I Used to Be Smarter

…or at least, that is the net effect of what aging, children, pets, mortgage payments have me sometimes believing.

When I was a child I thought myself bright. Many of us at one time probably thought the same of ourselves. It was the euphoria of youth, the deeply felt conviction that with a little application, one's quick-to-understand-anything mental prowess could master any subject placed before it.

So when did the realization arrive that being some sort of prodigy was not my destiny? Indeed, when one reads about prodigies, would such a destiny even have been desirable?

Oh, but the power! That sense of infinite capacity powered by youth and hormones. It is something I sorely miss.

Like many who write for or read this site, I was a reader, too, and a precocious one at that. (But weren't we all?) The transition for me from the Mighty Thor to the Mighty Shakespeare was sudden, taking my father as much by surprise as me. He was kind enough to make the switch from bringing home issues of Iron Man to leaving Signet editions of Dickens on my rolltop desk. He was a good father, and he unwittingly encouraged me in my adolescent hubris.

I read voraciously (didn't we all?) and performed reasonably well in school—except for those classes that I had consciously decided not to succeed in. The world seemed my oyster, easily pried with the knife of my intellect.  In short, I felt really, really smart. I was sharper, I was funnier, I was livelier, I was wittier.

Or was I? Sometimes I think I was these things because now there are so many days as a mid-40s, mid-career, midlife so-and-so that I just feel plain exhausted. Tired. Weak. Pooped. I should exercise, but it bores me. I should eat well, but I get hungry. I should read more and watch less television, but my eyes hurt and besides, my attention wanders: I think I hear my children calling…or is that my wife? And don't let me forget that I need to: bring the car in for a repair, pay the Visa bill, renew my license, send a Bar Mitzvah card (with check, of course)...

In Arthur Conan Doyle's Study in Scarlet, when Dr. John Watson first meets the great Sherlock Holmes, he is utterly flabbergasted to learn:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.


Ignorant of Copernican theory?  This is detective fiction as farce. But even more interesting is the explanation:

"You see," Holmes explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

Yeah, the italics are mine.  Honestly, I have no idea if Doyle is toying with readers or metaphorically treating late Victorian views of memory and forgetfulness. It doesn't really matter. Holmes purposely unloads any accumulation of "useless facts." For me, the act of disposal is thrust upon me, willy-nilly. The space I once reserved for the minutiae that made me a living room whiz during Jeopardy or reasonably competitive in a game of Trivial Pursuit is now taken up with doctors' appointments and trips to the supermarket, worries about my 401k (or what's left of it) and making sure the gas tank is full.

I used to be smarter, or so I would like to think. And yet, I know this is not entirely true. Separate from the reams of data that literally wrinkle my face like pen strokes gone awry, signs of knowledge dearly bought by experience, I do know more about some things than I once did, I am more capable at some mental tasks than I once was.

For example, I know more about the history of literature than I ever did upon my graduation from college. I'm also far better at crossword puzzles. I suspect I may even be a better chess player, which isn't saying much since I always sucked at the game. (Remember, youth had inspired me with the belief that with enough application I could be great at chess, not that I was.) I definitely know more about politics and how it works—daily blog reading has trained me well in that regard. I am definitely a better writer.

But has my writing all this made me feel any better? Not necessarily. In some ways, it has suggested how wrong-headed the sentiment is. I used to be smarter doesn't seem like much nowadays when the smartest guys in the room so successfully melted down the economy of the United States. Suddenly I'm not so inclined to take stock in this type of nostalgia. Already it has begun to pale. Maybe I used to be smarter. But I think I was also more callow, more selfish, more spoiled, and hard knocks have made me smarter in the ways that count.

Or so I'd like to think.

Adventures in the Word Trade

On March 23rd, Terry Castle gave a talk in the Yale English department about academic writing and read from her new book The Professor and Other Writings; on March 25th, David Shields spoke at a Master’s Tea in Pierson College about his new book Reality Hunger; and on April 1st, James Longenbach gave a talk in the Yale English department on “the art of writing badly.” What linked these events for me, other than the fact that they occurred in less than a week and a half, was the attention to the question of writing -- who it’s for, what it’s for, and what we make of it.

