Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to fix the humanities (again)

Articles about how to reform humanities education have been coming out for probably thirty years now. This one from Slate is particularly scathing. But it does at least offer some concrete suggestions. The following struck me particularly: "They [humanities programs] should cultivate new ways for people with humanities sensibilities to build entrepreneurial projects outside of traditional academe, and make these alternative paths the norm, without shame."

When I first decided to leave academia, I attended an alternative career seminar on campus, the focus of which turned out to be entrepreneurship. "Just think of a need that's out there!" the seminar leader chirped. "Go on, you! What's a need you could fulfill?" I said something about looking for parking spaces for people, for which I was praised. I was in fact being sarcastic at a deep level that I rarely descend to. Suffice it to say I thought the seminar was beyond useless. People were talking about opening bakeries, for God's sake. What was that ten years' worth of critical theory for, again? Now I'm supposed to learn how to bake, and run a business besides?

But more than a decade has passed, and "entrepreneurship" seems to mean something different to me now. After all, I've become a freelancer. I do have my own business, and I like it a lot. I found a need and started filling it.

The thing is, lots of us humanists are square pegs to begin with. That's why we read and mope and moon about, and end up in grad school because we just can't see ourselves hammered into a cubicle for the rest of our lives. (Maybe I should have said we are round pegs, because cubicles are square...well, never mind. We are blobs, really: wherever we try to fit in, something squiggles out.) Anyway: for people like this, learning how to make a space for yourself really does seem valuable. What could a large, loose network of independent humanities "businesses" do for the nation?

The part about getting rid of the "shame" would also be key.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Prize

If you haven't heard of it, the Bulwer-Lytton prize is given annually for *intentionally* bad writing--specifically for the "opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

This year's winner is Sue Fondrie, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. The judges note that at 26 words, hers is the shortest winner in the history of the contest, "proving that bad writing need not be prolix, or even very wordy."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What we write when we write reviews

By way of reviewing the worst book review(er) ever, Robert Pinsky says that when he first started writing reviews, one newspaper gave him the following set of guidelines:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

Pinsky then goes on to point out that hardly any reviews these days do all three things. At most they do one or two of them. Also, those who prefer Rule 1 tend to avoid Rule 3, and vice versa.

Which raises, for me, larger questions: What are book reviews for, anyway? Are they a "Consumer Reports"-style report, as Pinsky puts it? (To buy or not to buy?) Are they criticism, and if so, what does that mean?

I like to read book reviews and have written a few in my day...but I honestly don't know the answers to these questions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Self-promotion for introverts

Nathan Bransford pretty much says it all on the subject: Yes, it sucks. Yes, you have to do it.

But if you suck at it? Won't that make things worse? Isn't it better not to have self-promoted at all, than to have, for example, broken out in hives and blurted an obscenity at a prominent editor while attempting to introduce yourself at the washroom sink?

It appears there is no answer to this question. However, Shrinking Violet Productions can offer assistance, for instance in yesterday's post. Here's a particularly good excerpt:
Make it worth their while. I feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I’m giving the people listening to me something for their time. And what I can give is information, so that’s what I do give...
If only there were a way to self-promote while being convinced I was being completely taken advantage of...that would work for me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The showing never stops, nor does the telling

In the endless quest to make sense of the "show, don't tell" dictum--which I would actually love to bury, except that, once under the earth, its bones begin to glow mysteriously, and the earth above them to rumble, until the monster bursts forth, more powerful and threatening and unhelpful than ever--

Start again. Recently, Alan Rinzler made an excellent point about "show, don't tell." Although he doesn't actually use that phrase, which is probably all to the good. The point is, writers have to consider the reader's experience:

Have you ever been to a movie where there’s an annoying voiceover narration that keeps commenting without adding anything to what you’re seeing on the screen?

That’s equivalent to an excessive explanation that an author inserts unnecessarily.

Yeah, that unnecessary voiceover narration. Hello, Blade Runner Not-the-Director's-Cut. The voiceover blatantly tells the audience that the filmmaker does not trust it. Either we are too dumb to figure out what's happening on our own, or someone thought the film itself was too dumb to get the points across. Neither generates good vibes.

Even worse, this kind of explaining shuts down any nuance or variety in interpretation, which is part of the pleasure of viewing or reading art. This is the meaning, the voiceover tells us, nothing else, so stop thinking that other thing you were thinking, you're just wrong. So why are we reading this novel anyway? Why not read a diatribe on The Topic at Hand? Because the diatribe would probably be boring. We're making fiction because we want nuance and ambiguity (which is not, however, the same as obscurity and confusion). We want the reader to participate in an imaginative dialog, not be bludgeoned into submission. That's what I want as a reader, anyway.

I find I do a lot of over-explaining in first drafts, because I myself am trying to figure out what's going on. How does this character feel about his father at this moment? What conflicting emotions are going on inside him? How does he--according to his personality--express or conceal those feelings? And so forth. But after I've finished the draft, presumably I know the answers, and if I don't, I have to find them. So during revisions, I can take the over-explanation out.

Of course, it is exceptionally hard for an author to determine on her own if any aspect of her intention is coming across--or, conversely, if her writing is sufficiently nuanced to allow an interesting range of responses. That's why we all need our good, critical readers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The early reviews are in

There is now cat vomit on my revision notes for novel #2. I suppose that's better than having it on the completed manuscript. I will tell the archivists it's coffee.

In related news, Zee appears to be on the mend at last. But the process has not been without...hiccups. And four visits to the vet.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Against the Day: Where the hell am I?

So I wanted to write about a brief sentence I read just last night in Pynchon's Against the Day. It was a little thing he did with dialog, which I was going to blow up into a larger thing we could all learn from.

But, leafing through the book, I can't find the line anywhere. It should, shouldn't it, be somewhere just to the left of the bookmark? Apparently, a few nights ago I put the bookmark in the wrong place, and so last night I resumed reading about 100 pages ahead of where I had actually stopped. Here's the thing: I did not notice. I am used, with Pynchon, to not remembering who each character is, and not knowing exactly where I am, setting-wise, in any given section. I had given myself over to the gestalt of the thing, and was reading along quite happily.

This is not so much a criticism of Pynchon (or me) as an aspect of the experience of reading him, which I think is mostly a fine one: sort of riding the whirlwind rather than trying to parse it. Parse away if you want, but I don't think it's strictly necessary to enjoy or even "get" the work.

On the other hand, after visit #2 in three days to Kitty ER, I was not at my sharpest last night. Keep a good thought for Zee. She is tired but feeling better--for much longer, this time, I hope.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Inspirational words about writing to compensate for incipient crazy cat-lady behavior

Our cat Zee spent yesterday in Kitty ER. She is OK now--this was apparently a flare-up of a chronic intestinal condition, if by "flare" you mean...well, you can get the picture. That picture includes, at least for the moment, a special diet, which means I am spending this morning keeping Bella away from Zee's food and Zee away from Bella's (formerly Zee's as well). Obviously the simple solution is to only feed them at certain times and then *put the food away,* but they are so plaintive and manipulative that it seems easier just to get up every 10 minutes and chase somebody into another room. Did I mention that the special diet smells?

So for today's post about writing, I will simply refer you to this nice piece on procrastination by A.L. Kennedy:

I have, in my professional life, met numberless writers who seemed paralysed by their own desire to write, who had intelligent and reasonable excuses for not starting, not committing, not getting on with it, who could trump any arguments or suggestions I might make towards putting anything on paper. It is nice to win arguments, but not if it means you deny yourself the chance to do something beautiful and intensely alive.