Archive for the ‘writing’ Category
Jonathan Franzen is driving me nuts. He seems to be clinging to celebrity more and more tenuously every day. First it was David Foster Wallace bashing. Then it was e-book bashing. And now it’s a grudgingly sort of positive review of Edith Wharton.
As someone who has been the cause of feminist opprobrium in the past, maybe he thought his article on Wharton would get him into the good books. Or maybe the New Yorker just wanted someone to write something about her and he wasn’t busy. Who knows.
The review is meant, I think, to be a positive endorsement of Wharton’s novels. Instead, what comes across is Franzen’s inability to sympathize with Wharton because 1) she’s rich (but not in a ‘good’ way, like Tolstoy) 2) she was conservative (because she didn’t like populist politicking) 3) she left America 4) she acted like a spoiled writer (‘writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary’…..like no other writers ever did that…..).
He claims, in fact, that her only ‘sympathetic’ characteristic (his words: ‘potentially redeeming disadvantage’) was that ‘she wasn’t pretty,’ and that this made her a social outsider, which made her a good writer. After speculating about her love life (or lack of one), her relationship with her mother (who apparently drove her father to an early death), her lack of friendships with women (of whom she was apparently jealous), we finally come to the crux of Franzen’s problem: ‘Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly’ etc.
Now, I get that the rhetorical purpose of all this is probably to then set up the peculiarly sympathetic characters that Wharton created and who are the reason that Wharton’s fiction ‘matters’ in contrast to her, whom we apparently don’t like. But the standards for not liking her? They could be applied to hundreds of writers! These same qualities, in fact [feminist outrage alert], applied to male writers are usually seen as the eccentricities, graces, and charms befitting a Great Novelist. Wealth and privilege? There are literally too many wealthy, privileged writers to know where to begin, but F. Scott Fitzgerald being mentioned in the article (in a different context) comes immediately to mind. Expatriatism? Again Fitzgerald, but also Henry James who is, yes, also mentioned in the article in a different context. And acting like a spoiled writer? Well, even Franzen doesn’t let that one stand, recanting near the end of the article. And really, attributing her writing genius to the fact that ‘she wasn’t pretty’?
Shut up, Jonathan Franzen.
I suppose it’s fitting that Christopher Hitchens has passed away just as the American involvement in the recent Iraq War is coming to a close. To his critics, waiting less than 24 hours from his death to heap their scorn, the eloquent English-American essayists’ career should be defined largely, perhaps entirely by his last, and greatest monumental error, his support for the George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
This conclusion is unfortunate. After all, Hitchens was not alone among liberal hawks who misguidedly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom: David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Peter Beinart, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, the list goes on. If we were to include people outside the public eye, well then I’d have count myself among the guilty. And I sure as hell hope that my error there won’t define whatever career I may have.
True, Hitchens was less repentant than some of the above liberals, never really admitting his mistake. But to call Hitchens a warmonger, as Corey Robin effectively does here, is to badly misinterpret the man’s words and legacy, and distort the complicated record of one of our generation’s greatest prose stylists.
Glenn Greenwald, like Robin, has joined in the Hitchens excoriation. Greenwald is certainly right that public figures should not get the benefit of societal etiquette that asks us not to speak ill of the dead. Their lives had a substantial impact on the world around them, and they should be be judged honestly and objectively, whether living or dead.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “lazy freshman” as “One who cuts corners in a sloppy and cliched manner, such as beginning a college essay with the dictionary’s definition of a word.”
Seriously, has anyone ever read a student’s paper that was good and began with a dictionary definition? It is almost always a way to fill up space (gotta get to 500 words somehow) and/or sound pretentious.
Which is why the following article about the Supreme Court is so depressing/sadly predictable: “A new study in The Marquette Law Review found that the justices had used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions in the 10 years starting in October 2000. That is roughly in line with the previous decade but an explosion by historical standards.”
Though it did produce this pretty awesomely snarky line about the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: “One of the words he looked up was ‘of.’ He learned that it means pretty much what you think it means.”
Is the cause: 1. declining intellectual standards on the Court, 2. the intellectually-vacant but Tea-Party-pleasing notion that the Supreme Court just calls “balls and strikes,” 3. the unchecked power of Big Dictionary in Washington DC?
It’s already known that for Janet Malcolm, no profession is sacred, not even her own. Yet while remaining hyper-aware of her role as journalist in her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she also assumes the mantle and mentality (with intense psychological portraits) of lawyer, judge, and executioner, not to mention father of the dead, daughter of the accused, state-appointed law guardian, and alleged murderess. Some might call it a performative contradiction, but then again she sees all the characters in the trial as performers with deep contradictions. Perhaps she’s merely joining the gang, or perhaps her own performance is intended to highlight the inconsistencies that surround her.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills recounts the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician and member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills in Queens, accused of hiring a hitman to murder her ex-husband after a court ordered their young daughter be transferred into his custody. I recommend it wholeheartedly. About her protagonist, Malcolm writes, “she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” This appears on page 32 of 155 pages, and by the end the reader is left with no further conclusion than that. Either we remain satisfied with this impossibility, or we start doubting Janet Malcolm’s authority. But why doubt Malcolm’s authority rather than someone else’s? Take the judge for instance: Robert “Hang ‘em” Hanophy, whom one juror (apparently hand-selected for his gray everydayness) says (on page 96) is “real and down to earth and serious about his job. And funny. He had a good sense of humor.” But nearly 90 pages before, Malcolm has already described Hanophy as “a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate.”
I keep noting the timeline of the book because it tells us something about what Malcolm’s doing here. Malcolm doesn’t ask the reader to reach his or her own conclusions as testimony is laid out; she doesn’t pander to expectations of objectivity. The jurors and judge are already biased toward actions and behaviors that seem legitimate to their own understandings, and Malcolm isn’t about to let them get the monopoly on prejudice. Yet while Malcolm gives her narrative precedence, the nature of the written form allows her thoughts to become interwoven with those of other characters’; the reader flips back and forth to re-read a Malcolm characterization of someone an interviewee has presented in a very different light. And so Malcolm’s own narrative can be retroactively challenged. While I was initially convinced by Malcolm’s claim that Borukhova both couldn’t have and had to have killed her ex-husband, at some point I began to doubt that she couldn’t have. Despite this deep paradox, Malcolm is more convinced that she knows Borukhova’s character than I am (though in a recent Paris Review interview, Malcolm admits, “As I went along I felt I undestood her less and less… [Borukhova] becomes who you imagined she is.”) Flawed legal evidence abounded, and Borukhova appeared to be a successful career woman, a devoted mother, and quite possibly an abused wife, but none of this convinced me that she couldn’t have done it. Perhaps this makes me the radical relativist to the contrarian Malcolm, characterizations that make generational sense given her birth in 1934 and mine in 1983.
Do academics have a responsibility to reach beyond the narrow confines of their disciplines? Does scholarship, specialized by its very nature, translate well into broader public discourse? What exactly is the difference between an “academic” and an “intellectual”? How do they overlap and where exactly do they differ?
Philosopher Denis Dutton, who died last week at the age of 66, presents a telling example of a scholar who attempted to bridge the gap between academic rigor and public accessibility. In 1999, Dutton founded what would become the popular website Arts and Letters Daily. A high-brow (and infinitely more sophisticated) version of the Drudge Report, the site provided links to what Dutton and his editorial partner, economist Tran Huu Dung, considered the web’s best articles, op-eds, and book reviews. Often eclectic, the links could treat everything from Ancient Roman historiography, developments in economic theory, to the relationship between ideology and bathroom etiquette. At the height of its influence in the early 2000s, it was probably one of the most widely read blogs among American academics. As a young college student aspiring to greater intellectual heights, I made it my homepage.
The site was popular among scholars in spite of the fact that it routinely linked to articles mocking academic pretensions (although it’s equally plausible that this helped explain its success). Dutton despised the turgid prose that he believed dominated academic writing and frequently linked to articles that lamented its dominance. As editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he even launched a “Bad Writing Contest” in which correspondents submitted the most egregious examples of such prose that they had found in an academic text. Since Dutton also hated critical theory’s influence on scholarship—which he considered little more than an academic fad—it was not surprising that theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Frederick Jameson, and Judith Butler were all awarded the bad writing prize (the difficulty of their prose, however, certainly didn’t help). Dutton rejected many of his academic colleagues focus on discourse, power, and difference, and instead used his perch at Arts and Letters to champion the human universalism implied by much work in evolutionary psychology—an entire field treated with skepticism by most scholars in the social science and the humanities. (His recent book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Evolution, applies insights from evolutionary psychology to aesthetic theory.)
