning of the review we are cautioned that self-help books can be “fraught with peril,” attended by the risk “of leading millions of your innocent brain cells into the killing fields.” (The books under consideration appear to have been only mildly perilous.)

Garner’s disdain for the genre is nothing new. Disgust with self-help has been around since Dr. Samuel Smiles wrote his lucrative 1859 classic Self-Help, followed by a popular series of sequels: Character, Thrift, Duty, and Life and Labour. A laudatory 1893 review of this oeuvre begins with a telling disclaimer: “It is the fashion these days to speak in anything but complementary terms of Dr. Smiles and his different books…” Apparently hating on self-help was common practice by the turn of the century. The preface to the Oxford Classics edition of Self-Help cites a particularly blunt example, written by Irish author Robert Tressell in 1906: “[Self-Help] is suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties.”

Yet, in one of his many legacies to modern self-help, Smiles was both widely reviled and fantastically successful. He quickly became a household name in the English-speaking world — early printings of Self-Help sold out instantly, one of them reportedly purchased by Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species was published in the same year. Success was equally explosive abroad. Nakamura Masanao’s somewhat liberal 1871 Japanese translation Saigoku risshihen (“Success Stories of the West”) eventually sold a million copies, serving as an exotic Western repackaging of stale Neo-Confucian values. (Scholars also credit Saigoku risshihen with introducing Hamlet to Japan: three lines from Polonius’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” are the epigram for Chapter 10, “Money, It’s Use and Abuse.”)

Self-Help achieved a near-sacred status across the globe. It was translated into over a dozen languages (Dutch: Help u Zelfen) and did well in all of them. In his autobiography, Smiles recounts the following illustrative anecdote, related to him by a friend (and there is no reason to disbelieve it):
An English visitor to the Khedive’s palace in Egypt asked from what source the mottoes written on the walls were derived. “They are principally from Smeelis,” he was told, “you ought to know Smeelis! They are from his Self-Help; they are much better than the texts from the Koran!”
There are some for whom the very act of comparing “Smeelis’s” work with a foundational religious text will feel vaguely sacrilegious. The same kind of sacrilege is committed by Tom Butler-Bowdon in his meta-self-help bestseller, 50 Self-Help Classics, a Cliff’s Notes style alphabetical review in which Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star is followed by the Bhagavad-Gita, and Wayne Dyer’s Real Magic precedes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Self-help detractors would want to accuse the Khedive palace architect of poor taste, and Butler-Bowdon of making a self-serving category mistake, elevating profitable trash by placing it in illustrious company. Others, like Alain de Botton, might call such accusations snobbish and unjustified, reflexive dismissals of recent work in the venerable tradition of wisdom literature, a tradition that traces its lineage back to the Dao-de-jing. Stoic philosophy, and the Bible.

No one expresses this tension better than Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle. Although Carlyle makes a cameo in Self-Help (as an exemplar of indefatigable industriousness), Smiles seems to have missed the appearance of his favorite concept in Carlyle’s satirical novel, Sartor Resartus. The novel purports to tell the true story of a German philosopher who develops a transcendentalist theory of clothing. In one of the earliest non-juridical uses of the term, this sartorial philosopher “acquires for himself” the virtue of Self-Help, which Carlyle’s narrator describes as “the highest of all possessions.”

But we cannot trust this description. Sartor Resartus is laced with irony (a rhetorical technique notably absent from most self-help, which is nothing if not earnest). Carlyle’s protagonist, for instance, is named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, which translates to God-born Devil’s Shit. In the ironizing shadow of Teufelsdröckh, everything in Sartor Resartus looks a little like divine truth and a little like incoherent platitude, from the self-helpish notion of the EVERLASTING YEA, “wherein all contradiction is solved,” to the very concept of self-help that Carlyle helps inaugurate. In other words, Teufelsdröckh makes me wonder: The EVERLASTING YEA, Self-Help, Samuel Smiles, The School of Life — are these essentially God-born or Devil’s Shit? That’s my problem. I don’t know how to feel about self-help. And like it says in the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or maybe it was Ben Franklin, 99% of solving a problem is identifying it, so I’m well on my way!

2. Step Two: Look Inside Yourself

It is always tempting to answer questions via a scholarly, objective route: are we more convinced by sociologist Micki McGee, whose analysis reveals self-help literature as a pernicious facilitator of American egoism and oppressive social norms, or by folklorist Sandra K. Dolby, who identifies in self-help the universal rhythms and patterns of parables and folk wisdom? While researching this essay, however, I learned from numerous self-help authors that answers to profound philosophical questions don’t come from other people, especially not scholars. I also learned the sad truth about “objectivity,” a pseudo-concept that Daoist sages, quantum physicists, and Deepak Chopra’s tweets have all shown to be objectively false.

