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n+1 clips The Believer’s sneakers

n+1‘s review of The Believer accuses McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers of failing to transcend childhood (i.e. go beyond his roots) – but entanglement in one’s own roots is an honest place to start writing (note the unstated assumptions throughout the n+1review, including one should transcend childhood, childhood being peopled by children – apparently not a good place to be).

Eggers, in the San Francisco tradition of Jack London (and, n+1 gives us, Eric Hoffer), lives and writes in the real world. n+1 compares The Believer to Mad Magazine, casting Eggers in the role of adult child. n+1‘s evidence?: A writing tutor program for children called 826 Valencia founded and worked by Eggers and other volunteers – to teach writing to children. Apparently, things don’t get more childish than that in n+1‘s world.

We have subscribed to and have been reading The Believer since its inception, and look forward to each issue, but we have now added n+1 to our reading stack. And while we’ve not quite reached the point where we might want to renew our Mad subscription, our recent review of its web site, suggested by n+1, found no shortage of adult content.

For a complete review comparing n+1 to The Believer see A. O. Scott in the New York Times.

Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.

Reading declines, unobtrusively

Caleb Crain’s article in the December 24 issue of the New Yorker reports on a decline in reading, discusses the causes and effects of declining reading skills, and speculates on what a future readerless society might be like. Titled “Twilight of the Books,” the article asks, “What will life be like if people stop reading?”  

When asked in a Paris Review interview, in 1972, about the future of the written word, Jerzy Kosinski described reading novels as an unusual, masochistic act. Literature, in Kosinski’s view, lacked television’s ability to soothe. He believed television was the enemy of books. But then the lovely E. L. Mayo poem, “The Coming of the Toads,” also about TV, suggests a political outcome, a Marxist marvel:

 

“The very rich are not like you and me,”

Sad Fitzgerald said, who could not guess

The coming of the vast and gleaming toads

With precious heads which, at a button’s press,

The flick of a switch, hop only to convey

To you and me and even the very rich

The perfect jewel of equality.  

 

Mayo, E. L. (1981). Collected Poems. Kansas City: University of Missouri.

Kosinski’s code name for his short novel “Being There,” he tells us in the interview, was “Blank Page.” With the internet, Mayo’s equality includes read/write capabilities and potentials. Kosinski describes his own prose as unobtrusive. Today’s younger students are busily texting one another on their cell phones in a sub-text that is certainly unobtrusive.  

An Unlikely Place to Find an Argument

Aristotle discusses the parts and arrangement of an argument: “The only necessary parts of a speech are the Statement and the Argument. These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than Introduction, Statement, Argument, and Epilogue. ‘Refutation of the Opponent’ is part of the arguments: so is ‘Comparison’ of the opponent’s case with your own, for that process is a magnifying of your own case and therefore a part of the arguments, since one who does this proves something. The Introduction does nothing like this; nor does the Epilogue-it merely reminds us of what has been said already.” Aristotle. Rhetoric. (1954). Ryhs Roberts, Trans. New York: Modern Library.

When reading arguments we don’t necessarily want to join the argument; we want to read the argument effectively, which means, primarily, identifying and thinking about the writer’s assumptions, particularly assumptions unstated, but also identifying and understanding the writer’s audience and the rhetorical situation that prompted the argument. Reading arguments effectively also requires that we identify and analyze the writer’s claims, the thesis, causes and effects described, organization of these parts within the argument, the support given for the claims, the efficacy of the solution if a problem has been described and a solution offered – in short, what has been said, and what has been left out; why and how said, and why left out. We ask questions.

Arguments surround us. Let’s go somewhere we might not expect to encounter one. Even if we live alone, even if extremely recluse, we still probably argue – with ourselves if no one else is around. Consider Han-shan, a recluse from the Period of Division (220-589), who wrote his poems on rocks near trails in the mountains: “He misses the point entirely, / Men like that / Ought to stick to making money” (Hahn-shan, Cold Mountain Poems, Nov. 1982 Printing, Gary Snyder, Trans. Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press). But why did Han-shan bother writing his poems at all, let alone on rocks where travelers might or might not have found them, randomly? Perhaps Han-shan was one of the world’s first bloggers: “I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff.”

Aristotle thought everyone argued, and he thought argument useful. His Rhetoric shows us how to read arguments. “Rhetoric the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.”

When we read and write, we argue.

When we read and write, we argue. We all argue from time to time, and we generally apply, from an opponent’s prompt or from our own desire to make ourselves clear, examples and proofs, persuasive tools, but as we ramble on, as is often our wont, making claim after claim, supporting or not, making assumptions left and right, some stated, others not, we shortly may find ourselves caught in a riptide of our own words.

As Samuel Beckett said, “You can’t listen to a conversation for five minutes without noting inherent chaos.” But we swim on, using what persuasive tools we find handy – tools described and explained nicely for us in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It’s not only OK to argue; arguing is our responsibility.

In Aristotle’s view, argument is what makes us human; we engage in argument as a consequence of our living together, working together, playing together – reading and writing together. It follows, though it may sound paradoxical, that when we learn to read and write arguments effectively, we more effectively cooperate with one another, and we learn to live together in greater harmony. But not all arguments are equal. Some are specious, others obfuscated, sometimes deliberately so. Some, contrary to Aristotelian principle, persuade to do wrong. As Woody Guthrie said, “Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen.” 

If arguing is good (and necessary), not all arguments are good (or necessary). But what’s necessary? And what’s good? The answers to those questions are what we work toward when we work on learning to read and to write arguments.