A Year in Reading: Kyle Winkler

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Welcome to the Year of Horror. No, friends and
neighbors, I’m not talking the pandemical matter. I’m talking about the genre
of horror.

According to my notes, here are some of the standout books of the year. The first book I finished was Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Turns out, it was the best horror book to start the winter with—it’s cold, unforgiving, paranoiac, and manic. Jones blends the Indigenous experience on the reservation with dark-ass horror tropes. I would venture to say that Jones is the inheritor of Pynchon’s free indirect third person narrative voice. Jones isn’t Tex Avery-zany like Good Ole Pynch, but he’s well-attuned to popular culture the same way. So what you get is a voice-y, kinetic, knowing narrator mentioning music, food, and Wal-Mart-esque purchases, guiding you through the history of five friends’ botched takedown of an elk. The novel is also unusual in that it takes formal risks, too. I shan’t spoil much, but to say that around page 100, the business turns fuliginous. There was a reason this topped so many lists this year.

Then I read a hard-to-find novel by one of my Top Three Authors—Barbara Comyns. Comyns is known primarily for her NYRB reissues like The Vet’s Daughter, The Juniper Tree, or Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (all of which are excellent and worth buying immediately). But the one I got my hands on through interlibrary loan (a much-neglected resource) was The Skin Chairs. And that title’s not a metaphor, y’all. Apparently on Jan. 22, I tweeted: “So the good news is that Comyns’s THE SKIN CHAIRS is delightful and oppressive at the same time. It’s like uplifting mildew.” Plot is worthless here. The aims are the character interactions and just reading Comyns’s mind coruscate with deleterious wit. But here’s the best one I could find: “When her father dies, ten-year-old Frances, her mother and siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by the formidable Aunt Lawrence. Living in patronised poverty isn’t fun, but Frances makes friends with Mrs Alexander, who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motorcar.” A copy of this out of print novel is worth hunting down for passages like the following:

The hospital was nearly two miles away and I ran most of the way and arrived there breathless and untidy, which did not make a good impression when I rushed into the hall demanding to see Jane. A calming-down sort of woman pushed me down on a shiny bench and told me to wait. Sitting opposite to me were two people who appeared as if they were growing there: one an old man with a deep slimy cough, and the other a bearded woman. They did not appeal to me at all; I was particularly put off by the bearded woman, in case the beard was catching.

All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook is a farrago of a book. It’s a collection of highly charged essays. But I won’t even bother with what it purports to be, but just describe what it felt like to me as I read it. A bangarang death tour of the Kentish seaside, visiting has-been actors, ghostly sightings, and ever implied sex-trade. The book is a blister. It’s fun to touch, mess with, and you eventually want to see it explode. But when it does, it’s more of a mess than you expected, hurts, and takes a while to heal. Whether or not you want to read it will depend on your relationship to pain.

Next was a one-two punch of novels that I would call the best two reads of the year from two of my favorite presses (Grindhouse and Apocalypse Party, respectively). First, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik. I’ve never had such a short book slice a pouch in my skin and crawl inside and use it as a corrupt hideaway. But this book is brutal where it should be gentle, delicate where you’d expect it to be gross, and intelligent in all the places that are barely covered in clothing. It’s a dark horror novella built on the vicious murder spree of a brother and sister, but that should not dissuade you from falling in love with the main characters anyway. Negative Space by B.R. Yeager broke my brain. My favorite book of the year, but I’m speechless/wordless when it comes to how to discuss it. All I can say is that: teenagers have rituals that are unanchored and when acted out enthusiastically will kill the world. I recently read that piety without identity equals nihilism. That about sums it up.

I taught a course on science fiction in the spring, so we read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This book is one of my favorites. It has some of her best lines (the opening about the wall), some of her best characters (Shevek is sweetly cold but passionate), her best set pieces (when the boys on the anarchist moon of Anarres learn what a prison is and then recreate it for play). And every time I read it, I take a different tack on who’s got the right idea. It’s not simplistic; it’s metamorphic. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents is, perhaps, the best duology ever written. They’re more properly considered socio-economic thrillers. Butler got more right in these two novels about where America was heading in the next quarter century than any political philosopher of the past 100 years. If there was any novel I felt cheated out of, it’s the third book in what was meant to be a trilogy here. And yet, the two books still give a realistic and brutal portrait of a world myopically walking right into Christian nationalism, fascism, and desperate strongman-hood. Sickening but believable. Read it.

The following two may not seem horrific, but they are. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is what I call “nightmare fiction.” It’s a person in a situation that on the outside (the reader) is obviously unjust. But everyone around them in the story allows them to suffer unjust guilt. The novel is about women’s prisons, incarceration, and the way any notion of rehabilitation is absolute bullshit. If Foucault was ever right about anything it’s that we live in a disciplinary society. Those who may break the law will never be truly rid of the stain of their crimes, prison or no. Whereas Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is the absolute opposite of this. Prison is the body mangled in war. Joe Bonham is blown apart in World War I and stuck in a hospital room where he has to deal with the reality of his own consciousness. His entire world shrinks down to the memories he has or the sensorium of his torso. No eyes, no ears, no tongue, no nose. He eventually communicates with a nurse by Morse code by banging his head against the pillow. How David Lynch never made this into a movie, I’ll never know. But the book is devastating for its anti-war message, its empathy, its raw, hateful hope, and the lack of commas.

P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout had a scene in it where the main characters traverse a metaphysical crack in space to a place where hateful entities (which are actually KKK members in this universe) make up a kind of evil Voltron. It was the most creative scene I’d read in a long time. Since I released my own cosmic horror novella this past April, I was highly (paranoiacally) aware of this cosmically clever novella. This book pairs well with Lovecraft Country.

The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch is another novella that I was hyper-aware of while reading it because the style is so rhetorically refined and aggressively poetic. (As are most of the books released by Weirdpunk Books.) And then there was the amazing pile of indie horror authors that I’ve made connections with online. Gird yourself for a litany. All of these are great examples of why horror is doing its best work outside the confines of the culture industry’s trope templates. A long, but by no means comprehensive list would include: A Mouth Full of Ashes by Briana Morgan, The Potted Plant by Thomas Gloom, I Hear the Clattering of the Keys by Jamie Stewart, The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani, Smolder by Michael R. Goodwin, The House on Harlan by Mike Salt, The Miracle Sin by Marcus Hawke, The Fear by Spencer Hamilton, and Take Your Turn, Teddy by Haley Newlin.

I am finishing the year in my first climb up the sewer clown mountain with Stephen King’s IT. What impressed me about this “Moby-Dick of horror” (such a shitty comparison, really) is that King (even at his Reagan-era height of suburban-reader fame) dared not to deliver the usual goods. I would suggest that there’s not much in the King canon that rivals the sweetness and love between big brother Bill and little brother George Denbrough in the first chapter of the book. He foreshadows his recent dip into crime fiction with the Adrian Mellon sections that take the form of the police blotter style. And, in the sections that I found most terrifying, Mike Hanlon’s diary entries record his visits with old time Mainers wherein we intuit the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown somewhere in the past, pulling the strings. Yes, terror, gore, and the horror of hatred are woven throughout this novel. But right when you think that the story has flagged or King has spent his gas, another set piece will blow you away. (Junkyard leech attack anyone?) Point being: the imagination is limitless. And some writers plug into that constant image feed with ease. Others, not so much. But the horror waxes and wanes, and the imagination isn’t going anywhere. That is, not until we (eventually, painfully) do.