What’s left? Where can we turn?

The only person you can depend on for answers is YOU, which means consulting your own, unmediated, subjective feelings, and then allowing them to speak the Truth.

Okay, here goes. When it comes to self-help, my unmediated, subjective feelings place me squarely in the Devil’s Shit camp. Just reading certain titles (Learning to Dance in the Rain, To a Child Love is Spelled T-I-M-E) prompts a deep and spontaneous revulsion. This revulsion is both aesthetic, a matter of taste, and intellectual, a matter of truth. And it is unique, reserved for a very small number of cultural products — off the top of my head I come up with Thomas Kinkade paintings, smooth jazz, and televangelism. (Olive Garden? Close, but not quite.)

It’s clear to me why televangelism makes the list. There’s obvious crossover between evangelism and self-help, their easy synthesis epitomized by Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Christian self-help is a sub-genre so ubiquitous that when I entered a Christian bookstore and asked for the self-help section, one employee looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, that’s pretty much everything in here, unless you’re looking for a Bible.” Nominally secular self-help routinely borrows Christian terms and metaphors (calling, mission). Even science-y Tony Robbins is indebted to televangelism — sociologist McGee quotes Robbins’s infomercial co-producer Greg Renker: “The infomercial boomed because the televangelists ran into problems. We are the new televangelists.”

The link between self-help and televangelism helps make sense of my intellectual revulsion. Rick Warren may be a charismatic speaker, but he is a lousy interpreter of the Bible. Take, for example, his reading of Jeremiah 29:11, where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Warren takes the passage out of context and reads it as an uplifting message for everyone. But God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11 are actually meant specifically for the Israelites exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Contextualization is important, because without it one could appropriate Jeremiah 29:18 to show that God suffers from wild mood swings (“I will send the sword, famine and plague”), or Jeremiah 29:26 as justification for locking up people like Rick Warren: “You should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.”

Many self-help books take similar liberties with science, history, and Eastern philosophy, my own area of expertise. I can only assume that quantum physicists are as frustrated by Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing as I am by the short biography of Laozi on the front flap of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s version of the Dao-de-jing: “Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a God-realized being named Laozi in ancient China dictated 81 verses…” While I share Dyer’s admiration of the Dao-de-jing, it’s unclear to me why extolling its virtues entails willful ignorance (or duplicity) about its origins. Wikipedia helpfully points out that sinologists have serious doubts about Laozi’s historical existence, and a quick read of D.C. Lau’s preface to the Penguin edition explains the composite nature of the text. One thinks Dyer’s extensive research (mentioned repeatedly) would have turned up Lau’s influential analysis, but it is nowhere to be found.

So, unsurprisingly, my intellectual revulsion is a reaction to untruth, the result of either idiocy or mendacity, depending on the self-help author in question. In order to explain my aesthetic revulsion, then, I merely need to figure out what self-help shares with smooth jazz and Thomas Kinkade.

Hmm. What could the Painter of Light™ have in common with self-help authors? Famous for his religiously-themed art, yet fond of public urination, accused of ruthless business practices, dead at 54 from a valium and alcohol overdose, the subject of posthumous scandal when his wife placed a restraining order on his girlfriend. Surely famous self-help authors don’t have similarly sordid and profit-driven biographies…

No! Wait! This is just a distracting, ad hominem argument that can’t prove anything about the aesthetics of Kinkade’s work or self-help books. Block out the negative energy. Focus. Look through your inner eye (eyes?) at the glowing pink cottage. What do you see? Listen with your inner ear to Kenny G. What do you hear? Read Stephen Covey with your heart. What do you feel?

I see… I hear… I feel… nothing. Nothing! That’s it! Kinkade’s over-saturated pastels, Kenny G’s bland solos, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: they have no soul. And this, ultimately, is the source of my aesthetic revulsion. It’s not that self-help writers are unskilled, though many of them are. It’s that they exploit a formula: co-opt an established authority (religion, philosophy, science, historical hero, literary master), add uplifting anecdotes, mix with self-adulation and empty promises, season with acronyms or lucky numbers, and serve! (I’ll leave it to art critics and music critics to detail the formulas behind smooth jazz and Kinkade’s mass-produced schlock.)

But true soullessness goes beyond formula. After all, fairy tales and blues are as formulaic as it gets, and they are God-born through and through. No, Devil’s Shit only results when formulas are calculated to produce maximal ease and safety, and then used to manufacture religious insights, jazz, or the self, products that are by nature challenging, dangerous, and complicated. That’s why 18th century morality tales for children (The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, etc.) are so repugnant. Seven Easy Tricks for a Delicious Sandwich isn’t sacrilege — it’s a cookbook. But Seven Easy Tricks to Save Your Soul…

In short: Only Satan could enjoy reading The Purpose Driven® Life while listening to smooth jazz in a room filled with Kinkade landscapes. Actually, that’s not quite it. Only Satan could enjoy producing such a scene.

