What did Jacques Lacan mean by "the Real"? I found out, sort of, by walking across my apartment in search of a copy of the recent re-translation of his Ecrits -- a volume replacing another (somewhat notoriously unreliable) translation released by the same publisher more than 20 years earlier.
When a manufacturer of toasters finds out that its toasters are defective, it will issue a recall. About halfway to the bookshelf, the light bulb went off: Time for a class action suit!
Suddenly, a rogue housecat interposed himself between my feet -- causing immediate "walk failure" and consequent wrenching of lower back.
Now, the Imaginary is for Lacan the dimension of the human human psyche that permits us to feel more or less cohesive. It is the raw material of ego identity. By contrast, the Symbolic includes all the systems we use for communication and exchange with others. It is "language," very broadly defined. But what about Lacan's third term?
Just to back up a little.... I'd been reading Slavoj Zizek, the wild and woolly cultural theorist, who is about as Lacanian as they come. He slings the lingo like a pro. But every so often, my reading comprehension disappears, like the steam from a bowl of cooling soup.
Zizek refers to the Real "escaping" the Imaginary and "errupting into" the Symbolic. Which is good to know, but not that helpful. It left me wondering: "OK, the Real -- what is it? And where?"
And then, out of nowhere, I got an answer. The Real is a silent but (potentially) deadly housecat. The realm of the ego's Imaginary dignity is violated. The order of the Symbolic is reduced to groans and obscenities. The Real is what leaves you on the floor.
Fredric Jameson, the lefty lit-crit guru maximus, once equated Lacan's concept with the Marxist notion of History -- a word that Jameson always capitalizes, like the name of a god. History, and hence the Real, he explained, "is what hurts."
OK, but does that mean my cat embodies History? (I've just founded a new school of thought. Either that, or the pain killers are finally kicking in.)
Zizek is known for illuminating Lacan's work with examples from daily life and popular culture. But Astra Taylor, who is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary on Zizek, figured that the film would work better if some of those illustrations were themselves illustrated. So the exposition will include animated sequences -- in short, brief psychoanalytic cartoons.
People who have spent time puzzling over Lacan's quasi-mathematical diagrams can only greet this news with both curiosity and the sense that, after seeing the film, they are probably going to have some really weird dreams.
In any case, Zizek: The Movie will premier at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on April 21, with the subject of the film himself in attendance. And the filmmaker is preparing to tour college campuses with the documentary this spring, with screenings now scheduled for Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Taylor is still putting her travel plans together, so anyone interested in arranging a campus showing should contact her. For more information on the film itself, check out its Web site.Zizek: The Movie goes into general release this fall.
Also on the world-premier front..... Revolution Books, the largest chain of Maoist bookstores in the United States (not that they have had any competition in quite a while) is holding parties to celebrate the publication of From Ike to Mao and Beyond, a memoir by Bob Avakian, whose full and rather awesome title is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
The book sports blurbs by Cornel West (who says that Avakian's "voice and witness are indispensible") and Howard Zinn (who calls the memoir "a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary"). The reader learns of the Maoist leader's love of doo-wop music, his passion for basketball, and his skill in the kitchen as a maker of waffles.
There is much to disagree with in the book. Avakian, for examples, refers to Stalin's "errors." It is hard to think of his lethal purges as some kind of epistemological blunder. The difference between "committing mistakes" and "committing atrocities" is not just semantic.
And yet the memoir itself is -- ideology aside -- incredibly interesting. The author is the son of a federal judge (now deceased) in the San Francisco Bay area. The book paints a fascinating picture of Berkeley during the 50's and 60's. The campus upsurge of the Free Speech Movement is just the start of a long march, with stops in China (during the Cultural Revolution), Chicago (where "Chairman Bob" becomes the maximum leader of a small party), and Paris (to which he relocates around the time Reagan comes into office).
Suffice it to say that the author will not be attending any book parties or news shows. I asked a representative of the publisher, Insight Press. She indicated that preserving the security of the Chairman is a high priority, while an appearance on Good Morning America is not.
Meanwhile, another volume by Avakian is due this month from Open Court, an academic publisher in Chicago. Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics is a collaboration with Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University. Portions of it are available online here, here, and here.
At one point, they note that the slogan "Serve the People," made famous by the little red book, could be used -- with very different intentions, of course -- at a McDonald's training institute. This is, on reflection, something like Hegel's critique of the formalism of Kant's ethics. Only, you know, different.
A footnote to history: In an article a couple of years ago, Avakian recalled taking a course on Paradise Lost when he was a student in the honors program at Berkeley. The professor teaching that course was one Stanley Fish.
Proof that higher education in America is in the hands of wild-eyed radicals? Is Fish's academic empire-building just a way to create a Shining Path to postmodern communism? And what about this "John Milton" character? Is it just a coincidence that the leader of America's Maoists once studied the poetry of a man who was the minister of propaganda for a revolutionary movement (the Puritans) that seized state power and executed the rightful king?
There are many great books. And of weird books, the number is countless. Yet, paradoxically enough, there are not that many great weird books.
Sex and Character by Otto Weininger is one of them. The appearance next month of a definitive English translation, published by Indiana University Press, is a major cultural event - one that is, arguably, at least several decades overdue.
First published in Vienna in 1903, Sex and Character is the product of a tortured genius. Or at least the work of someone remarkably devoted to playing that role. The author was 23 years old when it appeared. In its first incarnation, the book was Weininger's dissertation -- a more or less scientific account of the physiology of gender differences. In revising it, Weininger created a mixture of psychological introspection, neo-Kantian epistemology, and Nietzschean cultural criticism, along with a heavy dose of anti-feminist polemic. Toward the end of the book, Weininger seasoned the stew with a few dashes of anti-Semitic vitrol. Then, a few months after seeing the manuscript through the press, he went to the house where Beethoven died and killed himself.
This did not hurt sales. And it sure did clinch the "tortured" part. The double impact of Weininger's work and his suicide created a sensation, and not just in Austria. The list of Weininger's admirers reads like a survey course in Western culture from the early 20th century. The most perfunctory roundup would include James Joyce, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
An unsigned English version of Sex and Character appeared in 1906, prepared by someone whose qualifications for the job evidently boiled down to possessing (1) a German dictionary and (2) the willingness, when necessary, to hazard a guess. The title page proclaimed this an "Authorized Translation" -- though it's still not clear who, if anyone, authorized it, and in any case the English edition omits whole sections of the original text. Ludwig Wittgenstein called the 1906 translation "beastly." But it is the one we monolingual Europhiles have had to rely on for almost a century. (Excerpts from it are available online, who knows why.)
The Indiana edition of Sex and Character was prepared by a team of three scholars, two of them professors of German, working from the text that Weininger revised just before his death. It includes some impressive scholarly apparatus, including a useful bibliography covering the secondary literature on this strangely influential book. There is also a somewhat bewildering overview of the problems with the earlier English version, which contained "hundreds of mistranslations, ranging from slight inaccuracies, through substantial mistakes, to downright howlers, at times saying the very opposite of Weininger's own statements."
It is fairly easy to sum up Weininger's conclusions, but hard to capture the book's strange aura -- the quality that fascinated so many people a hundred years ago, and that still flashes up from its pages. Beginning with a plausible notion, the text moves, by degrees, through evidently rational steps that lead right up to the lip of a volcano, spewing the molten core of the author's madness. It's quite a trip.
Weininger's point of departure is the idea that there are some very basic notions that govern our way in the world -- that are, in effect, part of human consciousness even before we have worked out anything like a rational account of them. "Two concepts," he writes, "are among the oldest used by mankind to eke out a makeshift intellectual existence" -- namely, the distinction between Man and Woman.
In the first section of the book (corresponding to the doctoral dissertation in psychology that he wrote in 1901), Weininger argues that the distinction between male and female is never absolute at the biological level. Rather, each organism contains a mixture of male and female physical traits -- with one or the other usually predominant, of course. "One could say," he writes, hitting the emphasis hard, "that in empirical experience there is neither Man nor Woman, but only male and female." (My hunch is that the original publisher of Sex and Character probably had to send out for extra italic letters.)