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I’m Suspicious of Empathy: The Millions Interviews Jess Row

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Reading Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is like reading three books in one. The first book is a memoir of Row’s artistic coming of age. The second book is a scholarly critique of white writing and how work by people of color is excluded, ignored, and otherwise neglected. The third book is a meditation on aesthetics, craft, and ideology in creative writing. All three books are imbricated in a way that the seams are hidden but felt.

I especially was taken with Row’s chapter on American Minimalism and the overarching and lasting (but eroding) influence of Gordon Lish. My interest lay in a compelling argument Row makes about Lish’s influence on minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. He claims minimalist writers aren’t “able to relax into something larger, even into idiomatic speech: the consecution method doesn’t permit that…What they are performing is a Morse code, a telegraphic effect: this is how we live, this is what the present entails. And: this is all that the present entails.”

Row and I talked recently about minimalism, race, empathy, and White Flights.

The Millions: Is White Flights a project built around empathy?

Jess Row: No, I don’t think so. I’m suspicious of empathy for a lot of the reasons you see coming up in books like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There was a great roundtable about empathy published in The Boston Review several years ago. And in it was this psychologist, Paul Bloom. His basic critique of empathy is that it tends to focus our political thinking on objects that we feel an immediate emotional connection with, and it excludes beings and subjects we don’t feel a direct emotional connection with. There are a lot of people in the world of creative writing who put empathy at the center of their thinking about why literature is important and why fiction is important. My thinking about that is always a little more skeptical. Obviously, when you create literary characters, to some degree you’re looking for a connection, a recognition of the fictional consciousness of the character, if you’re in that realm of psychological realism. But I always think that using empathy as a justification is too simple. It requires some clarification about what empathy means.

TM: Because the idea there is empathy is self-directed. It doesn’t come from outside of you.

JR: Yeah, empathy is also circumstantial. To some degree, social media feeds on this quality. If you’re constantly seeing things popping up in your feed about some outrage in the world, it could be they’re designed by the algorithm for other reasons not having to do with creating any narrative or hierarchy of meaning. You could have someone being cruel to kittens and have widespread environmental destruction or homes destroyed in East Jerusalem. In other words, empathy can create a distorted sense of where your attention should be in the world. It’s easy to manipulate in that way.

TM: The question is: Between logos, pathos, and ethos. Which one do you think is being used most? Overwhelmingly, it’s the emotional appeal, pathos. I wonder how much pathos is behind empathy, as opposed to, say, logic or credibility.

JR: One thing I write about in the book (very briefly) is the three definitions of love in Christianity, which come from classical Greek thought. Philia-love, romantic love, and agape-love. This is something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time. When he talked about racism in the United States, he constantly talked about the importance of defining your terms when you talk about love and racism. You’re not just talking about philia-love. You’re obviously not talking about romantic love. He said you always have to be talking about agape. You have to be talking about the largest concept of love. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s a great way of summing up agape in the black prophetic Christian tradition.

TM: You write “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies”—but it also seems that fear is to blame, because who wants to have a tin ear or come off sounding hurtful. Though, you also write that, “dealing with shame is meaningful.” Do you see fear playing a role like shame?

JR: What you say is important. They’re definitely connected. I think fear of being exposed as being insensitive or being exposed as being racist or just not thoughtful in your speech or whatever—I would say that fear is absolutely debilitating for white people, writers, teachers.

But I also think there’s a culture that sustains that feeling of paranoia: “No matter what you say, or try to engage in, you’re going to be criticized.” That’s why I say that I think that it’s really important to look at those feelings directly and ask yourself, Where did those feeling come from? Who is it that’s telling you that you can’t win? Who is it that’s encouraging these feeling of paranoia? And: For whom are those feelings politically useful?

In an academic setting, that paranoia around race is extremely useful to the institution because it enables administrators and leaders to essentially treat racial justice and questions around it as an area of diversity that can be farmed out to the vice president of diversity or whatever. And the rest of us don’t have to think about it.

Essentially, you hire people to do the uncomfortable work of raising awareness about these feelings and you yourself are feeling like you’re not—you, the white administration or professor or department chair—are not able to do anything about it because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. That paranoia is structurally built into the institution.

TM: Do you find that Lish’s minimalist aesthetic, through what you describe as “beautiful shame,” fetishized the poor or the downtrodden?

JR: I think those two things are related. And it’s always what I say about Lish: he pressured Carver to remove the direct reference to his own background. I think that Gordon Lish himself was never interested in fetishizing rural poverty, because I think his aesthetic interests were so different. His interests were late modern, Gertrude Stein, an obsession with the sentence as a self-fulfilling object. He was able to create this artistic aura, this sense of existential inner-poverty that translated easily to American literary culture into a larger way of fetishizing poor white people as the authentic or raw voices.

TM: That reminds me of Sarah Palin talking about the “real America” back in 2008.

JR: The fetishizing of the dirty realists in the 1980s, Tobias Wolff, John Dufresne, Richard Ford. Annie Proulx’s first book Heart Songs is in this category. A lot of things came together at same time: Lish’s approach to realism, the overwhelming popularity of Raymond Carver. But you also had the Reagan era, white American retrenchment, there was a broader cultural interest in white working-class authenticity that you have in Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. If you look at Mellencamps’s hits, “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane”—white t-shirts and blue jeans. That’s part of a wave of fetishization of American rural life that started in the post-war era and really flowered with the baby boomers because so many of them were moved away from that life. As soon as that way of life began to fade, it became a fetish for the up-and-coming suburban bourgeois class.

TM: Who would be an example of an author who goes past the fear and beautiful shame? You mention Dorothy Allison and Allan Gurganus as examples back in the 1980s and 1990s. What about today?

JR: The landscape of American fiction is fractured as compared to how it used to be. You don’t have one aesthetic that’s nearly as dominant as the minimalist aesthetic was in the 1980s. Are you asking about specifically white writers who are going beyond shame?

TM: Yes. I mean, I’m taking your book to be a call to stronger self-reflection, as a challenge. That is, for writers to ask, “In my next story, how will I deal with shame?” I’ve been super self-conscious about who I could write. I’m like a vestigial Platonist, a latent essentialist. I read you claiming that we need to stop thinking there’s an essentialist aspect to writing others.

JR: When you talk about being a vestigial Platonist, you have to think about Plato’s critique of poetry in The Republic. This is a central tension in Western aesthetics. Plato hated the idea of mimesis and mimetic art because of what you’re saying. It is anti-essential. If an essence can be replicated, what is it? Do we need it?

The central challenge in fiction is representing other lives and consciousnesses. That’s always the core artistic challenge. I think that, in some ways, American fiction writers have essentially sort of sat back and avoided the central artistic question that should’ve been discussed in the 1960s and 1970s: Given that the country is becoming so equal and more egalitarian (superficially, anyway) and poly-cultural, how do fiction writers deal with that? That was a big subject of American fiction in the early 20th century. Along with the kinds of cities there were and new immigrants, there was all this discussion of the social novel and naturalism. What happened after 1970 in American fiction is things went radically the other way, especially in the highbrow white aesthetic universe. Nobody wanted to talk about that stuff. No one wanted to talk about the crisis of representation. There were all these postmodern systems novels and the New Minimalists, but even the most ambitious novelists, like Don DeLillo, were flattening, reducing, altering, and manipulating surface difference to create some otherworldly universe.