3. Step Three: Stand Up for What You Believe

Objection 1: Self-help books work for me/work for people, so why be nasty about them?

Answer: This objection rests on two flawed premises. The first is that self-help books work for people. While twelve-step programs (a noble relative of self-help books) enjoy some empirical validation, self-help books do not. This lack of validation will not deter self-help fans, fond as they are of anecdotal evidence. That’s fine. Victims of medical quackery are notoriously unwilling to admit the inefficacy of their favored panacea, even when it has obviously failed them. Why should it be any different for victims of spiritual quackery? Nevertheless, for the sake of explanation: as in those cases when astonishing cancer recoveries are misattributed to faith-healing or coffee-enemas, it’s likely that the perceived efficacy of self-help books is due to chance, the passage of time, or unsung orthodox treatment (therapy, exercise, friendship) undertaken in conjunction with the miracle cure.

The second flawed premise is that one shouldn’t be nasty about things that work. The geocentric model of the universe worked (Gee, our planet is super-special!). Propaganda works (Gee, our country is super-special!). Falsehoods and empty rhetoric deserve to be unmasked because people are entitled to think for themselves about important truths, even at the cost of happy complacency. And never fear, there’s all sorts of writing that can replace the crap I’m spoiling—just comb the epigrams of any self-help book and read whatever it is they came from.

Objection 2: But there’s lots of good self-help! Haven’t you heard of Aesop’s Fables?

Answer: Fair enough. A wildly broad definition of self-help ends up including everything from Aesop’s Fables to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, books well-worth reading and re-reading. But the problem is not with offering life counsel. The problem is with counsel that promises quick fixes and simple solutions, promises that are definitive of self-help. Otherwise there would be no need for the term at all: we already have philosophy, religion, fiction, psychology, economics, biography. What distinguishes self-help from these other categories is how it markets the allure of certain success in an endeavor where success is never certain, an approach evident in less unholy forms of self-help like diet books. As with propaganda, the evil is built right into the meaning of the genre, poisoning anything so-classified (even decent stuff) simply by association.

In an essay defending self-help, Alain de Botton writes, “The ancient philosophers recognized we all need help navigating our lives – so what explains self-help books’ decline in prestige?” But he is conflating wise masterpieces, which haven’t declined in prestige (does anyone trash Letters to a Young Poet?), with self-help, which, as we have seen, was always immensely popular and never prestigious. Ancient and modern philosophy already have a section in the bookstore. Categorizing them as self-help is a straightforward move made to sell more books by lacquering them with false hope. (Which is why it’s no shock that de Botton’s spirited defense appeared in the Guardian just after his School of Life series debuted.)

Objection 3: You’re a cultural elitist.

Answer: Really? George Carlin, the same guy who hated parents that wear Baby-Bjorns, put “these people that read self-help books” first on his list of “people who ought to be killed.” The problem with this objection is that it confuses good judgment with elitism, a confusion that is itself elitist. In a recent New York Magazine article, Kathryn Schulz describes her vision of someone who looks down on self-help: “I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face.” De Botton agrees: “The unstated assumption of the cultural elite is that really only stupid people read them.”

Actually, it is an unstated assumption of the cultural elite that only those with high-falutin’ humanities degrees have a nose for Devil’s Shit. This is manifestly false. All you need to loathe smooth jazz is an ear for music. Anyone equipped with a moral compass who has heard the Sermon on the Mount will be revolted by Osteen’s pearly-toothed prosperity gospel. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the paradox in self-help’s insipid affirmation of its readers’ inner strength. In Carlin’s words, “The part I really don’t understand, if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?! That’s not self-help, that’s help! There’s no such thing as self-help… if you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself! Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on!”

To be fair, Carlin might be trying to put his competition out of business, since he’s hawking his own brand of simple, formulaic wisdom: “Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, you eat three meals, you take one good shit and you go back to bed. What’s the fucking mystery?”

Now there’s some good self-help, straight from the mouth of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh.

Think of Bread in General: On Making Books Into Movies

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When Christopher Tolkien recently broke a 40-year public silence in Le Monde, he did not have kind words for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

Tolkien snubbed an invitation to meet with Jackson, and, as his father’s literary executor, he has sworn not to allow adaptations of material over which he has control (like The Silmarillion). Had it been his choice, Jackson’s blockbusters would likely never have been produced, and certainly not in their present form. But it wasn’t his choice. In 1969, United Artists made a prescient purchase from the elder Tolkien: £100,000 for full rights to movies and derived products for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And that was that.

