Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Carver and Lish

Once upon a time, in world far far away, I began submitting my fiction to literary magazines. I'd read stacks of books on becoming a writer, although most of them seemed rather unhelpful as regards writing the kind of fiction I had in mind.
Gradually, although I did succeed in publishing more fiction than most people I knew (in part because I was very diligent about both writing and going to the post office), I began to realize that something called "dirty realism" was what American editors really wanted. Never mind that they might say they were open to all kinds of fiction so long as it was good, "dirty realism" was what they really thirsted for. I learned that a guy named Raymond Carver was the king of dirty realism, that his acolytes were many, and that by god, if you wanted to write some other kind of short literary fiction, you had better pretend you were from a foreign country, or at least set your tale in one. Friends suggested that I adopt a Spanish pseudonym, but I resisted.
Another name I saw mentioned time and time again was that of Gordon Lish. Lish, who was Carver's editor, was quite the arbiter of taste in those days--the heir to Maxwell Perkins, it seemed, except that he never sounded anywhere near as nice as Perkins. I always had the feeling that Perkins was the kind of guy you'd like to have work with you, especially, if like Thomas Wolfe, you had trouble editing yourself down to a readable length. Lish, on the other hand, gave a more severe impression. I never had even the slightest fantasy of working with Lish (perhaps because I found most dirty realism singularly dull reading), although clearly many writers found him helpful.
Of late, articles have been coming out detailing Lish's editing of Carver. Apparently Lish chopped quite a bit out of Carver's work, not just in a fat-cutting operation, but completely changing tone, characterizations, and endings. James Campbell discusses the editing in The Times Literary Supplement, and none other than horror writer Stephen King provides an account of it in his review of Carol Sklenicka's recent biography of Carver for the New York Times.
I confess I find the whole thing rather shocking. A good editor can improve a piece of writing, or at least some pieces of writing, but changing the entire thrust of the piece? Reading Campbell's and King's articles, I began to wonder whether perhaps I would have liked Carver's writing had Lish not (as King suggests) taken the heart out.

A little addendum (I just ran across this):
“...neo-realistic minimalism--a dull mode starring writers like Anne Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver. Because of its barren anti-adjectival, anti-adverbial unwittiness, this style also fails to win audiences--but it is easy to teach in creative writing classes to a clientele with little literary background or allusive competence. At the moment, while Latin America[n] literature continues to march forward, American fiction is becalmed.” Elizabeth Dipple, The Unresolvable Plot: Reading Contemporary Fiction (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988), 11.
How I would have loved to have seen that assessment back in 1988!

Monday, November 23, 2009

And Still Too Busy to Blog...

From a take-home final exam:
"Popular entertainment of this period were drinking and prostitution according to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere."

"...it is unbalanced in a very traditional manner instead of all the figures and buildings being sporadic."

"The painting depicts free love in a classless and harmonious society. [...] I also admire Renoir for fanaticizing the typical scene at the Galette."

Re Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party: "Maybe this is a luncheon after a funeral..."

The Bellelli Family by Degas: "Though the girl sitting on the chair looks like she only has one leg. Which could make her mother not pay attention to her."

"As for Cassatt’s little girl, she is placed in a dress showing her lacy undergarments, which is a great capturing of what little girls do. Or, the exposure could be a foreshadowing of what path this girl may meet later on in her endeavors."

"...the cobblestone street that continues back into the depths of the painting with the larger masculine buildings in the background as well."

Re Caillebotte's Pont de l'Europe: "Is the woman approaching the man as some sort of constituent? [...] While one asks themselves these questions they can most certainly wonder weather the dog is feral or the middle right man is the object of the previous man's gaze?"

"While the focus is arguable, I find the railroad often my priority."

"The girl at least is still fixated on the railroad..."

"Manet’s piece contains a loom of steam created by a train’s engine."

"Caillebotte is also sure to include the railroad system which was popular during this time..."

"The statement seems to be that whatever your class or gender, you were controlled by the railroad system."

"...whether your fighting a war, or sticking rocks in your shoe, I suppose you won't know if your great 'till a historian tells you!"
And when you're writing complete crap on your exam, I suppose you won't know till you get your grade. Question for self: should I not have discussed railroads as a sign of 19th-century modernity?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Distractions from Blogging

The survey exams were for the most part encouraging, but revealed some evidence of confusion. There were also some surprising observations.
On the Etruscan She-Wolf: "Though the mother is presented as a dog and the children are human, it still is betrayed as nursing the young."

The Parthenon "was one of the first and only structures to be completed before the Peloponesian War." (One hopes the student meant "after the Persian wars, atop the Acropolis," not ever in human history.)

The Hagia Sophia "is based on a Gothic style church." (As a prophecy, perhaps?)

From a student who has no facts at her command about any image seen: "The Roman building on the left [the Parthenon] is meant to be more decorative than useful since there are no walls... This buidling may have been used for meetings or gatherings when it was still used. [The Hagia Sophia] definitely has church qualities on the inside because of the apse in the center..."

"This was the orignal partheon. Found in athen's the romans highly regarded this building. It was built during the Peosipanian War. Queen Athena was found inside the partheon. She was later removed by we only have pictures of what we think she looked like, and remodeled statues."

The Pompeiian "Portrait of Menander" and an early Medieval St. Matthew "are of males dressed in togas with olive tree head dresses... One man is bearing part of his chest while the other is cloted but has the front of his toga open so women can see his chest while he relaxes and reads a book."

St. Matthew (painted 816-835) "looks as if Picasso had a hand in this."

Menander, on the other hand, "is mellow, as if he is lounging on the beach soaking up the rays."

"The painting is three dimensional." (I suppose this is meant as a tribute to the skill of medieval Islamic book illustrators...)

Complete misidentification of the Bayeux Tapestry: the Tapestry "is pretty self explanitory by the title, A poor man is being refused to enter a mosque ... Both pieces [Bayeux Tapestry & Arch of Titus] tell us a story it is trying to figure out what that story is, is the hard part." (Not if you read the textbook and came to class...)

"The top is sculpted, and the bottom is a tapastry. Both images are battle scenes." (And this is a complete essay?)

The Bayeux Tapestry "depicts the story of Moses..."

"The 'tapestry' tells the story of how the Norman ruler swims across the channel to claim the thrown of King Edward the Confessor."

"This is not quite a textile because it was knitted."

The Primaporta Augustus "could have been created by the Gods or they just loved him."

Re the Primaporta Augustus: "With cupid on his heels it makes me thing that he did not have a love, until cupid stepped in. Maybe Cupid is sending/helping him find his love."

Well, now I know what to do for Valentine's Day. I'll send cards of the Primaporta Augustus. Be Mine!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I Have No Time to Blog

From a recent paper assignment:
"Big patches of color are lying on their canvases like a blanket of stars on the night sky and like most art movements, comes heavy criticism. "

"It is rather more importantly the distinction from anything else, rather than conglomerating to a particular niche with the same status or mindset."

Degas "loved to paint moving bodies that were sent into peculiar angels."

"When attempting to paint an image of the modern time, artist have trouble with people staying still and remaining still."

"Dandyism is a state of idleness with an indispensable amount of money in terms of finding a sense of individuality and contentment."

Rulers "had to be perfected in a beautiful manner or the artist would have suffered severe consequences. The artist may have been jailed or even put to death because of his inability to incorporate the impressionist style into their painting. "

"Behind her is the second woman who is holding a bushel of flowers, lying on her side with her head probed up by her hand." (Courbet's Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine)

"Art historians look back into the future and try to capture their responses to paintings, sculptures, or even photos." (Back into the future?)

Baudelaire "proved he was well informed and a prurient art critic earning respect from the art community."

"Baudelaire does not digress that painters from the past should be all together ignored..."

"I gain the sense that [T.J.] Clark is the type of guy that tells you that the young teenagers kissing are going to die first in the horror flick."

And we slog on.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Linguistic Explorations

In my last post I mentioned Geoffrey K. Pullum's witty and instructive analyses of certain aspects of Dan Brown's literary style. Today I am pleased to present a guest post by a reader who, while much entertained by Pullum's criticisms in general, was (like me) a bit surprised by one of them. We follow up on the Slumbering Moa's earlier anonymous comment with a more thorough investigation of the phrase in question.

The Slumbering Moa writes:

Let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that Dan Brown is not a great prose stylist. Nevertheless, I think one of Pullum’s criticisms of him is unfair. Specifically, Pullum faults Brown for writing that “a handful of scientists moved briskly about,” since “‘moving briskly about’ is a cliché.” For Pullum, Brown’s use of the phrase discordantly evokes a humorous passage from Stephen Potter concerning a fictional character who enjoys one-upmanship: “To a definitely older man, of his still older wife he would comment that he was glad she ‘was still moving very briskly about.’" Pullum goes on to explain:

The remark was of course intended to be deeply unsettling if not shattering: to say of someone that they are "moving very briskly about" implies that they are extraordinarily old and infirm, and it is a wonder they can even take a step without their walker. It simply isn't something you would normally say about ordinary people who have a spring in their step, or about scientists walking from one office to another in the foyer of a research center. It's a wonderful example of Dan Brown's knack for coming up with exactly the phrase not to use.

Pullum’s criticism has two basic premises. First, the phrase “moved briskly about” is a cliché. Second, it implies extraordinary age and infirmity, making it bizarrely inappropriate to apply to working scientists.

In my earlier comment, I noted that Pullum ignores the word “still.” This word is key to the humorous effect Potter achieves, and Brown does not use it. Pullum also ignores the word “very,” which Potter employs to intensify this effect. Again, Brown does not use it.

But is Brown’s phrase a cliché? A little googling does not produce overwhelming evidence for Pullum's claim. First, let’s look at some raw numbers. I did four searches: "moved briskly about" (Brown's exact words), with 121,000 results; "move briskly about," with 4,500; "moves briskly about" with 699; and "moving briskly about," with 18,600. Given the millions of search results one often gets from Google, these numbers do not seem particularly impressive for a supposed cliché. Furthermore, when you eliminate those results from the search for "moved briskly about" that include the word "preacher," thus removing one particular joke that appears online repeatedly, it brings the number down from 121,000 to 47,600. By contrast, the phrase “proof of the pudding” produced 253,000 results, while its ubiquitous corruption “proof is in the pudding” produced 554,000.

A search for “moved briskly about” and “cliché” together produces only one result which identifies the former as an example of the latter, namely Pullum’s own post on Language Log. All the others simply had the two things appearing somewhere on the same page together. Again, by contrast, a search for “proof is in the pudding” and “cliché” together produces result after result noting this phrase’s undisputed status as a cliché.

Moving beyond the numbers, what do the search results themselves reveal about usage?

The top result from the search for "moved briskly about" was Pullum's article on Language Log, quoting Dan Brown. Twenty of the top thirty results were for the joke I mentioned above, which includes the sentence, "The preacher was wired for sound with a lapel mike, and as he preached, he moved briskly about the platform." The others included: "Desktop Calendar 2.3.7 moved briskly about," from a page that won't come up when I click on it; "the 58-year old moved briskly about the stage" from a review of a performance by Robin Williams (one of only two top results from all four searches that I thought supported Pullum's claims, however weakly); "the new officers of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers, moved briskly about on their new errands," from a book on the Revolutionary War; "Uniformed and plain-clothed personnel moved briskly about their tasks," from an online excerpt of what appeared to be a romance novel; "The nurses who moved briskly about smiled at the young man in an ordinary suit who had come among them," from a book on psychology; "She moved briskly about the yard, taking things from the line," from "When the Bayou Overflows" (1895) by Alice Dunbar; and "Buck Mulligan's gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro," from Ulysses by James Joyce. There were also two irrelevant results, in which "about" did not form a phrase with "moved briskly" but rather with the words following it (e.g., “the handpiece is moved briskly about ½ inch above the skin”).