So far, so good. After all, endocrinology is on Weininger's side: The toughest Marine has some estrogen in him, and the most demure of seamstresses has a little testosterone in her veins.
Weininger proposes that the gender of each individual could be most accurately expressed as a kind of algebraic formula: so many parts M, so many parts W. This leads to a couple of interesting consequences. One is the formulation of what Weininger calls "the discovery of an unknown natural law" governing sexual attraction. A person who is three quarters M and one quarter W will tend to be drawn to someone who is three quarters W and one quarter M.
The second major consequence is that Weininger is pretty sensible, for a guy of his era, about homosexuality, or "sexual inversion," as the preferred term back then had it. Some people have M/W fractions are close to 50-50. This, says Weininger, is no big deal. "Sexual inversion is not an exception to the natural law, but only a special case of the same," he writes. Indeed, according to Weininger, "the predisposition for homosexuality is still present, however faintly, in every human being."
At this point, Weininger sounds quite a bit like Alfred Kinsey. Reaching the end of part one of the book, you think "What a progressive guy! He's so far ahead of his time." And then you turn the page....
At the age of 20, Otto Weininger gave a paper at an international conference defending the value of introspection as a method of psychological research (as opposed to relying strictly on laboratory experimentation). The second part of Sex and Character is, in effect, the record of a very smart and very unhappy young man's efforts to create a system of ideas to make sense of what was going on inside him.
At the physical level, there is no purely male or female identity. But, Weininger writes, "it may be said with the greatest certainty that psychologically a person must necessarily be either male or female." He doesn't really explain how a rigid psychological distinction emerges from a broad spectrum of biological phenomena. Apparently it just does.
For Weininger, gender is not a natural phenomenon -- but it isn't a social construction, either. The distinction between Man and Woman is an absolute difference that defines human existence. Summing things up very briefly: Man is reason, culture, and the highest human values. Woman is irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire.
Put so starkly, this is puzzling. For one thing, "irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire" sounds like a description of a frat house. And the author has a hard time keeping the polarity intact. He drifts between misogynistic outbursts and passages that sound like criticisms of the patriarchal order. At times, such moments come within the same paragraph. "The most inferior man is still infinitely superior to the most superior woman,"he writes, "so much so that it seems hardly permissible to compare and rank them. Nevertheless, nobody has the right to belittle or oppress in any way even the most inferior woman."
Man is capable of grappling with fundamental principles and of becoming a genius. (Here, in particular, Weininger's tribute to his own gender is a kind of self-aggrandizing self-portrait.) But Woman, too, has access to a kind of universality. "Every complete mother labors for the species as a whole, she is the mother of all mankind, and she welcomes every pregnancy. The prostitute wants other women not to be pregnant but only prostitutes like herself." Not that Weininger has a Madonna/whore complex or anything. That's just the way the universe is.
So far Sex and Character may sound like the work of Larry Summers's evil twin. But then things shift again.
By the time Weininger finishes a chapter called "The Nature of Woman and Her Purpose in the Universe," the manic phase has launched his thoughts halfway to the stratosphere. When the subject of ethnic difference finally appears, the booster rockets fire, and Weininger goes beyond the moon.
Let's just skip the part about the femininity of the Chinese pigtails, and get down to fundamental analogy that preoccupies Weininger: Man corresponds to Aryan, while Woman corresponds to Jew. The spirit of modernity, he writes, is feminine and Jewish. It is "an age for which history, life, science, everything, has become nothing but economics and technology; an age that has declared genius to be a form of madness, but which no longer has one great artist or one great philosopher; an age that is devoid of originality, but which chases most frantically after originality...."
In short, Weininger's introspective exploration of the cosmic meaning of gender leads him to the depths of the anti-Semitic imagination. Which makes his book a kind of rough guide to the inner world of another Austrian figure who would later leave his mark on the world, Adolf Hitler. Twenty years ago, Gerald Steig, an Austrian writer, called Sex and Character "the psychological-metaphysical prelude for National Socialism, including its variants."
But is that the only reason to read it? No, there's more.
Sex and Character did not simply denounce the modernist culture emerging in Vienna at the time, much of it the work of Jewish artists and writers. Weininger himself was Jewish. (More on his background in the next column.) His book was, in many ways, an embodiment of what he denounced. Nothing in Sex and Character is ever quite as clear-cut as it may seems. The sharp distinctions in the argument twist around, like the edges of a Mobius strip .....
On Thursday: Weininger and Wittegenstein, genius and gender, influence and psychosis -- plus, the most enviable acknowledgments page in the history of academic publishing.
Writing your very own textbook? Now that’s a challenge, and for many, an attractive one at that.
You’ve taught the same class many times and never really quite found the book that fits your style of teaching or contains all the material you believe is important. And, there is the potential for extra income.
So, you’re ready to take the plunge and present a proposal to several publishers. What’s next? A well-written, engaging and effective proposal. We’ll assume that you’re proposing a textbook for the first- or second-level introductory market, that you are an expert in the subject matter you want to write about, you have a terminal degree in your field (publishers like credentials) and you've got a teaching appointment of some kind.
We'll also assume this is something you really want to do (and we mean really want to do). At best, it’s a labor of love and will demand a great deal of your time and attention. Before you start writing anything, make sure that it’s the right time in your career and the right project to undertake.
Now that you’ve made your decision to embark on writing a textbook, the next step will be putting together a book proposal that will have publishers sitting up and taking notice.
The best proposals are those that contain five key elements that the acquisitions editor will focus on. Each of these elements should distinguish the proposed book from the others on the market. These elements are:
A clear statement of who the target audience is and a rationale for the book.
A detailed table of contents.
A comparative analysis of the existing books in comparisons with your proposed book.
A sample chapter.
The loose ends.
Let’s take the one at a time.
The target audience. It's obvious that an introductory psychology book, for example, would not be written for any audience other than introductory psychology students. However, introductory books can be used at several different different levels of course work. What might be used as the introductory text in one setting may very well become the more advanced book in another. Define what level of audience you want this book targeted at and describe that audience early in the proposal. Include the size of the market (in terms of numbers of students enrolled in such courses) as well as the potential for growth in a particular discipline. And be sure to look for publishers who may need a new book in this area. You can determine this by calling and writing to editors at the various publishers who you think produce good textbooks and talk with them about the market and your ideas. Your rationale for the book should tell the editor what is unique about it and why the market will want it.
A detailed table of contents. Here’s your opportunity to show the editor how you will organize the information and, in general, what you know about the subject matter. The table of contents (or TOC) should be comprehensive, logically organized according to some underlying rationale (such as a chronological or topical approach), fit the course’s time constraints (semester or quarter, for example), be as descriptive as possible and convey anything special you might be including, such as anecdotes, sidebars, formula derivations, biographies or puzzles. Refer to the pedagogical tools you'll be using throughout the book. Remember that the TOC is like an outline and reflects your thoughts on how you would organize the book. Be complete. If a potential author can’t complete TOC, how can an editor expect the author to finish an entire manuscript?
A comparative analysis of the existing books. Most editors who will read your proposal know less than you about your field and even less than that about what other books will compete with your future masterpiece. The editor’s first job is to read your proposal and, if interesting enough, send it out for review. When an editor presents a book proposal to the full committee at a publisher, he or she will be depending upon your analysis of competing books and why yours has the potential to capture some of the market share. You want that person very well prepared. For every book that competes with yours, list the author(s), title, ISBN (so the editor can track sales – they use tools such as BookScan), number of pages, important elements such as a glossary, chapter exercises, etc., and most important, how your proposed book would differ and be better than existing ones. Your job is not to trash the other books, but it surely is to distinguish yours from the others and that can be done on many different dimensions, including whether one book is too restrictive in its scope of coverage, date of publication, theoretical focus, organization scheme, and even political orientation.