The apparent contrarianism conveyed in the articles on Arts and Letters helped make it a formative influence on my own intellectual development. I started reading the site at the age of 18 and it introduced me to the world of public intellectuals. I devoured essays by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Martha Nussbaum. Arts and Letters convinced me that serious public discourse required style, sophistication, and skepticism. I began reading the site as a fairly dogmatic liberal, but its frequent links to conservative intellectuals and unclassifiable political heretics helped me to constantly reassess my own positions. Perhaps most importantly, Arts and Letters introduced me to an expansive and evolving intellectual community. In fact, my exposure to the site probably played an important role in my decision to pursue American intellectual history as a graduate student.
Since it has exerted such a strong affect on my intellectual development, it’s been sad for me to gradually give up on reading the site, and it seems as though I’m not the only one. Some of this has to do with the proliferation of new sites competing for intellectually-engaged readers, but I believe there are broader reasons for its relative decline. For me, and I’m sure for many others, Arts and Letters’ linking choices during the first few years of the Iraq War damaged its credibility. While occasionally highlighting pieces by the war’s opponents, during this period, the site mostly provided a steady barrage of links to the war’s intellectual cheerleaders—whether they were neo-conservatives such as David Frum, “Burkean” conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, left-wing apostates such as Christopher Hitchens, or “liberal hawks” such as Peter Beinart. These writers believed that Iraq contained Weapons of Mass Destruction, that America could create the foundation for a democratic Middle-East with relatively little bloodshed, and routinely questioned the motives of the war’s opponents. The vitriol such thinkers expressed for the war’s critics is difficult to remember in our current era when a majority of Americans (and an even broader portion of intellectuals) consider the war a huge failure, which did little but empower Iran and cost hundreds and thousands of lives in the process.
At the time, I did not see these articles as the embarrassment they would later become to some of their authors, but I did feel that their enthusiasm for war and the certainty with which they defended their cause, troubling. As the years went on, and the evidence of the war’s failures became apparent, I came to believe that Arts and Letters had let its readers down. The site had constantly lauded the values of intellectual rigor and skepticism, but did much to promote the views of the war’s loudest and most misinformed supporters.
Dutton’s development of an online forum, prominently advertised on Arts and Letters, devoted to debating the reality of climate change represented the next blow to the site’s credibility. The fact that Dutton, who considered himself a vigorous proponent of the scientific method, would give equal time to the scientifically marginalized (and industry beloved) deniers of global warming, as if a serious “debate” was actually taking place marked a major turning point in my trust for the site. When I first saw the advertisement for Dutton’s climate change project on Arts and Letters, my heart sank. I felt less anger than disappointment for a website that had one exerted such an influence on my intellectual development.
Finally, I stopped reading Arts and Letters a few years ago because of my ongoing “professionalization” into the world of academe. Let me illustrate with an example: as a freshman, I once sent a link to aldaily to an art history professor that I respected: I thought she would be impressed. Instead, she told me that many of the articles were right-wing polemics and that all lacked the rigor of peer-review. At the time (and to an extent, to this day), I felt taken aback by her pronouncements: the site was not conservative, I thought, it just frequently attacked liberal pieties. Plus, I didn’t think everything needed to be peer-reviewed—the site was up to date, relevant, and lacked the dryness that I had come to associate with much academic writing. This was how public debate moved forward.
Over the years, however, I came to understand my professor’s position. Once I started to actually read writers such as Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, I realized that many of the denunciations launched against them—frequently promoted on Arts and Letters Daily—were unfair, to say the least. I still refuse to genuflect toward any intellectual authority, but such theorists have triggered debate because their ideas are often profound, complex, and troubling—they need to be treated with intellectual seriousness. Of course, all of these figures are worthy of critique, but this is very difficult to do well in an op-ed format often better suited for polemical takedowns.
This brings me back to my original question about academics navigating the world of public discussion. Many scholars already cringe when they are forced to trim their research down to fit a 10-page conference papers; an op-ed generally cuts that material down to 2 pages. Translating specialized academic training into the often intimate, humorous, and generalist medium of blogging represents a serious challenge, but in the past few years, many have risen to meet it. These sites generally succeed because they refuse to dumb down expert knowledge even as they make it more accessible, avoid fruitless polemics, treat claims to infallibility with skepticism, and make valuable contributions to public debate. Even though I stopped reading it, these are all points that, at its best, Arts and Letters Daily continues to encourage.