I did not get more convincing support for Pullum's assertions when I changed the tense to "move," the top ten results being: "Nurses move briskly about the room, checking the conditions of the various patients," from a site on "Care after Surgery"; "It is difficult to move briskly about the kitchen weighted down by sixty pounds of baby," from "Cooking Madness" by Carol Castellano; "She could move briskly about, while he seems fixed to the spot," from a teaching guide to Macbeth; "To move briskly about. Used chiefly in calling country dances," from Dictionary of American Regional English; "males were seen to move briskly about with the tail turned sharply at an angle of about 90 degrees from the body," from a scholarly article on the courtship habits of salamanders; "Staff officers and couriers began to move briskly about," from an account of a Civil War battle; "it is well that they move briskly about their tasks," from two different pages on microbial parasites; "Their inhabitants move briskly about in Fords," from a Time magazine article from 1928 on the cities of Egypt; and one irrelevancy (“They do, however, move briskly – about two steps per second.”)

"Moves briskly about" yielded: "the sun moves briskly about the center of our galaxy," from a book on Einstein's theory of relativity; "The player's young king moves briskly about his town," from a review of a video game; two more versions of the preacher joke; "Hoffa moves briskly about the suite as he finishes putting on his clothes," from Life magazine (1959); "She moves briskly about her laboratories," from Time magazine (1933); "Mr. Buono, who has been called J.B. for as long as he can remember, moves briskly about campus with a friendly greeting to all," from a New York Times story about a 95-year-old (the second arguably supporting citation for Pullum); "He doesn't have an actual office but moves briskly about the plant, trouble-shooting or trying out some new production theory," from an article in the Indiana Star; and "Invisibly he moves briskly about the room as if he owned the place," from a poem posted to the site Neopoet. Once again, there was also an irrelevant result (“moves briskly about a fish trap”).

What about "moving briskly about"? The first result is again Pullum himself, followed by: "An American in Paris, Moving Briskly About Town," the title of a New York Times review of Stanley Karnow's Paris in the 50s; "Maude was moving briskly about the room, putting it into the beautiful order that Mother insisted on," from "A Fortunate Mistake" (1904) by Lucy Maud Montgomery; "One need not have visions of unattached neurons moving briskly about the brain," from a blog post; "Through her bright windows we could see her moving briskly about from kitchen to sitting room," from "The Woman Who Tried to be Good" (1913) by Edna Ferber; "In all these prairie villages, the Burrowing Owl is seen moving briskly about," from the Audubon Society's website; "The group is to start moving briskly about the room," from a "community-building exercise"; yet another version of the preacher joke; "Grace was constantly surrounded by people moving briskly about," from "The Secret to Happier Meal Times"; and "It seemed as if hardly any time had passed when she heard the household moving briskly about, and breakfast preparing downstairs," from The Woodlanders (1887) by Thomas Hardy.

These seem to me to represent fairly diverse uses that are not at all suggestive of cliché. Admittedly, when you read them all together like this, the cumulative effect is to make the phrase seem tired, but I think that's inherent in the exercise. But cliché or not, the phrase, judging by these examples, hardly bears the unavoidable connotations of age and infirmity that Pullum suggests.

Ultimately, Brown’s crime in this instance seems to be that he used an innocuous expression that happened to remind Pullum of a favorite passage from a writer he much prefers.

In closing, I might add that in one of my students' papers we get the Brown-like (or perhaps merely journalistic) construction "Portrayed through sculpture is the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, along with her son Eros, also known as Cupid."