A sample chapter. This should absolutely shine. Don't send in the first or the last chapter, but one that falls around the middle of the book. And don't make it the easiest or the hardest chapter to write, but one where you can show your mastery and demonstrate the various techniques you might use throughout the book to engage the student and share your knowledge. Make it authoritative, approachable in tone and attractive in presentation. No fancy covers needed and no three ring binders please, but certainly double spaced, proofread, with pages numbered and using appropriate headers. When sent via e-mail, be sure you get confirmation it was received. You may also want to present it in person to the editor at a professional conference or have a sales representative transmit it –- it helps the sales folks earn points with their boss and gives you another person in the organization who might be able to help you track its progress. And as with your journal article manuscripts, have a trusted colleague read through the chapter and offer feedback.
The loose ends. There are a million loose ends to any textbook proposal . For example, if a CD or DVD is to accompany the text, indicate what added value it will bring to the student. How will the CD be developed, what will it contain, and who will be responsible for the material being provide (it need not always be you). How many pages will the manuscript be and what does the detailed writing schedule look like? What makes you the right author for this project – what writing experience and other skills can you bring to this effort? Your best bet to address absolutely everything you can and answer the editor’s questions before they are asked.
Writing an introductory text is long journey. A well-prepared proposal is the first step along that path.
Next month: The proposal’s in. What’s next?
Neil J. Salkind
Neil J. Salkind is on the faculty of the University of Kansas and is an agent at Studio B and has worked with many textbook publishers including Prentice Hall, Wadsworth, Sage and Blackwell.
Reading the scholarship devoted to the phenomenon of blogging sometimes calls to mind a comment that Jackie Gleason is said to have made about people who review TV programs -- that it's "like writing about a car wreck for an audience made up entirely of eyewitnesses."
Not that researchers shouldn't gather data from LiveJournal, or make connections between the blogosphere and Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or whatever. But even the most impressive work tends to tell you something you already know, more or less.
For example: A recent number-crunching analysis of political blogging during the 2004 election demonstrated, among other things, that conservatives have created a dense online social network -- one with strong links among sites, that is, making them an effective medium for focusing on a particular topic or message.
Bloggers to the left, by contrast, have created a much less compact and efficient network. The tables and charts that the researchers prepared to demonstrate this are impressive enough. Even so, it all adds up to something slightly less incisive than an observation made, sooner or later, by anyone watching American political life: that there is an almost instinctive tendency on the part of self-identified "progressives" to cooperate just long enough to form a circular firing squad.
To be fair, the ideas and methods used in blog scholarship are sometimes more thought-provoking than the immediate results. That's especially true, it seems to me, with research using models of how networks emerge and function. (Then again, there is always something a little awesome about finding that "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" that Eugene Wigner pointed out in the natural sciences also applies to human behavior en masse.)
But with an awful lot of work on the content and context of blogging, you have the Jackie Gleason effect in purest form. It isn't anybody's fault. The problem, arguably, is endemic to just about any kind of qualitative (that is, non-statistical) research on a new social phenomenon. In short: how do you get from offering a description to forming concepts? The conundrum may be even tougher with an emergent cultural form such as blogging -- one prone, that is, to incessant labors at self-definition, self-promotion, and self-mockery.
So what would a really interesting and exciting piece of qualitative research on blogging look like? And how would it get around the problems of overfamiliarity with the phenomenon (on the one hand) and blogospheric navel-gazing (on the other)?
To get an answer, it isn't necessary to speculate. Just read "The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan," by Alireza Doostdar, which appears in the current issue of American Anthropologist. A scanned copy is available here. The author is now working at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he will start work on his Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.
"Weblogestan" is an Iranian online slang term for the realm of Persian-language blogs. (The time has definitely come for it to be adapted, and adopted, into Anglophone usage.) Over the last two years, Western journalists have looked at blogging as part of the political and cultural ferment in Iran -- treating it, predictably enough, as a simple manifestation of the yearning for a more open society. Doostdar complicates this picture by looking at what we might call the borders of Veblogestan (to employ a closer transliteration of the term, as used specifically to name Iranian blogging).
In an unpublished manuscript he sent me last week, Doostdar provides a quick overview of the region's population: "There are roughly 65,000 active blogs in Veblogestan," he writes, "making Persian the fourth language for blogs after English, Portugese, and French. The topics for blog entries include everything from personal diaries, expressions of spirituality, and works of experimental poetry and fiction to film criticism, sports commentary, social critique, and of course political analysis. Some bloggers focus on only one of these topics throughout the life of their blogs, while others write about a different topic in every new entry, or even deal with multiple topics within a single entry."
He notes that "a major factor in the widespread adoption of blogging" in Iran "has been the Unicode standard, which has made it possible for people to write and publish easily in the Persian script." Nor does it hurt that it is easy to set up a blog -- or to use a pseudonym. The result has been the creation of a medium that cuts across social and geographic boundaries. In his manuscript, Doostdar says that his work bought him into contact with "high school and university students, journalists, literary critics, Web designers, women's rights activists, and statesmen, living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, Prague, and Paris, along with numerous other anonymous and half-anonymous bloggers scattered around the world."
Except for the part about writing Persian script using Unicode, this is a familiar picture of the blogging world. It is, in effect, a neighborhood within what Manuel Castells identified, some years back, as "the network society" -- a global "space without a place." And Doostdar's account of the routine practices among Iranian bloggers will also ring a bell with their American cousins. There are group blogs, "trackback pings," comment fields, blogrolls, and even emoticons (the horror, the horror ;-).
At one level, then, it sounds like a new chapter in the worldwide spread of homogenizing mass media. The more globalization-friendly spin on this would be that blogging is a tool with which Iranians are creating a culture that challenges the fundamentalist social order.
Fortunately, Doostdar's work does not stick to either of these scripts. His paper in American Anthropologist looks at a controversy that raged during the final months of 2003 -- the bahs-e ebtezaal or "vulgarity debate," a heated discussion of the place of blogging in Iranian culture. On one side were members of the roshanfekr class -- meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an "enlightened mind," but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, "has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society."
There are members of the roshanfekr classwho write for blogs, but they have other outlets as well, including newspapers and magazines. On the other side of the debate were Iranian bloggers who were "not intellectuals by social function or profession." The practice of blogrolling and cross-referencing allowed some of them to gain "popularity and a reputation within the community of bloggers."
But it was precisely the "focus on a contextual constitution of self" (with its attendant rituals of backscratching and mini-celebrity) that made blogging a venue for "a radically different set of priorities" from those of "the more 'noble' genres of traditional journalism and literary composition" practiced by the roshanfekr class. "In blogging," writes Doostdar, "speed often takes precedence over thoroughness, outlandishness over rigor, and emotive self-expression over dispassionate analysis."
In October 2003, Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi. a prominent journalist and literary critic, referred to "the stink of vulgarity in Weblogestan" -- complaining about the spelling errors, sloppy language, and low argumentative standards prevailing among bloggers. And as a nice touch, he did this on his own blog. The effect, as Doostdar put it, was to unleash "a cacophony of blog entries, online magazine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponses that continued for several weeks."
Some of the non- roshanfekr who denounced "intellectualist pretense" appear to have taken extra care to make errors in spelling and grammar when they replied. (As Doostdar puts it, they tried to "metapragmatically index themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by being deliberately careless.")
And you can feel the seething bitterness of one blogger who denounced a prominent journalist and short story writer: "Keep mistaking this place as a literary conference when others consider it to be an informal and safe place for chatting. Come sit down wearing a suit and tie and mock those who are wearing jeans."
The populist tone is familiar. Change the accent, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. And yet the lines in the Iranian vulgarity debate were not drawn for the convenience of American pundits.
For one thing, it isn't the familiar story of democratic reformers versus fundamentalist mullahs. It's more complicated than that. The liberalizing influence of the roshanfekr intelligentsia, "although significant, is still small relative to the dominant traditionalist clergy," writes Doostdar. "Their strongest cultural and political leverage is most likely among academics and in the domain of print media..." Going online gives them "a much less restricted environment for publication and cultural-political action" -- but in a space where "just about anything can (and does) get published and there is no authority to enforce linguistic and cultural standards."
The result? Well, consider the case of Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, who launched the initial salvo against "the stench of vulgarity in Weblogstan." Shortly afterward, he created a Web page with links to online editions of fiction that is censored in Iran. But according to Doostday, some "charged that he wanted to stifle free speech" with his criticism of vulgarity, "and compared him to government censors."
