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).
Right after 9/11, the obituaries started to appear: Irony, the reports said, was dead. Either that or in really bad condition.
It had been a very 1990s thing, this irony. Never before in human history had so many people so often used that two-handed gesture to inscribe quotation marks in the air. Or pronounced the word really with an inflection conveying the faux enthusiasm that doubled as transparent contempt (as in; "I really like that new Britney Spears single"). The manner had been forged in earlier times -- by pioneers at the Harvard Lampoon, for example. But it really caught on during the cold peace that followed the Cold War. Suddenly, irony became available to everyone, on the cheap. It was the wit of the witless, the familiar smirk beneath the perpetually raised eyebrow.
And then it died. Hard realities broke through the callow veneer of detachment. Everybody became very earnest. And then America entered its present golden age of high seriousness.
Oh, no, wait.... That last bit never actually happened. The rest of the story is familiar enough, though. So much so, in fact, that I am reluctant to note my own recent suspicion that, after all, it's more or less true. Irony really is dead.
It's not just that irony is a much richer notion than sarcasm. Broadly defined, it means the coexistence of two radically counterposed (even mutually contradictory) meanings within the same utterance. The simplest case would be saying, "What a beautiful day!" in the middle of a hurricane. But the subtler kinds spin out into infinity....
There is the irony of Plato's dialogues, where men who are very sure of their own competence try to explain things to Socrates (who says that he knows nothing, yet quickly, through simple questions, ties their arguments into the Athenian equivalent of pretzels). There is dramatic irony, in which action on stage means one thing for the characters and something very different for the audience. And let's not even get started on where the German philosophers went with it -- beyond noting that it turned into something like the essence of art, consciousness,and human existence.
I'm not saying that there is no connection at all between the Philosophical Fragments of Friedrich Schlegel and the camp value of listening to The Carpenters' Greatest Hits. Actually, they go together pretty well, if you're in the right mood. (As Schlegel put it: "For a man who has achieved a certain height and universality of cultivation, his inner being is an ongoing chain of the most enormous revolutions." So you might start out feeling all ironic about Karen Carpenter, then end up overwhelmed by her voice.)
But that just makes it all the more sad to realize that the rumors are true. Irony is now extinct, or at least in a coma. I got the evidence last week and have been bummed ever since.
The proverbial lightbulb over the head went on while reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf. It is a massive book, the product of about a quarter century of research into the physicist's ascent to power and his marytrdom under the original wave of McCarthyism.
It is an absorbing book. The authors are both distinguished, and the story they tell is almost unnerving in its contemporary resonances. My reviewer's copy now has the usual marks in the margin to highlight various passages that made a strong impression.
But flipping back through it now, I find the record of another kind of readerly response. At some point, the authors begin applying the word "ironic," in its various forms, to situations occuring in Oppenheimer's life. And astonishingly enough, it seems that the authors never manage to use it in a meaningful way.
For example, in the spring of 1934, Oppenheimer earmarks three percent of his salary to help German physicists who are fleeing the Nazis. "Ironically," write Bird and Sherwin, "one of the refugees who may have been assisted by this fund was [Oppenheimer's] former professor in Gottingen, Dr. James Franck." (Here, it appears that they think "irony" means either "coincidentally" or "oddly enough.")
During the depression, Oppenheimer's wife had been a Communist who, "ironically, survived on government relief checks of $12.50." (Ayn Rand living on welfare -- now that would be ironic. But an unemployed left-winger?)
Other examples could be offered. In no case that I recall do Bird and Sherwin use the word in anything like an appropriate way. Which is all the more striking because Oppenheimer's story is thick with ironies. For example, during the McCarthy years, his effort to rebuff a Soviet agent's attempt to recruit him as a spy in the early 1940s turns into the "proof" that he was disloyal. It is a reversal worthy of Sophocles -- a situation that is profoundly ironic.
