Sunday, July 19, 2009

Small Wonder

Small Wonder
Barbara Kingsolver (2002, HarperCollins)

This collection of essays by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver arose out of the events of September eleventh; hers is a voice we sorely need to hear, speaking of the possibility of peace. For what has war begotten, but more war? Is there another way, besides the continued sowing of deadly dragon’s teeth? In the opening essay, Kingsolver offers this vision: “... I’m emboldened by Medea to speak up on behalf of psychological strategy. It’s not a simple-minded suggestion; her elixir of contentment is exactly as symbolic as Jason’s all-conquering sword, and the latter has by no means translated well into reality.”
Kingsolver’s topic turns out to be something more, perhaps ‘Life on the Planet in Parlous Times’, and her purview is wide. She and her husband write articles about threatened habitats around the world; these share space with disquisitions on the joys of homegrown food--and sobering facts about our fuel-based economy, in particular the distance most of our groceries travel to our tables. It’s simply not sustainable, driving our dinner to the moon and back every year.
These essays are both luminous and illuminating; Kingsolver contrives to deliver terrible news in such a way as to elicit hope, not despair. “I’m not up for a guilt trip, just an adventure in bearable lightness. I approach our efforts at simplicity as a novice approaches her order, aspiring to a lifetime of deepening understanding, discipline, serenity, and joy.”
Actually, several lifetimes--her aspirations include teaching her children some of the authentic ways of the world that most American children don’t get much chance to learn. One of my favorite essays describes the domestic joy of feeding the garden’s hornworms and pigweeds to her five-year-old daughter’s flock of chickens, to be converted into Free Breakfast.
And when Kingsolver had to tell that little girl that yes, they were still having that war in Afghanistan, she had only such small specificities to offer by way of comfort. ”...I understood that day that we are all in the same boat. It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out; the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”
Amen, and thanks be to God.

March 2003

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Artful Edit

For the second time in seven years, an outright pan:

The Artful Edit: on the practice of editing yourself.
Susan Bell  (2007, W. W. Norton and Co.)

     I thought I had a handle on this review: I would start with the spelling mistakes,
<< "Fitzgerald gave Gatsby the tick of calling people 'old sport'...>>
<< He wrote to the order of his muse and could not bring himself to edit the few precious words he managed to eek out each week.>> (Eek!)

move on to the errors of punctuation,

Daisy is distant from the reader because she is distant period.

and word usage,
<< The umbrage of former teachers and literary stewards was vital to Caponegro's writing life. >>  (I'm guessing Bell thinks 'umbrage' means something like 'sheltering shade')
<< The Catholic Church held strict rule over art for most of that time, and a suite of prudish popes and draconian Councils turned editing largely into censorship.>> (Suite?? How about 'succession', or perhaps 'series'?)

then turn my attention to the sentences--but there are so many breathtakingly bad sentences in this book, and they are bad in so many ways. A few failed more than one test for good sense. OK, deep breath.

     Susan Bell self-edited The Artful Edit, apparently, and the results are not a good advertisement for the practice. Since Bell has been editing others professionally for twenty years, I really hoped for better. One difficulty is that an editor should know a few things the writer doesn't know, which doesn't tend to be the case when they are the same person wearing two hats. What if neither persona knows where to put a comma, or what 'begs the question' means?

     Also, the ideal editor also stands at a dispassionate distance from the writing. Sometimes a writer can achieve this by putting a manuscript away for some period of time, and returning to it with a fresh eye, (perhaps in another room, with a printout and a colored pen.) So far, so good. Bell recommends this practice, and she puts in a good word for rooting out writing that merely retraces familiar ruts: "... writers may need to edit out favorite riffs to force themselves to really write--not merely record the verbal mannerisms stored in the brain."