The result, according to Christopher Tolkien, was nothing less than disastrous: “[J.R.R.] Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”

Admirers of Jackson’s work may find such comments a touch melodramatic, if not downright inaccurate. Salman Rushdie, for instance, appears to favor the films over the originals: “Jackson’s cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien’s prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits.”

Then again, there’s A.O. Scott on The Hobbit: “Tolkien’s inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.”

Taste is a difficult thing to arbitrate, making debates like these fun but virtually irresolvable. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the participants all share a common assumption, which often remains unexamined. Rushdie puts it simply: “Everyone accepts that stories and movies are different things.” Indeed. But how, exactly? Is one a higher art form than the other? More illuminating? More demanding? Does one strengthen children’s brains while the other is more likely to rot them?

Perhaps it would be best to leave pronouncements of relative quality to the critics, and instead take this opportunity to reflect on the objective differences between books and movies.

There is no better place to start than with J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who analyzes precisely this issue in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which appears in Tree and Leaf. Concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of illustrating fantasy, he devotes a long footnote to the difference between “true literature” and all art (including drama and the “cinematograph”) that offers a visible presentation:
Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.
This is strong language from a man whose color illustration of The-Hill-at-Hobbiton served as the frontispiece for most early editions of The Hobbit. Was Tolkien ruining his own book, forcing impressionable readers to accept his picture, denying them the opportunity to exercise their imaginative capacities?

The idea that books leave more room for the imagination is a commonplace, and this quality is usually understood as a virtue. Books, even trashy ones, require some effort from the reader, while movies allow for unadulterated passivity and laziness. Tolkien’s so-called “dramatic producer” does the work for you, making the artwork easy and less personal.

Yet the notion that movies are by nature limiting needs to be nuanced. Sure, there are no visuals in an unillustrated book. But it is not therefore true, as Jen Doll asserts at The Atlantic Wire, that books are simply “a compelling descriptive outline,” which you can “play your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.” One virtue of books is that authors can reveal characters’ inner motivations in great detail — a virtue that limits the readers’ ability to speculate about those motivations. (Proust’s Narrator isn’t exactly up for grabs in In Search of Lost Time.)  Another virtue of books is their length — which allows authors to narrate scenes that in films must be left to the readers’ imagination.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s intrinsically great about freedom? If we push Tolkien’s logic a little bit further, authors do readers a disservice whenever they narrow the scope of imaginative possibilities. James Joyce turns me into a passive lump of receptivity when he describes his protagonist, Gabriel, in “The Dead”:
He was a stout, tallish young man. The high color of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes.
Better: “He was a young man.” Now my imagination can run wild!

Similarly, dramaturges would be doing us a disservice by putting on plays, directors would be cheating us by bringing screenplays to life, and chefs would be destroying the pure literature of recipes by specifying both appearance and flavor.

One rarely hears complaints about vividly detailed descriptions as such. Nor do people assert that “adaptations” of screenplays into movies or plays into stage productions somehow reduce aesthetic and philosophical impact. The upshot of all this is that exercising the imagination, whatever that means, is not always best, and books aren’t necessarily better at doing it than movies. (Which is a great relief to me, since I don’t want to feel bad about passively populating Roald Dahl’s entire universe with Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations.)

Even the most die-hard critics of cinematic adaptation have their own favorite exceptions. I love Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it by reading Kesey’s book. And so, if we accept that books aren’t formally superior to movies and adaptations aren’t necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment?

Part of the answer is that Tolkien is wrong: when we read about bread, we don’t just think of bread in general. Our minds fashion a specific image of the bread upon first encountering it, and then that image stays with us, in all its specificity, as we continue reading. The Elvish bread known as lembas does not change form each time it appears in Tolkien’s ouevre: my mind decided what lembas looked like when I first read the word, and it supplies that initial vision whenever I read it again.

These fixed images then compete with the fixed images provided by a director, and the power of first impressions is difficult to overcome. For that reason, even skillful novelizations of good movies (like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars novels) can feel like they miss the mark. Attachment to original experience is a powerful force.

Another problem is that adaptations are usually inspired by masterpieces. Richard Brody puts it well: “A director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others… but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Asymmetry of ability favors the more talented artist, regardless of form. That’s why Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss is better than Cameron’s original. Arthur C. Clarke + Stanley Kubrick = Great. Arthur C. Clarke + Pretty Much Anyone Else = Doubtful.

That said, there is one quality of films that makes them susceptible to being lousy. They are expensive. Studios must ensure the profitability of their product, and when it comes to good art, the customer — or the product placement sponsor — is not always right. Limiting artists with the demands of consumers often hampers the creative process and product. (In a similar vein, the limitations on filmmakers imposed by MPAA ratings are nicely documented in This Film is Not Yet Rated.)