Not that the authors ever use the word in that (for once, appropriate) way. Instead, we stay trapped in that Alanis Morrissette song from the mid-1990s:
It's like rain on your wedding day It's a free ride when you've already paid It's the good advice that you just didn't take... And isn't it ironic ... don't you think?
To which the answer is, of course, "No." Such things are not ironic in any sense. (Inconvenient, yes. Ironic, no.)
Now, it could be that I'm overreacting. Maybe the fact that two intelligent and capable writers -- in a major book, on an important topic, published by one of the country's top presses -- end up sounding like Alanis Morrissette is not as worrisome as it seems. Perhaps irony is not dead after all?
Either that, or we need to define the word in a new way. "Ironic, adj., of or pertaining to a situation involving no irony whatsoever."
People who met Aldous Huxley would sometimes notice that, on any given day, the turns of his conversation would follow a brilliant, unpredictable, yet by no means random course. The novelist might start out by mentioning something about Plato. Then the discussion would drift to other matters -- to Poe, the papacy, and the history of Persia, followed by musings on photosynthesis. And then, perhaps, back to Plato.
So Huxley's friends would think: "Well, it's pretty obvious which volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica he was reading this morning."
Now, it's a fair guess that whoever recounted that story (to the author of whichever biography I read it in) meant to tell it at Huxley's expense. It's not just that it makes him look like an intellectual magpie, collecting shiny facts and stray threads of history. Nor even that his erudition turns out to be pre-sorted and alphabetical.
Rather, I suspect the image of an adult habitually meandering through the pages of an encyclopedia carries a degree of stigma. There is a hint of regression about it -- if not all the way back to childhood, at least to preadolescent nerdishness.
If anything, the taboo would be even sterner for a fully licensed and bonded academic professional.
Encyclopedia entries are among the lowest form of secondary literature. Very rare exceptions can be made for cases such as Sigmund Freud's entry on "Psychoanalysis" in the 13th edition of the Britannica, or Kenneth Burke's account of his own theory of dramatism in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. You get a certain amount of credit for writing for reference books -- and more for editing them. And heaven knows that the academic presses love to turn them out. See, for example, The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Mercer University Press), The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press) and The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press), not to mention The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge).
It might be okay to "look something up" in an encyclopedia or some other reference volume. But read them? For pleasure? The implication that you spend much time doing so would be close to an insult - a kind of academic lese majesty.
At one level, the disdain is justified. Many such works are sloppily written, superficial, and/or hopelessly unreliable. The editors of some of them display all the conscientiousness regarding plagiarism one would expect of a failing sophomore. (They grasp the concept, but do not think about it so much as to become an inconvenience.)
But my hunch is that social pressure plays a larger role in it. Real scholars read monographs! The nature of an encyclopedia is that it is, at least in principle, a work of popularization. Probably less so for The Encyclopedia of Algebraic Topology, assuming there is one. But still, there is an aura of anti-specialization and plebian accessibility that seems implicit in the very idea. And there is something almost Jacobin about organizing things in alphabetical order.
Well then, it's time. Let me confess it: I love reading encyclopedias and the like, at least in certain moods. My collection is not huge, but it gets a fair bit of use.
Aside from still-useful if not cutting- edge works such as the four-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) and Eric Partridge's indispensible Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Origins (Macmillan, 1958), I keep at hand any number of volumes from Routledge and Blackwell offering potted summaries of 20th century thinkers. (Probably by this time next year, we'll have the 21st century versions.)
Not long ago, for a ridiculously small price, I got the four paperbound volumes of the original edition of the Scribners Dictionary of the History of Ideas, first published in 1973 -- the table of contents of which is at times so bizarre as to seem like a practical joke. There is no entry on aesthetics, but one called "Music as Demonic Art" and another called "Music as a Divine Art." An entry called "Freedom of Speech in Antiquity" probably ought to be followed with something that brings things up to more recent times -- but no such luck.