     But she contradicts herself a few pages later: "When you edit yourself, the same danger exists; the writer in you may be intimidated by the editor in you. If you have the slightest suspicion that you are overediting, you, writer, need to stand up against you, editor." Then what, pray tell, was the editing for? Editing, whether for oneself or another, is not meant to throttle the writer's distinctive voice, but to let that voice be heard clearly. Why would the writer-self be opposed to that? If, as Bell implies, editing makes writing dull, you're doing it wrong.

     "When I go back into my text one too many times, a voice starts to rise in my head, a haunting litany that says, 'Don't fix it if it ain't broken.'" Oh, my dear Ms. Bell, it IS broken. Don't you see how hackneyed 'a haunting litany' is? --and you have the quoted expression backwards.

     Suppressing, for the moment, the urge to line-edit the whole book and mail it back to W. W. Norton, I will content myself with noting a few more of the peculiar contradictions I happened upon.          

     "Subtle is good, obtuse is not. Your reader should not tilt his head, squint, and say 'Huh?' because the relationship of one unit to the next is unclear or absent."  True enough, but that's exactly what's wrong with these: "Each word, not simply phrase, after all, means something. Every 'it,' 'at,' and 'for'--and where it gets situated--is a choice."  "In chapter one, we will learn to step back from our words to see them for what they are, not wish they would be." "Modifiers are often overused, vague, or superfluous, or all three. They mollify a sentence instead of strengthen it." "Details may be many or few,  but best not to shovel them in wholesale." Again and again, in the attempt to trim fat, Bell cuts sinew instead.

     Here's another good suggestion that Bell cannot seem to follow: "Commit to your ideas; be certain enough to write them without wordy precautions , announcements, or apologies.... The reader, by virtue of reading, wants those ideas, and not peripheral verbiage." Surely we could have done without 'by virtue of reading'.

     "Listen for whether or not your ideas sound organized or scattershot."  One 'or' or the other, don't you think?

     Now here's an idea-- "If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly."  Aye, but it does need to be written well. "Structure, then, is not a straitjacket for your words. It is an architecture that moves readers through and allows them to pause, not randomly, but with direction."  Pause, with direction: stop reading, and breathe four times, slowly. Now resume reading.

     "When you edit, check to see that you're using the long, curvaceous sentence to say something, not as a catchall for the numerous ideas you've been unable to tease out and trim. In works by writers such as Dave Hickey, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, convoluted phrasing, in essays or fiction, succeed at conveying  meaning as clear as glass."  Clear as glass! "As you edit, watch out for long-winded areas, where you lose track of and even interest in the content of what may be beautifully turned sentences." 
     Speaking of "may," this one should have been a 'might' (Chekhov having died nearly forty years before Walter Murch was born): "Chekhov may have appreciated Murch's method, at once esoteric and technical..."

     Here's one, alas, that applies to me today: "We often write two, three, or four times the ideas that our piece can effectively hold."

     "Avoid overwriting or pretention. Have you succumbed to a self-conscious choice of word or syntax? Does your work, or any part of it, feel artificial, effortful, irritating?"
     I'm sorry to say that the answer to those questions is an unqualified affirmative. Don't say I didn't warn you.

January 2008

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Negotiating with the Dead

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
Margaret Atwood (2002, Cambridge University Press)
"...what is this writing, anyway, as a human activity or as a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it?"
You may, like me, have a shelf of books about writing--at the practical end, dictionaries, style books, Strunk and White; Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead belongs at the other end of the shelf, the philosophical end. These essays originated as the Empson Lectures given at the University of Cambridge, and while Atwood disclaims scholarship and literary theory, ("any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw...") she has read widely and well. Her jackdaw borrowings are no mere charm bracelet of quotation, but are turned over and reflected on in an orderly fashion, to Atwood's own purposes.
I'm especially taken with her discussion of the doubleness of the author--we (can) become, as readers, so intimate with the voice on the page that it's something of a shock to recall the human being who shares the name of that voice. Atwood tours through 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', Jorge Luis Borges, and Primo Levi, trying to reunite the shadow with the man. Most illuminating.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Virginity or Death!