Castle’s talk, in the end, seemed to be little more than a complaint about jargon in the academic profession.  Her handout, originally designed for a graduate course, gave students pointers on things to avoid in writing, the kinds of things editors will eventually take them to task for, but there was a bit of a polemical edge to it as well -- in picking on the use of terms such as “hegemony” and “interpellation,” she was targeting not so much the specific meaning of those words (as derived from Althusser), but rather their far too ubiquitous use (and possibly misuse) in the many theses that cross her desk.

Fine.  But there was another aspect to her talk that bothered me: the “this is the end of days” tone that one finds in many of the Baby Boomer generation coming up to retirement while recognizing that much of what constituted their glory days may not in fact stand the test of time.  Jargon has destroyed the profession, we learn.  Maybe so, but if so, it happened on their watch.

The sourness of this point, for me, was dramatized by Castle reading from a memoir in which, as a young would-be graduate student in the early ‘70s, she came into contact with a dope-smoking professor who may have intended to seduce her before learning she was a lesbian.  In recreating the hip jargon of that era -- not only in her reminiscence but also in far too many verbatim transcriptions of her journal of that time -- Castle made a point she didn’t seem to want to acknowledge: every generation has its way of speaking to others in that generation, but how seriously should we take such efforts to “talk the talk” of the time?  Current grad students may outgrow their jargon too, but might they not, when also silver-haired and fêted, choose to amuse the youngsters with the Althusserian, Derridean lingo of their day?  In Castle’s memoir, the old guard, all-male previous generation of academics seemed barely worth more than a dismissive glance.  But what will be the fate of the stoned, free love-seeking, in touch with their feelings generation Castle revisited?  Too early to say, but I was not encouraged by the prospect of “tell-all” memoirs rubbing our noses in Reichian drivel for the sake of verisimilitude.

David Shields is a critic and was a novelist, but the argument he presented to the audience in Pierson College was that the novel is not equipped to address the times we live in, for that a new form is needed: the lyric essay.  What that might require could perhaps be found in the direction Castle was taking: in her case, giving up stilted, depersonalized, overly abstract (supposedly “objective”) academic writing for something more personal, subjective, revealing.  In Shields case, giving up the deliberate creation of a fictional world for a first person rendering of one’s intellectual state in the world one actually inhabits.  My first thought was: if the novel is not adequate to these times we need better novelists -- the novel itself is whatever we make of it.   That said, I’m quite sympathetic to Shields’ idea of dropping the “traditional” novel in favor of something more experimental -- but then that was always the frisson of reading Beckett, Proust, Miller, and others who don’t really write “novels.”

Is Shields’ new book something along those lines?  Well, at least his talk made me want to read it.  The less interesting, to me, aspect of his presentation centered on the issue of appropriation. His book is a “mash up”: a tissue of quotations borrowed, edited, re-used as he sees fit.  Far from the work of academic citation, this method wants to treat the printed world as writers in the time of Montaigne could: whatever they read was grist for the mill and could be put to what service they liked -- of course, those texts were mostly in Latin and not protected by copyright.  So that part of Shields “defense” of his method became an argument, not about fiction vs. non-fiction, but about how writers should treat the writing of others, which might lead to the kind of “if it’s online its yours” cut-and-paste methods that too many students already use in the writing of their papers.

I’m willing to believe Shields may be enough of a stylist to get away with it, but I’ll have to read the book to see.

Finally, Longenbach, a critic of poetry and a poet, wanted to draw our attention to how often “bad writing” appears in the work of good writers.  What he meant by this was actually the art of what he called “dilation”: those passages that seem simply to pile up words, sometimes abstract terms, sometimes cursory details, in such a way that risks the reader’s boredom.  It’s always gutsy to talk about bad writing when reading to people from one’s own prose, as the tendency of any audience members to drift off might signal that one is reading an example of the problem one is addressing.  But the overall point of the presentation was to alert us to how often, in poems, one can't address the quality of a given line or passage without taking into account its context.  A memorable line may be that, but a limping line may limp for a reason.