In this sense, Christopher Tolkien is right to bemoan commercialization. The upcoming adaptation of Candyland from board game to film will undoubtedly fail to do justice to the original. Why? Well, I don’t think I’m remiss in suggesting that Hasbro Studios, the force behind films like Battleship, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Candyland, might be less concerned with good art than with profit. The same principle explains the frequency of bad film sequels (a phenomenon that is substantially less common with books).

The recent explosion of extraordinary graphic novels is evidence that bias against a particular art form is likely unjustified. (A comic book? scoffs my mother when I recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories.) Contra Tolkien, “true literature” is not inherently more progenitive. Great art of any kind can work from mind to mind. And, in the end, it is not books but great art that is sacrosanct, and it is great art that is threatened by adaptation.

That’s why the goons at Hasbro would do well to heed Brody’s cautionary words before reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Eleanor Abbott’s Candyland: “Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.”

Beautiful and Exciting and Profoundly Different: On Beck’s Song Reader

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Have you heard Beck’s new album? After about 20 hours with it I’ve still only heard seven songs out of 20.

That’s because I’m a mediocre musician, with poor sight-reading skills and no piano handy, and Song Reader, if you didn’t already know, is just sheet music. No CD, no link to downloadable MP3s, nada. I have to puzzle out the melodies on my guitar, drawing on long forgotten undergraduate music theory to get the rhythms right. It is a pain in the ass. The album would sound better if it were professionally recorded, by a real artist.

And yet. When I finally manage to play through “I’m Down,” and “America, Here’s My Boy,” and “Do We? We Do,” it is revelatory. I have just channeled Beck’s spirit through printed paper! The first versions of Beck’s songs I hear are my own! This is an amazing feeling.

If you are not musically trained and do not have a musician near at hand, Song Reader may be a tough sell. True, the artwork is nice to look at. You can read the lyrics, and the introduction by Jody Rosen, and the foreword by Beck himself. These are worthwhile activities. The graphic design is skillful. Beck’s lyrics read well, for song lyrics. The introductions are illuminating. And as you look all this over you will think, for the first time, probably, about how back in the day people did not buy albums, they bought scores, and you sat in a park or your parlor (whatever that is) and listened to someone’s interpretation of those scores, maybe a friend or a relative, or you interpreted them yourself.

But then you will want to hear the songs, and they are not readily accessible. In fact, a few months ago they weren’t accessible at all. When I first received the album (in the mail!), only four of the songs had been recorded and shared online, and the renditions ranged from decent (The New Yorker staff) to tragic. By the time I sat down to write this essay, though, over 100 had been uploaded to the official McSweeney’s website and YouTube. There is already one very polished video of “Old Shanghai,” the pre-released sheet music single. The Portland Cello Project has now recorded the whole thing and posted it on YouTube.

These options will still leave some people dissatisfied, and they may remain so until Beck releases “official” versions. Which he will, of course, in due time (though according to an interview not anytime soon). That’s why there’s no reason for anyone to complain.

As for me, I’m trying to steer clear of other people’s versions, at least until I’ve made my own.

I’ll leave it for accomplished music writers to review the music. I want to talk about Song Reader as a book. It is a great book. It is better than Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or The Clock Without a Face, a 2010 McSweeney’s production whose busily illustrated pages hid clues to a real-world treasure-hunt.

Beck’s book is better than all of these because it does not feel forced or gimmicky. It is the hipster tendency to appropriate anachronism at its very, very best. Why? Because it requires hack musicians like myself to push their abilities. Because it is nostalgia in its purest form. (See the moon begin to rise / just like it did back home, I sing as I play “Old Shanghai.”) Because it trains patience. Because through anachronism it succeeds in making brilliant use of current technological forms, reproducing endlessly, an album with infinite authentic tracks. Because I will practice Beck’s songs, along with thousands of other people, and we will watch and listen along with Beck as the world plays his music. He will find out how his music sounds. I will find out, too. Neither of us will have the final say. It is ultra-quaint and ultra-post-modern simultaneously.

This is a really fantastic book.

Did I mention it sounds good? I mean, I sound good when I read the pages out loud, and that’s saying a lot. The songs are user-friendly, in easy musical keys, consciously written for people like me. Thank you, Beck!

Classical musicians and jazz musicians and producers of musicals regularly encounter music in its raw and unprocessed state. What makes Song Reader nothing short of genius is the way it upends the expectations of its audience, most of whom (I assume) do not read music for a living, or even recreationally. No one gets to instantly download the songs. There are no traditional reviews. No previews on iTunes. When people discuss the relative merits of the album, the conversation cannot help but become a meta-conversation: “What is an album?” “Where is the album?” “Whose album is it?” I have had a few of these conversations. They are everything philosophizing should be — earnest, enthusiastic, and revelatory. Someone points out that no one can pirate the album. Someone else wonders about copyright law: can you just perform Beck’s songs, or does he get royalties? The conversation veers towards cover bands, and whether they have any legal or financial obligation to the original band. We think about music, and law, and authenticity through the lens of Beck’s book, as though for the first time. Song Reader is about firsts.