No one was interested in the basic question about how you write a novel where a Chinese immigrant women falls in love with a black man from Mississippi. No one wrote that novel. That novel should’ve been written in the late ’80s. But that novel didn’t make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. People are writing that now. Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life is a little bit like that, which is ironic. In some ways, the central artistic question hasn’t been discussed because writers are always so weighted down with fear, paranoia, and anger, legitimate anger about the bad attempts at racial representation that have happened in the past.

TM: Do you think the blowback over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had something to do with that?

JR: I do. I wrote about this in the book a tiny bit. I’ve written about Styron and Nat Turner before. That was a huge thing for me. When I was 17, in my first writing workshop, my teacher told us, an all-white class, that white writers cannot write about race because Nat Turner proved that we will be punished for doing so. He was expressing the conventional wisdom at the time in his circles. This was 1992. The teacher of the class, Lee Abbott, a wonderful person, who knew Ray Carver and Richard Ford, was a short story writer very much of that time, of the late ’80s and ’90s. He was essentially expressing the literary consensus of the white American creative writing community. Of course, that had a huge effect on me. It basically convinced me that I could not do that. I spent years trying to write in an all-white way.

TM: Whatever “writing in a white way” means, right?

JR: Yeah. In my case, what it meant was relying only on white models. It meant I went through all of 20th-century American fiction and picked out the white prominent writers and tried to read all of them and tried to ignore everyone else. That was what was being taught in creative writing classes. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001, which is, in the greater scheme of things, not long ago. I don’t believe there was a single text by an African-American author taught in any of my classes. Maybe one in a craft class. One or two; that’s it. Nobody, none of my teachers in fiction workshop, made any but the most sort of marginal reference to a black writer.

TM: Five years later in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I definitely had African-American writers and writers of color included in my workshops and courses.

JR: You’re lucky. The way that I teach fiction workshops now couldn’t be more different, self-consciously so. Not just in racial representation but in looking at different aesthetics, which wasn’t really done much in any of my writing workshops. I never had a teacher who encouraged us to work with experimental texts.

TM: You mention how writers “outside of whiteness” use white writing as an anti-metaphysics. Like Colson Whitehead adopting DeLillo’s style in The Intuitionist or Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt. I think about when I first read Toni Morrison and wondered, “How in the hell do I learn to write like her? How can I do what she does?” And after reading your book, I wonder, about the reverse way that writers of color, borrowing rhetorical styles from white writers, can operate backwards, for white writers to work within African-American and non-white rhetorical styles?

JR: I think it’s hugely important for white writers to talk about how influenced they are by writers of color. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. The only way to start talking about American literature as a whole literature is to talk about the interplay among the different voices, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I talk about that issue in the book in many places. For me it came up so vividly when I read James Baldwin and was so intensely captivated by his novel Another Country. I said to my wife, “I want to write a novel exactly like this.”

That is a crucial artistic step forward, acknowledging the influence—and it should be obvious and go without saying, but it isn’t obvious and it doesn’t go without saying. Toni Morrison is held up as a larger-than-life person, an icon (which is all true), but for fiction writers she’s so important because of her technical skill and stylistic, artistic skill. As a humanist voice, yes, she’s important, but for fiction writers, it’s that she’s so good at writing. Her technical abilities and her innovations are hugely influential. When I read Beloved for the first time, which was not until graduate school, I suddenly understood why so many other writers I had seen were doing things or using the chapter beginnings or the kind of voice that they were using. “Oh, it’s because they’re influenced by Toni Morrison!”

This strikes me all the time whenever I hear discussions about American memoir and hybrid texts. “Is a memoir actually fiction?” Someone no one ever talks about is Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is the text that invented the modern American memoir, the text that started the whole movement toward so much of what is happening today. That text only gets acknowledged as quote-unquote multicultural literature. And, of course, it’s vital for Chinese-American culture. But for writers, it has so much to teach us about the overlay between autobiographical narrative and fictional narrative, and she does it so openly and skillfully, weaves in and out so skillfully.

Everybody should be learning from that—that should be the center of the canon.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Warning: Sci-Fi as Operating Instructions for Life

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In “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” from her excellent last collection of essays and reviews, Words Are My Matter, the recently departed and much missed Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “Kids are taught writing in school as a means to an end. Most writing is indeed a means to an end: love letters, information of all kinds, business communications, instructions, tweets. Much writing embodies, is, a message.” Not surprisingly, Le Guin despised writing as “merely…the vehicle of a message,” because for her writing’s purpose was to write “as well as we can.” And in another essay, “The Operating Instructions,” she writes:
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
That last sentence hammers at my head. I worry about getting made up by other people’s language; and I worry about the same for my students, my friends, my community. How should one address this? Through science fiction. And while science fiction novels and stories have a long history of dealing with language (1984, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and China Miéville’s Embassytown), I think a cult film serves us best right now.

I’m referring to John Carpenter’s sci-fi movie They Live (1988). Here’s why: the plot and dialogue talk right back to Le Guin’s concern about who gets to invent whom nowadays. The plot of They Live is plain as pancakes. A drifter arrives in Los Angeles and stumbles upon a world-wide alien-robot conspiracy to keep the human race in submission through subliminal messaging through all forms of media. The drifter discovers the alien-robots with woo woo science sunglasses. A battle between undeceived humans and alien-robots ensues. So the plot is nothing if apt to the world in which we find ourselves. Sort of.

The film was based on Ray Nelson’s (very) short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. The story has nothing to recommend it (other than sheer bloody forward momentum), as it’s more of what Le Guin called “a vehicle,” an extended scene that allows the flat main character, George Nada, to act simply as an idea (rebellion, waking up to authority and consumerism) charging through the landscape murdering disguised and oppressive aliens. (It was turned into a much more interesting and funny graphic story called Nada with artwork by Bill Wray.)

But I want to give They Live a bit more room to breathe. I want to look at it as Le Guin would’ve, as a way not to have “our lives get made up for us by other people.” Mostly because I think the film comes off (unfairly) as schlock. It is, no doubt, a clumsy movie. A product of its time: a reactionary (if cartoony) condemnation of Reaganomics and ’80s hyper-bourgeois materialism. It’s also admittedly a B-movie (alien-robots, guns, violence, cursing, blatant and needless nudity), one that doesn’t take itself too seriously or try excessively to prove its credentials. That sort of insouciance is in the movie’s favor.

To me, the oddest trait of the movie is a lack of dialogue. Again, much of the film silently follows the main character, now styled John Nada (Roddy Piper), in his travails around the down and out of Los Angeles. Famously, there’s a six minute fight scene between the two main characters in the middle of the movie. (Slavoj Zizek has humorously made much of this scene regarding the role of ideology. Do with that what you will.) There are a couple of scenes where I jolt and go, What the hell was that dialogue for? And what can it tell me about how language is working for me and working on me?