On Thursday: Using a Soviet dissident theorist's work to think about the blogopshere Also: is there a "pious spirit of blogging" in Iran?
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Ask almost any American writer today for a list of his or her literary idols, and Frank Conroy’s name usually rises near the top.
The author of one of the best books of our age, Stop-Time, published in 1967, as well as the director of the greatest incubator of literary talent ever assembled, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Conroy was as close to legend as any living writer gets.
Not to mention a Grammy winner—for best liner notes.
Despite a rough beginning, he made the most of a life that ended last week, when he died at age 69 of colon cancer.
Stop-Time slays everyone who reads it.
The poignant, tough and lean prose is every bit as great as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The literary establishment, from Norman Mailer to William Styron, fell before Frank’s wobbly 31-year-old knees when the effervescent memoir was published. Every shimmering word in Stop-Time seemed to detonate as Frank, from a teenager’s perspective, detailed the pain and legacy of an abusive, manic-depressive father and an absentee mother.
The book was the best kind of fiction because it was numbingly true.
It’s not "Genesis," but to many writers, the opening paragraphs of Stop-Time are the bible of literary beginnings:
My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse. …
I try to think of him as sane, yet it must be admitted he did some odd things. Forced to attend a rest-home dance for its therapeutic value, he combed his hair with urine and otherwise played it out like the Southern gentleman he was. He had a tendency to take off his trousers and throw them out the window. (I harbor some secret admiration for this.) At a moment’s notice he could blow a thousand dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch and disappear into the Northwest to become an outdoorsman. He spent an anxious few weeks convinced that I was fated to become a homosexual. I was six months old. And I remember visiting him at one of the rest homes when I was eight. We walked across a sloping lawn and he told me a story, which even then I recognized as a lie, about a man who sat down on the open blade of a penknife embedded in a park bench. (Why, for God’s sake would he tell a story like that to his eight-year-old son?)
Absent any sentimentality, Frank had created an instant classic, ultimately changing how we think of memoir and American literature, as well as how we perceive of the vulnerability of children and the passage each of us goes through to become an adult.
Premature adoration and fame can turn even the most humble of men and women into fools, but Frank seemed to manage. He used his writing to chronicle his personal struggles, publishing perfect-pitch short stories and novels, including Midair, Body and Soul and Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On. His precision with language earned him the respect of legions of journalists, including David Halberstam and Russell Baker.
Unable to corral his prodigious creativity, Frank blossomed as a jazz pianist. He became director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. He arrived as director at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987 and quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher who lived and breathed writing.
Admiring From Afar
Frank was one of the most unpretentious writers I’ve ever known.
I came to the University of Iowa as an eager journalist wholly unfamiliar with the trappings of academic life. A great perk of my job as a journalism professor was living in the shadow of the Writers’ Workshop, known locally as "The Workshop."
Like many others in the business of putting words on paper for a living, I revered Frank from a distance.
I used to see him around town: nose in a book at Prairie Lights, the wonderful bookstore on Dubuque Street; hunched over a newspaper, his lanky legs and arms taking over a booth in the Chesapeake Bagel Company down the block, holding forth with Guinness in hand at The Mill on Burlington Street. Frank and I shared at least one thing: The University of Iowa had hired us as full-time faculty members.
This was much less of an accomplishment for Frank than it was for me, but few universities then and now would consider hiring such undereducated writers. As far as I know, outside of an abstract painter in the Art School, Frank and I were the only full-time faculty members at the university with just bachelor's degrees.
Frank distrusted most academics, a healthy instinct for any writer. Many are long-winded and imprecise with language (a cardinal sin for Frank); they study memorable writing but seldom create writing that’s memorable.
When I got here in 1993, the Writers' Workshop was housed in the same dreary brick-and-concrete building as the English department. There was no love lost on either side when Frank was able to move the Workshop to a lovely renovated 19th Century home, high on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.
He surrounded himself with wonderful writers who also were wonderful teachers of writing, including Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction), Jim McPherson (who won the Pulitzer in 1978) and Jorie Graham (who won for poetry in 1996). Flannery O’Conner, Wallace Stegner, W.P. Kinsella, John Irving, Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle and Jane Smiley cut their teeth as young writers at the Workshop.
Each year, Frank enrolled students who would go on to change the way we look at the written word. The Workshop is probably harder to get into than Harvard Law School: 800 applicants vie for 25 slots. Since its inception in 1936, 26 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to former Workshop students.
For all his facility with words, Frank was an anachronism, a technophobic dinosaur.
He didn’t do e-mail. He surrounded himself with felt-tipped pens, yellow pads and clipboards. He wrote lying in his bed, his back propped against pillows. Whenever he finished a draft, his wife (and best friend) Maggie, would type his longhand into a computer. Frank would then wildly mark up the printout and revise at a compuer.
While a tough teacher, he also was a generous one.
The coveted blurb
When I wrote a nonfiction book in 2000, like all authors, I slogged through the merciless business of trawling for blurbers. Blurbs are the pithy endorsements on the backs of book jackets that publishers hope will persuade otherwise clueless browsers to plunk down cash or credit card. Frank’s policy was not to blurb. Period. I think he probably felt that if he started blurbing, he’d surely never have a free moment for anything else.
At that time, I had not yet met Frank. Personal idols, particularly of the literary variety, are usually best left undisturbed, and I was satisfied to admire Frank and his work from a distance. But someone had handed him an advance copy of my book. Frank packed away the manuscript in his suitcase and took it to his summer house in Nantucket. "Don’t expect anything," I was told.
I blocked out what this great writer and teacher of writing could possibly say about my prose -- until word got back to me that Frank loved the book and was willing to say so. Blurb on the back cover, Frank’s endorsement probably didn’t carry much clout with the ordinary buyer at Barnes & Noble, but to me it meant the world.
We met finally at a reading shortly after the book came out. Frank had been playing piano for a local radio program that night and, just as the reading was winding down, this stranger/mentor arrived. He made a beeline for the podium and gave me a bear hug of congratulations.
Writers aren’t like that. They are morose, moody, competitive, gossips at heart who look askance instead of straight ahead.
Since that evening, Frank and I had often run into each other in this literary town among the cornfields. We talked about writing and politics, especially about our fears that our teenage sons might eventually get pulled into the widening war in Iraq.
Raising some eyebrows
The last time I saw Frank was right after he had caused some eyebrows to arch by accepting from President Bush the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the Workshop. It was the first time a university program had ever achieved such an accolade.
Frank was at Prairie Lights, the bookstore, and as we were both flipping dust covers, checking out too-serious visages of up-and-coming authors, I asked him about his experience at the White House.
And Frank, always the writer, always working, always trying to make sense of the world, said he enjoyed meeting Bush, despite their profound differences. Bush, he said, was caught up in the gears of some grinding machinery that couldn’t be shut down. The president might be at the switch, but he wasn’t in control. Bush, Frank said, really was a likable fellow but had become a victim, a hapless innocent.
And then I saw it once again, Frank turning generous, even magnanimous. But I could also see he was working. There was a magnificent story brewing here, and Frank was mapping out its plot.
Stephen G. Bloom
Stephen G. Bloom, the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," teaches narrative journalism at the University of Iowa.
It isn't a prize or an award, exactly. But next month, the Litblog Co-op -- a consortium of 20 literary bloggers -- will announce the first novel it has selected for its quarterly "Read This" campaign. The participants will urge their audiences to buy the book, and will open discussions of it at their respective Web sites.
My impression from a conversation with Mark Sarvas in late December, when he was first rounding up collaborators on the project, is that the whole enterprise is a kind of laboratory experiment in literary sociology. Can a group of people frustrated with prevailing trends in the publishing industry (which is constantly on the lookout for the next Da Vinci Code, as if one weren't enough) and with mainstream media (where reviewing space shrinks constantly) win recognition for a worthy, but otherwise potentially overlooked, piece of fiction? Or, to put it another way: Do literary bloggers have any power? Considering how many novels and short story collections they now publish, university presses may well want to monitor the results.
Members of the co-op will take turns serving on a five-person nominating committee, each member of which proposes a book. All members then read, debate and vote on the five titles. The winner will be announced on May 15. My efforts to get various people to leak the current slate of books underconsideration have come to nothing.