One of those firsts, for me, is the realization of a reward built into sheet music that cannot happen any other way. Playing Beck’s songs is like discovering home-cooking after a life of eating at restaurants. This feeling of discovery is not better than listening to Beck play his own songs, no more than preparing my own pasta is better than going out to my favorite Italian joint. Home-cooking is not better or worse than eating at restaurants. It is an entirely different activity. This is what Beck wanted: “Learning to play a song is its own category of experience.”

Some activities should not be forgotten by popular culture. Cooking is among them. So, too, is the musical experience that Beck has recreated. There is no word for it, but now I know what it is, and it is beautiful and exciting and profoundly different from any experience of music I have ever had. Like cooking, it has been eclipsed by technologies of convenience. It takes time and effort to play through Beck’s album, or to wait for other people to do so, or to call your musician friends and have them do it for you. This is time and effort many people won’t want to spend.

Too bad. It’s worth it. You won’t just hear the album, you’ll work for it. And that work will add to the music, just like you can taste your own labor in a home-cooked meal. I’m not saying every album should come out in the form of sheet music. Neither is Beck. But in its exceptionalism, Song Reader reminds us of the invisible losses that accompany cultural movement and technological innovation, losses that need not always be accepted. (There is probably a lesson in here somewhere about the relationship between paper books and e-books.) Be careful, says Beck’s experiment. Move slowly, and make sure you haven’t left anything important behind. Why did you leave it? Was there room to bring it along?

At Slate, Geeta Dayal describes Song Reader as a signpost of the new earnestness in our culture, offering tepid praise: “It’s not a bad thing — it’s a constructive impulse, and a sincere one.” But she also warns us not to “mistake it for a manifesto,” pointing out that Bing Crosby, whose song “Sweet Leilani” inspired Song Reader, couldn’t read music, and neither could Jimi Hendrix. Beck, she complains, made much use of the recording studio. So let’s not get preachy about halcyon days, right?

Maybe. But Beck (and McSweeney’s) never meant Song Reader as an anti-technology manifesto. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an official website for people to upload their songs. What makes it feel like a manifesto (a fuck you, according to Dayal) is latent insecurities in our own culture, insecurities that I share, about loss and progress. Fox-hunts do not look like manifestos because we are not sad about what their disappearance represents. At best they seem romantic, at worst a reminder of a barbaric past better forgotten entirely.

That’s not the case with Song Reader. When Song Reader is stuck in my head, I feel a strange kind of longing. My iPod can’t give me what I want. Neither can the Internet, really, since what I want is more versions of the songs that belong to ME. I want to hear more of my Beck album! But now I’ve played through all the songs I can sight-read easily. So I’m either going to have to work harder or get some help — two activities I would never have associated with listening to music, but which are now integral to one of my favorite albums in a long, long time. And I can say “favorite” confidently, without even having listened to the whole thing.

Ban This Book: An Uncensored Look At The Lorax And Other Dangerous Books

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The movie adaptation of The Lorax opens on March 2nd, Dr. Seuss’ birthday. His yellow-mustached crusader now appears on countless billboards and buses, and stars in environmentally conscious ads. I’m pleased that the grumpy guy is getting so much attention. He speaks for the trees (the Truffula Trees!), and the Humming-Fish, and the Swomee-Swans, and the Brown Bar-ba-loots. A good creature. An important message. A powerful ally in the fight against Gluppity-Glupp and smogulous smoke, the byproducts of Thneed overproduction.

So it upset me when I heard that in 1989 a group of parents tried to censor The Lorax. They took out a full-page newspaper ad accusing second-grade teachers of brainwashing students. Who would do that? Only someone who doesn’t understand the value of free speech, right?

Before laying into logger Bill Bailey of Laytonville, Calif., and his supporters, I’m going to ask you to consider a different book — Alfie’s Home, published four years after The Lorax came under fire. It tells the story of a boy named Alfie whose father is “working all the time, and when he’s at home, he screams a lot.” Into this paternal void steps Uncle Pete: “One night when he was holding me, he started touching my private parts. Over time, he taught me to touch and play with his. It felt very strange, scary, and a little good too.”

Young Alfie comes to believe he is gay, a “confusion” exacerbated by “the other guys” at school who call him names like “‘Sissy, ‘Faggot,’ ‘Queer,’ ‘Homo.’” But the book ends on what it presents as a positive note. Alfie seeks counseling and learns that he was merely looking for closeness with other boys to fill the need for “Dad’s love.” Everyone lives happily ever after, including Alfie’s parents, who, thanks to the same African-American counselor, manage to cultivate a loving relationship with each other and their son.