Odd Scene #1: Frank (the badass Keith David) asks Nada if he wants some hot food and shelter. If he does, he knows a place. Nada silently declines. Frank, rebuffed, cuts his losses and leaves. Nada trails behind more like a confused dog than someone with a lot of confidence. After a half-minute of this on screen, Frank turns and makes it known he hates being followed. Nada replies stoically: “Well, I don’t join up with anyone, unless I know where they’re going.” My immediate reaction to this was Yeah, okay, Big Shot. Nada’s so independent and hardy. What a stud. But as I thought back on it, this doesn’t make any sense in relation to the rest of the flick. It’s an outright political and ethical statement nailed right into the script without any softening or rhetorical care. Just, thwack!, right in there. Deal with it.

Odd Scene #2: Here’s dialogue from the movie. The main characters are hiding out in a hotel room after escaping the alien-robots.
Nada: A long time ago things were different man. My old daddy took me down to the river, kicked my ass, told me about the power and the glory. I was saved. He changed when I was little. Turned mean and started tearin’ at me. So I ran away when I was 13. He tried to cut me once. Big old razor blade. Held it up against my throat. I said “Daddy please”… Just kept moving back and forth… like he was sawin’ down a little tree…
Frank: Maybe they’ve always been with us… those things out there. Maybe they love it… seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fuckin’ hearts…
Nada: I got news for ‘em… There’s gonna be hell to pay. ‘Cause I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more.
Again, I thought What the hell is this doing here? None of it really lines up with the rest of the movie, and in and of itself, doesn’t make much sense. (Moreover, the dialogue was more “believable” in Nelson’s story.) But I kept thinking that there had to be some connection between the dialogue and the violence (both on screen and in the movie). Again, the Long Fight Scene between Frank and Nada was (perhaps) a way to show how deeply rooted and difficult it is to change ideologies. When Nada falls into this reverie about “a long time ago” I thought maybe he was trying to connect this up with the fight. And maybe he is. Maybe his dad’s rough handling was a change of ideology. Clearly the father had gone from wanting to save his son (with religion) to wanting to kill him (for whatever reason—one assumes that 13 is a classic age for rebellion and questioning authority). His father saw him as a thing (a little tree, a sapling) not as a person. So it was a negative change of ideology—that is, Nada lost his ideology through violence; he didn’t gain an ideology in return.

If we follow the idea that Nada’s father wanted to threaten him at 13 for doing what 13-year-olds do, then it makes sense that Nada has been a drifter. A quester. A journeyman. He’s skeptical. He questions everything.

To say that this is commentary on “staying awake” or “paying attention to propaganda” or (god forbid) getting “woke”—is an overstatement at best and a banal observation at worst. So then, what can we do with it?

I’d prefer to use it, as I’ve said, as a way to think about language. Most of Nada’s lines are goofy, and now famous, (“I came here to do two things: kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”) but memorable for that exact reason. (And, as has been pointed out to me, many are in popular culture now, especially through video games or Shepard Fairey’s OBEY artwork.) Nada’s language is tortuously precious in its idealism (see the exchange between Nada and Frank above) and awkward in its earnestness (“Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat.”). In a way, Nada is speaking through memes (even if no one spoke of them in the ’80s) and talking in the way of magazines and ads, short memorable snippets, the sort of language he reviles and which the magical resistance sunglasses translate as coded messages of consumerism and obedience (OBEY, CONSUME, CONFORM). So where does Nada’s language fall? Nowhere? Into nothingness?

John Nada’s language is a warning. If you want, call it Le Guin’s Warning: a warning to those who dare to break away and question and turn skeptical—and the warning is this: “If you reject following, of any sort, don’t banish all language of power, because you then end up taking on whatever is around.” And that move is just as dangerous as obeying because you have to have language to function. But how to tell which language is oppressive and which isn’t? Especially when one might be “ideology-less”—if such a position even exists. What kind of language is a function itself of propaganda or bullshit, and what is Trying to Get It Right? (I’m not sure what that last phrase means, but it seems correct to have it in all caps.) The conclusion I come to with They Live is that we can follow John Nada and Frank (who, himself, is just that: frank and forthright and pulls no punches, literally) and use them as models: Question, but have trust. Do good work, but don’t let others take advantage of it. And so on.

As for the alien-robots, it seems that they are whatever hi-jacks or forces language on us. Are we to obey or follow what’s around us just because we see it? How much pressure is there to follow and ape it? And how much of that pressure is real or made up? How much of forced or obedient language is in your work, professionally or artistically or otherwise? When I ask questions of my own writing, e.g. What does this sound like? I’m often thinking of answers like: “This sounds like a bank teller, or a barista, or a grandmother, or a presidential candidate.” Or I’m thinking, “This sounds like an economic report from the Secretary of the Treasury or a salesman on QVC or it sounds like the guy at the end of the bar who’s been drinking for too long.” John Carpenter got it because Ray Nelson got it. John Nada got it. And Le Guin got it. Learn how to invent your own life through language and don’t get made by another. The Voice of Ursula is, and always will, gently hammer inside my head. Who do you sound like, and why do you want to sound like that?

Notes on the Art of Rhetoric

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Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
Into language. Do not waver in it.
        —Seamus Heaney, “Lightenings”
For most of us, rhetoric boils down to what you learned in high school when the teacher drew a triangle on the chalkboard and wrote logos, ethos, pathos. “These are the three appeals to the audience,” the teacher said. Reason, character, emotion. “A composition will try to include all three of these for best effect,” you may’ve heard. But these three alone aren’t rhetoric. Instead, consider adding Kenneth Burke’s idea of “identification” from A Rhetoric of Motives, that states “[y]ou persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”
Prince Hamlet is a prime rhetorician in the Burkean sense. (Actually, William Shakespeare was the rhetorician, but I’m being generous.) After speaking to his father’s ghost, Hamlet confides to Horatio: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on;” antic, as in, grotesque; meaning, Hamlet’s fixing his words and actions to fit the ass-backwards scene in his home. Because “time is out of joint” in Elsinore. And Hamlet, too, will be out of joint if he doesn’t persuade those around him he’s mad. Oddly, Hamlet will persuade everyone he’s nuts, but it will be against their common sense, against his prior character, and against what passes for royal emotion among his kin. That is a type of persuasion.

What Hamlet reminds us of in his “antic disposition” is the strong ability to forget what we identify with; that we overlook or push away the strange or skewed because we’re worried it will remind us of a slice of ourselves. So we approach unlikeness with curiosity like nattering Polonius. Or we approach unlikeness with parental concern like cautious Claudius and Gertrude. But there are few who approach Hamlet fully identifying as Burke suggests. If anyone, it’s the players who arrive mid-way through.

With respect to rhetoric, the question to ask isn’t: “What does it say about Hamlet that he acts mad?” Rather, the question should be: “What does it say about everyone else such that Hamlet thinks he’ll identify with and persuade others by acting mad?”

Rhetoric, then, is for uncertain situations, where there is no known outcome. (Who knows about King Hamlet’s murder? Why are people ignoring it if they do? What should Hamlet do when he finds out who’s guilty?) Which is why rhetoric is frequently (and classically) broken down into judicial (parents deciding punishment, judges, lawyers, etc.), epideictic (entertainments, best man speeches, TED talks), and deliberative (in short: most political situations). None are cleanly removed from the others. Almost all of these combine at particular moments in life, especially as Hamlet (surely a student of classical rhetoric at the University of Wittenberg) felt played by his one-time turncoat pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
HAMLET: …why do you go about to recover the wind of me,
as if you would drive me into a toil?

GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too

HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon
this pipe?

GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.

HAMLET: I pray you.

GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot.

HAMLET: I do beseech you.

GUILDENSTERN: I know no touch of it, my lord.

HAMLET: ‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with
your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.
Look you, these are the stops.

GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of
harmony; I have not the skill.

HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.
They engage in deliberation, they entertain with metaphor, imagery, and jokes (epideictic), and finally Hamlet passes judgment (“Call me what instrument you will…you cannot play upon me”). The idea here is that we are inherently suspicious of those who may try to charm us with honeyed words when we’re not sure of their intentions. (Or, in Hamlet’s case, even when we are very sure of their intentions.) But that’s exactly how the art of rhetoric can be useful—when there is indecision and a way forward needs to be born. And despite what you read and hear, rhetoric isn’t one thing. It’s both the art of persuasive language, and it’s also the whole set of tropes, schemes, and figures that make up how and what we write and speak. So, for example, Hamlet’s use of anaphora, the repetition of “you would,” prodding Guildenstern and his intentions—it is just a basic rhetorical device. But, how do rhetorical devices do what they do? Why do they do what they do?

Rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has addressed how figures and tropes work as lines of argument in her book Rhetorical Figures in Science. Fahnestock says that it may seem unusual, but readers can identify certain rhetorical figures with “forms of argument or reasons” that traditionally were the “topics”–or topoi–of classical rhetorical education. Moreover, Fahnestock’s point is that this action, i.e. the use of argumentative lines, still exists, but that we may not be fully aware of it. In fact, we may even shun it.

Rhetoric is complicated.

Say you’ve read a CNN article about Donald Trump’s use of a rhetorical device known as paralipsis, also known as apophasis. Or say you read James Fallows’s “When Trump Meets Hillary” in The Atlantic. In it, Fallows anticipated the first debate at Hofstra with all the rhetorical elements a viewer should look out for in the then-Republican nominee’s language (simplicity, ignorance, dominance). Or perhaps you meanderingly googled “Trump” over lunch, or you just happen to see that nasty, nasty word—rhetoric—pop up all over your news feed during this Season of Political Discontent.

The word itself—rhetoric—has a long pejorative tail that wags the dog. When we read “X’s negative rhetoric” or “Y’s demogogic rhetoric” or anyone’s being “merely rhetorical,” the implicit disgust in those claims is far from understood and what’s been old and useful is turned sour for lack of reflection. This is because while “rhetoric” can generally mean “the way one uses words” or a particular set of syntactical moves one can make with language, it definitely doesn’t mean, especially to those of us who study it, “inherently deceitful language.”

Sure, fine, you may say. But why care about it?

Rhetoric is persuasion, and persuasion is seduction. And seduction, in human language, is syntactical.

If you find yourself agreeing with that, and you don’t like it, then you’re standing next to Plato and his famous distrust of rhetoric. In the dialogue Gorgias (named after the Greek sophist), Plato has his mentor and mouthpiece Socrates grill Gorgias for details about just what it is that Gorgias could be said to do. If Gorgias is a successful orator, what does that entail?
SOCRATES: …What is it that oratory is the knowledge of?

GORGIAS: Speech.

SOCRATES: What sort of speech, Gorgias? The kind which tells the sick how they must live in order to get well?


SOCRATES: Then oratory is not concerned with every kind of speech?

GORGIAS: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: But you would say that it makes men good at speaking?


SOCRATES: And presumably good at thinking about the subjects on which it teaches them to speak?

GORGIAS: Of course.
Plato has Socrates corner his interlocutor into a conundrum. Gorgias obviously can’t admit to teaching people to be doctors if he himself has no knowledge of medicine. So how can a student of Gorgias be “good at thinking” about it? Just because a person may have the vocabulary of a discipline doesn’t mean she automatically can claim the know-how.

If this is Plato’s definition of rhetoric—the conflating of knowing-that-something-is-the-case with knowing-how-something-is-the-case—then we’re shading into the realm of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit. From his Frankfurt’s 2006 monograph On Bullshit:
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.
It may be used for rhetorical purposes, it may even use rhetorical tropes and schemes, but still—bullshit just isn’t rhetoric.

Famously, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric was “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion.” A pretty sanguine take on the concept, the one most readily to generate agreement from those who study it. What it seems was most important for Aristotle was the acknowledgement and understanding of the persuasive technique used; to see and recognize the means and choosing of the rhetorical device for the situation.

So one aim is to know that Hamlet uses anacoluthon in his dealings with Polonius because the irruption of one disconnected thought after another will mimic madness. Or when Herman Melville writes in Moby-Dick: “There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness” he’s using anadiplosis, and exploiting the repetition of “woe” at the end of the first phrase and the beginning of the second because woe is the strange relation yoking wisdom and madness.

The syntax of the sentence creates the conditions for possibility.

Because rhetorical devices are lines of argument.

Rhetoric isn’t going anywhere. It’s us who’re going away.

Ideally, then, we would all have a Pauline in our brains. Pauline is the name of “a qube,” an implanted quantum computer in the head of Swan, the main character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312. Besides being designed for informative conversation, Pauline studies rhetoric, and she points out her owner’s patterns in language and argument, or lack thereof. Pauline finds rhetoric “a useful analytic tool.” Yet she finds anaphora “one of the weakest rhetorical devices, really nothing more than redundancy.” And later, when Pauline starts to riff too far on tropes, she declares: “One could also argue that the classical system of rhetoric is a false taxonomy, a kind of fetishism…” Later in the novel, she points out anacoenesis, synchoresis, and her owner’s use of sarcasm and aporia. All of these instances are used to try and explain and make plain Swan’s attempts at poor persuasion.

If we had a Pauline in our noggins, maybe we’d be better off. Maybe we’d just be constantly irritated by the recognition of all the ways we talk to each other and try to persuade and move one another.

The point, it seems, is to know how you’re doing the persuading. Or with what means. From all I can tell, Aristotle wanted to stop people ignorantly persuading each other and unwitting groping within language and push them toward a knowing body of information.

And this is what decidedly makes someone like Donald Trump—or, really, anyone like him—not a good rhetorician. He’s an illusion of an orator. A two-dimensional man. He’s a pilaster, not a column. Not an oracle, but a mountebank. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that “no man can speak well who is not good himself.” How outdated that might seem to us now, but how badly we should want it.

Shouting down an opponent isn’t rhetoric, it’s bullying and stupidity. Responding with comments just to trip up a debate isn’t a rhetorical strategy, it’s a plan built on exhaustion. It’s argument for argument’s sake, also known as eristic.

We do a disservice to the art of rhetoric and those who can actually debate and discuss and persuade in the public sphere and among intimates with an attention to the warp and woof of language when we prize the word “rhetoric” from its moorings and set it loose into a sea of bullshit. So yes, rhetoric is old. But it’s also current. And according to science fiction, it’s still with us 300 years into our future.