But on Friday, Daniel Green, who was until recently an adjunct instructor in English at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, did agree to answer some questions by e-mail about the whole process. Green's blog The Reading Experience is part of the co-op. He also contributes to The Valve, sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. (For a critical take on the ALSC's sponsorship, check this out.)
(One passage in the transcript below perhaps requires clarification for readers not up to speed on contemporary cultural exotica. Green refers in passing to "ULA-type 'transgressive' fiction" -- an allusion to the Underground Literary Alliance, a group best known for denouncing all other writers as effete elitists who are terrified of the ULA's plebian manliness. Those not persuaded by the polemics note that all ULA fiction tends to resemble an uninspired imitation of Charles Bukowsi by some inebriated adolescent recently hit on the head with a bowling ball.)
Q: I'm struck by the sense that the Litblog Co-op embodies a strong criticism of how mainstream book publishing and reviewing are organized, with a tiny percentage of new novels getting a strong push, and the rest being left to fend for themselves. At the same time, the fact that you will be urging readers to take a chance on a novel without much of a market presence seems to be a rejection of what we might call the Amazon algorithm -- the notion that if the reader enjoyed X and Y, then the next logical choice is Z. Was there a shared sense, implicit or explicit, of what is wrong with things as they now stand?
A: I definitely see the whole enterprise as a repudiation of the status quo in book publishing. I've put up some posts on my blog expressing rather forcefully my dismay at the status quo. (For example, see this and this.) Most of the other members of the co-op are critical of contemporary publishing as well, but perhaps they're not as cynical as I am. I do think there was agreement that most of the "awards" being given out were designed to puff up the publishing industry, and had very little to do with identifying good books that serious readers might want to read. We wanted to fulfill this responsibility as much as we were able to, given that literary weblogs seem to be acquiring a little more "presence." There wasn't much talk about the Amazon syndrome, but obviously the spirit of the litblog co-op is opposed to the Amazon way of selling books.
Q: So what particular impact might this enterprise might have? It seems that some care has been taken to define it as other than an award -- as if the intent is as much to influence readers as to recognize authors. But do the people involved have any larger goal, in terms of influencing the larger literary culture?
A: You're right that the intent is to influence readers. Thus the "selection" is simply called "Read This." I think that all of the participants believe that litblogs have reached an untapped, or at least undertapped, source of readers for both contemporary fiction and (in my case, at least) the critical discussion of literature more broadly. I also think that most of us hope that our quarterly selection and, if it catches on, the popularity of same, will serve notice to publishers and to the editors of book reviews and magazines that this audience exists. I myself don't have any illusions that serious fiction of the sort we're promoting will suddenly become very popular, or that the litblog co-op will begin to wield enormous influence, but I would hope that our selections would bring additional attention to worthy books from smaller or less well-endowed presses. Probably everyone would agree that that is the main goal.
If writers, readers, editors, book columnists, etc. would pay more attention to litblogs and to the tastes in fiction we're expressing, that would be nice. Not because of the attention per se but because we're illustrating that there are serious readers of fiction in this country.
Q: How much of your internal discussion has been on the merits of any particular title, and how much on the overall standards for what books are worth considering?
A: To some extent, the deliberations on merit are just beginning. We've yet to make the selection, and I don't really know how much contention there will be. The bloggers involved do have diverse interests, but a surprising number of us really do like books that are "off the beaten track." The nominating process was free of contention. The standards/criteria for eligible books were worked out during the listserv discussions, but they have been left pretty wide open. The real goal is to focus during the nominating process on books that aren't being well-promoted in the mainstream press.
Q: You just referred to books that are "off the beaten path," and not served well by the status quo. Can you characterize things more precisely than that? Do the books now under consideration have anything in common at a literary (rather than publishing) level?
A: I'm looking for fiction that takes risks, but that also has a sense of literary craftsmanship. I'm not looking for ULA-type "transgressive" fiction that doesn't really transgress anything except aesthetic sensibility. Although I look first for fiction that is interesting on a formal level, I don't by any means rule out books that also "say something" -- as long as it's not just the same stuff everybody else is saying. Some of the nominated books do these things, while, as far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out (literally) on others. Speaking only for myself, I want to avoid a situation where we start looking for the "representative" -- so many from a certain gender, so many from a certain ethnicity, so many expressing a known point of view, etc. I want to identify books whose authors are committed first of all to extending what's possible in fiction as a literary mode. I think we will probably also be more open to genre fiction than other awards or book selections tend to be.
Q: Last week the Associated Writing Programs (the professional organization for creative writing professors) had its convention. That made me wonder about something. I don't know how many participants in the Litblog Co-op have graduated from MFA programs in creative writing, but at least a few did. Will that have any effect on the process?
A: My suspicion is that more than a few of the participating bloggers will actually look askance at books by authors from MFA programs -- or at least the high profile programs. A few others will consider such books as just as deserving of attention -- if they're good -- as any others. So far, MFAers have not been that welcoming to literary blogs, nor have many creative writing programs themselves taken much note of what's going on vis-a-vis blogs and their influence on reading tastes. To the extent that MFA programs are perceived as part of the "literary establishment," there will probably be some resistance among some co-opers to emphasizing writers who've come from them.
I just put up a post on creative writing, so most of what I think of it can be found there (also in an earlier essay). Some good writers go through creative writing programs, but there's an awful lot of stagnation as well.
Q: You've seen the shaping "Read This" from the inside. Would you comment on how difficult this sort of thing is to organize? How practical would it be for academic bloggers to unite to do something comparable -- say, for nonfiction from university presses that might have a potential audience among nonspecialist readers?
A: From my point of view it didn't seem that difficult. But Mark probably would disagree. He contacted a lot of people -- publishers, editors, publicists, etc. Even now he's busy getting some media notice for the project. He's pretty committed to this, so perhaps he would say it's an effort worth the labor involved. But I'm sure there is labor involved. The listserv discussions were mostly productive, and the logistics were all worked out gradually. Again, Mark drafted the "charter," and then the rest of us made revision suggestions. To me, it seemed to be a group of people who were excited about what they were doing and thus worked things out relatively harmoniously. If a comparable group of academic bloggers wereable to approach things in a similar way, I'm sure it could be done. Academic egos being what they are, however....
I can't say I'm perfectly happy with every detail of the final product (no one else in the group would probably be able to, either), but, all in all, it was a worthwhile endeavor that, as we were putting it together, seemed enjoyable as much as anything else.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Only that I was flattered to be invited to be part of the original group of co-op bloggers, and that the amount of interest our "selection" seems to be gathering suggests that in its very short existence litblogging has managed to establish itself as a medium of some influence and potential value.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on (usually) Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Over the past few days, an essay by Paul Maliszewski in the latest issue of Bookforum has stirred up a discussion that has been sometimes passionate, if seldom particularly well-informed.
In it, Maliszewski, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, takes a close look at a lecture that Michael Chabon has given several times in which the Pulitzer-winning novelist recounts his childhood friendship with C.B. Colby, the author of Strangely Enough! and similar works of paranormal hokum, and also (Chabon says) the author of a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, published under his real name, Joseph Adler. Only that, too, was a pseudonum. In fact, “Adler” was Viktor Fischer – a Nazi journalist who, after the war, concealed his identity, even to the extent of having a concentration-camp serial number tattooed on his arm.
Maliszewski, who heard Chabon give the lecture a few times, reports that the audience listened with fascination and horror. "The only problem was," he writes, "the personal story Chabon was telling, while he may have presented it as an authentic portrait of the artist, just wasn't true. There was no Adler; and no Fischer either, for that matter. Nor does there exist a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, nor an investigation by The Washington Post. There is a young-adult book titled Strangely Enough!, which is pretty much as Chabon describes it; and it is written by a man named Colby -- though he wasn't, it must be said, a Nazi journalist who disguised himself as a Jewish survivor and holed up in the Maryland suburbs, but rather a real author, based in New York City and residing in Westchester County, who served in the US Air Force Auxiliary after World War II. . . .”