The whole thing is now available online, with its goofy mixture of the monographic ("Newton's Opticks and Eighteenth Century Imagination") and the clueless (no entries on Aristotle or Kant, empiricism or rationalism). But somehow the weirdness is more enjoyable between covers.
And then, of course, there is the mother of them all: the Encyclopedia or Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts that Denis Diderot and friends published in the 1750s and '60s. Aside from a couple of volumes of selections, I've grabbed every book by or about Diderot in English that I've ever come across.
Diderot himself, appropriately enough, wrote the entry for "Encyclopedia" for the Encyclopedia.
The aim of such a work, he explained, is "to collect all the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to present its general structure to the men with whom we live, and to transmit this to those who will come after us, so that the work of past centuries may be useful to the following centuries, that our children, by becoming more educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and happier, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race."
Yeah! Now that's something to shoot for. It even makes reading encyclopedias seem less like a secret vice than a profound obligation.
And if, perchance, any of you share the habit -- and have favorite reference books that you keep at hand for diversion, edification, or moral uplift -- please pass the titles along below....
Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.
The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."
At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.
Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.
The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."
But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.
Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)
Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarianis due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?
Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.
My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?
His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."
He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."
Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.
"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."
And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."
Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.
Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers. They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them.
An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.
Pierre Bourdieu had a way of getting under one's skin. I don't mean his overtly polemical works -- the writings against globalization and neoliberalism that appeared toward the end of his life, for example. He was at his most incisive and needling in works that were much less easy for the general public to read. Bourdieu's sociological research kept mapping out the way power, prestige, and exclusion work in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture.
He was especially sharp (some thought brutal) in analyzing the French academic world. At the same time, he did very well in that system; very well indeed. He was critical of the way some scholars used expertise in one field to leverage themselves into positions of influence having no connection with their training or particular field of confidence. It could make him sound like a scold. At the same time, it often felt like Bourdieu might be criticizing his own temptation to become an oracle.
In the course of my own untutored reading of Bourdieu over the years, there came a moment when the complexity of his arguments and the aggressiveness of his insights suddenly felt like manifestations of a personality that was angry on the surface, and terribly disappointed somewhere underneath. His tone registered an acute (even an excruciating) ambivalence toward intellectual life in general and the educational system in particular.
Stray references in his work revealed glimpses of Bourdieu as a "scholarship boy" from a family that was both rural and lower-middle class. You learned that he had trained to be a philosopher in the best school in the country. Yet there was also the element of refusal in even his most theoretical work -- an almost indignant rejection of the role of Master Thinker (played to perfection in his youth by Jean-Paul Sartre) in the name of empirical sociological research.
There is now a fairly enormous secondary literature on Bourdieu in English. Of the half-dozen or so books on him that I've read in the past few years, one has made an especially strong impression, Deborah Reed-Danahay's recent study Locating Bourdieu (Indiana University Press, 2005). Without reducing his work to memoir, she nonetheless fleshes out the autobiographical overtones of Bourdieu's major concepts and research projects. (My only complaint about the book is that it wasn't published 10 years ago: Although it is a monograph on his work rather than an introductory survey, it would also be a very good place for the new reader of Bourdieu to start.)
Reed-Danahay is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington. She recently answered a series of questions by e-mail. Q: Bourdieu published sociological analyses of the Algerian peasantry, the French academic system, the work of Martin Heidegger, and patterns of attendance at art galleries -- to give only a very incomplete list. Yet his work seems much more focused and coherent than a catalog of topics would suggest. Can you to sum up the gist of his work, or rather how it all holds together?
A: Yes, I agree that, at first glance, Bourdieu's work seems to cover a seemingly disparate series of studies. When I read Bourdieu's work on education in France after first being exposed to his Algerian peasant studies in my graduate work in anthropology, I wondered if this was the same person. But when the entire corpus is taken together, and when one carefully reads Bourdieu's many texts that returned to themes brought up earlier in his work, one can see several underlying themes and recurring intellectual questions.