Castle's writing may well have been an example of what Longenbach meant by "bad": plenty of longeurs meant to recall a by-gone idiom that bored the crap out of me.  Longenbach's prose escaped the faults Castle pilloried -- no jargony terms were used -- but the essay didn't offer the kind of engaged and personal address to the work that Castle called for and, for some, evinced, and seemed not to satisfy Shields' call for the lyric essay, what's more Longenbach dutifully provided a handout with his many quotations from poems duly noted.  Shields didn't read to us, but one suspects that it's easy to write well if one steals only from the best.

Adventures in the Word Trade

The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it.–Ted Genoways, "The Death of Fiction?" in Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2010

Here Ted Genoways, editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, expresses his mission statement, so to speak,  a way of turning aside submissions he simply doesn't want or have time to read.  We might ask ourselves if  this, in itself, is  "sterling prose," and wonder why we should read it if it's not.  Two matters make this less than "sterling," in my view, and I'd like to point them out as a means to talk about what we  talk about when we talk about writing.

One problem is the speciousness of the analogies: a doctor becomes a doctor by going through considerable training and vetting; an athlete -- which is something "anyone" can be -- only becomes a professional athlete by getting paid, and continuing to get paid, to play a sport.  The "anyone" here, to be an athlete, is anyone who puts in the time to train, has talent, drive, and what is generically called  "athletic ability."  Granted, some may wish they had it, but really don't.  It's assumed that everyone who is a professional athlete has some ability -- though their detractors and anti-fans may deny it vehemently.

Is writing really like either of these things?  Not really, and here's why.  Anyone, literally, can be a writer, so long as he or she is literate.  Children are encouraged to be athletic but they don't fail school if they aren't (I know whereof I speak on this one).  But they really aren't supposed to graduate without being able to write.  Therefore, they are writers, potentially.

Genoways doesn't say "professional writer" because he knows that wouldn't help his argument.  The pay scale for poetry and much literary writing is so low that people who are professional writers -- journalists, mostly, but also celebrities who write books, or who become celebrities by writing books -- would hesitate to call them professionals.  And everyone who considers him or herself a literary writer knows this.   Many, possibly most, are not trying to become  "professional writers" in that sense.  Certainly,  most want to be published writers and most would like to be paid for their writing, and would like to sell their books, but many of the people submitting to literary journals are "amateurs" if we define "professional" as "getting paid to write."   Many literary figures, some quite respected, make their livings by something other than writing.

Genoways is well aware of this and so the "professional athlete" analogy really doesn't work, but he wants to differentiate between sheer ability or doing it for love of the game, and being an athlete paid to compete.  But pay isn't really the issue when it comes to writing, even if VQR pays.  If it were they'd only accept submissions from agents, who are getting paid to make sure their authors make money.

The doctor analogy doesn't work at all, not even really for academic writers, who also don't get paid (much or always) for their writing, though they are expected to produce it.  Not everyone can become a Ph.D.,we might say, but, if you do become one, you now have a credential that gives you authority to conduct research and comment on research in that field.  You may or may not get paid for that; as with many writers, your real pay, what makes you professional, comes from teaching.  A doctor, generally, gets paid for practicing medicine, making him, maybe, a bit like the freelance writer, but one rarely hears of someone being a doctor "on the side."

Getting paid for writing may be difficult, in part, because anyone can be a writer.  And though Genoways might like to think that being an editor for a respected journal is comparable to those who hand out degrees in medicine or those who hire athletes, it isn't really.  An editor of such a journal is given the task of deciding, from all that it is submitted and solicited, what suits the journal, what fits with what.  Some of that may come from people with credentials, some of it not.   Some from students in MFA programs, some from their teachers, some from people who wouldn't go near such a thing.  Or it may come only from whomever the editor knows and is in contact with.

If not published by VQR, the writing might still find a home somewhere, and if published somewhere, it may claim some at least minimal credit as published.  And that's really the only point in Genoways' prose that stands: his statement of his own tastes as an editor.  If  it's not sterling prose, don't send it, he's not interested.  Someone else may be.  And so, while the person Genoways rejects is, in his scheme of things, not a writer, it may be that the person really is, and maybe even a professional one.