If we pay attention to rhetoric and the lines of argument in its tropes, we can avoid misnaming it. Instead of knowing that language persuades, we can know how language persuades.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Gertrude Stein: Unlikely Comp Teacher

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“Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.”
—Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”
As one-time student, then adjunct, and now teacher of writing, I’d like to think that I’ve been unknowingly grasping toward but never yet fully reaching Gertrude Stein as an avatar in the composition/writing classroom. Here is a modernist monolith who lectured and wrote considerately and freely on the sentence and the paragraph. But where is her influence in college composition? While it can’t be said she synthesized a solid theory of writing, one can cobble something approaching a theory from her career. Or, if not a whole-cloth theory then at least usable principles. Guy Davenport found that we’d ended the 20th century feebly knowing how to read some of its greatest literature. Among those: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Stein, and yet we are “still not clear what Gertrude Stein was trying to do. Where we can understand her, she repays attention in great measure.” William H. Gass, in the intro to The Geographical History of America, has gone so far as to say that she “never argues anything,” instead her writing “demonstrates far more than it proves.”

Maybe. I’m not sure of that. Take the following from “Sentences and Paragraphs” in How to Write:
The balancing of a sentence is mound and round. They will thank you anywhere. What is a sentence. A sentence is a duplicate. An exact duplicate is depreciated. Why is a duplicated sentence not depreciated. Because it is a witness. No witnesses are without value. Even which it may be they do not know that their right hand is their right hand nor their left hand which is their left hand.

A sentence then can easily make a mistake. A sentence must be used. Who has had a sentence read for him. He will be pleased with what he has and has heard. This is an exceedingly pretty sentence which has been changed.
Throughout this piece she often asks “What is a sentence” with no question mark. Why? It is a refrain. A reminder. What is a sentence? For Stein, it is a constant reminder to the reader not to read with habit, not to read with the eye only. Stein scholar Ulla Dydo writes that Stein believed “Writing by unthinking habit, relying on usage rather than consciousness, is wrong.”

Try going against usage and see how far you get, folks.

Stein insists, though, as elsewhere, on giving an answer to this: “A sentence is a duplicate.” Duplication here means corresponding copies or enlargement. Sentences then are related and tied together, even, it seems, if they don’t exchange content or relate thematically, though here they do). Overall, arrangement is key (and one of the five canons of rhetoric). Duplication, change, mistaking, depreciating, confusion. These are Stein’s personal rhetorical canons, the elements fueling her writing. And the words/fuel are all states or actions that inhabit uncertainty, movement, and (I would like to think) notions of vagary and vaguery.

As another example, re-read the first sentence of the second paragraph — “A sentence then can easily make a mistake” — which can be understood two ways: as a warning and as a discovery. No one should feel obliged to choose one or the other outcomes because right after this we read “A sentence must be used,” which alerts us to her endgame. That is, in all the hemming and hawing, sentences will get used and read and heard and had.

A slower reading gives up the claim that “an exact duplicate is depreciated,” and by this, I take it she means a Xeroxed sentence. One without a change. And then: “Why is a duplicated sentence not depreciated. Because it is a witness. No witnesses are without value.” It is a witness. It is a witness of the previous sentence, a revision upon what came before. I understand that her point is every sentence adds something, has value, is necessary, despite the confusion of a continuous series of sentences laminating on top of each other. Trust consciousness, not usage. And by “usage,” I mean convention.

In spite of the above examples, Gertrude Stein’s writing isn’t, on the face of it, a style that we’d traditionally encourage in college. But, I ask again: why? Doesn’t it uphold the tenacious inquiry we ask of collegial adults? Doesn’t it allow for play and interest? Doesn’t it, contrary to Gass’s belief, make claims? Answers: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

All that aside, we have to admit she confounds what we often consider clarity, legibility, and to some extent, taken-for-granted literacy. Reading Gertrude Stein can make one feel foolish, stupid, and bewitched. What Stein enacts in her prose is the full range of a sentence’s ability. She prompts this in us with, “The balancing of a sentence is mound and round. They will thank you anywhere.” And I take her seriously when she states later that sentences aren’t emotional but paragraphs are. This is because, to me, a sentence on its own, unless a one sentence paragraph (which then entertains a whole other essay), plays off no other sentence, has no cause or effect, as such.

Again, Ulla Dydo believes “She meditates about composition” — understanding “composition” to mean (simply) the arrangement of words. To Gertrude Stein, the arrangement and creation of sentences and paragraphs was always paramount, no matter the origin: “[o]rdinary sentences in succession, or talk, which of its nature is irregular, becomes an irregular commonplace.” From what I can determine, an irregular commonplace is not a place to find an argument or a syllogism or a narrative per se, even though she may show a passing interest in these. What I can make of the irregular commonplace is that it’s some sort of oddplace or weirdplace. A location that seems familiar but which is skewed or composed such that the reader senses discord underneath the skin of the sentence.

Gertrude Stein weaves her attention in the action of writing as the focus. What comes from the actions fund what follows. (This is close to what Gordon Lish calls “consecution.” The OED defines it variously as “Proceeding in argument from one proposition to another which follows from it…inference” and a “Succession of similar intervals in harmony.” For the rambunctious to-and-fro-ing between composition and creative writing, see Jason Lucarelli’s “The Consecution of Gordon Lish.”)

The point here is that Gertrude Stein collapses most borders we use to slot writing. Does this make her a rhetorical genre unto herself? Perhaps. Although, to declare Gertrude Stein an island upon which one only occasionally vacations is to ignore her influence on writing. Let me rephrase that—is to ignore her troubling influence on writing and the teaching of writing.

I would go so far as to say that reading Stein is like viewing a map, which offers scale, distance, and depth in one go. Ulla Dydo compares her writing to the work of visual artists: “Stein composes words somewhat as painters, with the tools of their art, model three-dimensional perceptions on canvas or paper to create pictorial space. Yet words, whatever their arrangement, always carry referential meanings, unlike brushstrokes, lines, and colors in a painting or rhythms, sound, and phrases in music.” So what do we do with this acknowledgement?

From here, I’ll pose some questions I don’t necessarily have all the answers to:

Why isn’t Gertrude Stein taught as a model in college?
Why isn’t Gertrude Stein a methodological signpost for composition?
Lastly, what can writing teachers do with the incoherence we find in Stein’s writing in conjunction with the frustration found in reading student writing?

As an attempt to answer the first question, I’d conjecture that what gets written in a majority of first year writing courses isn’t close to what practicing academics think of as academic writing. The writing is, in a way, incoherent. Incoherent to students, incoherent to teachers, and incoherent to the system. Moreover, student writing with fuzzy borders encourages incoherent reading because the audience will almost always come down to the teacher herself, no matter the assurances fobbed off on the student about “a wider audience” and “writing for oneself.” It makes sense that this incoherency would persist because writing teachers talk about composition as if it were a genre, when in reality it’s not. It’s a synonym. Better yet, it’s an action. Again, this is how Gertrude Stein approached composition, and it would behoove the student writer and writing teacher to also frame it this way.

Further, I would suggest she’s not a model or a method because she is squarely against the goals of academic writing, the kind of writing that is often encouraged in composition. And yet, what if her approach to writing was taken seriously and offered to writers as a way to encourage the kind of density that literary critic Richard Poirier described? Poirier’s focus on density was the progress from “fairly direct access to pleasure” into a place that, while vague and “strange and imponderable,” never repulses the writer because of a disconcerting change. Difficulty baldly declares the so-called pain needed to endure writing upfront, while density lures. Density intrigues.