One way to get a handle on his work is to realize that Bourdieu was interested in explaining social stratification, and the hierarchy of social values, in contemporary capitalist societies. He wanted to study systems of domination in a way that held some room for social agency but without a notion of complete individual freedom. Bourdieu often evoked Althusser as an example of a theorist who had too mechanical a view of internalized domination, while Sartre represented the opposite extreme of a philosopher who posited free will.
Bourdieu believed that we are all constrained by our internalized dispositions (our habitus), deriving from the milieu in which we are socialized, which influence our world view, values, expectations for the future, and tastes. These attributes are part of the symbolic or cultural capital of a social group.
In a stratified society, a higher value is associated with the symbolic capital of members of the dominant sectors versus the less dominant and "controlled" sectors of society. So that people who go to museums and like abstract art, for instance, are expressing a form of symbolic capital that is more highly valued than that of someone who either rarely goes to museums or who doesn't like abstract art. The person feels that this is "just" a matter of taste, but this can have important consequences for children at school who have not been exposed to various forms of symbolic capital by their families.
Bourdieu studied both social processes (such as the French educational system, Algerian postcolonial economic dislocations, or the rural French marriage system), and individual figures and their social trajectories -- including Heidegger, Flaubert, and an Algerian worker. Bourdieu was trying to show how the choices these people made (and he often wrote of choices that were not really choices) were expressions of the articulation of habitus and the social field in which it is operating.
Q: Something about his career always seemed paradoxical. Sartre was always his worst-case reference, for example. But by the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was regarded as the person who had filled Sartre's shoes. Has your work given you a sense of how to resolve this seeming contradiction?
A: There is a lot of silence in Bourdieu's work on the ways in which he acquired power and prestige within the French academic system or about how he became the most famous public intellectual in France at the time of his death. He was more self-reflexive about earlier periods in his life. I have trouble defending Bourdieu in this contradiction about his stance toward the public intellectual, even though I applaud his political engagements.
I think that Bourdieu felt he had more authority to speak to some of these issues than did other academics, given his social origins and empirical research in Algeria and France among the underclass. Bourdieu repeatedly positioned the sociologist (and one can only assume he meant himself here, too) as having a privileged perspective on the "reality" of systems of domination.
Bourdieu was very critical of Sartre for speaking out about the war in Algeria and for championing a sort of revolutionary spirit among Algerians. Bourdieu accused him of trying to be a "total intellectual" who could speak on any topic and who did not understand the situation in Algeria as profoundly as did the sociologist-ethnologist Bourdieu. When Bourdieu himself became more visible in his own political views (particularly in attacks against globalization and neo-liberalism), he does seem to have acted like the "journalist"-academics he lampooned in Homo Academicus. Nevertheless, when he was criticizing (in his essay On Television) what he saw as the necessity for "fast thinking" on television talk shows in France, where talking heads must quickly have something to say about anything, Bourdieu did (in his defense) refrain from pontificating about any and everything.
There is still a huge controversy raging in France about Bourdieu's political engagements. His detractors vilify him for his attacks against other intellectuals and journalists while he became a public intellectual himself. His defenders have published a book of his political writings ( Interventions, 1961-2001) seeking to show his long-standing commitments, and continue to guard his reputation beyond the grave.
I cannot help but think that Bourdieu's public combative persona, and his (in his own terms) refusals and ruptures, helped rather than thwarted his academic career. The degree to which this was calculated or (as he claimed) was the result of the "peasant" habitus he acquired growing up in southwestern France, is unknown.
Q: So much of his analysis of academic life is focused on the French university system that there is always a question of how well it could apply elsewhere. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. What's it been like to move between his concepts and models and your own experience as an American academic?
A: I see two ways to answer your question. Certainly, in the specifics, French academia is very different. I have experienced that directly. My own American cultural values of independence (which may, I am aware, be a total illusion) conflict with those of many French academics.