Needless to say, Alfie’s Home (by “ex-gay” Richard A. Cohen) does not appear in many libraries, much less on second-grade required reading lists (as The Lorax did for the Laytonville Unified School District). For me that’s far from a regrettable absence. But why? Am I a closet censor, ready to suppress repugnant ideologies while trumpeting the importance of Banned Books Week?

The short answer is yes. Fortunately, books I find disgusting simply don’t get purchased by libraries or required by schools, saving me, and other like-minded individuals, from the embarrassing and hypocritical task of challenging them.

My home town of Chicago does not have its public school library catalogue online, but a search of the New York and Portland catalogues shows multiple copies of And Tango Makes Three (and Tres Con Tango), a picture-book about two male chinstrap penguins who raise an egg together at New York’s Central Park Zoo. According to the ALA, And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book from 2006 to 2010 (except for 2009 when it came it second). Tango is great as far as I’m concerned, but not everyone feels the same way. You know who I mean — the people, generally conservative, who rail against everything from Roald Dahl’s The Witches to Judy Blume. Religion is often in the mix — one group of censorial parents and students in Oceanside, Calif., was actually called the “God Squad.” (A classic battle: D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings was challenged in Canton, Mich., because “this book details the teachings of the religion of Buddhism in such a way that the reader could very likely embrace its teachings and choose this as his religion.”)

Alfie’s Home never made the ALA’s list of most challenged books. Not because liberals are happy to see it sharing shelf space with The Lorax, though, but rather because libraries aren’t willing to stock it, and teachers would never assign it if they did. For good reason, too. There’s an easy, non-ideological argument to be made against Alfie’s Home — aesthetically, it’s a disaster. To quote the School Library Journal review: “Everything about this book screams fake. The illustrations are flat and garish in their simplicity, lacking any personality or appeal. If the generic illustrations aren’t a complete turnoff, the saccharine tone of the writing gives further challenge to credibility. If readers were able to ignore the presentation, there is still the message of the text to choke them. A boy from a dysfunctional family who is abused throughout his childhood and into his teens sees a counselor and everything is suddenly wonderful.”

But what about a much, much better book, Regina Doman’s Angel in the Waters? Exquisitely illustrated by Ben Hatke (whose Zita the Spacegirl does appear in the New York and Portland catalogues), the book is a poetic paean to human development, starting at the moment of conception: “In the beginning, I was./I was for a long time. Then things began to happen.” Why don’t the Portland and New York libraries stock any copies of Angel? And why isn’t it on any school reading lists?

There are a number of plausible reasons: educators just aren’t familiar with it, or don’t think it is popular enough to purchase. Let me suggest an additional reason — many librarians and teachers don’t want young, impressionable children reading about anthropomorphized fetuses that have an “Angel” and talk in the first person. Nor do they want to reinforce the (false?) notion that babies somehow remember their early time in the womb: “Sometimes, when I am in my bath, I remember the waters, and swimming.” It feels too much like pro-life indoctrination, no matter how nice the writing and illustrations. (At least that’s how it feels to me.)

The fact is, when censorship fits with one’s values, even the staunchest defenders of free speech are willing to bend the rules. Take the ALA, perhaps the most vociferous opponents of censorship in America. Through the Association for Library Service to Children, they administer the prestigious Newbery Medal, awarded to countless banned and challenged classics. In 2007, The New York Times reported how the ALA cried censorship when some librarians foresaw pressure from parents and refused to purchase 2007 Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky. The reason? “Scrotum” appears on the first page of the book. Presumably requests to publish a bowdlerized version without the offensive word would have met with similar disapprobation. Conservative mores getting in the way of free speech yet again.

What’s strange, however, is that the Newbery award is still allowed on the cover of Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. Both Dell Yearling and HarperCollins published Voyages in a highly censored form of the 1922 award-winning original (and the same is true of its predecessor, The Story of Dr. Dolittle.) Concerned with racially insensitive material, editors at each publishing house saw fit to expunge potentially offensive slurs, rewrite or delete stereotypical depictions of Africans, and replace illustrations of black characters.

None of this is described explicitly as censorship. In the afterword to HarperCollins’ The Story of Dr. Dolittle, the editorial changes are referred to as “gentle revision.” And in the afterword to the Dell Yearling version of Voyages, Christopher Lofting, the author’s son, writes: “Book banning or censorship is not an American tradition! To change the original could be interpreted as censorship. Then again, so could a decision to deny children access to an entire series of classics on the basis of isolated passing references.” There are references in both editions to the certain approval of Hugh Lofting, were he only alive to give it. (KSU professor Philip Nel has an excellent discussion of Dr. Dolittle, along with Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas, who used to be African pygmies.)