So what of Genoways' prose?  Do you not find that bit about the "precious snowflake" cloying?  Does anyone really want to read writers who are considered or consider themselves precious snowflakes?  Genoways goes for the cheap laugh -- oh, yes, Ted, we know that type, how rough it must be to read such poseurs.

But then he doesn't say (which would make me be with him more): if you cannot write sterling prose, I don't want to read you.  Fine.  But no, he says "if you cannot express your individuality in sterling prose," which gives the game away: "express your individuality" is not sterling prose (at this point, I think "sterling prose" is rather less than sterling), but seems a concession to the language of that "precious snowflake."   But why?  To say that the "sterling" expression of individuality will trump the "precious" expression of individuality?  If so, it leads us to believe that the expression of individuality is what Genoways is after, when the point he seems most passionate about is decrying the protracted navel-gazing of American fiction writers who don't seem to know or care that there's a war or a world or a world war going on.

If Genoways, as editor, were reading Genoways' essay, well, let's just say it might not make the cut.

The Book is Dead, Long Live Books

I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday; as that festival invited the organizers of Comic-Con to join then, I was lucky enough to be on a panel—along with fellow authors Peter V. Brett, Anton Strout, S.C. Butler, and Dave Roman—about New York, science fiction, and fantasy. As any good panel should, the session quickly became more of a casual conversation about how we write our books, balance day job and writing, and other related topics, guided eventually by questions from the audience. It was easygoing; it was fun. And after the panel, I had a short but really interesting conversation about the future of books. As it turned out, YA author Ned Vizzini had seen our panel and another one before it about the future of literary fiction, and he was struck by the severe difference in tone between our panel and the previous one. Apparently, for the people on the previous panel, the future of fiction was full of gloom and doom, declining book sales, declining readership. As a YA author, he said, this seemed at odds with his own experience. Young people are reading more books than ever, he said. About our own panel, he then said—and I'm paraphrasing here, so, Ned, if you come across this post, feel free to correct me (about this or anything else I've ascribed to you)—that it was just nice to see people talking about books in an optimistic way. Ned's comment particularly struck me because, walking around the festival before and after my panel, I saw that the optimism he felt, and that we had at our panel, was true of the festival at large. The festival was cheerful. The conversations I eavesdropped on weren't about how everyone should just close up shop and go home; they were about the latest books people were excited about, wanted other readers to buy. It was hard to square the energy and enthusiasm I saw there with the reports in the newspapers of the imminent demise of print. There were lots of vendors, selling lots of interesting books. More important, the festival itself was crowded. By writers, editors, publishers, sure—but also fans coming to see their favorite authors, avid readers, and enthusiasts for their particular flavor of literature. It was lively and engaging. It made me buy books, and it made me want to read even more than I already do.

Now, I'm not saying that the newspapers are full of crap. I can easily believe that the days when a single publisher could make tons of money selling books may be ending. If I were a large publishing conglomerate, I would probably be as depressed as they seem to be. But I think we should be careful not to confuse this with the demise of books themselves. Books, after all, aren't that expensive to make. They're not chump change, but they're also not remotely as expensive as even a low-budget movie. You can do a pretty nice small book run for the same price as buying a used car. And I don't think I'm being too naive in saying that there will always be people who write books, and there will always be people who want to read them. Books survived the Dark Ages and the Spanish Inquisition; as venerable publishing veteran Jason Epstein has pointed out, they survived the Soviet era. They are the cockroaches of global popular culture. Look at your own bookshelf, right now: Someday, when you are rotting in your grave, some of those very books will almost certainly be sitting on someone else's bookshelf. And that's a wonderful thing.

In a Where We Live episode on Connecticut Public Broadcasting a few months back—which featured NHR editor Mark Oppenheimer, Lev Grossman, and Jason Epstein—Mr. Epstein envisioned a publishing industry that was less a collection of large conglomerates and more a swarm of squabbling small presses, perhaps more like what it had been a few centuries ago, when publishers hawked their books on street corners and had local wars with each other for the attention of a voracious yet fickle readership. Looking at the Brooklyn Book Festival, it was easy to imagine that Epstein might be right, and even easier to be excited about the prospect. There might not be as much money in books as there was. But it might be a lot more fun.