Poirier assigned difficulty to those reading writing, but it makes more sense here as the background in which students have received writing instruction in high school, and in which they go on to perform their writing in college. It is also the way they read their peers’ work. As readers, “[d]ifficulty gives the [student] a chance to strut his stuff, to treat Literature [or any composition] as if it really were a communication of knowledge rather than a search for it.”

We want students to wander inside language, and by wandering, to wonder, as well. We don’t ask them to exhaust language into tidy packages. It is by this dense approach to teaching writing that I hope students don’t merely try to “convert wonder into knowledge,” but instead realize that any tidy package will “have only to do with the wonder of events,” as poet James Longenbach writes, “not the wonder of language, which cannot be dispelled by explanation.”

For a hyper-focused sample, let me apply Stein’s spaciousness and Poirier’s density — that quality of language that allows direct pleasure at first, but imponderability second — to another sentence:
Here is not something where you can flip to the end and read the final conclusion, because there is none.
Let me describe why this fits a frame of density. It sings. “Here is not something” jolts. (It reminds me of Robert Frost’s “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”.) We are present here; then whatever here is gets negated. It is not something. Notice, too, the words corresponding to ends and negation: “not,” “end,” “final,” “conclusion,” “none.” Front to back this sentence is all about existence, nonexistence, and the travel between those two points.

In meter and sound the dactyl and the trochee collide and take turns. (A quick reference will tell us that dactylic meter is the traditional meter of Greek lyric poetry. Further, this combination of dactyl and trochee are prominent in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” I mention these facts because there’s history in rhythm. A history which bears down on all writing.) I will rewrite the above sentence with the stressed syllables in bold, separated into metrical feet.
Here is not | something | where you can | flip to the | end and | read the | final con |-clusion
Seen this way, the sentence carries a new weight, a new density. The sentence, now that I reread it for the 15th (27th?) time, starts to take on a Wallace Stevens-esque haunt about it (the “Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is”). But it’s not just about scansion. Revealing rhythm isn’t profound. Instead, I think, especially here, revealing rhythm confounds.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise if I reveal that the sentence was from a student essay. Why do I bring this up? Because imagine what a composition teacher would say in response to a sentence like that. Think of what you’d say. Would you let this sentence go? Moreover, would I (did I?) let this sentence go? Here’s what I wrote in my comments:
As poetry, it’s magnificent. As informative prose, it’s beleaguered. OK, maybe not that, but it’s archaic in a way not suited to the overall purpose. I think because you start with “here” which makes us feel present, then you negate it, “is not”. What if it was: Here’s a place where you can’t flip to the end and read the conclusion because it’s not there.
This is shameful to re-read, but that’s why I include it. As an act of theorizing, my approach is lackluster and boring. Look at how I destroyed the sentence in my revision. I dumped a bucket of needless clarity all over it. I shaved the density right off. Why did I do it? Why did I unStein this wonderfully Steinian sentence?

I don’t know. Probably because the inveterate chorus of composition is Clarity, Concision, Craft. It’s never Compromise, Confute, Confect. I’ll take a crack at what went on in my response. I quote from Stein’s lecture “What Is English Literature” where she elaborates on Geoffrey Chaucer, writing that he didn’t choose his words as words, but as sounds. “They had not yet to be chosen, they had only as yet to be there just there. That makes a sound that gently sings that gently sounds but sounds as sounds. It sounds as sounds of course as words but it sounds as sounds. It sounds as sounds that is to say as birds as well as words.” That is to say, Chaucer worked by sound. The words were sounds, not words as we think of them today as heavy, portentous concepts. In Stein’s estimation, Chaucer’s words could very well have been the air he breathed. That’s a Romantic sort of thing, I know, though I think she wants to draw us to the selflessness of Chaucer’s words. Words like birds, like songs. Swooping, fluttering. Then she tells us that that kind of hearing and writing declined. After this, “so many words…were chosen.” She remarks:
In the poetry of that long period as well as in the prose everybody was livelily busy choosing words. And as the words were chosen, the sounds were very varied. And that is natural because each one liked what they liked. They did not care so much about what they said although they knew that what they said meant a great deal but they liked the words, and one word and another word next to the other word was always being chosen.
For me, choice and chosen are terms begging to be called upon. These are tied down with and by trust. (Where does the trust come from? Student or word? Reader or writer? Conscious or unconscious? Thought or sound? Class or individual? Word, sentence, paragraph, essay? The draft? Which draft? All writing are drafts.) Composition — whether affect-based, network-based, process-oriented, or model-driven — must fashion choices. Where does the choice exist? Stein says in one word next to another word. When we lose the choice there, we lose it everywhere. There’s no harm in knowing and liking what you want to say. For the love of a word, where are the choices in the writing? Asking a writer in freshmen composition to attend to the arrangement of one word next to the other à la Gertrude Stein is not only pyrrhic, but eventually draconian.

What we need, what Gertrude Stein writes toward, is an intelligent misrecognition of the sentence. We miss thinking about sentences when we only approach them one way — that is, correctly or clearly or corruptible; and if that’s too reductive, then we consider them too thinly.

We need to applaud the elusiveness of the sentence.

Also, the allusiveness of the sentence.

William H. Gass suggests in The World Within the Word that “Stein regularly requests us to find other words within her words in exactly this way”; that is, allusively. I vote for encouraging and cultivating misrecognition in readers. How to unstring the sounds and restring them. How to mine and dig and retrieve. Then string, restring, sing sing sing. Even if the rest between the notes is noise.

Image Credit: Flickr/Sharon Mollerus.

Librarian, Distressed

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If you’ve spent any time at all in a public library in the past couple of years — (in the last decade I’ve worked at four separate libraries, both public and academic) — you’ll notice that the focus is changing. Less hushed repose and reading and more shuffling through bins for DVD cards. Less space for ruminative research and writing and more space and room given to movie nights and pre-school playtime day-care. You’ll also observe rapt gazes hovering in a field of computer screens. This is not the place to rant on libraries and their supposed decline. Or even their proposed role. No. Besides, Stephen Akey delineates this landscape much better than I ever could.

When I read Stephen Akey’s piece on Philip Larkin recently in The Millions, I knew I’d found a fellow clerk. Akey, it turned out, had a thematic, albeit totally non-personal, connection with Larkin: they were both librarians. Further, they were distressed librarians; librarians that perhaps wished not to be anymore, but still found themselves drawn to the work anyhow.

Akey had written about his time working in the New York City library system in a slim monograph aptly titled Library. This book is not new. Nor is it newish. Go back to that mystical, hazy year of 2002. Terror alerts, Beltway sniper, and No Child Left Behind. Situated? Good, because that’s when it was released.