Of course, if you worry less about racism or homophobia and more about anti-religious indoctrination or anti-capitalist sentiment, there will be an entirely different set of books you want off readings lists, and themes you want out of books. Which brings us back to logger (actually logging equipment manufacturer) Bill Bailey and The Lorax. According to People magazine, Bailey found out about the book when his son Sammy came home, distraught. “If you cut down a tree,” Sammy told his father, “then it’s just like someone coming in and taking away your home.” Ouch.

Now it’s clear to me The Lorax isn’t an anti-logging book so much as a plea for the environment. Theodore Geisel agrees: “The Lorax doesn’t say lumbering is immoral. I live in a house made of wood and write books printed on paper. It’s a book about going easy on what we’ve got. It’s antipollution and antigreed.” But that’s not really the point. Angel in the Waters might not be meant to convince young children that abortion is evil. Nevertheless, imagine a woman deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Her seven-year-old daughter comes home from school one day and tells her that, from the very moment of conception, babies can think and have angels. One of her classmates told her how some parents murder those babies. Is that true, she asks? Do people really murder their babies and their angels?

If I were that mother, I would be devastated. And if I found out Angel in the Waters was somehow behind my child’s questions, there’s a good chance I’d ask for it to be removed from a required reading list. Depending on how upset I was, I might even challenge its presence in the library. And I’d rationalize that challenge: “It’s not censorship. It’s separation of church and state. This is a public school, religion shouldn’t be taught here, especially not to very young children.” (I wouldn’t think too hard about the religious overtones of A Wrinkle in Time, and whether ecumenical spirituality still belongs in schools.)

Stanley Fish likes to remind us there is no such thing as free speech, even in America, and points out that censorship in the colloquial sense happens all the time: “Censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)” When a library rejects a book, or a school deems material inappropriate for a reading list, it is a form of censorship that is widespread and inevitable, which Fish calls “judgment.” Such censorship can be based on aesthetics — this book is bad, truth — this book is wrong, or ethics — this book is Wrong.

(Interestingly, Dr. Seuss engaged in a bit of self-censorship based on truth and ethics. After pressure from research associates in the Ohio Sea Grant program, he acknowledged the clean-up of Lake Erie by removing the third of these lines from The Lorax: “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary/in search of some water that isn’t so smeary./I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.” He also felt the need to remove racial stereotypes from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street: “I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a Chinaman. That’s the way thing were fifty years ago. In later editions I refer to him as a Chinese man. I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail and now he looks like an Irishman.”)

Since the dominant ideology of the ALA, librarians, educators, and publishing houses lines up with my own, de facto censorship occurs via their judgments without any effort on my part, and I don’t have to risk looking intolerant or hypocritical. It helps, too, that most skilled children’s book authors are liberal (you’d think there would be more “pro-life” children’s books, given that over 50 percent of the population identifies as such.)

I still believe those of my own political persuasion are far less draconian in their intolerance. I would never call for the New York or Portland public school libraries to remove their copies of Left Behind: The Kids, a juvenile version of the best-selling series about the Rapture. But it is important to acknowledge the role that ideology does (and must) play in the make-up of library collections and reading lists, and the content of children’s books in general. Conservatives frustrated with the dominance of “liberal” children’s literature should tone down their censorial rhetoric, and instead start producing high-quality books that emphasize values important to them, like Angel in the Waters. If nothing else, it would force people like me to make tough decisions, instead of sitting back and dismissing bigoted trash like Alfie’s Home. What if there were a well-executed picture-book about a child who realizes society will collapse without strong belief in God? Or about a homeless man who deserved it, because he was lazy?

And for even-handed people who want to temper the message of The Lorax with the underrepresented perspective of Bill Bailey, let me recommend Terri Birkett’s The Truax, published jointly by the Hardwood Forest Foundation and the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association in 1994. It features a grumpy environmentalist named Guardbark, who asks tough questions of a good and decent logger named the Truax: “‘BIODIVERSITY. Now there is a word./A Science-y, Frogbirdy word I have heard.’/He thought for a moment and then he went on,/‘Will THIS still be there when the trees have been sawn?’” The Truax has answers, and if you read it with your child before watching The Lorax maybe you can do justice to the impossible ideal of free and neutral speech.

My friends who have children won’t let me read it to theirs, though, so you’ll have to tell me how that works out.

I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs

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Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.

Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”

As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…

Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.

The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).

When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.

But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.

What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.

If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.

Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.

Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?

Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)

It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.

Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”

Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”

Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.

All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”

While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)

Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.

After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)

These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).

The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.

The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)

Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.

Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb

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