Feb 24 2017

Homeschool (A Prose Poem)

“What is that, Mom?”

“Oblivion, son, what else?”

“But why is it so obvious to you, but not to me?”

“Because I’m not embarrassed of it like you are, son.”

“I only got embarrassed once I realized I’d been ignoring it.”

“Ignoring it since when?”

“Since I started being me.”

“And what have you stopped being since then?”

“Satisfied.”

Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.”[1]

NOTES

[1] Anscombe, G. E. M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981.  p. 82.

 


Feb 22 2017

What Happens When I Write (a Prose Poem)

Whenever I am believed to be wrong,

I write to feel right.

Who then has the right

To trust what I say

With the words I have used?

Mere muses and abuses–

The lot of ’em.

The muses range from maniacal to melancholic,

The abuses from obsessive to addictive,

And awareness doesn’t really play into the picture.

When I reread what I’ve written,

The reader sees no limit of accusations against the author.

One reads in order that the mind might bend,

But one writes in order that the mind might extend,

Hoping to tangentially touch something somewhat like itself.


Sep 1 2010

Gordon Wood on Writing & Research (CSPAN.org – Book TV)

YouTube – Book TV: Gordon Wood on Writing and Research.


Jun 30 2010

Typewriter, meet computer (Fiction Writers Review)

Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Typewriter, meet computer..


Apr 21 2010

John Haynes, the man behind motor manuals (The National Newspaper)

John Haynes, the man behind the motor manuals – The National Newspaper.


Mar 3 2010

“Typeface” Creates a Typeface From Your Face Type (Gizmodo)

“Typeface” Creates a Typeface From Your Face Type – typeface – Gizmodo.


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6


Jan 24 2010

The Stagnation of American Book Reviewers, Critics, and Short Fiction Outlets

Mark Athitakis at American Fiction writes:

Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

Athitakis seems to suggest (by Bookbreads reading at least) that readers are responsible for their knowledge of critics as people, even though it is getting harder to do so nowadays. But by this logic, apparently the critic never need know of the reader. Readers subsequently face an ever-increasing “knowledge gap” concerning critics.

The Solution:  Readers must fortify their wits with additional biographical data of the critic in question in order to understand that critic in order to understand the writer/text the critic is discussing.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that critics are writing for a single readership.  But who are those readers? People possibly interested in books? (In that case we should call them pre-readers.) Is the critic’s readership other experts in criticism? Is the critic’s readership book readers? Then how much recommending is needed?

Can it not be possible that one reason newspapers and magazines are cutting their book sections is that those particular sections are no longer profitable? And are they not profitable because an ever-decreasing readership is interested in the specific information the book sections and their critic-reviewers have to offer? Athitakis certainly highlights how mere reviewing has evolved online into a shopping decision involving “Consumer Reports” kinds of data—and it is evident that even before the internet, customers wanted to hear what other customers had to say about the products they shared an interest in. Currently the analysis, teaching, and educating of others about books are products that book critics can still offer readers without stretching a simple “thumbs up or down” on a book into five paragraphs.

Bookbread has never come across a critic as somebody you know well enough. I may feel that Harold Bloom is one of the most influential teachers in my life, but I have never met him, and I don’t feel that I “know” him. Athitakis, (or my reading of him) seems to be confusing knowing a person with knowing their writing—as with primary sources so with secondary.

Bookbread is interested in the critic’s critical texts, not critical moments of the critic’s biography.  There is no gnosis needed for the reader when it comes to critics.  Or to reverse the argument:  Just because I empathize with someone’s life story doesn’t mean I sympathize with their writing.

Athitakis links to John Fox, who comments that for critics:

They have an inverse relationship, it seems—as word-of-mouth finds more avenues of dissemination, book reviews tank in relevance and power.

“Power”?  Where are the all-powerful book reviews?  Where is the definitive THIS BOOK REVIEW CHANGED LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT among American critics? (Henry James and T.S. Eliot were too ashamed of their roots to be called “American” critics.)

Fox continues:

I do know that book reviews should have more importance than merely telling me whether or not I should read a book. They also perform the critical role of judging books. But to survive in this new media landscape, book reviews need to do what only they can do: describe the book well, connect the book to current books, the canon, trends, and make insightful interpretations that many readers might have otherwise have missed.

The issue seems to be the role critics play in their interactions with readers.  An example of the current role of the critic might be to comment on what writers are not writing about rather than vise versa, as a recent example from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones shows:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq.

Genoways concludes with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with the call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

[NYRNicholson Baker, Brian Turner]


Jan 19 2010

Rewriting the Textbooks of Texas

¡Que muchos aplausos! for the Texas Tribunes Brian Thevenot and his report on “Hijacking Texas History.” Thevenot’s take is the best reporting Bookbread has so far come across on the issue of Writing Textbooks in Texas. Some highlights:

So far, much of the squabbling has involved the exclusion of particular historical figures, including the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and labor leader Cesar Chavez. But beneath such spats lie far deeper ideological tussles, over disputed Biblical underpinnings of the nation’s founding; the notion of America as uniquely superior, even divinely ordained; and the proper context and credit in exploring the struggles of oppressed minority groups….

The ambitions of some board members and their appointees extend well beyond the recent past. Two of the six expert reviewers are evangelists rather than educators or historians and have argued for extended and disputed explorations of Christianity’s role in the nation’s founding to be included in the curriculum. Separately, they have skewered the notion of devoting more study to racial and other minority groups….

[Bill Ames] wrote of the upcoming state board meeting: “Item-by-item, motions will be made and passed to accept the changes. Textbook publishers, bound by the standards, will publish pro-America textbooks that are used, not only in Texas, but also across the country. The process will be the history revisionists’ worst nightmare. How can one be so confident of the outcome? Because the SBOE seems able to win every curriculum battle. The left always loses in Texas….”


Jan 19 2010

The Book Barons of Texas

At the Austin American Statesmen, Kate Alexander reports that the Texas State Board of Education’s [SBOE] writing of textbook standards for the subject of social studies has became a debate over which names will be omitted because the standards are “too full” to begin with.

The teachers who had helped draft the revised standards over the past year had dropped many names because they said the standards were too full.

But the board disregarded much of that work, prompting board member Pat Hardy, R-Weatherford, to worry the board was “choking our kids with a list of names.”

But because the standards are “too full” even putting on good names can only be ineffective.  The standards must be made “less full” before names are added.

It is in the interest of the SBOE to keep saturating its textbook standards so that they are “too full,” rather than act as caretaker for the educational interests of the parents of students, because the SBOE is like any other mom-and-pop bureaucracy:  it must expand itself to justify its own existence by including, evaluating, proposing, and applying new and improved bloated standards.

Even if the stars aligned and fire came down from Heaven, and the SBOE actually provided “not-so-full” standards of only GREAT names in the subject of social studies, and parents and SBOE members and textbook publishers all shook hands, the impact it would have on students lives would less than petty.

“Choking” in Pat Hardy’s sense of the word seems to imply forced-feeding, or forced reading, both of which are really impossible in a public school setting.  Even when forced to read the best books, there is no guarantee that the student ever had any enthusiasm or a will to learn.  When it comes to reading textbooks, what is there to stop students from acquiring a “play to lose” strategy to end the reading assignment as quickly as possible so they can go do something they really care about? Because what students care about ain’t gonna have nothing to do with reading.