Category Archives: Links

Links: KISS, fiction writing

1. An amusing piece by Chuck Klosterman about KISS includes this passage:

When the critical world looks at Kiss, they see adults pretending to be characters they are not, projecting unsophisticated music about fantasy emotions, presented as a means of earning revenue. What they do not see is that this is how almost all rock music would appear to an alien. It is inside the genre’s very DNA, all the way back to Elvis. So Kiss are not a cheaper, exploitive translation of rock; Kiss are the living definition of rock’s electrifying unreality, presented with absolute transparency.

2. This article describes the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, but it describes things — the difficulty of getting published, the lack of money once one does get published, and the few teaching opportunities in creative writing — that make me wonder why so many people want to become fiction writers, at least, as fiction writing seems to be institutionally practiced now. I understand that some people feel called to write fiction, and I don’t mean to criticize that impulse, that desire; what I find odd is why so many people seem willing to suffer the indignities of a market and a public that doesn’t want them. I’m a writer, too, but the idea that one would need to get paid for such an interest seems a harsh principle to live by.

3. An Atlantic article with the title: “Why Music Sounds Better When You Know the Artist Is Eccentric: Our brains associate eccentricity and creativity in musicians, painters, writers, and other artists—as long as weirdness doesn’t feel like a gimmick.”

4. Fiction and the passage of time.

The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

and

What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

and

Link: Problems with easy technology

In a blog post at the New Yorker, Tim Wu makes some interesting points about the value of technologies that aren’t too easy.

It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.

Just what is a demanding technology? Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast—like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions—usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.

and

Convenience technologies promised more space in our lives for other things, like thought, reflection, and leisure.

That, at least, is the idea. But, even on its own terms, convenience technology has failed us. Take that promise of liberation from overwork. In 1964, Life magazine, in an article about “Too Much Leisure,” asserted that “there will certainly be a sharp decline in the average work week” and that “some prophets of what automation is doing to our economy think we are on the verge of a 30-hour week; others as low as 25 or 20.” Obviously, we blew it. Our technologies may have made us prosthetic gods, yet they have somehow failed to deliver on the central promise of free time. The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive. And, when every task in life is easy, there remains just one profession left: multitasking.

and

Convenience technologies supposedly free us to focus on what matters, but sometimes the part that matters is what gets eliminated. Everyone knows that it is easier to drive to the top of a mountain than to hike; the views may be the same, but the feeling never is. By the same logic, we may evolve into creatures that can do more but find that what we do has somehow been robbed of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.

The project of self-evolution demands an understanding of humanity’s relationship with tools, which is mysterious and defining. Some scientists, like the archaeologist Timothy Taylor, believe that our biological evolution was shaped by the tools our ancestors chose eons ago. Anecdotally, when people describe what matters to them, second only to human relationships is usually the mastery of some demanding tool. Playing the guitar, fishing, golfing, rock-climbing, sculpting, and painting all demand mastery of stubborn tools that often fail to do what we want. Perhaps the key to these and other demanding technologies is that they constantly require new learning. The brain is stimulated and forced to change. Conversely, when things are too easy, as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied.

I don’t mean to insist that everything need be done the hard way, or that we somehow need to suffer like our ancestors to achieve redemption. It isn’t somehow wrong to use a microwave rather than a wood fire to reheat leftovers. But we must take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.

Links: Writing and writers

1. Popular rhymes in popular songs.

2. How designers choose a typeface.

3. Tim Parks on why biographers downplay writers’ faults.

4. Reading and rereading one’s favorite books.

5. George Packer and the effect on Amazon on the book industry.

6. The elitism of the literary world.

Links: Eating animals, Vitruvian man’s hernia, etc.

1. A small-scale livestock farmer says he’ll keep raising animals to counter industrial-scale livestock production, but he wonders if we humans shouldn’t outgrow eating animals.

2. A possible hernia in Da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man starts a biology lesson in how our human bodies have weaknesses because of evolutionary adaptation from earlier, non-vertical-walking creatures.

3. A commenter at The Dish makes a point about “epistemological” Original Sin – that is, examining one’s own ideas, actions, with the idea that these may be in error, that people are prone to error.

In other words – if I may be permitted briefly to mix religion and politics – Original Sin is a concept that liberals can embrace, from an epistemological if not a theological perspective. Perhaps after all it’s not something that should be “laundered out of our culture” … We need Original Sin as a restraint against our arrogant – and possibly evil – self-certainty.

4. Norwegians like watching unedited TV – boat trips, train trips in real time. I’m having a similar inclination these days: I like movies that have no plot, and PBS shows that have no interruptions (and also have lightly accented English by people cooking outdoors in windy locations).

5. The Misfortune of Knowing blog has a welcome fact-check on George Packer’s recent New Yorker article about Amazon’s influence in the book-publishing industry.

‘Is there anything more American than America?’

I get the feeling that Bob Dylan got Chrysler to pay for two minutes of absurdist prose and home movies during that game tonight (that game where adult men ran full speed — intentionally! — into other grown men):

“Detroit made cars, and cars made America.” (Huh? Wasn’t America around for over 100 years before there were cars?)

“You can search the world over for the finer things, but you won’t find a match for the American road and the creatures that live on it.”  (Self-evidently true, and not exactly something to brag about? Damning with faint praise? Also, “creatures”? What, like possums, lizards, and truckers?)

“So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” (What — why? Why wouldn’t Americans want to make these other things too?)

I love that Dylan pulled off an ad that doesn’t really seem like an ad. It’s almost an Onion ad, seemingly self-contradictory. It’s sort of an anti-ad, brilliantly odd.

More reaction here and here and here.

Links on poetry and why publishing seems special

1. Tim Parks on how writers still get respect & authority in society — once they’re published:

The question remains, why do people have such a high regard for authors, even when they don’t read? Why do they flock to literary festivals, while sales of books fall? Perhaps it is simply because reverence and admiration are attractive emotions; we love to feel them, but in an agnostic world of ruthless individualism it gets harder and harder to find people you can bow down to without feeling a little silly. Politicians and military men no longer fit the bill. Sportsmen are just too lightweight, their careers so short-lived. In this sense it is a relief for the reader and even the non-reader to have a literary hero, at once talented and noble, perhaps even longsuffering, somebody who doesn’t seem chiefly concerned with being more successful than us. Alice Munro, with her endless, quietly sad accounts of people who fail to achieve their goals, gets it just right here. Exploring that sense of failure so many feel in a competitive world, she wins the biggest prize of all.

2. Writing by algorithm. Making metaphor mechanically — these metaphors can be surprising, but then, all metaphor is comparison, and comparison is arbitrary bullshit.

3. Poems by robots. I like some of these lines. I like poetry that finds surprises, that goes beyond first-person lyrical narratives, which these samples seem to.

Link: Pete Seeger’s obit

The New York Times has Pete Seeger’s obituary here. Slate has a transcript of Seeger’s testimony in front of House Un-American Activities Committee. An apt bit quoted in the Slate article:

MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

Links: Be present grieving, diaries, story, etc.

1. What to say to those who are grieving? Maybe say nothing.

2. Bad Lip Reading in the NFL. Sounds almost like random-word poetry.

3. A history of computation.

4. Five published diaries, from which this quote: “I like them because although people can fake diaries I tend to feel that they don’t. And I like the perspective of a diary, in that people don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

5. Story rather than science, to explain lived experience.