While the essay has been in print for a few weeks, only a portion of it is available online. It provoked little discussion until the appearance, on Monday, of a gossipy and curiously inane New York Times article suggesting that Maliszewsi’s article was itself something of a hoax.
The stakes of the discussion are high: they include the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity, the ethical dimension of storytelling, and the fine line between fantasy and the will to believe. But the terms of the argument have degenerated at impressive speed. People who haven’t bothered to read the essay are denouncing Bookforum for irresponsibility in publishing it, and attributing all sorts of interesting motives to Maliszewski. There is a certain vigor of hysteria that goes with confusing uninformed indignation with critical perspective.
The particulars of the case are not up for dispute. Maliszewski demonstrates that Chabon’s lecture is a fiction. A search of relevant databases confirms that no title called The Book of Hell by Joseph Adler exists, nor was there (as Chabon stated) an expose on the author’s true identity in The Washington Post.
On Tuesday, I spoke by telephone with Eric Banks, the editor of Bookforum, who said, "We did due diligence with the article. There was no intention of scandalmongering. It’s not that kind of piece, in any way, shape, or form. You can argue about the extent to which Chabon drops hints that the lecture is meant to be understood as the product of an unreliable narrator. But our factchecker listened to a recording of Chabon’s lecture at least four times, and we felt like Maliszewski’s account of it is accurate."
The claim that Chabon meant his talk to be interpreted as a "tall tale" has been argued by Matthew Brogan, the program director of the Jewish literary association Nextbook, which is making one version of Chabon’s lecture available online.
But what has really sent the dispute into the red zone of bitter conflict is Maliszewski’s admission that he has more than a casual interest in the question of hoaxes. In a series of essays for The Baffler, he recounts working as a business reporter during the economic boom of the late 1990s. Writing under a number of pseudonyms, he began submitting letters-to-the editor that mimicked what he found particularly obnoxious about the market-worshipping mentality of The Business Journal of Syracuse, New York, the publication where he worked.
During the Teamsters strike of 1998, for example, one Maliszewski persona wrote in to wonder why it was such a big deal that UPS had been fined $4 million dollars for more than 1600 violations of worker safety. After all, the company was very profitable. And think how much more money it could make if it had twice as many violations. They should just consider the fines an operating expense.
His exercises in crackpot punditry started appearing in print, and Maliszewski entered the ethical grey zone where satire and hoaxery meet. He is now writing a book on the topic, with the essay on Chabon as part of it. (For now, you can read some of his Baffler confessions here.
Given his first-hand experience of perpetrating a hoax, the Times article and parrots in the blogosphere have suggested that Maliszewski is disqualified from ever commenting on the phenomenon. That notion is every bit as rational as demanding that sex research be done by certified virgins.
But there is another, stronger, and even more dubious axiom just beneath the surface of the discussion. It is the implicit belief that (so to speak) all hoaxes are created equal. They are morally and epistemologically identical. In particular, it assumes that Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair provide a sort of key to everything -- that hoaxing is, in effect, just a way of parlaying the time-saving convenience of fabrication into social status and ready money.
Well, things are not always quite that straightforward. Of course, some literary hoaxes of a purely mercenary inspiration, such as the phony Howard Hughes memoirs of the early 70s or the forged Hitler diaries 10 years later. But it can be a very different matter when the hoax is intended primarily to make a satirical point -- a category that includes the reductio ad absurdum of a pseudonymous letter to the editor suggesting that a company violate more OSHA regulations to increase its profitability.
Then there are the satirical hoaxes that go horribly wrong, as happened with Report From Iron Mountain, published at the height of the Vietnam War. A parody of what C. Wright Mills once called the “crackpot realism” of the Cold War era, the Report pretended to think the unthinkable -- namely, to imagine how society could still get the benefits of war preparations in the unfortunate event of world peace. The document suggested instituting “a modern, sophisticated form of slavery” and “socially oriented blood games,” as well as fabricating “an established and recognized extraterrestrial menace.” (All of this proposed in a near-perfect imitation of social-science and think-tank prose.)
Although prepared as a critique of the military-industrial complex by humor writer Leonard Lewin -- with advice from Nation editor Victor Navasky -- the bogus Report was rediscovered in the 1990s by the militia movement, whose leaders decided that it was the blueprint for the New World Order. It was reprinted by the Free Press in 1996, in an edition intended to debunk the militias' enthusiasm for it by revealing the hoax. It was an occasion for much chuckling at the pathetic yahoos. But during the 1960s and 70s, the hoax had been effective enough to fool at least some academic social scientists.
Finally, there are the hoaxes that seem to defy any simple explanation. A case very much in point (one that Maliszewski cites in his essay on Chabon) is the memoir Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, in which the author recounts his childhood in a Nazi death camp in Poland. It was published to favorable reviews and became an international best-seller. Researchers have shown that Wilkomirski actually grew up in Switzerland, where he was raised in a secure, middle-class home. But he appears to believe his own story. You can certainly call his book a hoax, though doing so raises far more questions than it answers.
Maliszewski’s essay in Bookforum is alive to such problems -- which is what makes it particularly disgraceful that so few people have bothered to weight its actual argument before denouncing its author. From the commentary, you might suppose that Maliszewski’s purpose is to trash Michael Chabon -- to call him out as a fraud, at best, or perhaps someone with the mental problems implied by Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fantasies of a childhood in hell.
If you take the time to read the essay, though, you find a nuanced and searching analysis of the relationships between author and audience, between memory and fantasy, between story-telling and truth-telling. Maliszewski’s point is less that Chabon intends to trick his audience than that (for a variety of reasons) his listeners want the story to be true.
Nor does the corrosive effect of that desire mitigated by dismissing Chabon’s lecture as a "tall tale." There was actually someone named C.B. Colby who published a book called Strangely Enough! He wasn’t a Holocaust survivor or a secret Nazi – just a volunteer fireman, library-board member, and author of children’s books. "Real life," writes Maliszewski, "apprantely requires exaggerated stakes – a few teaspoons of the Holocaust, say, or some other dramatic supplement to fortify the work’s seriousness."
I’ve been trying to figure out why it doesn’t shock me so much to find this point being made by someone who has himself been on the other side of the process of fabrication. Perhaps it is the realization that there is a pretty good precedent for serving as both hoaxer and debunker.
Edgar Allen Poe perpetrated his share of raids on the public’s gullibility, including a couple of bogus news stories involving balloon flight. But Poe also published essays deducing that a famous 19th century chess-playing robot actually had a midget inside. Either way, there is the same fascination with the mechanisms of the hoax – with the game of revelation and concealment, the careful balance of plausibility and outrageousness.
Perhaps it’s a good thing Poe isn’t around now. The Times would denounce him as a fraud, and the bloggers would go nuts. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that he might turn the whole situation to his own advantage. After all, when enough people feel entitled to form an opinion without the inconvenience of thinking very hard, the hoaxster’s work is already halfway done.
Full disclosure: I do not know Paul Maliszewski very well, but have met him on a couple of occasions, and have read some of his short stories and essays in various literary magazines. From a conversation, it appears that he shares my great fascination with the strange history of Report From Iron Mountain -- a factor which may have biased this column somewhat. His interest in literary hoaxes strikes me as, well, pluperfectly literary.
Be that as it may, it ought to be a prerequisite for any future commentary regarding his essay on Michael Chabon that the discussants have actually read it. It would also be useful to everyone if Chabon himself commented on the matter, which so far he has not done.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A professor -- grant money in hand, spouse and child off on vacation -- goes to Berlin to work on his long-gestating book about the painter Titian. He plans to focus (perhaps New Historicist-style) on an anecdote in which Charles V stooped to pick up the artist's paintbrush.
As often happens with a writing project, the scholar gets bogged down on a minor point. Days go by, turning into weeks. All he writes are the first two words of the book. Meanwhile, he has agreed to take care of a neighbor's plants, and he procrastinates about doing that, too. When he finally gets around to watering them, he lingers a while in front of the television, slipping into the narcotic trance of the total couch potato....
At this point, some of you are thinking, "I know that guy. In fact, I know him a little too well."
The era when any self-respecting academic would do the standard "I do not own a television machine" bit is now as distant and implausible as, say, Ozzy and Harriet. It may be that the turning point is recorded by the cultural commentator John Leonard, in his account of a discussion with Lionel Trilling in the early 1970s. After denying that he actually used his television machine very much, the sage of the Columbia University English department admitted to watching quite a bit of basketball, and also to having a certain weakness for Kojak.
Actually, the Titian scholar with the square eyeballs is the narrator of Jean-Phillipe Toussaint's Television, published in translation last year by the Dalkey Archives Press. It's the sort of novel in which dry irony is the real hero. As the drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs used to say, there isn't a lot of plot to get in the way of the story.
But it seems like the right book to be reading now, during national TV Turnoff Week. Not because the unnamed European professor in Toussaint's book is an example of what happens to someone who succumbs to the tube. Quite the contrary: Television is a book about how pride in not watching can render you even more obsessed.
The narrator (sounding a little like Trilling) announces that he seldom turned the box on: "Apart from major sporting events, which I always watched with pleasure, and of course the news and the occasional election-night special, I never watched much of anything on television." He says he avoided seeing movies there, for the same reason he never read books in Braille.
"Although I never tried it," he continues, "I was always quite sure I could give up watching television anytime, just like that, without suffering in the least, without suffering the slightest ill effect -- in short, that there was no way I could be considered dependent."
And yet, from time to time, he slips into "a slight deterioration of my day-to-day habits." He finds himself barefoot and unshaven, "half-reclining on the couch, taking it easy ... my hand cradling my privates." (Note to anthropologists and psychoanalysts: The latter gesture, possibly universal, requires cross-cultural interpretation. See also Slavoj Zizek's proposal that tendency of men to dominate the remote control is symptom of castration anxiety.)
"Most of these afternoons I was alone in the apartment," the narrator recalls, "but sometimes the cleaning woman was there too, ironing my shirts beside me in the living room, mute with contained indignation."
He resolves, more than once, to quit for good. And yet television is everywhere. Looking out the window of his temporary lodgings, he sees the blue glow in apartment after apartment across the way. Visiting the museum to do research for his monograph (research that merely amounts, at this point, to another form of procrastination) he wanders into the security station, where guards keep watch on the gallery through a bank of surveillance cameras: "After studying the monitors for some time, I finally recognized a painting that had been a starting point for my study, the portrait of Emporer Charles V...."
That is the trouble with procrastination. It is hard to make any progress, no matter how hard you work at it -- and any halfway serious bout of procrastination is, of course, quite exhausting. The obligation you try to escape keeps returning.
Likewise with the effort of Toussaint's narrator to avoid television. The solemn (if never very firm) vow to keep the machine turned off becomes just another stage of immersion in "its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality."
Resistance is futile. So Television shows, tongue in cheek. But for the most articulate terms of surrender, we have to turn to another professor.
"TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data," says Murray J. Siskind, a visiting lecturer at College-on-the-Hill. "It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture patterns...."
(At this point, it is probably worth mentioning that both Siskind and the College appear in Don Delillo's novel White Noise, first published 20 years ago. In 1985, the book was clearly a satire. Now I'm not so sure. It's probably turned into a fairly straightforward picture of the way we live now.)
"Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid," says Siskind, "in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice of life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. 'Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.' The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness, and disgust."
Then again, all of this -- Toussaint's fiction and Delillo's alike -- does seem a little out of date. The locus of procrastination has now shifted.
It's moved to another screen ... a different grid ... offering infinitely more information ... white noise that is louder and blurrier. The distractions range from the sublime to the barely legal.
Going online, and resolving to stay offline, will require another kind of obsessive narrative. One to be read, perhaps, in August, during PC Turnoff Week.
The publication, 100 years ago, of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, in the popular American socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason had an enormous effect -- if not quite the one that its author intended. "I aimed at the public’s heart," Sinclair later said, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Drawing on interviews with workers in Chicago and his own covert explorations of the city’s meat-processing factories, Sinclair intended the novel to be an expose of brutal working conditions. By the time it appeared as a book the following year, The Jungle’s nauseating revelations were the catalyst for a reform movement culminating in the Pure Food and Drug Act. In portraying the life and struggles of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, Sinclair wanted to write (as he put it), “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” thereby ushering in an age of proletarian emancipation. Instead, he obliged the bourgeoisie to regulate itself -- if only to keep from feeling disgust at its breakfast sausages.
In his introduction to a new edition of The Jungle, just published by Bedford/St. Martin’s, Christopher Phelps traces the origins and effects of Sinclair’s novel. Phelps, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University in Mansfield, is currently on a Fulbright fellowship in Poland, where he occupies a distinguished chair in American studies and literature at the University of Lodz. The following is the transcript of an e-mail interview conducted this month.
Q: At one of the major chain bookstores the other day, I noticed at least four editions of The Jungle on the shelf. Yours wasn’t one of them. Presumably it's just a matter of time. What’s the need, or the added value, of your edition? Some of the versions available are pretty cheap, after all. The book is now in the public domain.
A: Yes, it’s even available for free online these days, if all you want is the text. This new edition is for readers seeking context. It has a number of unique aspects. I’m pleased about the appendix, a report written by the inspectors President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched to Chicago to investigate Upton Sinclair’s claims about the meatpacking industry. In one workplace, they watch as a pig slides off the line into a latrine, only to be returned to the hook, unwashed, for processing. No other version of The Jungle includes this report, which before now had lapsed into obscurity. The new edition also features an introduction in which I survey the scholarship on the novel and provide findings from my research in Sinclair’s papers held by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Finally, there are a lot of features aimed at students, including a cartoon, a map, several photographs, a bibliography, a chronology of Sinclair’s life, and a list of questions for discussion. So it doubles as scholarly edition and teaching edition.
Q: Let me ask about teaching the book, then. How does The Jungle go over in the classroom?
A: Extremely well. Students love it. The challenge of teaching history, especially the survey, is to get students who think history is boring to imagine the past so that it comes alive for them. The Jungle has a compelling story line that captures readers’ attention from its very first scene, a wedding celebration shaded in financial anxiety and doubts about whether Old World cultural traditions can survive in America. From then on, students just want to learn what will befall Jurgis and his family. Along the way, of course, Sinclair injects so much social commentary and description that teachers can easily use students’ interest in the narrative as a point of departure for raising a whole range of issues about the period historians call the Progressive Era.
Q: As you've said, the new edition includes a government report that appeared in the wake of the novel, confirming the nauseating details. What are the grounds for reading and studying Sinclair's fiction, rather than the government report?
A: Well, Teddy Roosevelt’s inspectors had the singular mission of determining whether the industry’s slaughtering and processing practices were wholesome. Sinclair, for his part, had many other concerns. What drew him to write about the meatpacking industry in the first place was the crushing of a massive strike of tens of thousands of workers led by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in 1904. In other words, he wanted to advance the cause of labor by exposing the degradation of work and exploitation of the immigrant poor.
When The Jungle became a bestseller, Sinclair was frustrated that the public furor centered almost exclusively on whether the companies were grinding up rats into sausage or disguising malodorous tinned beef with dyes. These were real concerns, but Sinclair cared most of all about the grinding up of workers. I included this government report, therefore, not only because it confirms Sinclair’s portrait of unsanitary meat processing, but because it exemplifies the constriction of Sinclair’s panorama of concerns to the worries of the middle-class consumer.
It further shows how Sinclair’s socialist proposal of public ownership was set aside in favor of regulatory measures like the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Of course, that did not surprise Sinclair. He was proud, rightly so, of having been a catalyst for reform. Now, just as the report must be read with this kind of critical eye, so too the novel ought not be taken literally.
Q: Right. All kinds of problems come from taking any work of literature, even the most intentionally documentary, as giving the reader direct access to history.
A: Nowadays The Jungle is much more likely to be assigned in history courses than in literature courses, and yet it is a work of fiction. You point to a major problem, which we might call the construction of realism. I devote a good deal of attention to literary form and genre in my introduction, because I think they are crucial and should not be shunted aside. I note the influence upon The Jungle of the sentimentalism of Harriet Beecher Stowe, of naturalist and realist writers like William Dean Howells and Frank Norris, and of the popular dime novels of Horatio Alger. Sinclair was writing a novel, not a government report. He fancied himself an American Zola, the Stowe of wage slavery.