I’d bet a large, expensive case of microbrew that not many people took notice when the book came out. Orchises Press, out of George Mason University, is run by, from what I can tell, one brave soul: Roger Lathbury (Google him; he seems like a trip: a master of the limerick). In some ways, the non-event makes sense. Subject matter: libraries. Prose style: witty and erudite, but playful. (The jacket copy describes it as “coruscating,” which means to flash or sparkle.) That is to say, not the kind of work that flies off shelves. Library is dense and light at the same time: an off-putting combination. But it works well. Probably because Akey’s tone is one molded on self-defense and self-deprecation, then flung onto a potter’s wheel that’s running off the irksome yet fatigued energies of a harried cataloger in a dizzying bureaucracy of a major public library system. For comparison, read the letters of Philip Larkin. Shit, read anything by Larkin. Their outlooks aren’t exactly the same (Akey tends toward the optimistic at least once a page, while Larkin seemed almost content within his status as fussbudget), but they’re brothers-in-arms. It’s no surprise that Akey devotes his first chapter as a pseudo-encomium to the Bard of Hull’s primary profession.
It was drones like me who kept that library running.
This is no joke. Drones are essential. I was a drone. Once, I saw a particularly haggard patron clear a shelf of all books on Buddhism and stack them on a table as if he was going to read all of them… at five to ten at night… right as the library was closing. I had just finished cleaning the main floor of its remnants. Shelving is grunt work, but interesting. It’s armchair sociology and psychology. For example, you cover the windows and set me to shelving books, and if I found more than one Lonely Planet guide to a country south of the equator, I know it’s fall going into winter. Books speak better than humans sometimes. Why do we slyly inspect others’ reading choices when sitting on the bus, train, or waiting in an airport terminal? Checking out a stack of books on family disturbances or spousal negligence? ‘Nuff said. So we think.
From time to time library pundits write columns describing catalogers as glorified clerks whose arcane and terminally boring job duties could be better performed by nonlibrarians at lower cost and higher productivity. Furthermore, catalogers are unimaginative technicians, rule-bound reactionaries, and, probably, serial masturbators.
While Akey is mostly a cataloger in this narrative, the apparent message is that certain jobs are utterly necessary (i.e., catalogers) and that those jobs are also inherently shit upon. (Think: teachers, social workers, custodial staff.) Forever and always. And did you know that non-administrators within the World of the Library are treated like pawns in a massive political chess game? It’s true. Akey’s journey from one library and department to another is picaresque, and, in its own way, heartbreaking. Not the less so because Akey is telling — importuning, really — us in each short chapter to grasp why libraries are so damn important to a functioning society. The crew of characters that make up that semi-functioning society is almost from central casting. The gregarious and learned boss who is exceedingly opinionated, the sassy ethnic women, the prig female boss, the quiet shuffling, no-faced, no-named co-workers who never fail to get Akey a gift or food every time he packs up and leaves a job only to come crawling back years later. To call the book a comedy of errors is disingenuous, but not untrue. Nor is it mock epic or straight autobiography. Even memoir is a feeble descriptor. What Library attempts, I think, is to zoom in on this gift we’ve been given: the public library. Peter Best, an old hand in one of the libraries I’ve worked at, would every day mention how Benjamin Franklin was to thank for our jobs. But what is the library lending today? And what if the library doesn’t offer it? Libraries need numbers to earn funding. Thus…
Still, if the goal is simply to fill libraries with bodies, you have to wonder if it’s worth the effort.
And yet the library is brought down to a capitalistic level. Yes, down to that level. Akey both informs and then passes judgment on the role of libraries playing on and into the more whimsical passions of the average library patron. He himself has gotten into verbal scuffles with folks who ardently believe the library is only there to supplement public fancies. Should libraries buy scads of the hottest bestseller? Or should they break themselves upon the rocks of serious scholarship? Cheeseburger in Paradise or Paradise Lost? Perhaps, somewhere in between?
To speak of “classics” or “serious” books is, of course, to invite the inevitable charges of elitism and snobbery. I believe that we call some books classics for reasons other than ideological and that we can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word “serious” means. Fortunately, the people who run public libraries are not being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of Western culture and the validity of the literary canon. What they ought to be doing, and increasingly are not, is building and maintaining collections that make information available on such questions. I’ve listened to enough complaints on the reference desk to know that there are people interested in such matters and they’re not all on the faculty at Stanford. The public library is all they’ve got.
Library ends up not as a tract of pure populism, but as a pamphlet for common sense — that more contentiously charged phrase of late. What I like about this excerpt — which was from a small essay Akey had previously published and inserted into the book — is how he courts small controversy and shies away at the same time. “[W]e can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word ‘serious’ means.” Pretty much saying that we all know what’s schlock and what’s bound to live on the shelves for decades. But this argument of highbrow and lowbrow is such a verboten subject for many. Why? Why can’t a library say that its job is to house the best of what’s existed and what’s being published, so the patrons can come and use this information at their disposal? Because, as Akey mentions, it’s not the job of the library to decide tastes and “deliver a verdict” on the canon.

When I worked at the University City Library in St. Louis, I saw the scaffolding of a society come together. Poor, rich, middle-class. Black, white, Asian, Indian, Russian, Orthodox Jews. All in one place, all doing  the same thing: consuming culture in one form or another. And, I think, yes, the public library is the last bulwark against a totally ignorant and lackadaisical society. If the opportunity is there for patrons to access the material, then there’s hope. We can’t make people read Paradise Lost, but at least it’s there. That’s grand talk. I’m already assuming that friends and readers would offer the internet as an alternative to this democratic bastion of knowledge, but you don’t physically mingle with other people on the internet, and you don’t get to see real lived society in action on the internet. That’s the beauty of libraries, and that’s what I think Akey shows in his book. The best scenes are the ones where he’s dealing with the less poetic uses of a library: as a haven for those in rough neighborhoods. There’s a section toward the end where he’s sent to Red Hook to help manage a branch library. There he encounters stark racial and class differences and understands how a library can be more than just a place that houses books to be read. In a way, the books become the symbolic bulwark mention before.

I appreciate a man who finds fascination in the seemingly banal, and Akey mystifies the banal, like Borges.
What makes formulating Dewey numbers so much fun is moving point by point along a narrowing spectrum of subcategories. Thus, the call number for a book about snow (551.5784) is subsumed by the call number for frozen precipitation (551.578), which is subsumed by the call number for hydrometeorology (551.57), which is subsumed by the call number for meteorology (551.5), which is subsumed by the call number for earth sciences (550), which is subsumed by the call number for natural sciences (500). Rather elegant, don’t you think?
As I’m a devotee of the Library of Congress catalog system, I’ll say this was the first time I’ve found a more grounded respect for the Dewey numbers.

Lastly, I don’t want people to think that the book is some stalwart stand on how amazing libraries are, because Akey doesn’t hesitate to show the seedier side of them. Also, I want to say this book is laugh out loud funny. Akey reminds the reader that, as a reference librarian, you’re sort of duty-bound to answer everything to the best of your ability, no matter how foolish or queer. I’ll end with one of my favorite bits in the book:
Among reference librarians it is axiomatic that people frequently do not ask the question they really intend: What was the date of the Challenger explosion? rather than, What was the name of the black astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion? Furthermore, at least in Telephone Reference, the helpful hints provided by patrons were not to be taken on faith. “I read an article in the New York Times two years ago” might mean “I read an article in the New York Post six years ago,” and”‘Don’t bother with Bartlett’s Quotations, I’ve already checked,” meant that Bartlett’s should very much be bothered with.