When I first arrived in France to do my dissertation fieldwork, I came with a grant that opened some doors to French academia, but I had little direct sponsorship by powerful patrons in the U.S. I was doing a project that had little to do with the work of my professors, none of whom had done research in France or Europe, and it was something that I had come up with on my own. This was surprising to the French, who were familiar with a patron-client system of professor/student relations. Most of the graduate students I met in France were involved in projects related to the work of their professors.
French academia, still centralized in Paris despite attempts at decentralization, is a much smaller universe than that of the vast American system. There is little room for remaining "outside" of various polemics there. I've learned, for instance, that some people whom I like and admire in France hated Bourdieu and that Bourdieu followers tend to be very fierce in their defense of him and want to promote their view of his work.
This is not to say that American academia doesn't have similar forces operating, but there are multiple points of value and hierarchy here. Whereas Bourdieu could say that Philosophy dominated French academia during the mid-20th century, it is harder to pinpoint one single dominant intellectual framework here.
I do, however, feel that Bourdieu's critique of academia as part of a larger project of the study of power (which he made very explicit in The State Nobility) is applicable beyond France. His work on academia provided us with a method of inquiry to look at the symbolic capital associated with academic advancement and, although the specific register of this will be different in different national contexts, the process may be similar. Just as Bourdieu did in France, for example, one could study how it is that elite universities here "select" students and professors.
Q: We have a memoir of Sartre's childhood in The Words. Is there anything comparable for Bourdieu?
A: Bourdieu produced self-referential writings that began to appear in the late 1990s, with "Impersonal Confessions" in Pascalian Meditations (1997), a section called "Sketch for a Self-Analysis" in his final lectures to the Collège de France, Science of Science and Reflexivity (2001), and then the stand-alone volume Esquisse pour une Auto-Analyse, published posthumously in 2004. [ Unlike the other titles listed, this last volume is not yet available in English. -- S.M.]
A statement by Bourdieu that "this is not an autobiography" appears as an epigraph to the 2004 essay. I find his autobiographical writings interesting because they show us a bit about how he wanted to use his own methods of socio-analysis on himself and his own life, with a focus particularly on his formative years -- his childhood, his education, his introduction to academia, and his experiences in Algeria.
Bourdieu was uncomfortable with what he saw as narcissism in much autobiography, and also was theoretically uncomfortable with life stories that stressed the individual as hero without sufficient social analysis. He had earlier written an essay on the 'biographical illusion" that elaborated on his biographical approach, but without self-reference. These essays are not, then, autobiographical in the conventional sense of a linear narrative of a life. Bourdieu felt that a truly scientific sociology depended on reflexivity on the part of the researcher, and by this he meant being able to analyze one's own position in the social field and one's own habitus.
On the one hand, however, Bourdieu's auto-analysis was a defensive move meant to preempt his critics. Bourdieu included a section on self-interpretation in his book on Heidegger, in which he referred to it as "the riposte of the author to those interpretations and interpreters who at once objectify and legitimize the author, by telling him what he is and thereby authorizing him to be what they say he is..." (101). As Bourdieu became increasingly a figure in the public eye and increasingly a figure of analysis and criticism, he wanted to explain himself and thus turned to self-interpretation and auto-analysis.
Q: In a lot of ways, Bourdieu seems like a corrosive thinker: someone who strips away illusions, rationalizations, the self-serving beliefs that institutions foster in their members. But can you identify a kernel of something positive or hopeful in his work -- especially in regard to education? I'd like to think there is one....
A: Bourdieu had little to say about how schools and universities operate that is positive, and he was very critical of them. The hopeful kernel here is that in understanding how they operate, how they inflict symbolic violence and perpetuate the illusions that enable systems of domination, we can improve educational institutions.
Bourdieu felt strongly that by de-mystifying the discourses and aura of authority surrounding education (especially its elite forms), we can learn something useful. The trick is how to turn this knowledge into power, and Bourdieu did not have any magical solutions for this. That is work still to be done.