A good teacher ought to be able to take into account this status of the text as a work of creative literature while still drawing out its historical value. We might consider Jurgis, for example, as the personification of a class. He receives far more lumps in life than any single worker would in 1906, but the problems he encounters, such as on-the-job injury or the compulsion to make one’s children work, were in fact dilemmas for the working class of the time.
In my introduction, I contrast the novel with what historians now think about immigrant enclaves, the labor process, gender relations, and race. There is no determinant answer to the question of how well The Jungle represented such social realities. Many things it depicted extremely well, others abominably, race being in the latter category. If we keep in mind that realism is literary, fabricated, we can see that Sinclair’s background afforded him a discerning view of many social developments, making him a visionary, even while he was blind in other ways. Those failings are themselves revelatory of phenomena of the period, such as the racism then commonplace among white liberals, socialists, and labor activists. It’s important that we read the novel on all these levels.
Q: Sinclair wrote quite a few other novels, most of them less memorable than The Jungle. Well, OK, to be frank, what I've heard is that they were, for the most part, awful. Is that an unfair judgment? Was The Jungle a case of the right author handling the right subject at the right time?
A: That's precisely it, I think. Sinclair was uniquely inspired at the moment of writing The Jungle. I've been reading a lot of his other books, and although some have their moments, they sure can give you a headache. Many of them read like failed attempts to recapture that past moment of glory. He lived to be ninety and cranked out a book for every year of his life, so it's a cautionary tale about allowing prolixity to outpace quality. The book of his that I like best after The Jungle is his 1962 autobiography, a book that is wry and whimsical in a surprising and attractive, even disarming, way.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There’s a wonderful scene in the 1979 film Manhattan that is parody, but as in most satire, perilously close to reality. Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) are strolling in the Guggenheim Museum when Mary starts rattling off the names of members of what she calls the "Academy of the Overrated." Among the academy’s charter members: Norman Mailer, Gustav Mahler, Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Walt Whitman, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.
Woody is beside himself. He can’t believe anyone would trash those so close to his heart.
Flash-forward to a meeting I attended recently. The journalism school at the University of Iowa is deservedly getting a new building, a marvel of technological and architectural wonders dedicated to teaching the wonders of communication to would-be 21st Century journalists. A colleague and I were selected to coordinate a day-long dedication for the new school, and through the benevolence of a benefactor, have a small pot of money to spend to attract a big-name speaker or two.
As in everything academic, the decision won’t be mine alone. The j-school will be sharing its new space with a hybrid, the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and because universities like to act democratically, representatives from the two disciplines need to agree on who the speakers would be.
On the j-school’s list were such luminaries as Donald Barlett, James Fallows, Donald Graham, Bill Kovach, Daniel Okrent, James Steele and Bob Woodward.
Just as I finished circulating this A-list of names, a young professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature sneered. "Well, I'd hope we wouldn’t invite Woodward!" She was almost spitting.
"What's wrong with Woodward?" I asked, my blood pressure beginning to spike.
"Well, I just don’t think he’s a very good journalist!" the professor snarled.
A momentary pause for anyone who’s been living in a cave: Bob Woodward has taken us into the lives of Americans as diverse as the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton, John Belushi, the former CIA chief spy William Casey, the Supreme Court justices, Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan. With help from Carl Bernstein, he was responsible for showing Richard Nixon the White House door. Woodward has been one of America’s most gifted newspapermen for more than 35 years. He has changed how Americans look at our country and how journalists write about it.
Considering all the above, I stared at this Judas in my midst, my mouth forming an O-shape. I looked around the table for a nibble of support but got none. Just as I was about to jump on the table to protest, my own colleague from the journalism school joined Judas, voicing her assessment of Woodward as an opportunistic sellout.
The emboldened professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature hopped on the thread. "We definitely wouldn’t want Woodward," she said now with finality.
"But then who?" I asked.
"Well, I could see inviting Sy Hershman."
This cinema-and-comparative-literature professor was so chummy with the investigative reporter and New Yorker political writer Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal story, that she was comfortable enough calling him Sy, but somehow couldn’t get his last name right.
The rest of the discussion, as far as I could follow, involved how corrupt journalism is and how complicit the school is to take money from the likes of giants like Gannett, Lee Enterprises and other models of corporate greed.
After gathering my wits, I suggested that we ought to have two separate days of dedication -- one where academics could trash the corporate model of journalism, and another where professional journalists could talk about ways to enhance and improve American journalism.
Absolutely not, the professors around me railed. There should be one and only one program. The journalists (well, maybe not Woodward) should be invited to the dedication to learn from the academics. We need to publicly humiliate, flog and pummel these propagandists. Lock the doors so the lapdogs can’t escape. Call C-SPAN to document the bloodbath.
I’m not making this up.
What’s the lesson? Just another case of academic elitism at its most basic and sniveling core?
What happened is not new or different from how the academy has historically looked at anything popular or successful. Popularity means corrupt, and corrupt means without merit, worthy of scorn -- a ticket into the Academy of the Overrated.
That recent incident recalled a similar instance of incorrigible academic elitism I experienced when I was an untenured professor and about to submit a book proposal to a trade publisher. A tenured faculty member told me, point blank, that if a trade publishing house were ever to publish my book, I should be prepared to kiss tenure goodbye. Naïve and new to the job, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"You mean to say that if a reputable publisher, a place like Knopf, Doubleday or Harcourt, were to publish the book, and if it were to get positive reviews in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a great number of people were to read the book, I wouldn’t get tenure?" "That’s right," came the acid response from the full professor. "Trade publishers will print anything that’ll sell."
As though writing a book that the lay people read would be bad.
I had never heard of anything so undemocratic in my life. Almost a decade later, I still feel the same way. I understand that there is a place for serious scholarship, which by nature has a limited audience. But I was a journalist, teaching in a journalism school. The definition of good journalism is to break new ground, and in doing so, reach as large an audience as possible. The idea is to discover and inform -- not really so different from the role of a university professor.
I’m glad to report that the full professor soon left the university, the book came out, I got tenure, was promoted, and life has been rosy ever since. But the professor’s elitist drivel still sticks in my craw because his snobbery runs so rampant in the academy today -- as what I experienced with the dopey professor from the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature.
Frankly, I doubt whether Bob Woodward would even want to come to Iowa in the first place. The real action these days when it comes to improving journalism isn’t in the critical-cultural halls of academe. No surprise. It lies with smart, savvy reporters and editors pushing the limits of corporate media ownership by producing the kind of journalism that demands to be disseminated and read, stuff so good that no one can ignore it.
It’s hard to be a journalist today given economic constraints, not to mention a surging patriotic mandate from a large part of this nation that dictates to be critical of the government is to be Un-American. In my mind, to do journalism well today is a form of heroism.
For more than a century, the credo of millions of American journalists used to be “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That magnificent credo still flies proudly at several rarified media outlets. God knows, such journalism is needed today. The way journalism is practiced today at many newspapers and electronic outlets is mediocre, often embarrassing. For many reasons, much mainstream journalism has entered a new kind of Dark Age.
But journalists shouldn’t -- and won’t -- put up with ivory-tower snipers pointing AK-47s at their real-world heads. Few newly minted journalism/mass communication Ph.D.s today have any familiarity with the great journalists of our times -- Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, to name a few. Mention John Hersey, Rachel Carson, James Agee, Lincoln Steffens, H.L. Mencken, Hannah Arendt, Ida Tarbell and you’re likely to get blank stares. Doctoral students today receive few incentives to study journalists. Today’s graduate students in the field study critical-cultural theoretical icons who, I’m afraid to say, have little real understanding of today’s working press.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s so little scholarship that has contributed to improving the quality of journalism. I doubt whether scholars really want to do that, anyway. For most scholars, such activity would be considered beneath them — sort of like publishing a book that people could actually understand.
Stephen G. Bloom
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and Inside the Writer’s Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism. He has worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Jose Mercury News, and is co-founder of the Iowa Journalists Oral History Project (http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/journalists/index2.htm).