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time
Katha Pollitt (2006, Random House)

Virginity or Death! is full of news stories from the last five or six years that I would sometimes rather not think about, because sometimes it's just too much. The title essay, for instance--can you believe that a vaccine that would protect against cervical cancer and related diseases might be made unavailable on grounds of morality? Fortunately for people like me, Katha Pollitt is on top of those stories, and is appropriately, articulately, enraged. Her starting point is old-fashioned-but-never-out-of-style feminist issues, like decent pay for child care workers, and the rising inaccessibility of abortion services.
As in the work of Molly Ivins and Barbara Ehrenreich, however, such matters turn out to be intricately connected to --in fact, the human face of-- issues of freedom, justice, and community. "Despite the onslaught of negative media, and large audiences receptive to it, and despite the real-life opprobrium that can befall a woman perceved as uppity, promiscuous, or insufficiently shaven of leg, feminism persists because it fits the actual conditions in which women live." Bad as the news often is, I am heartened to read such witty, incisive reports on those conditions.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners

Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners: master the slippery rules of modern ethics and etiquette
Robin Abrahams (2009, Times Books)

Because I enjoy Robin Abrahams’ ‘Miss Conduct’ column in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine, and follow her blogs, I looked forward eagerly to Mind over Manners, and I am happy to say it lives up to my expectations. Abrahams writes in a
brisk, witty tone, grounded in her study of both psychology (Abrahams has a Ph.D. in human development) and theater (she has done standup comedy.) I always enjoy a good evolution-based theory, especially one flavored with commentary from current psychological research, and Abrahams wields these deftly.

This is not a compendious, rule-based etiquette book, another one of which there’s not much need of; it’s a philosophical inquiry into ethics, with a practical bent. There’s very little information about which fork to use, but quite a lot about how to avoid poisoning, disgusting, or starving your dinner guests, because with all the diets and allergies these days, who knows who eats what? “Needing food rules to keep us alive, we also find that they keep us together--and keep other people out. ...And once food rules take hold, they perpetuate segregation, because it is hard to eat with people who can’t eat the same things you do, or who eat things you can’t.” And so on through “money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets,” the hit parade of anthropology, and of manners.

Her point is that tribalism is part of our ancestral toolkit. Familiar ways of eating, worshipping, speaking, and so on, are attractive to us for good reason. “From an evolutionary point of view, fear of difference isn’t a bug, it’s a feature--we evolved to be suspicious of those we don’t know, those who look or act different, because such people may have bad intent toward us or be carrying diseases to which we are not immune.” Since our modern culture is, if nothing else, diverse, our confusion and skittishness is perfectly natural.

What to do? Abrahams commends a twofold policy: know yourself, and be curious about others. Chapter after chapter gives examples of clear communication, including how to ask for what you need, and how to ask questions without trampling on people’s feelings. This advice, (offered in the context of delicately asking if a friend if they plan to have children,) goes farther still: “Whatever answer you receive, accept it. ...When someone’s deep, existential choices don’t in any way accord with how you make sense of the universe, let it go.” Good news! Curiosity can coexist with courtesy; and news about the ideas and cultures of other people will not kill you.

Here’s another piece of good news: “ the past forty years or so, for the first time in human history, the modern West has signed on to the idea that courtesy should be extended to everybody.” Amazing, indeed: poke a little into any period of ‘the good old days,’ and you’ll find a class of people you would not have wanted to belong to, for whom being treated shabbily was the ordinary course of things. Abrahams goes on, “It may not be universal yet--this kind of monumental change can’t happen overnight or even within a generation--but the mere fact that the ideal of universal courtesy is accepted and not considered fecklessly utopian or an outright wicked assault on social order is itself astonishing.” Yes, and profoundly hopeful. All in all, it’s a good time to be alive.


See also: